Thoughts on Jon Fosse’s Boathouse

In Jon Fosse’s collection of essays, An Angel Walks Through the Stage, he writes: “As you grow older, you rarely come across a new author who truly tears you up the way much of the reading you did in your younger years could.” Fosse records a conversation with a “more well-known” Norwegian author, Roy Jacobsen: “He had recently read The Boathouse and he claimed that I, before I wrote this novel, had to have read Thomas Bernhard.” Fosse hadn’t but decides to and finds, “great comfort, and joy, to read Bernhard’s repetitious, dark, strongly rhythmical and enormously beautiful novel writing, for that way I could console myself that there was in Europe, an author, who allowed his prose to repeat and repeat, words and sentences and action sequences, in a way which far exceeded what I had managed to achieve in that direction.”

Boathouse, translated by May-Brit Akerholt, as is the collection of essays, both published in Dalkey Archive editions in 2017 and 2015 respectively, is early Fosse, originally published in 1989. It is the first of Fosse’s novels that I’ve read after reading An Angel Walks Through the Stage, the latter which gave me a  world and a half of pleasure. I came to Jon Fosse’s work through the writing of his one-time student, Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote, “The presence we feel has to do with a certain receptiveness, a certain alterness, a certain temperament, and what this opens up for us in the text.”

The novel begins, “I don’t go out anymore, a restlessness has come over me, and I don’t go out.” While the writing shares the solipsistic agony of Bernhard’s writing, it is quieter and written less in eye-twinkling rage than chronic cognitive anxiety. The narrator and his best childhood friend, Knut, bump into each other, after a separation of ten years, in their native fjord small town. Since they last met, Knut moved away, became a music teacher and married a woman from the city. The story revolves around a triangle of emotional turmoil, intensified by older emotional rivalries between the two men. The novel is his recording of the anxiety caused by the reopened pain.

Part of the force of Boathouse is the claustrophobic landscape of the novel, centred around the houses of the men’s mothers, the dancehall and the titular boathouse. Due to its topography, maritime culture in western and northern Norway is specific and distinct; boathouses, a building where the land meets the sea, play an important part in that coastal tradition. The earliest boathouse sites suggest an origin in the first centuries AD, used not only to store a boat, but as workshops and storage facilities. The old boathouse, unchanged fjord landscape and small town, where everyone knows the protagonist’s reclusive nature, add to the dark emotional anxiety that situates the story: “all the while I perceive the unease, and I hear the waves, they roll not like the way they usually roll, but in a special way, like they used to roll before, long ago, yet only that I now hear them through an immense unease.”

A week after finishing the short 118 page novel it has consolidated with time, depositing sediments for continued reflection and thought. Its emotional charge will depend on a reader’s sensorial experience of anxiety and existential loneliness.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Jon Fosse’s Boathouse

  1. Thank you for sharing your impressions of this novel. I’m definitely going to order this one. I have become greatly interested in foreign literature this past year, and the emphasis on the landscape of the novel sounds quite interesting. Additionally, I will be interested to see how he handles the landscape of the sea, as well. I read Waves by Eduard von Keyserling this past year (and entirely different novel than Boathoase), but the sea played a large role in the book. Additionally, I am two thirds of the way through Conrad’s Victory (and plan to read Nostromo this year), and he is another individual who focuses much of his writing on the sea, too, though, of course, in an entirely different way as well.

    I hope you are enjoying your holiday season, and I continue to enjoy your blog immensely.

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    • Thank you for the kind words. I hope you are also enjoying a good holiday. Thanks for reading and taking the time to make always thoughtful comments. It is very much appreciated.

      Fosse’s Boathouse rewards rereading to note closely how we uses interiors as a way of viewing the world. I’ll be reading more Fosse, but know from secondary material I’ve read online that the fjord landscape is central to his novels. Conrad’s Nostromo is always on my list of omissions to address.

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