The award of the 2023 Nobel Prize for Literature to the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse did not come as a surprise. Fosse (born 1959) has long been a leading contender for the honour, which remains the most prestigious in world literature, despite recent controversies. First there was the decision (in 2016) to give it to Bob Dylan, who not so graciously could not be bothered to turn up to receive it (it must be admitted herewith that Samuel Beckett  also did not turn up, but the context was a bit different). Then an internal scandal affected the judging committee itself, leading to the suspension of the prize for a year.
The whole operation has got back on track with the award for Fosse, a clearly deserving candidate: the only surprise is that it has taken so long. Certainly the award must have seemed overdue in Norway, where Fosse is something of a national treasure, with a residence in the grounds of the Royal Palace, no less. No Ibsenian exile for him.
It is quite possible that Fosse’s nationality actually told against him in the Nobel context: the award committee, which is of course Swedish, may have been reluctant to give it to a fellow Scandinavian, for fear of seeming biased. (Scandinavian writers, incidentally, have not fared particularly well in the stakes: neither Ibsen nor Strindberg, who were both alive in time, received it, though the lesser known Knut Hamsun did.)
In the case of Fosse, however, there is no need for such suspicions: he is clearly, even in translation, a writer of global stature. He does fulfil what appears to be one of the essential criteria for the award: he has produced a substantial body of work – this is true even of Dylan. Fosse has written fiction, drama and poetry; his singular vision has found expression in multiple literary forms (this is not the only way in which he resembles an earlier recipient, Beckett). Unlike his Irish predecessor, however, who is most likely still best known for his plays, Fosse’s principal achievement is probably in prose fiction, on which this essay will concentrate. (Fosse’s plays have been published in English in six volumes by Oberon Books.)
The question of translation is a particularly interesting one in Fosse’s case. He writes in Nynorsk, one of the two official languages of Norway, but which is used by only 10 to 15 per cent of the population. So even many Norwegian readers have a sense of distance, of alienation from the text they are reading – a feeling redoubled, of course, for foreign readers, despite, for English speakers, the efforts of his admired principal translator, Damion Searls. Moreover, a conscious sense of archaism hangs over his texts, even though characters in them drive cars (in the case of Septology, obsessively). It is no surprise that one of his most powerful works, Melancholy I – II, is set in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Similarly, a principal location of the Fosse world, the city of Bergen on the Norwegian west coast, is invariably referred to by its historical name, Bjørgvin, a very effective distancing device for readers who are not familiar with this form of the name, and, indeed, even for those who are.
Strangeness – estrangement – is very characteristic of this world – and a world it is, since all these prose works convey a very similar atmosphere and are largely set in the same locale – the Norwegian west coast, with its fjords, its islands, its fishing villages, the omnipresent sometimes threatening, sometimes comforting sea. (It’s rather piquant for an Irish reader to see the word ‘skerries’ coming up often in the English translation – it means of course reefs or rocky islands from Old Norse sker and is a reminder of our own Norse inheritance.)
Strangeness then is one of the most prevalent aspects of the Fosse world – that and intensity. How that intensity is conveyed is one of the most impressive aspects of this work. It is down to a certain quality of the prose, easier to experience than to describe. The style does differ to some extent from work to work, but it’s always very internal, very fixed in a consciousness, whether the first or the third person is used in the narration. In this respect and in many others Fosse’s major work to date, Septology, is exemplary.
This book, and it is one book, though it is published in three volumes (it has recently been made available as one rather cumbersome tome) consists, as its title suggests, of seven parts. Each part begins in the exact same way, with the exact same words, and each ends in the same way, with Latin prayers – the Ave Maria, the Salve Regina – being recited in a spasm of mounting spiritual desperation – or perhaps exultation.
The central character, called Asle, is a painter and the repeated opening words of each section evoke an abstract picture of two lines intersecting that he has just painted. The picture could be, but is not necessarily, a cross, with all that evokes. So at the start of each part we return to the beginning again, though the story does move on somewhat further than in the previous part from that circling back to origins.
Asle – who narrates in the first person – has a friend, also called Asle, also a painter, who is rather hard to distinguish from the narrator. This second Asle is in a much worse way, though, than his namesake, and the tale of his decline and fall takes up much of the book. (Rather touchingly, the narrator manages to rescue his dog, called Bragi.) The narrator, who is a widower and lives on the coast well north of Bjørgvin, has a somewhat clownish neighbour called Åsleik, who provides some welcome comedy (Fosse’s work is not entirely without humour, despite what one might imagine, although nowhere near as much as Beckett offers – another mildly comic episode treats of the young narrator’s failed attempts to play guitar in a rock band).
There are many other strands to this complex work, not least the frequent evocations of the narrator’s late wife, Ales, as well as many flashbacks to the narrator’s and others’ childhoods, plus extended reflections on what can only be called religious matters – what God is, what God can or cannot do, how it relates to humanity etc etc. A recurrent plot device is the repeated efforts by the aforementioned Åsleik to get the narrator to join him on a Christmas visit to Åsleik’s sister, who lives on an island that requires a boat journey to access – a pretty banal tale but which seems to count for much in the Fosseian scheme of things.
But what matters more than all this is the extraordinary way this story is told – in breathless, endless prose, without full stops, but with plenty of commas etc, that convey a rare intensity of experience and a sense of time as continuous flow, carrying the reader along, not I think towards anything, but rather spiralling backwards and then forwards a bit again, back and forth continually. The style has been called ‘hypnotic slow prose’, and there is a sense of falling under a spell as one reads, caught up in a timeless condition.
Certain words and phrases – ‘he thinks’ or ‘I think’ or ‘yes’ – recur again and again, and form a kind of ground bass to the ebb and flow of the text. (One is of course aware of the famous provenance and implications of repeated ‘yeses’ in an extended, unpunctuated text, and that of course is there, but there is no doubt that Fosse has forged a unique style and diction of his own.) It is a very special reading experience.
