Jon Fosse | Master of mystic realism 

In awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Norwegian, the Swedish Academy calls for a celebration of his ‘innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable’ 

Updated - October 08, 2023 10:29 am IST

Published - October 08, 2023 02:12 am IST



A 1,250-page novel that is one long, very long sentence, plays charged with unspeakable emotional tension due to anxiety and uncertainty, minimalist poems which raise existential questions — Norwegian writer Jon Fosse’s oeuvre is filled with the “mysticism” of ordinary life. In awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2023 to Mr. Fosse, a contender for long, the Swedish Academy calls for a celebration of his “innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.”

It’s an incredible win for the barely nine-years old independent publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, too, which also publishes Nobel laureates Olga Tokarczuk, Annie Ernaux, Svetlana Alexievich and Elfriede Jelinek.

Mr. Fosse’s debut novel, Red, Black, was published in 1983, and some of the themes he pursued in it, including suicide, and his pared-down style, termed “Fosse minimalism”, are also to be found in his later work. Born in 1959 at Haugesund on the Norwegian west coast, the 64-year-old’s novels, plays and collections of poetry feature the sea, fjords and mountains, mysteries of nature that can both fascinate and strike a sense of awe and fear, and the relation between the inner, conflicting mind of humans and the world outside.

With the human condition central to his writing, he builds layers, with characters talking or thinking about the past and present, their feelings about love, loss, grief, and the eternal quest to find peace, often times unattainable, amid life’s vicissitudes. Revered and much-feted in Norway, Mr. Fosse, which means “waterfall” in Norwegian, writes in Nynorsk, one of two official languages of the country.

In his play, The Name, which won the Norwegian Ibsen Award in 1996, a young couple is expecting a child, but there are differences in how the girl and boy approach their new roles as mother and father. She is waiting for him to welcome their child into the world, but he is taking his time. His plays are filled with short sentences and pauses and silences — Mr. Fosse has spoken about his Wahlverwandschaften (elective affinity) to Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka; Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas and George Trakl. Critics have likened him to Harold Pinter and Ibsen.

One of his plays, Rambuku, opens in a living room with an elderly character, She, addressing another elderly character, He: “We have always been here (pause); year in and year out… and you don’t say anything… Why don’t you say something… don’t just stand there... and look and look.” She tries to cheer him up by telling him about going to Rambuku (which we are not told whether it’s a place or person) to get “freedom from the unbearable here.” Another play on the foibles of human character is Nightsongs in which a woman cannot decide whether she has made the right decision to go off with a new man. Fosse has received extraordinary recognition from the general public of Europe -- not so much America where his plays got a lukewarm response. Chairman of the Nobel Committee Anders Olsson attributes this wide acceptance of Fosse to his courage in opening himself up to the uncertainties and anxieties of everyday life.

In 2015, his translator Damion Searls told The Paris Review that Mr. Fosse reminded him of George Harrison of The Beatles, “the quiet one, mystical, spiritual,” and probably the best craftsman among the other Norwegian ‘Beatles’, Per Petterson, Dag Solstad and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Mr. Fosse was Mr. Knausgaard’s creative writing teacher and had critiqued a poem he had written. Mr. Knausgaard turned to prose and has famously said that he finds Mr. Fosse’s darkness “luminous.”

Return to fiction

In the 1990s, Mr. Fosse began writing for the theatre, but after about 30-odd plays, he went back to writing fiction — to a period of “slow prose”, which was “somehow the opposite of the shortness, and intensity, needed in a play,” as he told the His critically acclaimed prose work is Septology (2021; a novel in seven parts, compiled into a trilogy). In 2022, Septology (A New Name-VI-VII) was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, the same year Geetanjali Shree won for Tomb of Sand; he had also been longlisted for Septology (The Other Name I-II) in 2020.

The novel begins with Asle, an ageing painter and widower, reminiscing about his life and art. He lives in the village Dylgja and drives to The Beyer Gallery at Bjorgvin to deliver some of his paintings. On the way back, after eating a simple open-faced ground-beef sandwich with onions, he scolds himself for not looking up on his friend, also called Asle who lives with his dog Bragi and has his battles with the bottle. Mr. Fosse is a master at giving access to inner monologues and the minutiae of the quotidian experience which give a dreamlike quality to his novels; nothing is as it seems and many emotions are scrambling for attention, in a quiet way.

“Perhaps the reason why I wrote Septology was that I felt I had something crucial to say and that it was, so to speak, my duty to say. I cannot say what it is, only the novel can, but it has to do with the mysticism of ordinary life...,” explained Mr. Fosse, going on to describe it as ‘mystic realism’, two words which can be used to describe his whole oeuvre.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.