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A Continuous Prayer

Watercolour of a man in a blue hat

Art by Iris Bowdler

Frazer MacDiarmid considers the coincidence of opposites in Jon Fosse's Septology (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022).


Abrus precatorius is a flowering plant native to Asia, whose cheery, Christmas-red seeds also contain the lethal substance abrin. Otherwise known as the paternoster pea, this bead is used extensively in jewellery, and is commonly found on the rosaries used in Roman Catholic spiritual practice. How many of those faithfully counting their Ave Marias are aware of the strange coincidence of death and immortality between their fingers? Even in the midst of life are we in death, as Jon Fosse perceives:

did I sleep at all or just doze off? just

lie there in a half-sleep? but I was gone

a little, off in a sleep a little, a little in

a dream, I think and then I realise that

Ales is lying next to me and she’s lying

there with her arms around me and I take

the brown wooden cross that’s hanging at

the bottom of the rosary, that I got from

Ales once, I hold the cross between my

thumb and index finger, and I think that

maybe God doesn’t exist, no, obviously

He doesn’t exist, He is, and if I were not

then God wouldn’t exist, I think.

It’s hard to say where Fosse’s Septology begins and where it ends. The book spans a few days leading up to Christmas in remote western Norway, at an undefined point in recent history. Our narrator is an aged painter named Asle, a convert to Catholicism, whose thoughts we overhear as he mourns his wife (Ales), contemplates the meaning of his artworks, and wrestles with his faith. One of the few moments of action begins when Alse finds his friend, also called Asle, lying on a street in a quiet part of Bergen, comatose from alcohol poisoning.

His friend’s hospitalisation stirs up a range of thoughts and emotions for our narrator, particularly memories of his early adulthood and burgeoning relationship with the deceased Ales. Asle’s internal monologue (the lifeblood of Septology) is unceasing yet varied. Sometimes it’s impossible to predict what the next clause will bring, as his attention is captured by this or that passing thing. Other times he fixes his gaze on a single point in the sea and enters a state of steady reflection, whose passages are almost essayistic in their intensity. The rhythms and demands of society and time have vanishingly little significance to him as he reflects on the world, past and present.

This makes for an uncanny reading experience. We muddle up our Aleses with our Asles, our Livs with our Sivs. We lose the thread of which of the two Asles’ memories we’re reliving. The distinctions we initially perceive between characters do not ever gain clarity, and in fact, become increasingly blurred. Characters dissolve as they are developed. If Fosse knows that this dissonance may make his readers uncomfortable,

he does nothing to allay it. In fact, he appears to delight in confounding his readers, inviting us to cast off our craving for certainty and immerse ourselves in the consequent experience.

As we get lost with Asle in the labyrinth of his memories, our sense of temporality is distorted, too. Our heart rate drops and our breathing slows, our bodies synchronising to Asle’s:

and then I say, again and again, inside

myself, as I breathe in deeply Lord and

as I breathe out slowly Jesus and as I

breathe in deeply Christ and as I breathe

out slowly Have mercy and as I breathe

in deeply On me.

Time soon loses its meaning, or at least some of its hold over us. Picking up Septology after a while is like slipping back into a gently flowing river, your body buoyed by the current of ‘and’s, ‘yes’s and ‘I think’s. Memories, everyday observations, prayer, spectres of lives not lived – these all bleed into one seamless whole, each sentence a bead on the relentless rosary of Asle’s mind.

By seeding temporal markers in the reader’s mind – the room’s creeping coldness as the stove dies, the unsatisfied physical needs of the dog, Bragi, shut inside – Fosse alters narrative time in relation to narrated time:

and I see that now there’s just embers lit

in the stove, and it’s a little cold in the

room now, so I should put a couple more

logs in, I think but I stay lying down

because sometimes it takes a real effort

just to get to my feet, I think.

The effect is subtle and cumulative. Any attempt to isolate and analyse it collapses its magic, like a kind of literary quantum phenomenon. Septology’s heft (at 832 pages) makes the reader more sensitive to the passage of time, her arms growing tired, even while the mesmeric prose lulls her into forgetting it. We are caught between the timeless eddies of Asle’s head and the pulls of the external, temporal world.

Such effective play with time reminded me of Thomas Mann’s use of sprawling philosophical arguments to dilate and contract time in The Magic Mountain. In fact, Septology’s translator into English, the remarkably industrious Damion Searls, has just released a translation of Mann’s New Selected Stories. I cannot have been the only reader to have a nearly physical response to Bragi’s bursting bladder while Asle takes us off into another daydream.

