Jon Fosse, Norwegian Author, Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Jon Fosse, Norwegian Author, Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature
  • PublishedOctober 5, 2023


The Norwegian novelist, poet and playwright Jon Fosse — who has found a growing audience in the English-speaking world for novels that grapple with themes of aging, mortality, love and art — was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.”

A prolific writer who has published some 40 plays, as well as novels, poetry, essays, children’s books and works of translation, Fosse has long been revered for his spare, transcendent language and formal experimentation.

In a news conference on Thursday, Anders Olsson, the chairman of the Nobel literature committee, praised “Fosse’s sensitive language, which probes the limits of words.”

Fosse’s work has been translated into around 50 languages and he is among the world’s most widely performed living playwrights. But he has only recently found major acclaim in English-speaking countries, thanks mainly to his fiction: “A New Name: Septology VI-VII” was a finalist for a National Book Award last year, and two of his novels have been nominated for the International Booker Prize.

He has long been tipped to receive the Nobel. In 2013, British bookmakers even temporarily suspended betting on the award after a flurry of bets on his winning, although the prize did not come his way for another decade. When it finally did, the call from the Nobel Prize’s organizers came while Fosse was traveling to Frekhaug, a village on Norway’s west coast where he has a home.

In a statement, Fosse, 64, said he was “both really happy and really surprised” receive the award. “I have been among the favorites for 10 years, and felt sure that I would never get the prize,” he said. “I simply cannot believe it.”

In receiving what is widely seen as the most prestigious honor in literature, Fosse (whose name is pronounced Yune FOSS-eh, according to his translator) joins a list of laureates including Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro and Annie Ernaux.

Critics have compared Fosse’s sparse plays to the work of two other Nobel laureates: Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. He’s also been called “the new Ibsen,” after the renowned Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

Born in 1959 in Haugesund, Fosse grew up in western Norway, on a small farm in Strandebarm. He started writing poems and stories at age 12, and has said he found writing to be a form of escape. “I created my own space in the world, a place where I felt safe,” he told The Guardian in 2014.

As a young man, he was a communist and an anarchist. He studied comparative literature at the University of Bergen. Fosse writes in Nynorsk, a minority language, rather than Bokmål, the more widely used Norwegian language for literature. While some have interpreted his use of Nynorsk as a political statement, Fosse has said it’s simply the language he grew up with.

In 1983, he published his debut novel, “Red, Black,” kicking off a remarkably prolific career. His most famous works include the “Melancholia” novels, delving into the mind of a painter having a mental breakdown; his novel “Morning and Evening,” which opens with the moment of the protagonist’s birth and ends with the last day of his life; and the seven-volume work “Septology,” an opus that runs for more than 1,000 pages and is about two elderly artists who might be the same person: One has achieved success, while the other became an alcoholic.

Jacques Testard, the founder of Fitzcarraldo Editions, Fosse’s British publisher, said his work touched on themes of “love, art, death, mourning and friendship” while “the landscape of the Western fjords near Bergen where he grew up” was almost a character in itself.

Although he started as a poet and novelist, Fosse rose to prominence as a playwright. He gained international recognition in the late 1990s with a Paris production of his first play, “Someone Is Going to Come,” about a man and a woman who have sought solitude in a remote seaside home. Fosse has said he wrote it in four or five days, and didn’t revise it.

For 15 years, he focused on the theater, and traveled widely to international productions of his plays. But then he decided to retreat back into fiction, and stopped traveling, gave up alcohol and converted to Catholicism.

A former atheist who found religion later in life, Fosse has described writing as a form of mystical communion.

“When I manage to write well, there is a second, silent language,” he said in an interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books in 2022. “This silent language says what it is all about. It’s not the story, but you can hear something behind it — a silent voice speaking.”

While Fosse’s work is sometimes formally experimental — “Septology,” for example, unfolds as a single sentence of stream-of-consciousness narration — it can also often feel immersive and gripping.

Fosse himself has described his writing as “slow prose”: “I wanted to give each and every moment the time I felt it needed,” he said in an interview.

“His work can be deceptively simple,” said Adam Z. Levy, the publisher of Transit Books, a small press that began publishing Fosse in the United States in 2020, with the first of his “Septology” series. “He often writes really spare, pared-down prose, but his books catch you by surprise. They take on this really moving quality. The sentences repeat, they meander, they start in one place then come back to that at some point, kind of spiraling outward.”

Damion Searls, one of Fosse’s English-language translators, said that while Fosse has written in a range of mediums, a unifying thread in his work was a feeling of serenity, which is why his work is often described as hypnotic or evocative of a spiritual experience.

“One of the key words he uses to talk about his fiction is peace,” said Searls, who translates from German, Norwegian, French and Dutch. “There’s a real peacefulness in it, even though stuff happens, people die, people get divorced, but it radiates this serenity.”

Along with the prestige and a huge boost in book sales, Fosse will receive 11 million Swedish krona, about $991,000.

Before Fosse, the last Norwegian recipients of the literature Nobel were Sigrid Undset, a writer of historical fiction who took the prize in 1928, and Knut Hamsun in 1920.

In recent years, the Swedish Academy, which organizes the prize, has tried to increase the diversity of considered authors after facing criticism that only 17 Nobel laureates had been women, and that the vast majority were from Europe or North America. The choice of Fosse is likely to be interpreted as a step back from those efforts.

Before Thursday’s announcement, at a news conference in Stockholm, Fosse was among the favorites, although Can Xue, a Chinese writer of often surreal and experimental short stories was also tipped, as were Haruki Murakami; Salman Rushdie; and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist and playwright.

In a statement released through his Norwegian publisher on Thursday, Fosse said he was “overwhelmed, and somewhat frightened.”

When asked nearly a decade ago about his hopes of winning a Nobel, he said that while he would “of course” like to receive it, he was also wary of the burden of expectation it would bring.

“Normally, they give it to very old writers, and there’s a wisdom to that,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “You receive it when it won’t affect your writing.”

Elizabeth A. Harris contributed reporting.


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