Entering the world of Melancholy II is like stepping into another person’s mind as they grapple with their old age and mortality. Jon Fosse’s novel gives a look into the mind of Oline as she struggles with her declined mental and physical abilities in old age and the news that her brother, Sivert, is dying. Through stream-of-consciousness narration, Oline’s thought process is entirely on display for the reader as she goes about her day.
Melancholy II is the companion to Jon Fosse’s Melancholy which is a fictional recounting of the mental breakdown experienced by Oline’s brother, the Norwegian painter Lars Herdervig, during his early twenties. Melancholy II occurs after Lars’s death and the announcement that Sivert is on his deathbed and wants to see her triggers Oline to recall vivid memories of Lars spanning from his childhood to old age. These memories are woven throughout Oline’s present thoughts and call attention to the contrast in quality between her short and long term memory.
Although Oline’s short term memory often fails her, she is very self-aware. She is as aware of her memory loss as she is of how much her feet ache when she walks now: “there’s not much to her nowadays, she remembers nothing, that’s what it’s like now…all she can remember is what she did during her childhood, her youth”. In the stream-of-consciousness narration of Oline’s thoughts, she is constantly aware of the changes in her body and mind. The book opens with Oline detailing the constant ache in her feet during the arduous walk from the sea up the hill to her house. The novel continues to explore the challenges of mortality through Oline’s thoughts about daily obstacles she experiences in old age from forgetfulness to incontinence. Oline escapes from the struggle of her present with memories of the past.
Vivid memories of Lars are woven throughout Oline’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts. The sharpness and detail of her memories contrasts with her muddled present thoughts, emphasizing the physical and mental deterioration she experiences in the present. In Oline’s memories, Lars is temperamental, at times violently so, and spends much of his time alone without telling anyone where he is going. Oline tries to understand her brother, to reach out to him, and to protect him in many of her memories although he continues to reject her. Despite his unpredictable behavior, there are moments where Lars chooses to connect with his sister by sharing his art with her. Oline’s memories reveal the complexity of the relationship between the two siblings and Oline’s desire to connect with her brother despite the block his mental illness creates between them. These memories are important because they show how much recollections of the past can mean to someone who is losing their short term memory. Old memories help to ground Oline in a world where new memories slip through her fingers like sand.
The news of Sivert’s impending death portrays the experience of losing loved ones in old age. For Oline, the news conjures to mind her own mortality: “and that Sivert’s going to depart? no that’s too horrible, thinks Oline, no that Sivert is going to depart, that’s not right, couldn’t Our Lord let her go instead, she who is in such a hurry”. Oline does not fear death, but is ready to embrace it. Her physical and mental state affect her quality of life in her old age to the extent that she feels ready to die. However, she continues to go through the motions of her daily routine with little assistance even though the smallest task can become an ordeal due to her physical and mental state.
Oline’s physical state also affects her ability to function. In the process of trying to maintain her daily routine, Oline forgets the urgency of Sivert’s request to see her. She becomes sidetracked by her needs to feed and relieve herself, and the image of her brother at death’s door escapes from her short term memory. The combination of memory loss and physical decline in Oline’s old age make her daily tasks difficult and tasks outside of her schedule nearly impossible to complete. The obstacles Oline faces in just one day paint a picture of the harsh realities of old age.
Jon Fosse’s Melancholy II deals with the realities of old age and mortality through Oline’s uncensored thoughts and memories. Her forgetfulness and physical discomfort are apparent in the content of her inner monologue. Although she feels ready to die, Oline continues to take care of herself despite the physical and mental burden. She only seems to be able to find a respite from the pain and confusion of real life in her memories. Fosse’s stream-of-consciousness writing leads the reader on a wild goose chase through the mind of Oline as she tries to navigate daily life in her old age.
Jon Fosse’s Melancholy II
Dalkey Archive Press