Jon Fosse: A Nobel Laureate for the Unsayable

Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse, the winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature, focuses on the ordinary man in his writing. The author dives into his works below.

Jon Fosse is a Norwegian playwright, novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist. He was born in 1959 and grew up in Strandebarm, a small village in Norway’s western part. Now, he lives in Oslo’s honorary residence Grotten, as well as in Hainburg, Austria, and Frekhaug, Norway. He was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature for his “innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable”. Fosse’s work is known for its lyrical and poetic language, its exploration of themes such as love, loss, and grief, and its focus on the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Fosse’s longest prose work, Septology (2019–21), began during a playwriting break and after his 2013 conversion to Catholicism. Fosse called his method of writing Septology “slow prose”: a style of shifting levels, scenes, and reflections, the opposite of fast-paced drama. Its seven parts, published in three volumes: The Other Name, I Is Another, and A New Name, narrate the nature of art and God, alcoholism, friendship, love, and the passage of time. Septology, translated into over 20 languages, is critically acclaimed worldwide.

Fosse received numerous awards for Septology, including the Brage Prize and the Critics’ Prize. He has also been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and the American National Book Award. Jon Fosse has returned to playwriting after a hiatus, with three new plays premiering since 2020. His most recent prose work, the novel Kvitleik (A Shining), was released in spring 2023 and explores the boundary between life and death. Fosse is celebrating a literary milestone in 2023, marking 40 years since his debut with the novel Raudt, svart (Red, black).

Here is a more in-depth look at Fosse’s most notable works (so far):

Books by Jon Fosse
Books by Jon Fosse

1. Raudt, svart (Red, Black, 1983)

In a striking debut novel from Jon Fosse, readers are transported to the vivid historical landscape of 16th-century Norway, where we meet the protagonist, Olav Audunssøn. Originally published in 1983, the story revolves around Olav’s relentless pursuit of power and influence, navigating a world rife with political intrigue and personal challenges. As he ambitiously ascends the social ladder, Olav grapples with moral dilemmas, societal constraints, and the complexities of human ambition. 

Fosse’s rich storytelling immerses readers in the vibrant tapestry of Renaissance-era Norway, painting a vivid picture of a society torn between tradition and transformation. Through Olav’s journey, the novel becomes a profound exploration of the human spirit’s yearning for greatness and the moral compromises often accompanying such aspirations.

2. Someone Is Going to Come (Nokon kjem til å komme, 1992-93)

In this play – written in 1992-93 and first produced in 1996 -the audience is plunged into a world where the boundaries between reality and imagination blur, creating an atmosphere of unnerving uncertainty. This book revolves around a couple who, seeking solace, move into a remote secluded house. However, their tranquillity is shattered by the arrival of a mysterious third person. As this enigmatic stranger infiltrates their lives, a web of paranoia and jealousy ensnares the characters, testing the very foundations of their relationship.

3. Melancholy (Melancholia I-II, 1995-96) 

In his Melancholia series comprising Melancholia I (1995) and Melancholia II (1996), Fosse portrays a world of existential despair and profound introspection. In Melancholia I, characters grapple with profound sadness and emotional isolation. Fosse delves into the intricacies of despair, depicting individuals caught in the grip of their own melancholic thoughts. Through poetic language and nuanced characterisations, Fosse paints a vivid picture of the struggles faced by each character, inviting the audience to empathise with their internal battles.

Melancholia II continues this exploration, delving deeper into the psyche of its characters. Fosse weaves a narrative that examines the profound impact of melancholy on relationships, depicting how this deep-seated sadness can seep into every aspect of human connection. The play portrays characters in moments of vulnerability, revealing the rawness of their emotions and the fragility of their interpersonal bonds.

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4. Nightsongs (Natta syng sine songar, 1997) 

Translated by Gregory Motton in 2002, this book delves into the harsh realities of everyday life, emphasising substance over style. The play revolves around a young couple teetering on the edge of despair. The man, a struggling and agoraphobic writer, is financially dependent on his partner, who craves social interaction while on maternity leave. The tension in their relationship reaches a breaking point when the woman returns home late one evening, sparking suspicions.

After a series of lies and evasions, she confesses her intention to leave him for her lover, plunging the couple into a crisis that highlights the tragic banality of their existence. Jon Fosse’s portrayal of their disintegrating relationship echoes the raw emotional intensity reminiscent of the works of early Edward Bond and Franz Xaver Kroetz, revealing the play’s disquieting truth about the complexities of human relationships and the harshness of daily life.

5. Morning and Evening (Morgon og kveld, 2000) 

This is a poetic short novel that captures the essence of a human life from birth to death. The narrative begins with the birth of a child named Johannes, destined to be a fisherman, and ends with the death of an old man also named Johannes, who was a fisherman in his youth. Fosse’s writing is imbued with the concentrated power of poetry, delving into the very processes of being born and dying, where everything remains constant yet is profoundly different.

Morning and Evening meticulously compresses the details of an entire life between these two pivotal points. It starts with the thoughts of Johannes’s father as his wife goes into labour, highlighting the moment of birth, and concludes with Johannes’s own contemplations as he faces an ordinary day in his life where everything seems unchanged but carries a profound sense of difference. Through this exploration, Jon Fosse weaves a narrative that delves into the meaning of existence, portraying life as a beautiful dream wherein every moment holds significance and purpose.

