by jon fosse
translated by damion searls
transit books, 88 pages, $16.95
In her little-known essay “The Spirit and Writing in a Secular World,” the reclusive Pulitzer Prize winner Donna Tartt writes, “as a novelist who happens to be a Roman Catholic, faith is vital in the process of making my work and in the reasons I am driven to make it.” However, there exists an undying tension between her faith and her “vocation as a novelist,” because “the novel in its history and genesis is an emphatically secular art form: the product of a secular society, addressing primarily secular concerns.” Tartt tells us that the “rather godless quality of the novel,” instead of being “an aesthetic or cultural choice,” is “a necessity grounded in form.”
While Tartt grants that the novel reckons with “many of the same mysteries as does theology”—sin and suffering, fate and freedom—“it does so much more in terms of this world than the next one.” The “secular,” the “this-worldly,” is linked to the Latin saeculum, “the length of a human life.”
If Tartt is right that the novel has historically been more concerned with this world than the next, if even Christian and Catholic novelists hardly ever follow their characters into Dante’s cosmic afterlife, then a number of gifted, bestselling writers are trespassing the strictures of secularity, coaxing characters and readers into subterranean, spiritual realms rendered with single-entendre seriousness.
In George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), for instance, the president visits his dead son Willie’s crypt during the Civil War. While Saunders does justice to the visible realities of the protagonist’s face (“haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness”) and the surrounding burial ground (“the white stone home”), most of the book inhabits a disembodied limbo state. The novel demands that the Christ-haunted Buddhist “bardo,” populated by sundry idiosyncratic ghosts, angels, and demons, be taken seriously.
Jon Fosse, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature, has said that “Everything I’ve written can perhaps be called a sort of mystical realism—not ‘magical,’ but mystical.” Consider his latest novella, A Shining, set in a recognizably contemporary reality. His nameless protagonist fights a bad bout of boredom by subjecting his fate to planned chance: driving his car along a rural road, he turns first left, then right, and so on, until he gets stuck—and the night’s remote chill begins to settle in. Unsettled, afflicted with an unbidden yearning to enter the forest and “find someone,” he meets instead a strange, shining being who grips his shoulder with “something like a hand.” The novella’s mode and mood is “maybe.” Maybe he’s having a hallucination, maybe he is here, maybe not:
whatever it was it wasn’t a person, but, yes, well, it wasn’t a ghost either, but maybe, maybe, maybe it was actually an angel, maybe it was an angel of God. Because that presence was so shining, so white, or maybe it was an evil angel. Because evil angels are angels of light too.
Post-secular stories such as Lincoln in the Bardo typically take us into syncretic spaces whose spiritual ambivalences are often celebrated. And as the Catholic author Katy Carl notes, Fosse is no stranger to unorthodox notions. In his Septology, which earned him the Nobel Prize, he allows the main character “Asle to confidently assert startling, sometimes obviously heterodox responses to puzzles of doctrine—responses Asle himself often retracts, contradicts, or hedges in later lines.” In A Shining, Fosse’s protagonist likewise speculates: “Or maybe all angels are both good and evil,” he concludes, “it certainly might be like that too.”
But the certainty of this heterodoxy is also undercut. Repeatedly dismissing the shimmering presence (“It’s probably how cold it is that’s making me think not as clearly as I usually do”), as well as the uncanny arrival of his parents, the unnamed man cannot deny that the presence’s voice possesses “something you might call love.” Remember, too, that while lost in the wood the deviant pilgrim Dante also pleads with a being whose nature he does not know, as he has lost the discernment of spirits: “Have pity on me, whatever thing you are, whether shade or living man,” he cries at the veiled sight of Virgil. When in A Shining this typically silent being speaks nearly nothing except “I am who I am,” we realize how far from faith the man has been, for he thinks “I’ve heard that answer before, but I can’t remember where I’ve heard it, or maybe I read it somewhere or another.” He is in exile from Exodus.
Through a mesmerizing accretion of plain but rhythmic language, Fosse lures us into a “secular” wood only to depict strange spirits with steadfast matter-of-factness. The boundaries between super-nature and nature are profoundly porous. Lost like Dante, the man is “locked into a closed room in the forest, trapped, but at the same time it’s like the room is unbounded.” Like the denizens of the Divine Comedy, Fosse’s characters are for the most part fixed in continuations of their erstwhile, earthly habits, as when the narrator’s mother chides her husband for not talking only to conclude, “It’s always the same, you never say anything, not even when your son is standing right in front of you just a few feet away do you say something.”
Hauntingly, when the man and his parents try to walk closer to one another “it was like we didn’t get any closer to each other, actually it was really strange, and impossible to understand, to tell the truth.” Increasingly, “unknowing” is the name of action. Only at the arrival of a faceless, barefoot guide do they make what might be progress into a state that “sort of just is . . . and words like radiant, like whiteness, like shining, are sort of without any meaning.” Dante too faced such sublimity at both the peaks of paradise and the bowels of hell, where he bemoans this mute limitation, for he lacks “rhymes as harsh and horrible / as the hard fact of that final dismal hole / which bears the weight of all the steeps of Hell.” To “describe the bottom of the Universe” is “no easy undertaking . . . nor is it for tongues that only babble child’s play.” But for Fosse it isn’t simply that our child’s play words can’t do justice to the spiritual—it is “like everything is without meaning, and like meanings, yes, meanings don’t exist anymore.”
Fosse has said that “I feel that there’s a kind of—I don’t know if it’s a good English word—but a kind of reconciliation in my writing. Or, to use the Catholic or Christian word, peace.” Without question, A Shining moves toward both reconciliation and what we might want to call peace, but it is unclear whether the means by which Fosse takes us there dramatize the genuine mystery of God or merely entrance us in a kind of ambivalent ethereality. Is the man purged, saved, and united with his parents without merit, by God? Or is the ending enervated by the cheap grace of a deus ex silva? Is this manifest mercy or a kind of salvation without sacrifice? That one leaves the woods without knowing—that one wants to return there, attentive to any subtleties and indirections that stand in Virgil’s stead—may be one of the merits of Fosse’s fiction. By making the spiritual and invisible palpable, he challenges us to take seriously Scripture’s summons: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).
Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA program at the University of St. Thomas.