Jon Fosse, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature: ‘I prefer to live in the most boring way possible’

The Norwegian author – who will receive the award from the Swedish Academy on Sunday, December 10, in Stockholm – spoke exclusively with EL PAÍS in Oslo. ‘There are people who love my writing and people who hate it’

Jon Fosse, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Oslo, Norway, on Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Jon Fosse, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Oslo, Norway, on Tuesday, December 5, 2023PACO PUENTES
Sergio C. Fanjul

Jon Fosse — the elusive Norwegian writer — tries to avoid public exposure. The 64-year-old rejects “95% or more” of interview requests, according to his own calculation. But on Tuesday, December 5, he granted an exclusive interview to EL PAÍS, shortly before Sunday’s ceremony to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. There, in Stockholm, he will only give the obligatory speech. He will abstain from any other event with the guests or meetings with the press.

In Oslo, it was 12 degrees below zero on Tuesday at noon. The weather is crazy: Norway isn’t exactly a warm country, but the temperature is lower than usual for early-December. As a result, the writer appears stuffed in his green parka, his face sticking out of the hood, half shivering, just like the rest of the residents of Oslo. Looking somewhere between surprised and frozen, he exclaims: “Damn cold!”

Fosse —a playwright, poet and novelist— is the author of a prolific body of work. There are nearly 40 novels and short story collections to his name, along with 13 books of poetry and some books for children. The three volumes of Septology are typically considered to be his crowning work, with the last part having been published in 2021.

On this trip — financed by the Norwegian Embassy in Spain — Fosse sits at the table, to the curiosity of the surrounding customers (“the Nobel laureate!”), in front of a café con leche, with a consignment of books waiting to be signed. The knuckle of the middle finger of his right hand is stained with blue ink.

Question. First of all, congratulations on the award.

Answer. Thank you. I’ve been on the list of candidates for about 10 years [and] on the betting lists so many times. I’ve [always] been attentive to the announcement, very excited, at exactly one in the afternoon... but [I never won]. This year, I was sure it wasn’t going to be me. It was a surprise. That day in October, I was driving near my town, which is north of Bergen, in western Norway, where I grew up. I like driving on country roads. Suddenly, I saw a number ringing on the phone that began with +46, the Swedish country code...

Q. And that’s when you knew that you were a Nobel Prize winner?

A. No, I just thought it was someone calling me from Sweden! I don’t know, maybe my agent. But, of course, because of the date and time — and because of the phone number — [I realized that] it could also be the Swedish Academy. And, in fact, that was who was calling: [it was] Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Academy.

Q. What does this award mean to you?

A. When I found out, I felt happy. Yes, true happiness. Then, I also got a little scared, because of everything that was coming.

Q. My mother had a collection of novels by Nobel Prize winners at home. When I looked at the spines, many names didn’t even ring a bell.

A. My father-in-law had a similar collection… many of them are still valid. The forgotten ones are, above all, from the first years [of the prize]. For example, in 1903, the prize went to the Norwegian Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson — not to his most remembered contemporary, Henrik Ibsen. He wrote in a more idealistic way, as Alfred Nobel wanted.

Q. But then things changed.

A. When I look at the list [of previous winners], I see many authors who are important to me. I see Faulkner. I see Beckett. I see Peter Handke. Or Pirandello and Maeterlinck, if we’re talking about playwrights. It’s a mix of authors who are still read, as well as others who have been forgotten. Oh, and many of the authors I most admire don’t have the Nobel, such as García Lorca, Proust, or Kafka. [Something they also] have in common is that they died quite young. I’m [the average age for a Nobel laureate], 60-something-years old.

Q. In other words, the Nobel Prize doesn’t guarantee eternity.

A. No, no, no. The only thing it guarantees is a place on the list [of winners]. And a spot in the collection that your mother kept at home.

