Reviewed by David Smith
In the late 1980s, around the time he wrote Boathouse, Jon Fosse was a teacher at the Creative Writing Academy in Bergen, Norway. (One of his students was a nineteen-year-old Karl Ove Knausgaard, as related in book 5 of My Struggle.) “When I was a teacher,” Fosse has said, “I would tell my students that you should think—concentrating on technique and so on—both before and after writing, but not during the writing itself. Write, don’t think: that was my constant advice.”[i]
Write, don’t think: as anyone who has tried it can attest, it’s easier said than done. If you keep your pen moving without letting your thoughts intervene, your unconscious tends to take over. In this space, you might end up with nonsense, a mishmash of words—or you might find yourself in truly dangerous territory. How can you truly let go—to “loose the stop from your throat,” in Whitman’s words—and come back unscathed? This is a dilemma that the unnamed narrator of Fosse’s Boathouse could likely relate to.
On the first page, the narrator signals that he is writing a novel. He has to do this, he says, to stave off what he calls “a restlessness.” At first, the precise nature of this restlessness is not quite clear. The novel opens with a jumble of repeated thoughts and images: “I don’t go out anymore, a restlessness has come over me, and I don’t go out. It was this summer that the restlessness came over me. I met Knut again, I hadn’t seen him for at least ten years. Knut and I, we were always together. A restlessness has come over me” (3).
Gradually, we learn more about this reencounter with Knut, the narrator’s boyhood friend. Both men are now in their thirties, and whereas the narrator has never moved out of his mother’s house, complaining “I haven’t made anything of my life,” Knut returns to the village with an established career as a music teacher and his wife and two young daughters in tow (3). As for Knut’s wife, she takes an unusual interest in the narrator that he finds unsettling: “his wife, why did she have to look at me like that, in that way” (9).
The sexual tension with Knut’s wife is part of the “restlessness” that prompts the writing project. Throughout his reminiscences, a certain boathouse keeps recurring as the site of Knut and the narrator’s boyhood excursions. At first, it served as the “rehearsal space” for a rock band the boys decided to form one day after school; later on, they brought some girls there for a kissing game, about which he recalls: “This is how it started, in the darkness, in the rain, on a road lying along the foreshore, in an old boathouse…Her kiss was a mark on my skin, that pushed itself into my body and remained there” (61).
This sensual awakening was arrested, however, when the narrator saw Knut dancing with the girl he liked—a psychic wound from which he has never recovered. In the second half of the book, the narrator puts himself into Knut’s thoughts; through projective identification, he makes Knut feel guilty over this deeply felt betrayal: “[Knut] thinks that he didn’t mean anything by it, that time, at that dance, that girl, didn’t know he’d done anything wrong, it just happened like that, nothing” (87). Of course, we read this as an expression of the narrator’s own guilt, given his suppressed desire to vanquish Knut—which he gets the chance to do when Knut’s wife tries to seduce him in the very boathouse “where it started.”
Boathouse is a novel that imaginatively charts its own coming-to-be, mimicking the writing process that Fosse prescribed to his students. Each chapter of the book begins with disorganized fragments, repeated images, as if the narrator is following Fosse’s “Write, don’t think” adage. As the narrator’s anxiety increases, so does the breathlessness of the prose, which starts to come out in short hiccups: “Knut thinks that he has to get going now, must go now, he can’t, it’s impossible to talk, must go now, it’s finished now, no more, must get some peace, just can’t, not talk now, just not, no more, shouldn’t, cannot, must, peace now” (111).
You’re not alone if you notice similarities to the prose of Samuel Beckett, who, Fosse writes, is “one of the more fixed points I’ve always returned to, again and again.”[ii] The long run-on sentences, the loose use of punctuation, the lack of paragraph divisions: these, too, are the hallmarks of Beckett’s restless voices. On a deeper philosophical level, the relationship between writing and thinking is also a Beckettian concern: “No, I must not try to think, simply utter.”[iii] For Beckett, writing becomes an ironic recapitulation of Descartes’s Cogito (I think, therefore I am), a paring away of individual identity until you end up with the Unnamable or the unpunctuated, featureless voice of How It Is.
Fosse extends these concerns in Boathouse by rooting them in the emotional life of the narrator. The narrator’s repressed aggression toward Knut brings on a fear of obliteration, a dread that “something inevitable is going to happen, something terrible” (54). Reflecting the Lacanian twist on the Cogito, the narrator is thinking not simply to prove he exists, but to convince himself that he exists.[iv] Hence, the narrator turns to writing in order “to keep the restlessness at bay” (23). Ultimately, the narrator reverses Fosse’s advice: instead of getting away from thoughts in order to write, he is writing in order to get away from his oppressive thoughts.
At the level of language, Beckett and Fosse also share a vexed relationship to their respective mother tongues. Beckett favored the unnaturalness of writing in his second language, French, rather than English. Although Fosse writes in his native Norwegian, he opts for nynorsk, a written variant of Norwegian constructed from several regional dialects. As Fosse explains, nynorsk “is never really spoken by anyone. It is the same with French and German theatre: their theatrical language is not the way you speak in the streets.”[v]
In Boathouse, we find traces of what Fosse calls Beckett’s “reserved, sparse literary musicality…the soul that vibrates at the sentence level”[ii] of which May-Brit Akerholt’s translation is a nice reflection. The word that Akerholt renders as “restlessness” is uro in Norwegian. The root word, ro, means calm or quiet, while the prefix u- corresponds to un- in English. Literally, the word is un-calm or un-quiet, or perhaps disquiet (indeed, the Norwegian translation of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is called Uroens bok, which Fosse has cited as an influence).[i]
Although Akerholt’s “restlessness” is twelve letters as opposed to the three in uro, it is likely as close an approximation as is possible. Her avoidance of the Latinate anxiety is probably wise, too, given the Scandinavian context; ever since Kierkegaard, anxiety or angst has had rather loaded philosophical connotations whose presence in Fosse’s text would be dubious at best.
Finally, the word choice is apt given the restless nature of the prose, which has remained a constant throughout Fosse’s long career. In Norway, Boathouse is generally considered Fosse’s breakthrough as a writer. English readers already familiar with Fosse’s later works—the obsessive artistry of Melancholy, the lyrical, aching beauty of Trilogy—will find their common roots in Boathouse. Whether as readers or writers, we can identify with the vicissitudes of setting our deepest selves on paper. Hence, Jon Fosse’s work retains the power to move and teach us.
Fosse, Jon. Boathouse. Tr. May-Brit Akerholt. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2017.
[i] Quoted in Bergsvåg, Henning. “Skriv, ikkje tenk.” Scenekunst, 29 September 2009. My translation.
[ii] Fosse, Jon. Gnostiske essay. Oslo: Samlaget, 1999. 244. My translation.
[iii] Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. New York: Grove, 1955. 299.
[iv] Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton: 1995. 42-43.
[v] Quoted in Sætre, Lars. “Topography, Sense and Emotion: The Alterity of Textual Action in Jon Fosse.” In Exploring Text and Emotions, edited by Lars Sætre, Patrizia Lombardo, and Julien Zanetta. Aarhus University Press: 2014. 121.