Jon Fosse: 2023 Nobel Prize Winner
By Megha Alam, Jane Bentham, Lucy Clark and Rob Tomlinson
On 5 October, Norwegian writer Jon Fosse received the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.” He has written over seventy novels, plays, essays and poems, which have been translated into over fifty languages. Although renowned and celebrated in Scandinavia for many years, Fosse’s works have only recently been discovered in the English-speaking mainstream.
Background and Influences:
Fosse was born in 1959 on the west coast of Norway into a family of Quakers and Lutheran Pietists, and he attributes this background to the prominence of spiritualist themes in his works. At age seven, he nearly died in a serious accident – another experience which strongly influenced his writing later on in life. His debut novel, Raudt, svart (Red, black), was published in 1983 while he was studying at the University of Bergen. He rose to fame after his play Nokon kjem til å komme (Someone is going to come) was performed in 1999 in France, and he has now become the most performed Norwegian playwright after Henrik Ibsen.
While there have been previous Norwegian Nobel Prize winners for literature, Fosse is the first winner to write in Nynorsk, a minority language in Norway used in the country’s rural western regions.
Although he has embraced different forms and genres, Fosse consistently uses simple, minimalistic language in his works, experimenting with repetition and silence. In 2003, he told French newspaper Le Monde, “I don't write about characters in the traditional sense of the word. I write about humanity.”
Septology, translated by Damion Searls for Fitzcarraldo (2022)
Described by The Guardian as a “momentous project,” Septology is a seven-part work depicting the life of reclusive, ageing artist Asle, who lives in remote southwestern Norway and grapples with questions of faith, art, humanity and life itself. Initially published in three parts, Fitzcarraldo combines the work into a single volume presented in their iconic, understated, deep blue cover.
Momentous not only for the author but a challenge to the reader, this novel (or rather series of novels) is woven of a single sentence. Laden with the repetitions of thought of a man spending most of his time alone and obsessing over a single piece of artwork – a painting in which brown and purple lines intersect to form a cross of St Andrew – Fosse’s Septology is a profound examination of life and religion, and is a rewarding reading experience for anyone willing to meet it on its own terms.
Scenes from a Childhood, translated by Damion Searls for Fitzcarraldo (2018)
At the other end of the spectrum of length and difficulty comes Scenes from a Childhood, a collection of (occasionally very short) recollections of the author’s formative years in western Norway. Focusing on the elements of childhood that remain clearest in our memory, these texts, collated for the first time by Fitzcarraldo, span from infancy to adolescence and contain some of the celebrated author’s best work.
A Shining, translated by Damion Searls for Fitzcarraldo (2023)
Fosse’s latest work to be published in English is a cold, atmospheric and dreamlike novella exploring life, death and spirituality. A Shining follows a man driving aimlessly until he finds his car stranded at the end of a desolate forest road. Despite the approaching dark and falling snow, he decides to go into the forest. He begins to feel cold and tired, and as he laments his stupidity, he encounters a shining presence within the darkness of the forest. Spanning less than fifty pages and written in a stream-of-consciousness style, Fosse's prose draws the reader into the man’s psyche, allowing them to not only feel the cold but also the haunting delirium the man experiences as he confronts mortality.
Aliss at the Fire, translated by Damion Searls for Fitzcarraldo (2022)
In Fosse’s novella Aliss at the Fire, an old woman, Signe, lies by the fire at her house that sits next to a fjord and dreams of herself twenty years earlier when she stood by the window waiting for her husband, Asle. It was a stormy November day that Asle went out on his boat and never came back.
This is a tale of a woman haunted by the disappearance and sure death of her husband by drowning. Written in a single paragraph, this novella takes the form of an extended interior monologue. Signe relives the day of her loss over and over again as she recalls the final exchanges with her husband, the image of him rowing away and her sense of anxiety. Although this tale seems simple, her experience and dwelling reveal a trauma shared over five generations as she confronts the ghosts of her husband’s family and an earlier tragedy, as Asle’s grandfather had the same name as him and met the same fate by drowning.
Aliss at the Fire is an intense emotional reading experience. Fosse paints a harsh, unforgiving landscape and conveys with delicate precision Signe's pain and bereavement that the long, lonely years have done little to dispel.