The Quiet One
Photograph by Elise Marie Myrvang Eikeland
by Scott Manley Hadley
Scenes From A Childhood,
by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls,
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 160 pp.
Of all the nations of Europe with a rich literary tradition, Norway is a country that seems–whether by accident or design–to export exclusively exquisite fiction. There is, perhaps, a somewhat homosocial bias in the internationally lauded Norwegian fiction writers, however that may be more to do with the manner in which we non-Norwegians stereotype and characterise the nation, because when we think of Norwegians, the image that most frequently comes to mind is that of the Vikings.
Norway, as in much of Western Europe, still lives within the legacy of the marauding pirates from well over a millennium ago. Vikings (or at least the idea of Vikings in the popular imagination) are forthright and aggressive, dressed in furs and bone, are big men, drinking, stealing, pillaging, committing sexual assault, destroying churches and exploring the North Atlantic all the way to North America. Vikings are often used as a historical embodiment for rough, butch masculinity, so maybe it is “us”, rather than “them” that has led to such a man-heavy international reputation.
Knut Hamsen and Tarjei Varsaas are historic Norwegian fiction writers whose works have maintained critical potency for a long time, and Karl Ove Knausgaard is (certainly within the literary community) the world’s most famous living Norwegian. There is a persuasive essay on Lithub, written by Siri Hustvedt, about how “Knausgaard writes like a woman” in My Struggle, but his more recent works (and, according to rumour, personal conduct) possess far more of a traditional masculine veneer. The fact that Knausgaard looks like a particularly striking idea of a Viking–tall, rugged, long-haired, undeniably handsome–is very much part of his brand. Norway is perceived as a tough, masculine country: it is no surprise that its most famous individual is a man.
Jon Fosse is also a man, though about a decade older than Knausgaard. This story collection, Scenes From A Childhood, has recently been published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions. In fact, acknowledging (or ignoring) this gender bias, the publishers include an extract from a Paris Review article in the blurbs at the front of the text that compares “the four elder statesmen of Norwegian letters” to the Beatles, deciding that “Knausgaard is Paul, the cute one; and Fosse is George, the quiet one, mystical, spiritual, probably the best craftsman of them all”. This description of Fosse is certainly accurate, if the impression given by this collection is correct, as the stories included here boast a rich emotionality as well as a complex blending of reality and dream to create a powerful dissociative response. The stories that comprise this collection vary from the bizarre to the conventional, using a gentle variety of voices to show loneliness, affection, depression, anxiety, excitement, hope and loss. This is powerful work.
The pieces here have been translated and selected by Damion Searls, a polyglot with a very impressive list of previous translatees. The stories he has chosen to include do not represent a single piece or period of Fosse’s work, but rather a career overview. The earliest piece is from 1987, the most recent from 2013. What changes within the text is less significant than what remains the same, which is Fosse’s engagement with ageing, with psychology, with perception and greatly evocative landscape descriptions that imply a false simplicity. Together, they offer a portrait of different stages of life in Norway, with an emphasis on youth. However, the piece I found most striking is the story that is most different from the others, a novella entitled ‘And Then My Dog Will Come Back To Me’. This piece, written in a tight first person stream of consciousness, tells the story of a man murdering a neighbour after the neighbour kills his dog. The linguistic style here is the same blunt simplicity as elsewhere in the book, and Fosse describes violence and extremely heightened emotional states in the same tone as he describes the enveloping rollercoaster that is adolescence.
Scenes From A Childhood contains five distinct pieces, the novella I have just mentioned, one short, enthralling, hallucinogenic story called ‘Dreamt In Stone’, and three thematically-linked works. First is the eponymous ‘Scenes From A Childhood’, which is a series of vignettes about childhood and youth in rural Norway. Some of these are a few sentences, others a few pages, but all have a tense directness to them that hits a reader with a clear vision of what is being described. The vignettes are about illness, growing sexuality, engagement with nature, fear of adulthood and incomprehension of the changes wrought by physicality. Fosse speaks to his reader of first kisses, first drinks, first jobs, first musical instruments, about the excitement of music and exercise and nature and other people, about friendship and death and innocence, both its loss and its maintenance. Although writing about a similar time, a similar place and a similar social group to Knausgaard’s numerous tomes about his childhood, the approach used by Fosse is radically different. Where Knausgaard revels in a forced precision (the hyper-exploration of a small detail in pursuit of a dense image) Fosse’s writing seeks the Hemingway-esque emotional response due to what is not said. For example:
Svein and I stand looking at Geir Henning’s coffin being lowered down into the ground. I think about his heavy breathing, his hoarse voice, his peeling skin. And I think that Geir Henning and I will always be friends.
