The 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to the Norwegian author Jon Fosse “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.”
Jon Fosse was born 1959 in Haugesund on the Norwegian west coast. His immense œuvre 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. While he is today one of the most widely performed playwrights in the world, he has also become increasingly recognised for his prose. His debut novel ‘Raudt, svart’ (1983), as rebellious as it was emotionally raw, broached the theme of suicide and, in many ways, set the tone for his later work.
Fosse’s European breakthrough as a dramatist came with Claude Régy’s 1999 Paris production of his play ‘Nokon kjem til å komme’ (1996; ‘Someone Is Going to Come’, 2002). Even in this early piece, with its themes of fearful anticipation and crippling jealousy, Fosse’s singularity is fully evident. In his radical reduction of language and dramatic action, he expresses the most powerful human emotions of anxiety and powerlessness in the simplest everyday terms. It is through this ability to evoke man’s loss of orientation, and how this paradoxically can provide access to a deeper experience close to divinity, that he has come to be regarded as a major innovator in contemporary theatre.
In common with his great precursor in Norwegian Nynorsk literature Tarjei Vesaas, Fosse combines strong local ties, both linguistic and geographic, with modernist artistic techniques. He includes in his Wahlverwandschaften such names as Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard and Georg Trakl. While Fosse shares the negative outlook of his predecessors, his particular gnostic vision cannot be said to result in a nihilistic contempt of the world. Indeed, there is great warmth and humour in his work, and a naïve vulnerability to his stark images of human experience.
In his second novel ‘Stengd gitar’ (1985), Fosse presents us with a harrowing variation on one of his major themes, the critical moment of irresolution. A young mother leaves her flat to throw rubbish down the chute but locks herself out, with her baby still inside. Needing to go and seek help, she is unable to do so since she cannot abandon her child. While she finds herself, in Kafkaesque terms, ‘before the law’, the difference is clear: Fosse presents everyday situations that are instantly recognisable from our own lives. As with his first book, the novel is heavily pared down to a style that has come to be known as ‘Fosse minimalism’.
In ‘Sterk vind’ (2021), referred to as ‘a dramatic poem’, Fosse’s increasing use of imagery and symbolism in his plays becomes apparent. From as far back as the 1986 publication of his first poetry collection ‘Engel med vatn i augene’, lyrical language has always served as a great resource in his writing. The recent edition of his collected poetry, ‘Dikt i samling’ (2021), testifies to the important role poetry has played for him over the years in providing the basis for his elementary diction and sense of the limits of language.