Book review: Morning and Evening

MORNING and Evening, the latest of Jon Fosse’s novels to be shepherded into English by the Dalkey Archive Press, attempts to make sense of nothing less than the perpetual astonishment of life itself.

Jon Fosse

Translated by Damion Searls

Dalkey Archive Press, £9.50

Focusing on the first and last days of Johannes, the opening quarter of this brief but dense novella considers the hours of birth, and a hard, hopeful real-time scene of Marta’s labour, attended by her husband, Olai, and the old midwife, Anna. 

For Johannes then, named for his grandfather, and for the others on his behalf, all the world lies waiting, full of hopes, dreams, and potential. 

These first hours are rich in moments of pain, superstition, and beauty, and such moments find themselves reflected with brilliance as the book moves into its longer and more dreamlike second section.

Johannes, now a fisherman in old age, wakes early with a strange sensation of lightness. Routine is played out: Coffee is made, a breakfast of stale bread and a thick slice of brown cheese prepared, a cigarette rolled and smoked, and thoughts given to a walk westward to the Bay.

Throughout, the small strangeness lingers. His mind weighs the loneliness that has overtaken the house since the death of his wife, Erna, and he thinks about their children, the seven born to them, and the closeness that still endures between him and his youngest daughter, Signe, who lives at the top of the hill and who calls or visits every day.

Pondering these things, he starts to recall the people he has known, the Cobbler Jakop, Old Miss Petterson, and his best friend, Peter — all dead now, too, but perhaps not gone, not yet. Because down at the water, Peter is waiting, full of the old talk and full, seemingly, of life.

Jon Fosse, the Norwegian novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright, might have a limited profile among English-language audiences but he is undoubtedly one of the world’s most important and versatile literary voices. 

Aged 50, he has already compiled an astounding body of work, with 18 novels and books of fiction, a further eight collections of poetry, and some 30 plays (all of which have been translated into English) to his name.

It is as a dramatist that his reputation has been set in stone; with close to a thousand individual productions of his work staged in more than 40 languages, he stands as the world’s most performed and critically acclaimed playwright and is widely regarded as a future Nobel Prize laureate.

Such is the esteem in which Fosse is held in his native country that he has even been granted, under special decree by the King of Norway, an honorary residence in Oslo’s Royal Palace. 

Recently, however, he has announced that he will no longer write for the stage and will return, instead, to his first and greatest passion, the novel.

Morning and Evening is a breathtaking read. Damion Searls deserves high praise for the remarkably readable translation, and it is a testament to his skill that he can replicate Fosse’s stylistic ambition while still preserving the book’s larger sense of compression. 

Initially difficult, at least until the reader catches the rhythms of the language and accepts the gradually ever more hyper surrealism of the storytelling, the author’s stream-of-consciousness prose style builds in pages-long sentences to something hypnotic, hallucinatory, and utterly compelling.

Dense with sense-awareness and full to brimming with small, essential truths, this is a haunting, melancholy meditation on the fleeting nature of life, but also its enduring majesty. 

With this short novel, Jon Fosse has created something special and important, an unforgettable reading experience, and one of the books of the year.

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