Jon Fosse: Award-Winning Norwegian Playwright and Novelist

2023-10-05 11:15:18

The 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded Thursday to Norwegian novelist, essayist and playwright Jon Fosse. The 64-year-old author said he was “upset and somewhat frightened” by the Nobel committee’s choice. The Academy notably crowns “his innovative pieces”.

It was just after 1 p.m. that the announcement rang out in Swedish, then in English, in the cozy living rooms of Stockholm: “Jon Fosse”, a playwright whose plays are the most performed in Europe. “The Norwegian author gives voice to what is unspeakable,” specified the Jury. Novelist, essayist, poet, is a jack-of-all-trades writer for whom form is generally more important than substance, the unsaid more telling than words.

The Swedish Academy honored the 64-year-old writer “for his innovative plays and prose that gave voice to the unspeakable.” “Its singularity is obvious, it exposes human ambivalences.” “It is through his ability to evoke (…) the loss of orientation, and the way in which this can paradoxically give access to a deeper experience, close to divinity, that Fosse is considered an innovator” , detailed Anders Olsson, president of the Nobel Committee for Literature.

His work written in “Nynorsk” – “New Norwegian”, one of the written forms of the Norwegian language (read box) –, an idiom from western Norway where he comes from, is composed of plays, novels, collections of poetry, essays and books for young people. He is best known as a playwright: Jon Fosse is not easily accessible to the general public. However, he is perhaps the living author whose plays are the most performed in Europe.

Like his illustrious predecessor in Nynorsk literature Tarjei Vessas, Jon Fosse combines strong local ties, both linguistic and geographical, with modernist artistic techniques, underlines the jury.

The man of letters was driving his car, in the countryside, towards the fjord north of Bergen, when he received the call from the Committee. “He remained confident until 1 p.m.; he was surprised but not too much” remarked Mats Malm, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. The playwright said he was “upset and somewhat frightened” by the Nobel committee’s choice.

He then reacted in a press release: “I am overwhelmed and grateful. I consider this to be an award for literature which aims above all to be literature, without any other consideration.” His name had been circulating for this ultimate prize for around twenty years: “I have been cautiously preparing myself for the fact that this could happen for the last ten years. But believe me, I did not expect to get the prize today , even if there was a chance,” he told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK by telephone.

Parsimonious and unpredictable punctuation

With a rounded face set with Scandinavian blue eyes, a beard and shoulder-length hair whitened by time, he is a child of the fjords, born on September 29, 1959 in Haugesund. He grew up in a pietist-inspired environment with a Quaker grandfather, both a pacifist and a leftist. A pietism from which the young Fosse distanced himself, preferring to call himself an atheist and play guitar in a group, Rocking Chair, before finally embracing the Catholic faith late in life, in 2013.

After literary studies, he made his debut in 1983 with “Rouge, Noir”, a novel where a young man settles scores with pietism. The style, marked by numerous projections over time and alternating points of view, will become his trademark.

Followed, among others, “The Boathouse” (1989), which won him critical esteem, and “Melancholia” I and II (1995-96), another major work.

His latest masterstroke, “Septologian” – seven chapters divided into three volumes, not yet translated – exploits the encounter of a man with another version of himself to raise existential questions with, as always, parsimonious punctuation and unpredictable.

>> Reading a passage from “A New Name: Septology VI-VII” by Jon Fosse – in Nynorsk, then in English by American translator and writer Damion Searls, November 2022:


Theater by necessity

Fosse came to the theater almost out of necessity: without regular income, in the early 1990s he agreed to write the beginning of a play, took a liking to it and decided to go through with it. It was “Someone is going to come” – which was directed by Claude Régy in 1999 in Paris.

Ultimately, it is this genre that will ensure his international notoriety. After “And we will never be separated” in 1994, followed by “Un jour en été”, “Rêve d’automne” and even “Je suis le vent”.

Breaking a decade-long hiatus, he surprises himself by reconnecting with the genre in 2021, with the untranslated piece “Sterk Vind”. According to its Norwegian publishing house Intercoursehis texts have been translated into around fifty languages ​​and his plays produced more than a thousand times around the world.

Freeing himself from classic rules, he ignores the plot, reduced to a strict minimum, and uses a simple and stripped-down language where the key to understanding is in the rhythm, musicality and pauses.

His characters are not very talkative. Their sentences repeat themselves, except for a few minute changes, and remain in suspense. It is the silences which are often heavy with meaning and which mean that, even together, beings remain alone: ​​”I don’t write characters in the traditional sense of the term. I write about humans”, confided Fosse in 2003 in the world.

The essential, the interstices and the unsaid

In his plays, “the sociological elements are present: unemployment, loneliness, breakdown of families, but the essential is what is between. In the interstices, the fault lines between the characters, between the different elements of the text. It comes more through the silences, by what is not said than by what is said,” he said.

His personal life is strewn with flaws. Married three times, this father of six children had to give up drinking after health problems.

Although extremely difficult to stage, his pieces found influential outlets abroad. In 2007, the Daily Telegraph placed him 83rd in a ranking of the 100 living geniuses.

In a country which has produced few authors whose success has crossed borders, except for detective novels, we inevitably associate Fosse with the other great national playwright, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). But he is undoubtedly closer to Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) whom he admires. As in himself, he says he sees in the famous Irishman “a painter for the theater rather than a real author”.

Stéphanie Jaquet and the agencies

Subject covered in the 2 p.m. timetable bulletin

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