The story is also punctuated by flashes of action, like boulders crashing into a wide river. The drowning of a small boy and a mother’s frantic relief at finding her own son alive and well. The screaming of a young woman on a swing being pushed higher and higher by a man. This latter episode takes on an erotic charge as the boundaries between fear and pleasure, consent and dissent, are blurred.

Only twice does Fosse verge towards the particularly modernist stream of consciousness of Woolf or Joyce, when recounting an alcohol-fuelled delirium and as the narrator himself is nodding off. The breakdown of Fosse’s regular syntax made me nauseous, as if looking through someone else’s glasses. Fosse’s economy with dramatic passages makes them incredibly effective when they come along.

Far from a mere literary device, Septology’s unbroken prose feels like a philosophical statement. Full stops can imply a great deal about human cognition. That our thoughts may be said to be ‘discrete’, proceeding in logical succession; that they can be tested for their rationality as a hermetically sealed unit; that they may be legitimately excerpted from their context, stripped of their referents and antecedents with little loss. Full stops are the friends of those who wish to caricature thoughts and those who think them. A person is little more than an autonomous thought-generator, they seem to suggest, denying one’s mutual implication in the lives of others.

And although we may be conditioned to believe human thought does in fact function this way, the instinctiveness of Fosse’s writing exposes its fallacy. His writing resists division. My attempts to excerpt from it feel almost sacrilegious, an injury to the unbroken fluency of the book’s single sentence. There are no seams. His question marks aid rather than impede the flow. Each thought is bound up with the one that precedes it and the one that follows it, all with their own specific context that alters their meaning.

There are limits to the usefulness of speaking about our minds, perhaps even our identities, as solely our own, he suggests. His choice of punctuation implies a cognitive economy that is collectivist rather than individualist. In te ao Māori (the Māori worldview) this might be called acknowledging the whakapapa of our thoughts, the connections between everything that exists. In Septology, Fosse explores this idea through his use of doppelgangers, similar names, and the pervading atmosphere of coincidence.

On its first page we walk in on the narrator contemplating his unfinished painting, ‘two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line’. Each of the seven parts begins with this tableau, so we come to remember the book’s beginning with a sense of déjà vu. Symbol of unity in opposition, healing from brokenness, the cross is a clear touchstone for our interpretation of Septology. Jesus Christ is ‘the paradox that contains the paradox that all people are’, as Asle has it.

The novel’s final page breaks off in the middle of the Ave Maria, the Latin prayer saluting Mary, Mother of Jesus, a prayer we have read countless times already: ‘Ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora’. As the pilgrimage of one faithful soul ends, the reader is invited to begin her own, seeking resolution to life’s confusions in prayer.

For Fosse, any division between the narrative and the reader’s reality are illusory. I first read Septology in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, New Zealand, the week before Christmas. This had a providential air about it, the book's coincidences infiltrating my life.

But I also experienced profound dissonance, cognitive and embodied, reading about an unbroken snowscape while breaking a sweat. This could just be a fluke, of course. But I’m inclined to believe that each reader will find her own life refracted and brought into focused by Fosse’s mystical prose.

Asle’s life coalesces around painting, and most of his relationships centre on art in some form. Attempts to speak about his art usually leave him tongue-tied, but it’s clear that painting is an extension of his quest to find meaning in meaninglessness. It’s not surprising, then, that his art is inseparable from the divine. Like God, like animals even, art speaks in its muteness:

and I think that dogs understand so

much but they can’t say anything about

it, or else they can say it with their dog’s

eyes, and in that way they’re like good

art, because art can’t say anything either,

not really.

The pictures Asle paints ‘are prayer and confession and penance all at once, the way good poems are too, yes, you could say all good art is like that in the end’.

Septology invites us to assume, even for a time, a Catholic sensibility. When at last the narration breaks off mid-prayer, we must either continue or abandon it. This book encompasses doubt, even revels in it. In fact, Alse may be said to have faith not despite doubt but because of it. Doubt about his actions, his artistic vision, his relationships with others – this is the food upon which Alse’s mystic spirituality thrives.

At its best, Catholicism draws its strength from the principle of coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidence of opposites. The already and the not yet of the gospel message. The union of God and mankind in Christ. The Eucharistic supper as both earthly bread and Christ’s flesh, fruit of the vine and his blood.

Septology likewise abounds in contradiction and opposition. A thought is hardly uttered before it is challenged, countered. The reader finds herself implied in the narrative, its ambiguities a faithful mirror of her own. Both finished and unfinished, an unbroken rosary of lexemes and cognitions, its completion ultimately depends upon its remaining incomplete.

FRAZER MACDIARMID works in Treaty of Waitangi settlements in Aoetearoa New Zealand. Last year he graduated with a doctorate in theology but his favourite academic achievement is his bookstagram @turnsof_fraze.


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