Jon Fosse wins Nobel Prize in Literature

New Norwegian playwright joins the ranks of Bjørnsson, Hamsun, and Undset


Photo: Håkon Mosvold Larsen / NTB
Norwegian author and playwright Jon Fosse wins the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “innovative plays and prose, which give voice to the unsayable.”

The Local

The Swedish Academy on Oct. 5 awarded the Nobel literature prize to Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, whose plays are among the most widely staged of any contemporary playwright in Europe.

He was honored “for his innovative plays and prose, which give voice to the unsayable,” the Swedish Academy said.

His writing is defined more by form than content, where what is not said is often more revealing than what is. Often compared to Samuel Beckett, Fosse’s work is minimalistic, relying on simple language that delivers its message through rhythm, melody, and silence.

His major works include Boathouse (1989) and Melancholy I and II (1995-1996). Fosse, 64, had featured widely in Nobel speculation for several years.

“His immense oeuvre written in Norwegian Nynorsk and spanning a variety of genres consists of a wealth of plays, novels, poetry collections, essays, children’s books and translations,” the jury said.

“While he is today one of the most widely performed playwrights in the world, he has also become increasingly recognized for his prose.”

The Nobel Prize comes with a medal and a prize sum of SEK 11 million  (about $1 million). Fosse will receive the Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel.

Who is Jon Fosse?

Born among the fjords of western Norway, Fosse is usually seen clad in black with a few days’ stubble.

He grew up in a family that followed a strict form of Lutheranism, and he rebelled by playing in a band and declaring himself an atheist. The 64-year-old ended up converting to Catholicism in 2013.

After studying literature, he made his debut in 1983 with the novel Red, Black, which moves back and forth in time and between perspectives.

His latest book, Septology, a semi-autobiographical magnum opus—seven parts spread across three volumes about a man who meets another version of himself­—runs to 1,250 pages without a single full stop.

The third volume was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.

Loaded silence

Struggling to make ends meet as an author in the early 1990s, Fosse was asked to write the start of a play.

“It was the first time I had ever tried my hand at this kind of work, and it was the biggest surprise of my life as a writer. I knew, I felt, that this kind of writing was made for me,” he once said in an interview with a French theater website.

He enjoyed the form so much that he wrote the entire play, entitled Someone is Going to Come. He went on to win international acclaim for his next play, And We’ll Never be Parted, in 1994.

His work has been translated into about 50 languages. According to his Norwegian publisher, Samlaget, his plays have been staged more than 1,000 times worldwide.

Fosse’s work is minimalistic, relying on simple language, which delivers its message through rhythm, melody, and silence.

His characters don’t talk much. And what they say is often repetitive, with tiny but significant changes from one repetition to the next. The words are kept in suspension, hanging in the air, often without punctuation.

“You don’t read my books for the plots,” he told the Financial Times in 2018.

“I don’t write about characters in the traditional sense of the word. I write about humanity,” Fosse also told French newspaper Le Monde in 2003.

The sociological elements are present: unemployment, loneliness, broken families, but the essential matter is what’s in between. What’s in the cracks, the gaps between the characters and the elements of the text. The silence, what’s not being said is more important than what’s being said.

Married three times, the father of six gave up drinking some years ago after being treated in hospital for alcohol poisoning.

Although his plays are notoriously difficult to stage, Fosse was ranked 83rd among the top 100 geniuses alive on a list compiled by the Daily Telegraph in 2007.

In a country whose authors tend to be little known abroad—unless they write crime novels—he has inevitably been compared with Norway’s national playwright Henrik Ibsen, and in 2010 won the International Ibsen Award, one of the theater world’s most prestigious prizes.

But perhaps Samuel Beckett is a more apt comparison. Fosse has himself declared his admiration for the Irish icon, describing him, like himself, as “a painter for the theater rather than an actual author.”

“A historic day for Nynorsk”

A key aspect of Fosse’s work is that it is written in Nynorsk.

Minister of Culture Lubna Jaffery said Fosse being awarded the Nobel literature prize was a historic day for Nynorsk.

“We have many strong Nynorsk voices in Norwegian literature. This is a historic day for the Nynorsk language and Nynorsk literature. It is the first time the Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to an author who writes in Nynorsk,” Jaffrey said.

Facts about Norwegian Nobel laureates in literature (NTB):

1903: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsson

Bjørnsson received the award for his “noble, magnificent and diverse writing,” according to the Swedish Academy. He was the third ever to receive the award, which at the time consisted of a gold medal, diploma, and NOK 141,357 and 57 øre.

1920: Knut Hamsun

Knut Hamsun received the prize in 1920 for “his monumental work,” the novel Markens Grøde, which was written three years before. In 1943, Hamsun gave the Nobel Prize to the Reich Minister for Propaganda in Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels. No one has seen the medal since, according to NRK.

1928: Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset received the literature prize in 1928 for her “powerful descriptions of life in the north during the Middle Ages.” She was the youngest ever to receive the award and the third woman. She gave the Nobel medal away as income for the Finnish Aid in 1939.

2023: Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Oct. 5 for his “innovative plays and prose, which give voice to the unspeakable.” Fosse says he is overwhelmed and very grateful.

This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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