6. Death Variations (Dødsvariasjonar, 2001) 

Fosse guides us into the emotionally charged journey of two ordinary parents who are left shattered by the suicide of their daughter. Struggling to come to terms with it, they embark on an extraordinary quest to understand the reasons behind her tragic decision. In their search for answers, they enter a mysterious Time Tunnel, where the boundaries of time and reality blur. They encounter versions of themselves from the past, each moment shedding light on their daughter’s life, from before her birth to beyond her death.

The narrative explores the daughter’s deeply personal journey, marked by a sense of isolation and an imaginary friend who offers solace in the face of pain. Her quest for an idyllic life, happiness, and inner peace takes her to the edge of a cliff, a decision that ultimately leads to her tragic demise. It is a poignant exploration of the complexities of human emotions, family dynamics, and the haunting presence of loss.

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7. Aliss at the Fire (Det er Ales, 2003)

In John Fosse’s enigmatic novel Aliss at the Fire, readers are immersed in a world where reality intertwines seamlessly with the supernatural. The story follows Aliss, a young girl living in a remote village, whose life takes a mystical turn when she discovers her connection to the elemental forces of nature. Fosse’s poetic prose brings the natural world to life, depicting the winds, the fire, and the earth as sentient entities intertwined with Aliss’s fate.

The tale is not merely supernatural but a metaphorical exploration of adolescence and self-discovery. The novel resonates with a sense of wonder, inviting readers to suspend disbelief and embrace the magical realism that permeates every page. Through Aliss’s encounters with the mysterious, Fosse crafts a narrative that is both captivating and introspective, leaving a lasting impression on those who venture into the world he has meticulously created.

8. Trilogy (Trilogien, 2007-14)

This is a unique exploration of human existence presented in three connected novellas: Wakefulness, Olav’s Dreams, and Weariness. The story begins with Asle and Alida, a young couple leaving their hometown and entering the city of Bjørgvin (Bergen). Alida, heavily pregnant, and Asle struggle to find shelter as they appear to be escaping a troubling past. The novellas delve into the lives of this couple, now known as Olav and Åsta, tracing their journey from desperation to happiness and eventually to tragedy.

Throughout the Trilogy, Jon Fosse employs a poetic prose style characterised by repetition and minimal punctuation, enhancing the story’s timeless and epic quality. The novellas explore themes of love, sacrifice, good and evil, justice, and the cyclical nature of life. Fosse weaves a complex web of characters and incidents, repeating elements such as Asle’s fiddle and a lost bracelet, infusing the narrative with rich symbolism. The story spans generations, focusing on Alida’s daughter, Ales, and her encounters with the past, revealing the intricate connections between characters and events.

9. Septology I-VII (2019-2021)

This is the magnum opus of celebrated Norwegian novelist Jon Fosse, which offers a profound meditation on the essence of identity and the complexity of human existence. Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and now published in a single volume for the first time, the narrative centres around Asle, an ageing painter and widower residing on the Norwegian coast. Asle’s contemplative life intertwines with that of another Asle, a painter in the city, marked by loneliness and alcoholism.

These doppelgängers, two versions of the same person, grapple with existential questions about life, death, love, light, shadow, faith, and hopelessness. As the narrative unfolds, the novel explores the interconnectedness of their experiences, delving into the profound intricacies of what defines an individual. Set against the backdrop of the Norwegian coast and the city of Bjørgvin, Septology offers an incantatory and hypnotic reading experience. Jon Fosse’s narrative transcends conventional storytelling, creating a unique and mesmerising exploration of the human condition, making it an extraordinary literary achievement.

10. A Shining (Kvitleik, 2023)

This is the latest work of fiction by Fosse, which unfolds as a surreal and haunting narrative. The story follows a man who embarks on a directionless journey, driving without purpose and taking random turns. Eventually, he finds himself stuck at the end of a forest road as night falls and snow begins to blanket the landscape. Instead of retracing his steps for help, he ventures deeper into the dark and unknown forest, a decision marked by folly.

As the man wanders deeper into the forest, he becomes lost and disoriented. In the midst of the obscurity, he encounters a mysterious glowing being. Jon Fosse weaves a tale that is both strange and dreamlike, capturing the man’s eerie encounter amid the snow-laden silence of the forest. A Shining exudes an atmosphere of otherworldly mystery, painting a vivid and haunting picture of a man’s surreal journey into the unknown.

Picture of Jon Fosse
Portrait of Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse’s work can be challenging at first, but it is also incredibly rewarding. His writing is rich and complex and can be enjoyed on many different levels. If you are new to Fosse’s work, I recommend starting with one of his shorter plays, such as Someone Is Coming or And They Shall Inherit the Wind. These plays are a good introduction to his style and themes. If you prefer novels, I recommend starting with Aliss at the Fire or Melancholy. These novels are both beautifully written and deeply moving. No matter where you start, I encourage you to explore Jon Fosse’s work at your own pace. His writing is something to be savoured.

Here are some additional tips for approaching Fosse’s work:

  • Don’t be afraid to re-read passages. Jon Fosse’s writing is often dense and allusive, and it can take multiple readings to fully appreciate its richness.
  • Pay attention to the rhythm and flow of Fosse’s language. His writing is highly musical, and it can be enjoyed even if you don’t fully understand the meaning of every word.
  • Don’t worry about understanding everything. Fosse’s writing is often more about feeling than understanding. Just let yourself be carried away by the beauty of his language and the power of his storytelling.


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