Online Edition: Fall 2010

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 Aliss at the Fire

  Jon Fosse

 translated by Damion Searls

 Dalkey Archive ($12.95)

 by Alison Barker

In Aliss at the Fire, Norwegian writer Jon Fosse has created a deceptively slim (100 pages) novel that unequivocally calls bullshit on the conventional wisdom that if you wait long enough, time will heal the pain of grief. Over twenty years ago, Signe’s husband Asle rowed out onto the fjord one dark, cold October evening, and he never came back. Signe? She waits. And waits.

Time does nothing but fuel Signe's longing and confusion—her anguished thoughts have conjured other past tragedies so that she shares her husband’s ancestral home with a giant, swirling collage of sad ghosts. “It’s she and he who live there, no one else lives there, she thinks . . . just the two of them.” And yet, she watches his dead relatives traipse around the house, re-enacting past tragedies in kaleidoscopic array: the night that a great uncle goes out into his small boat and drowns, and the night Asle’s great-grandfather plays by the fire and tumbles off the pier as his mother, Aliss, scrambles to save him.

Textually, Fosse encloses the reader in Signe’s cyclone: sentences run on for pages, indirect pronouns float far from their objects, and Signe’s speech often slips into others’ perspectives. Past inhabitants of the house emerge mid-sentence amidst internal monologues which trace and re-trace the events of her husband’s disappearance: “she sees herself standing there in front of the window and looking out and then she sees, lying there on the bench, Aliss take Kristoffer off her breast.”

Fosse seems to be saying that loss is not something to forget and heal from, but a trapdoor into the time-space continuum. Signe is tethered no longer to her husband, but to the mystery of a husband she never quite understood, and to the “immeasurable depths” of the fjord where he perished. To some extent, this is a story of what happens when one person in a codependent relationship dies— the survivor wanders around talking to herself, senselessly repeating tasks for her absent other half. Signe can’t quite figure out where her memories of Asle end and she begins—she chants unconvincingly: “she is she. And he is he.” She doesn't stop trying, though. She constantly interrupts her memories to regain control over them. She blurts out, “just stay gone.”

Dalkey Archive, who also published his Melancholy (2006), situates Fosse next to Bernhard and Beckett on the literary family tree, and as a dramatist, he’s often lumped with fellow countryman Ibsen. But Fosse gnaws at words, while Ibsen embroiders. His circling repetition better recalls Harold Pinter, whose characters' sparse phrases collide repeatedly until emotional truths surface.

Unlike other stories about women defined by their desire, Aliss at the Fire is remarkable because female longing propels a quest to accept mysteries of the past. Fosse presents grieving as a painful act of self-determination, more healing than any greeting card platitude can offer. Bruise yourself with this book in small doses, and once it's finished with you—though it never really ends, as evidenced by the missing period at the end— a small, deep ache will persist.


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