Monday 22 July 2019

THIRD ANNIVERSARY POST No.1 by guest Jill Paton Walsh: SCENES FROM A CHILDHOOD by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls

Photograph by Julia Hedgecoe

"What an extraordinary writer Jon Fosse is!"

Jill Paton Walsh has been a professional author since 1966.  She has written for children of many ages, from toddlers to teenagers,  has written five literary novels and more recently four detective stories with her own detective. She has also been pursuing the cast of characters in Dorothy L Sayers' famous Lord Peter Wimsey stories into their later adult lives.

She has lectured extensively about children's literature, predominantly in the United States, where her children's books have won several major prizes.  In the UK one of her adult novels, Knowledge of Angels, was a near miss for the 1994 Man Booker prize. 

She is that odd person – an Oxford graduate happily resident in Cambridge.  

My grand-daughter Catherine has grown up in Australia, so I have not seen very much of her during her childhood. She was rather sporty and talkative and not much interested in reading. Now she is in England for her gap year, and is visiting me regularly in Cambridge. Of course she has changed in many ways, but the most striking to me is that for her Heffer’s is the central sanctum of the city.

She is suddenly reading voraciously and buying books with all her spare cash.

With the excuse that she wants to know what I think of this author and that, she is controlling my own reading, concentrating on titles like Normal People by Sally Rooney, which I managed to read half way through… but at 82 I quickly found that teenaged sex was not fascinating for me.

However, she recently demanded that I read a book by a writer I must confess I had never heard of - Scenes from a Childhood  by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damian Searles, and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

This is a collection of short stories of a strange and fragmented kind. When Catherine mentioned it to me I thought first of Schumann, and then inaccurately of Chekhov. But I was quickly very intrigued by the copy Catherine bought for me.

Jon Fosse is, as one begins to read his stories, almost impossibly artless. The scenes from childhood are raw fragments of recollection, about as coherent as fragments of china lying broken on a floor. They are not arranged, nor threaded together at all - not in any sense I at first recognised as narrated - almost literally artless. Everything is in the present tense. It is not of course particularly original to write in the present tense - nor to write a narrative imitating strains of thought - that goes back at least as far as Dorothy Richardson. I have attempted narrative in the continuous present myself, hoping to capture the immediacy of experience, and awareness of the physical context in every remembered event of one’s life.

But I have never before encountered a work of literature in which total realism, including realistic representation of the fragmented nature of recollection is being carefully employed. It is not even evident if the fragments of disconnected events are in any kind of order. It is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces laid out helter-skelter on a table, none of them yet fitted together.

Very gradually a broken picture emerges of growing up in Norway - of family and friends, and any episode in which the narrator hurt himself and bled. That sounds harrowing, and it is - but it casts a deep light of joy on fragments of remembered moments of happiness. It is completely convincing, in the way it might be if someone were telling you what happened when they fell in the river, or broke a limb or some other traumatic or puzzling event, recalled, not understood, and recounted without any art or interpretation at all. Now and then what is remembered, is a later memory of an earlier one, still unvarnished, and unstructured.

Of course there is in a way a narrative voice; and this narrator conveys with startling and moving clarity the experience of not understanding the adult world around him.

This book ought to be depressing, so bleak and without order is the narrative; but in fact it is exhilarating to be reminded what the world is really like to innocent eyes, when the pieces don’t fit together, and understanding is not yet achieved.

Of course one result of reading the book is to feel that meaning and understanding are undercut, they are shown to be a construct. What we truly experience is not coherence…. and the fragmented pieces are mesmerising….

What an extraordinary writer Jon Fosse is! I did not expect, at my age to be offered a new view of the world, nor to find, at last, a common vision with my grand-daughter.

Scenes from a Childhood, translated by Damion Searls, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

1 comment:

Sally Prue said...

This sounds both beautiful and tantalising. I must explore!