Jon Fosse wants to say the unsayable

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Jon Fosse wants to say the unsayable
Jon Fosse, the Norwegian author and playwright, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Oslo on Dec. 2, 2023. On continental Europe, Fosse had been a star for decades, less for his novels than for his plays, which have been compared to those of Samuel Beckett and Henrik Ibsen. (Thomas Ekstr÷m/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

OSLO.- When Nobel Prize-winning author Jon Fosse was 7 years old, he had an accident that would shape his writing life.

At home one day on his family’s small farm in Strandebarm, a village amid Norway’s western fjords, Fosse was carrying a bottle of fruit juice when he slipped on ice in the yard. As he hit the ground, the bottle smashed and a shard of glass slashed an artery in his wrist.

Fosse’s parents rushed him to a doctor and, in the car, Fosse recalled recently, he had an out of body experience. “I saw myself from outside,” Fosse said in an interview. He assumed he was about to die, but he was also aware of a “kind of shimmering light,” he said.

“Everything was very peaceful,” Fosse said: He felt “no sadness,” but rather a sense that there was “a beauty, a beauty to everything.”

Fosse said that this childhood brush with death had influenced all his literary work: fiction, plays and poetry, for which he received the Nobel Prize in literature in a ceremony Sunday.

The perspective he gained in the moment of his accident, Fosse explained, made its way into his writing: “I often say that there are two languages: The words that I wrote, the words you can understand, and behind that, there’s a silent language.” And it’s in that “silent language,” he added, that the real meaning may lie.

In a lecture in Stockholm on Thursday, a ritual that all Nobel laureates observe before getting their awards, Fosse expanded a little on the idea of a silent language. “It is only in the silence that you can hear God’s voice,” he said. “Maybe.”

To Fosse’s fans, the spiritual and existential dimensions are a major part of the appeal. Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee that awarded Fosse the prize, said Fosse’s work induced feelings and questions in readers “that ultimately exist beyond language.” The “deep sense of the inexpressible” in Fosse’s plays and novels leads readers “ever deeper into the experience of the divine,” Olsson said.

Last month’s announcement that Fosse had won might have surprised some American readers. Fosse (pronounced FOSS-eh) only recently came to prominence in the English-speaking world with books that include “Septology,” a seven-part opus told in part as a stream of consciousness from the mind of an aging painter. Last year, sections of “Septology” were nominated for the National Book Award and the International Booker Prize. “A Shining,” a novella about a man lost in a snowy forest who is comforted by a mysterious light, was published in Britain on the day of the Nobel announcement, and in the United States afterward.

Yet on continental Europe, Fosse had been a star for decades, less for his novels than for his plays, which have been compared to those of Samuel Beckett and Henrik Ibsen and staged at some of the most prestigious playhouses.

Sarah Cameron Sunde, an artist based in the United States who has translated Fosse’s plays into English and directed several of them in New York, said the American audience’s lack of recognition for Fosse could be explained, perhaps, by his frequently morbid subject matter: His writing often features characters wracked by loneliness, desperate for connection and contemplating the end, and many of his plays involve suicide. “Everyone is very afraid of death over here,” she said.

In a two-hour interview in Oslo last week, Fosse, 64, said that as a child he didn’t intend to become a writer. His father ran the family’s small farm and managed the village store, and his mother was a homemaker. In his youth, Fosse recalled, he was more interested in rock music than in reading. He grew out his hair, which he still wears in a ponytail, and played guitar — badly, he said — with bands at school dances.

But at age 14, for reasons he said he couldn’t explain, he “stopped playing, and even stopped listening to music,” and instead focused on writing poems and stories. His writing was rhythmic, filled with repetition, he said, as if he were trying to maintain a connection to his musical past. “It has been like that for 40 years,” Fosse said.

His early books, including his 1983 debut, “Raudt, Svart” (in English, “Red, Black”), were “filled with pain,” Fosse said, often featuring characters trapped in moments of indecision. His second novel, “Stengd Gitar” (“Closed Guitar”), for instance, is about a woman who accidentally locks herself out of her apartment while her baby sleeps inside, then agonizes over what to do next.

At the time he was writing these early books, during his 20s, Fosse was an atheist and surrounded by people who were equally irreligious. He taught at a writing academy in the city of Bergen, Norway, where his circle included “intellectuals, students and young artists” who were committed communists and thought that art and literature should be political. (Karl Ove Knausgaard was one of his students.)

But Fosse didn’t agree. “Literature ought to be engaged in itself,” he said, rather than trying to achieve a political, social or even religious goal.

As he wrote more, Fosse said, the process itself led him to begin to question his atheism. He never planned a story or a poem in advance — but when the words just tumbled out, he started to wonder where it all came from. He began exploring religion, including attending Quaker meetings, and “a kind of reconciliation, or peace,” came into his writing, he said.

Cecilie Seiness, Fosse’s editor for the past decade at Det Norske Samlaget, a Norwegian publisher, said his interest in religion went beyond his own personal conviction. In the 1990s, Seiness said, Fosse briefly published a literary journal “about bringing God into writing, in opposition to the political writing of the time.” Yet Fosse’s novels and plays were never didactic, she added. “It’s not trying to convert you, absolutely not,” Seiness said. “It’s just about being open to the mysteries of life.”

Despite his prolific output — often, a book a year — Fosse’s career only really took off in the mid-1990s when he pivoted to the theater. Soon, he was winning major awards for his stark plays, including “I Am the Wind,” whose two characters are simply called “The One” and “The Other,” and “Deathvariations,” about an estranged couple confronting their daughter’s suicide.

Milo Rau, one of Europe’s most acclaimed theater directors, said that in the early 2000s, the theater world in some parts of Europe was gripped by “Fosse hype.” “The theater scene was overwhelmed by his spirituality, minimalism, seriousness, melancholy,” Rau said. Fosse’s plays “felt completely new and out of time,” he added.

Fosse said he drank to cope with the demands of a globe-trotting theatrical life, and the alcohol eventually took over. At one point in 2012, he said, he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day, and barely eating. He collapsed with alcohol poisoning and had to spend several weeks in a hospital.

As a son drove him home from that enforced convalescence, Fosse said, he told himself, “It’s enough, Jon,” and never drank again. Soon after, he also converted to Catholicism. Attending Mass, Fosse said, “can take you out of yourself somewhere, to another place.” The feeling was similar to the one he got when writing — or drinking, he added.

A year after his collapse, Fosse began to be talked up as a Nobel Prize contender, though he did not become a laureate for another decade. By the time of the announcement, he had long completed “Septology,” the multipart novel, at points romantic, at others existential, in which the main character, Asle, a painter, looks back on experiences that are remarkably similar to some in Fosse’s life.

At one point in the doorstop of a novel, which the Nobel committee called Fosse’s “magnum opus,” Asle recalls a childhood accident in which he slips in a farmyard and slashes an artery. In the book’s repetitive style, Asle describes the incident, in which he finds himself surrounded by a “glinting shining transparent yellow dust and he’s not scared, he feels something like happiness.”

But then he stops picturing the scene. He can’t think about that moment anymore, Asle says. “It’s better to put it in my pictures as best I can.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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