but now the wind is blowing and it’s raining, like something evil, she thinks, and if he could just come home now, this waiting, always this waiting, she must like it, she must like to wait, she thinks and she sees, lying there on the bench, herself walk across the room, to the hall door, and she sees herself stop there, stand there in the middle of the room and stare emptily into space, and this, that she always sees herself, she thinks, she can hardly do anything else, that everything that was should still be there, exactly as it was, yes, yes, it doesn’t help to think about it, she thinks, and then she sees him before her, how he came walking up to her, the slightly bent way he walks, the long black hair, suddenly he was just there, just stood there, and it was as though he had always been there…
Jon Fosse’s Aliss at the Fire (originally published in Norway in 2004) is a dream in which language and time circle around an old house by the edge of a fjord. Signe is still trying to understand the meaning of her husband’s death twenty-three years earlier, when, on a dreary November day, Asle inexplicably took his small boat out on the water and only the boat eventually returned to shore.
It’s a short novel of 107 pages with a deceptively simple premise that thrusts its first mystery upon us with the very first word of the opening sentence:
I see Signe lying there on the bench in the room and she’s looking at all the usual things, the old table, the stove, the woodbox, the old paneling on the walls, the big window facing out onto the fjord, she looks at it all without seeing it and everything is a it was before, nothing has changed, but still, everything’s different, she thinks, because since he has disappeared and stayed gone nothing is the same anymore…
Who is the “I” that watches Signe? Signe lives alone, in total isolation in a remote place. The word “I” never reappears and we never learn with certainty who it is. Instead, the novel carries on for a while through the perspective of Signe, until nearly thirty pages into the book when the narrative is handed off to the perspective of Asle, her dead husband. For extended periods we seem to inhabit Asle’s mind as he envisions family scenes that span several generations before him and as he debates whether or not to row on the fjord in such inclement weather. Asle remembers hearing about his great great grandmother Aliss, who lived in the same house, and he remembers learning that he was named after another Asle, who, two generations earlier, drowned in the fjord on his seventh birthday, pursuing a toy boat that had drifted out into deep water. One moment we are watching Asle watching relatives that he never met, the next moment we watch the same scene continue on uninterrupted from the perspective of Signe, who finishes the description exactly where Asle left off.
Fosse’s narrative moves seamlessly from person to person, from generation to generation, while time loops backward and forward until past and present simply flatten into an endlessly permeable now. The handful of characters in Aliss come and go like actors on a stage, and it’s not surprising to learn that Fosse is also a playwright. The theater has always been more comfortable than the novel at commingling the living and the dead. Here, Signe hesitates to go back into her own house which seems to be inhabited by Asle as a child and his Grandmother:
she needs to get indoors too, she thinks, but can she really go home into the old house when someone else lives there? she thinks, but really it’s she who lives there, she and he, Signe and Asle, so she just has to go in, she thinks and she goes in and there in the hall she sees Grandma stand and take off her yellow-white hat and put it on the shelf and then Grandma unbuttons her coat and she takes it off and hangs it on a peg
Can you shut the front door, Asle, Grandma says
The central image of Aliss at a fire is a vision that Asle has of his great great grandmother Aliss and her young son Kristoffer tending a fire in which she is burning the wool off several sheep’s heads (presumably before cooking them). Asle “recalls” the scene at some length; in fact, it’s the most deeply described scene in the book, hitting all five senses as Asle lingers over this mysterious event. I was hard pressed to understand the importance of this scene until its end, when Kristoffer, who seems to be a toddler, makes a dash for a boat moored at the end of the nearby dock and falls into the fjord. Through quick thinking, Aliss saves Kristoffer from the fate that claimed the two Asles. This is just one of many scenes in which Fosse blurs the boundaries between memory and visions. Signe and Asle both use the language of memory to describe events they did not participate in and people they never met. If nothing else, it makes for a haunting narrative device that allows Fosse to move the story forward with great economy.
But let’s circle back for a moment to the curious and unique “I” on page one. There are three logical choices: Fosse himself, Signe’s husband Asle, or Asle’s great great grandmother Aliss. I would rule out Fosse, since he doesn’t seem interested in post-modern authorship games. That leaves us with the probability that the real narrator of Aliss at the Fire is dead.
Earlier, I wrote about Fosse’s 1995 novel Melancholy, which, like Aliss, was translated by Damion Searls and published by the Dalkey Archive Press).