The other principal prose works by Fosse available in English are Melancholy I-II and Trilogy. This last is published by Dalkey Archive; the others, along with some shorter works, are published by Fitzcarraldo. This small independent English publisher, with its distinctive blue and white covers (blue for fiction, white for non-fiction) can now, rather remarkably, boast three Nobel Prize winners in its list (the others are Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk).
Melancholy is also a very distinctive achievement. It concerns the real nineteenth century Norwegian painter (painting is a huge focus in Fosse’s work) Lars Hetervig, who historically suffered from mental illness. Fosse delves into the mind of this disturbed individual, narrating in the first person. It is a very intense and unsettling read: the long first part, focusing on one day in 1853 in Düsseldorf, charts the artist’s mental disintegration under the pressure of an obsession with his landlady’s daughter and the mockery of his fellow art students. Even more affecting is the account of his stay in an asylum near Christiana (now Oslo) in 1856.
This experience of isolation and desperation is surpassed only by Melancholy II, which focuses on the artist’s sister back in the home place of Stavanger many years later, long after the mad painter’s death. The account of the many sufferings of this elderly woman, who is also apparently beginning to lose her mind, will remain deeply etched on any reader’s consciousness: Scandinavian noir indeed, in a somewhat different sense from the one normally employed.
Massively impressive, also, is the earlier work Trilogy. This consists of three interlinked novellas, a mysterious, almost hallucinatory saga of intergenerational crime, loss and a possible redemption that works on many levels – allegory, pathos, endurance, faith of a kind. The opening novella describes a young couple, the woman heavily pregnant, wandering the streets of Bjørgvin trying to find a place to stay. As with Melancholy, Fosse has an extraordinary ability to evoke their plight to a degree that seems almost intolerable to the reader – even if we quickly realise that the man is a murderer. These evocations are testament to the power of literature to evoke suffering, to make us feel it and live it, while real-life suffering can often merely be greeted with indifference or abstract concern.
Similarly the (correct) certainty of the woman, at a later stage, when the couple have left the city and her partner announces that he has to go back there briefly, that she will never see him again, is conveyed with astonishing power. The disintegration and ultimate death of the second Asle in Septology is an instance of the same power, though in general this is a gentler work than the others I have been discussing. There is an intensity to Fosse’s writing that seems to expand our sense of what literature – some literature – can do.
It is worth noting also the revival of the almost obsolete novella form that Fosse has accomplished. This mode – longer than a short story, much shorter than a novel – has always been somewhat problematic, its status quite ambiguous, but in Fosse’s hands it seems the perfect form for the experience he is trying to convey. Other novella-type works of his to appear in English are Aliss by the Fire (should be Ales) and most recently, from Transit Books, A Shining. This work, an account of a mysterious encounter in a forest where the strange narrator has got lost, fits very well into the Fosse universe.
What kind of writer then is Fosse? It is easier to say what he is not than what he is. He is not a social novelist – if, as some theorists hold, the novel is essentially about society then he is not a novelist at all. He does not deal with history, with social progress or the lack of it. His characters tend to be accepting of the world as it is – it is a given – rather than having any interest in changing it.
He is essentially, I believe, a metaphysician and an existentialist. There is a mystical or semi-mystical side to him – Meister Eckhart, for instance, gets quoted occasionally – but this is combined with an attention to human suffering, human experience, that is extremely grounded and the very reverse of metaphysical. This makes for an intriguing combination which gives the work much of its power and its dynamic. The characters (this is not quite the right word – perhaps the figures) are constantly reaching out for something transcendent but just as constantly confronting realities of ageing, death, poverty and deprivation that cannot be and are not wished away. Sex, too, is a reality in Fosse’s work, though it is hard to discern whether it is a force for good or a distraction – it comes up at the end of Septology, for instance, but is brushed aside.
At this point, one has to confront the question of Fosse’s religiosity. Is he the first writer to receive a personal note from the pope congratulating him on the award of the Nobel Prize? Perhaps not, but there can’t be many. For Fosse not only has a religious bent, as comes up frequently in the work, especially Septology, but is a convert (2012-2013) to Roman Catholicism. His conversion coincided with his overcoming of a severe (to put it mildly) drink problem. Its main manifestation in the work comes at the end of each of the seven parts of Septology where, as mentioned before, the text suddenly breaks into the Latin of the Ave Maria the Pater Noster or the Salve Regina; there are other instances at other parts of the work. (For readers of a certain vintage, it is rather uncanny to come across these relics of a now distant era, both chronologically and psychologically, in their lives.) Looking at the occasions for these expressions or fits of Latinism at the endings of the various parts, they seem to be responses to a sense of crisis, sometimes to the ongoing grief of the loss of Asle’s wife Ales, sometimes to the awareness of the impending death of his friend the other Asle, among other moments of pressure. So these prayers seem to be rituals to prevent something bad from getting even worse: they are thus humanised, not so much matters of faith as of primitive spells to keep the dark away.
Some readers may regret this particular mode of ritualised therapy, if that is what it is – others of course may rejoice in it – but it says something for the power of Fosse’s work that it can transcend even the discomfort that this now remote form of expression may arouse in some. (It can perhaps be seen as part of the general atmosphere of antiquarianism that pervades Fosse’s work.)
So all in all the Swedish Academy has honoured a genuine achievement, a genuine creative artist, with all the power that the word ‘creativity’ implies. The 2023 Nobel Prize has gone to a real writer.
Terence Killeen is Research Scholar at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. He is the author of Ulysses Unbound: A Reader’s Companion to Ulysses, recently issued in a new edition by Penguin UK.