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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jon Fosse

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Melancholy

Title: Melancholy
Author: Jon Fosse
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 284 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: in Melancholy I-II - US
in Melancholy I-II - UK
in Melancholy I-II - Canada
Melancholia I - France
in Melancholie - Deutschland
  • Norwegian title: Melancholia I
  • Translated by Grethe Kvernes and Damion Searls
  • See also our review of Fosse's sequel, Melancholy II

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive cumulative effect

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 20/3/2001 Thomas Irmer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 29/3/2001 Aldo Keel
Publishers Weekly . 11/9/2006 .
Die Zeit . 22/3/2001 Rolf Michaelis

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Als innerer Monolog über zweihundert Seiten ist dieser erste von insgesamt vier Teilen die grandios erzählte Stimme eines vielfach Zerrissenen: Malen zu können ist keine Garantie, auch Maler zu sein; jemanden zu lieben heißt nicht, wirklich Geliebter zu sein; sexuelles Begehren ist auch die Angst davor; und ein Künstler kann nicht Mitglied einer Künstlergemeinde sein, wenn er etwas gestaltet, das die anderen nicht genau so wie er empfinden." - Thomas Irmer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Fosse's prose, which often affects a childlike quality, might put off some readers, but many gorgeous passages and Fosse's pursuit of the "glimmer of the divine" in art make this a powerful book." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Wie in den Endlos-Ketten musikalischer Tonfolgen bei Philip Glass oder Steve Reich kann die kleinste Abweichung explosive Wirkung erzeugen, die neues Hören/Nachdenken erzwingt. (...) Fosse schreibt keinen Roman "über" einen in Museen und Kunstgeschichten lebendigen Maler, schon gar keine Künstler-Biografie. Er umkreist das Leben eines in die Irrenanstalt, dann ins Armenhaus abgeschobenen Außenseiters, der um sein Leben(s-Recht) kämpft" - Rolf Michaelis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lars Hertervig (1830-1902) was a leading Norwegian landscape painter, but apparently mentally unstable. Melancholy focusses on a breakdown he had when he was in his early twenties, an actual episode in Hertervig's life -- obviously a defining one, and one which Fosse tries to convey to the fullest. (Fosse's obsession with the painter is also continued in a second, related book, Melancholia II.)
       Though fictional, Melancholy is also biographical, and one of the interesting questions regarding its reception is how differently one reads it depending on one's familiarity with the artist. In Norway, the mention of Hertervig obviously brings to mind his art, but American and British readers may be unfamiliar with the name (or the pictures). Interestingly, publisher Dalkey Archive Press de-emphasises the book's basis in reality: none of the copy on the book itself would clue readers in to the fact that Hertervig is an historical figure, and the cover does not use a Hertervig-picture (as does, for example, the cover of the German edition -- which depicts From Borgøya, which is the obvious choice (and arguably should be mandatory for this book)). (Dalkey does, however, make the connexion on their publicity page.) Does it make a difference that Fosse's book is not entirely invention ?
       Melancholy is an intensely focussed book, especially in its long first section, covering a single decisive day. In those 180 pages Fosse breaks down the breakdown of the very young artist. (The second section of the book is set on Christmas Eve three years later, in a mental institution; the short final part over a century later, in 1991, focussed on a writer obsessed by Hertervig.) While the third section suggests Hertervig went on to achieve some recognition and success -- the author, Vidme, admires From Borgøya at the National Gallery in Oslo --, at these points he is still a struggling artist -- and struggling more with his mind than his art.
       Hertervig is from a poor Norwegian Quaker family, and he has come to Düsseldorf to study at the Academy of Art there. What appears to push Hertervig near or over the edge is that on the day in question he is to face his teacher, Hans Gude, and Gude is to judge his art. On the one hand, Hertervig is full of self-confidence, certain that he is a true artist, unlike all his fellow students. But some of that sounds like pure bluster: he is also racked by doubt, and terrified of hearing what Gude will say.
       Meanwhile, he is also suffering considerable sexual tension in the house where he is a boarder, head over heels in love with the fifteen-year-old daughter of the house, Helene. Here, too, he is uncertain of where he actually stands: does she love him too or is he just imagining it ? And there's also her suspect uncle, Mr. Winckelmann, whom he sees as a possible danger and rival. Here, too, things come to a head, and Winckelmann throws Hertervig out, separating him from his beloved (and leaving him without a place to stay).
       Instead of going to the Academy to be judged, Hertervig goes to the artist-hangout, the Malkasten, where the other painters always go to drink and talk (while he's never been). His frenzied state continues: he returns repeatedly to his (former) lodgings, ever more insistent that Helene and he are meant to be together; eventually Mr. Winckelmann calls the police on him.
       The second section has Hertervig in a mental institution, Gaustad Asylum -- and still as obsessive. Helene is still on his mind (and the doctor's warning that he shouldn't "touch myself down there between my legs" obviously adds to his sense of frustration). Worst of all, he's not permitted to paint:

And I have to paint, if I can't paint there's nothing there.
       Again, the section covers a single day, and again it describes a period of almost frenzied frustration, Hertervig needing release, but seemingly unable to handle the powers that be with sufficient self-control to escape them -- though here he finally does seem to fix matters on his own terms.
       The short last section is set in 1991, almost a century and a half later, focussing on the author Vidme, "a distant relative" of Hertervig. He ducked into the National Gallery one day and:
then he caught sight of a picture that drew him in and then Vidme stood there and looked at a picture by the painter Lars Hertervig, a picture called From Borgøya, and Vidme the writer stayed standing in front of this picture, sometime in the late 1980s, Vidme the writer stood in front of a picture by Lars Hertervig the painter, and then and there on a rainy morning in Oslo Vidme the writer had the greatest experience of his life. Yes, that's what he thought. The greatest experience of his life.
       As a result:
Now he wants to write about Lars Hertervig, not about him, absolutely not, but still.
       And so the book is sort of a double-reflection on the artist trying to create, on finding inspiration and then finding oneself able to paint or write (as Vidme too has a hard time creating what he wants). Hertervig's breakdown was, likely, a defining point in the artist's life, but Fosse's focus is far more on the immediate -- both on that day, and the day three years later in the asylum --, Hertervig's artistic accomplishments only suggested in that strange final after-echo of Vidme being inspired by the painting and the man behind it. (Again, one has to wonder how differently the book resonates with an audience which does not see such a blank canvas here, but rather is familiar with the figure and his art.)
       Fosse presents the book in an almost repetitive drone. One might imagine that the first part could be shrunk down to a few pages, as relatively little happens, but in the constant repetition of Hertervig's first-person account it is more true to life. Still, it's a style that can be hard to take: there's a flow to it, and the reader who lets himself be carried along with it can certainly enjoy it, but anyone hoping for a straightforward narrative might find it very rough going (see the review at ReadySteadyBook ...). (It does resemble some of what Thomas Bernhard does in his fiction.)
       The story can seem numbingly repetitive, but there is an impressive cumulative effect to it: Fosse builds up the novel like a canvas, the repeated brushstrokes, the overlay of slight variations. It may not work for everyone, but it does work very well.

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Melancholy: Reviews: Lars Hertervig: 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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© 2006-2023 the complete review

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