There is no absence of emotionality within this paragraph, however the emotional detail is implicit, rather than explicit. Fosse writes what his character thinks, not how or why he feels. This engagement with a child’s incomplete emotional development is contained throughout the book, and is an impressive attempt at writing about emotions in a manner consistent with the emotional maturity of the character. A child is not able to understand grief in the way that an adult does, and Fosse conspicuously remains within the voice of a child when writing about the experiences of a child. Reading this text, one is able to forget that this is an adult’s approximation of the internal monologue of a child. The directness of description of action and reaction – in ‘Scenes From A Childhood’ as well as the two other similarly-pitched pieces – reminded me of my own childhood, reminded me of a time when I was unable to articulate how and why my emotions were raised, reminded me of a time where I could not use language to convey how I felt. As Fosse proves elsewhere in the collection, though, this is very much an aesthetic choice, rather than a lack: in both ‘And Then My Dog Will Come Back To Me’ and ‘Dreamt in Stone’ there is a powerful emotional engagement that shows this is a writer in great control of his craft.
The further two pieces in this collection are ‘How It Started’, a short story about a brief teenage relationship, and ‘Little Sister’, a further exploration of prepubescent childhood. This time, the central child is far more impulsive and destructive than before, and there are moments of quite graphic horror, more horrific for the adult reader than the naïve, injured child:
he raises his hand, makes a fist, hammers on the door, and then raises his hand and hits the glass pane in the door as hard as he can, and it shatters and blood spurts out of his hand and he pulls his hand back inside and the blood spurts further and further, it shoots out, now he’s done something bad again, now he won’t be allowed anywhere ever again probably, he thinks, and he runs into his parents’ bedroom and the blood spurts and spurts and he crawls under his parents’ bed and lies there under the bed and the blood is still spurting and spurting out of his hand.
Although the child in this story is fine in the end, his brush with danger is very intense, and the stream-of-consciousness style is used again to great effect. An adult understands the seriousness of a severed artery, an adult understands the reason and the risk of that “spurt” and the repetition of the word “spurt” in the passage reflects the beat of a heart and the “spurt” that would occur at each fresh kick of coronary pressure. Fosse puts the child in a position of danger than is incomprehensible to the close, childlike, narratorial voice, despite the presumed reader being fully aware. This dual reading is made possible in all of these pieces about childhood due to Fosse’s wise awareness of the gap between a child’s mind and an adult’s. Searls has made an excellent selection of works from a multi-decade oeuvre to truly capture the power within Fosse’s writing.
Fosse writes about the complexity and danger of the bleak Norwegian countryside as well as he writes about the passage of time through a life. In choosing to mostly focus on pieces about childhood, Searls has been able to show an impressive side to Fosse, because – in my experience at least – writing engaging prose about childhood trips up many otherwise competent writers. Walking the thin line between imposing adult knowledge on a child without appearing patronising is a challenging writerly device, and I’m uncertain if I have read much recently that achieves this so naturally. I think, as we have come to value or expect innocence less in children due to the widespread availability of adult knowledge online, fiction writers have become less skilled at evoking naivety than they used to be. Fosse understands that a child’s mind is not merely the mind of an ignorant adult, it is a different form of consciousness entirely: more curious, more optimistic, less scared. Children, even when they encounter death or injury, continue to live their lives in the manner they want to. There are portraits of great happiness, great pleasure and great joy in Scenes From A Childhood, and I heartily recommend this short read to anyone in need of a Norwegian fjordal, escape this Summer.
Cover image by Henry Leirvoll
 I write “fiction” on purpose here, as one of the world’s most acclaimed writers of contemporary non-fiction is Åsne Seierstad, who is both Norwegian and a woman. Her crushingly moving book on the white supremacist terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, One of Us (2013, English translation 2015) is well worth a read if you want an in-depth understanding of online radicalisation and a deeply cathartic engagement with the human cost of it. I haven’t personally read her earlier bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul (2002, English translation 2003), but it is also highly acclaimed.
 The fact that I own a dog may also have been a factor in this preference.
About the Author:
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com and his debut poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet, is published Summer 2018 by Open Pen. He is Satire Editor at Queen Mob’s Tea House and is on Twitter @Scott_Hadley.