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Jon Fosse, a Norwegian master of spare Nordic writing, wins the Nobel Prize in literature

The author of 40 plays as well as novels, short stories, children’s books, poetry and essays, Fosse was honored ‘for his innovative plays and prose, which give voice to the unsayable,’ according to the Swedish Academy

Nobel Prize Literature
Norwegian author Jon Fosse at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo, Norway, in 2019.Hakon Mosvold Larsen (EFE)

Jon Fosse, a master of spare Nordic prose in a sprawling body of work ranging from plays to novels and children’s books, won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday for writing that gives “voice to the unsayable.” Fosse’s work, rooted in his Norwegian background, “focuses on human insecurity and anxiety,” Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel literature committee, told The Associated Press. “The basic choices you make in life, very elemental stuff.”

One of his country’s most-performed dramatists, Fosse said he had “cautiously prepared” himself for a decade to receive the news that he had won. “I was surprised when they called, yet at the same time not,” the 64-year-old told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK. “It was a great joy for me to get the phone call.”

The author of 40 plays as well as novels, short stories, children’s books, poetry and essays, Fosse was honored “for his innovative plays and prose, which give voice to the unsayable,” according to the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize.

Fosse has cited the bleak, enigmatic work of Irish writer Samuel Beckett — the 1969 Nobel literature laureate — as an influence on his minimalist style. Fosse has also taught writing — one of his students was best-selling Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard — and consulted on a Norwegian translation of the Bible. “He tends to write in a fairly sparse style,” said Guy Puzey, senior lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. “There’s a lot of repetition of quite simple expressions, which then take on a lot deeper meaning and make you ponder what lies in between the lines.”

What is Nynorsk?

While Fosse is the fourth Norwegian writer to get the literature prize, he is the first in nearly a century and the first who writes in Nynorsk, one of the two official written standards. It is used by just 10% of the country’s 5.4 million people, according to the Language Council of Norway, but completely understandable to users of the other written form, Bokmaal. Still, Bokmaal is “the language of power, it’s the language or urban centers, of the press,” according to Puzey. Nynorsk, by contrast, is used mainly by people in rural western Norway. “So it’s a really big day for a minority language,” he said.

Norway’ culture minister, Lubna Jaffery, told news agency NTB that it was “a historic day for the Nynorsk language and Nynorsk literature” and noted that “it has been 95 years since the last time a Norwegian author received the Nobel Prize for literature.” Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson received the prize in 1903, Knut Hamsun was awarded it in 1920 and Sigrid Undset in 1928.

In recognition of his contribution to Norwegian culture, in 2011 Fosse was granted use of an honorary residence in the grounds of the Royal Palace.

The literature prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers, as well as too male-dominated. Last year, French author Annie Ernaux won the prize for what the prize-giving Swedish Academy called “the courage and clinical acuity” of books rooted in her small-town background. She was just the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel literature laureates.

In 2018, the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy and sparked an exodus of members. The academy revamped itself but faced more criticism for giving the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke, who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes.

What did Jon Fosse write?

His first novel, “Red, Black,” was published in 1983, and his debut play, “Someone is Going to Come,” in 1992. His work “A New Name: Septology VI-VII” — described by Olsson as Fosse’s magnum opus — was a finalist for the International Booker Prize in 2022. His other major prose works include “Melancholy;” “Morning and Evening,” whose two parts depict a birth and a death; “Wakefulness;” and “Olav’s Dreams.” His plays, which have been staged across Europe and in the United States, include “The Name,” “Dream of Autumn” and “I am the Wind.”

Mats Malm, permanent secretary of the academy, reached Fosse by telephone to inform him of the win. He said the writer, who lives in the western city of Bergen, was driving in the countryside and promised to drive home carefully. In a statement released by his publishing house, Samlaget, Fosse said he saw the prize “as an award to the literature that first and foremost aims to be literature, without other considerations.”

The Nobel Prizes carry a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million) from a bequest left by their creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. Winners also receive an 18-carat gold medal and diploma at the award ceremonies in December.

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