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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jon Fosse

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To purchase Boathouse

Title: Boathouse
Author: Jon Fosse
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 118 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Boathouse - US
Boathouse - UK
Boathouse - Canada
La remise à bateaux - France
  • Norwegian title: Naustet
  • Translated by May-Brit Akerholt
  • Naustet was made into a short film in 1997, directed by Trygve Hagen

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective processing-account

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Boathouse admits: "I haven't made much of my life". Indeed, he's literally gotten nowhere, still living with his mother in his childhood home in small-town Norway:

I'm over thirty years old, no job, no education.
       The most he ever managed was forming a small rock band with his friend Knut at school -- which ultimately went nowhere, as Knut moved on -- and now occasionally playing guitar in a duo with a local high school teacher, Torkjell; predictably, the two-man group bears only the other man's name, as they call themselves 'Torkjell's Duo'. Now, on the one hand, the narrator has retreated even further, declining some gigs and holing himself up alone in his room (the novel opens: "I don't go out anymore"). On the other hand, he suddenly has found something to dedicate himself to and immerse himself in: writing. Specifically, writing this novel.
       From the first, he complains of a restlessness that has come over him, the proximate cause for his writing-undertaking. He imagines: "perhaps it'll become more bearable if I write". The restlessness is almost all-consuming: in a story full of repetition -- of words, sentences, thoughts, and events, presented over and over with minimal variations -- his restlessness is reflected, prominently and obviously, in the writing itself
       Knut came back to their hometown with his family over the summer, and it is that and the events that followed, after their meeting, that lead to the narrator's restlessness. His writing is a way for him to try to process what happened, his repetition-filled approach the only way for him to try to come to grips with it.
       Knut's life seems a stark contrast his own: his friend is now a teacher, with a wife and two children. Knut has made something of his life, while the narrator has not. They used to be very close -- until Knut left, a complete rupture that left them going their very separate ways: "I called after him, but he just left", the narrator still mourns. Yet the narrator's restlessness isn't because of some wake-up call that the example of Knut's life offers, shaking up the sedentary, almost somnambulic lifestyle he's fallen into; instead, a more complex clash of feelings and memories rising up in him make for an emotional agitation that he has difficulty working his way through.
       He describes many of the events in painstaking detail, as if trying to get at them from every angle
Then I see him coming around a bend in the road, then I see Knut coming. I see Knut coming. I see Knut. I see Knut coming into view, around the bend. I have not seen him for at least ten years, and now Knut comes walking toward me.
       The first meeting is awkward -- but then almost all the narrator's actions, especially with and around others, are awkward. There's a restlessness already to the meeting, though it's Knut's daughters -- he is accompanied by wife and kids -- that display it, badgering their father to move on.
       The restlessness sets in immediately, with the encounter -- but it is not solely Knut, or seeing Knut's successful-looking life, that triggers it. Instead, even as his later interactions with Knut continue to be cautious, reserved, even distant, it is Knut's wife who comes to play a different role between them. Looking back, the narrator also recalls their youth, and a girl, back then, between them ("That time, that girl"): then and now, he is torn between action and passivity, suddenly finding himself in a different role than he had years earlier -- including finding Knut in the role of (seemingly) passive observer.
       The novel is presented in three parts -- a long first one (eighty pages), a shorter second (just over thirty pages), and a short concluding one. In the second part, the narrator retells his story, trying to imagine it from Knut's point of view. He can't completely inhabit the character -- he still writes in the first person, as himself -- but shifts the perspective almost entirely to Knut's, as if hoping that can give him more insight into what happens.
       Not that much does happen in Boathouse -- and much that does is gone over repeatedly, re-considered as if in the hope that even the simplest actions reveal deeper meaning if looked at from a slightly different angle. The repetition is almost incantatory, the narrator's weary restlessness infectious. And, yes, there's a sense of foreboding, that these encounters, with Knut and with Knut's wife earlier in the summer, as well as with the dredged-up distant past, must have culminated in ... something, explaining the narrator's almost complete withdrawal in the present.
       Fosse manages this very effectively -- because the narrator, though sensing the inevitable, can't bring himself to imagine it (or to act -- in some way, any way, other than through writing (though he's not writing just for himself: "I write for a reader", he admits)). He turns to and focuses on the past, on actions and paths not taken, on a passivity that has doomed him to this life -- and finds the present haunted by it too, in the end that he must have expected yet is no less devastating for that.
       Fosse's repetitive, almost droning narrative is likely hit or miss for readers: either one can let oneself get carried away by it, or it probably quickly -- immediately -- seems simply (and extremely) enervating. The style does go with the story; it makes the story, and if you can go with this strange flow, it impresses mightily. For all the seeming sameness, Fosse already here shows a playwright's flare for the carefully-orchestrated dramatic; Boathouse may feel almost entirely understated, even in its shattering conclusion -- which is easily accepted as almost the only possible outcome -- but it haunts deeply and profoundly.
       An impressive work -- though readers have to be open to Fosse's approach.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 November 2017

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Boathouse: Reviews: Naustet - the (short) film: Jon Fosse: Other books by Jon Fosse under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jon Fosse was born in 1959. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2023.

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© 2017-2023 the complete review

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