Jon Fosse
Writer and Nobel Prize laureate Jon Fosse, at the Kaffistova Café in Oslo, on Tuesday, December 5, 2023PACO PUENTES

EL PAÍS traveled to Norway to explore — among other things — Jon Fosse’s physical and social environment. Initially, there was the possibility that he wouldn’t even be available for an interview. However, unexpectedly, the Nobel laureate agreed to meet an editor and a photographer from this newspaper in Kaffistova, his preferred café in the center of Oslo.

The writer is amused by his own elusiveness. “You have to put that [in the report]: that you came to investigate Fosse and, finally, Fosse showed up.”

Q. You’re not very inclined to public exposure…

A. I don’t like it very much. But, on the other hand, I’m quite used to it. My first novel — Red, Black — was published in 1983, 40 years ago. There were great photos of me in the local Bergen press: suddenly, I was a public person. And, when my plays began to travel to more and more countries, that aspect grew even more. I can’t say I like it, but I’ve learned to live with it. I regulate it as much as possible, I reject almost [every invitation and interview]. I’m really tired of events, premieres, receptions... I prefer to reserve myself for the moments where I really play a role. I avoid the rest.

Q. So what’s your lifestyle like?

A. I prefer to live in the most boring way possible. Without seeing anyone, just being at home with my family. In recent years, I’ve dedicated my [early mornings] to writing. I get up at 4AM and write from five to nine. I can’t write all the time… if I do, it goes wrong. I have to take breaks to recover my energy, my spirit. But, when I start writing, I need about a week straight to get in the mood. I wrote Septology entirely in Austria, without setting foot in Norway, in sessions from five to nine in the morning.

Q. You’re very prolific.

A. I’m a fast writer…

Q. Maybe it’s because you use so few punctuation marks. The text flows…

A. In some of my novels,  there are no periods. Then, in others, they reappear. It’s a question of rhythm.

Rhythm is a fundamental concept in Fosse’s literature, whose rhythmic and repetitive prose is an unmistakable trademark of his. As he explains, in his work, the plot isn’t as important as the rhythm, the sound, the resonance… a desire that perhaps comes from his youth as an amateur musician, whether rehearsing for many hours at home with the guitar, or taking part in a teenage rock band.

At heart, Fosse is a poet. Currently, a complete collection of his poetry is being translated into Spanish from Norwegian. Spain will be the first country where all his poems are available in translation. But, from those musical beginnings, Fosse now prefers to play with silences and subtle mental flows… the poetics of internal, almost dreamlike repetition.

Q. Is this an accurate description of your work?

A. The important thing, for me, is the form. The musicality. Even the content, so to speak, is part of the form. More than as a writer, I function as a composer. One day, in my youth, I stopped playing music and started writing… but I continued experimenting with the same things. Repetitions, variations. And I became known for that.

Q. Music, poetry…

A. And theater. García Lorca said something like “a play is a poem standing up.” It’s a perfect description of what I feel when writing a work. Theater doesn’t need as much intensity as poetry — it also needs action. Still, it requires that poetic intensity to work. And, in my fictional narrative, it’s similar: my long work Septology could also be seen as a long prose poem. It’s a novel, but it’s also like a poem.

Q. Some readers find your style difficult.

A. I don’t find it difficult. Some people find it difficult and others find it very simple.

Q. I think it’s both things at the same time. What’s actually said is very clear, but it’s not so easy to approach due to the hypnotic style.

A. That’s what I believe. From the beginning [of my career] there have been people who love my writing and people who hate it. It’s like music: if you’re a musical person, you like it. But there are people who don’t understand it. Or, like with mathematics, there are people who are good with symbols and others who are not. Of course, many people didn’t like my first novel and, over time, they’ve adapted to my style.

A passion for fountain pens

Q. How do you write, or rather, physically compose?

A. I started using a typewriter. Then, I switched to a Mac. I was one of the first Mac users in Norway. I loved switching to the computer: being able to correct on the screen, being able to print it, changing the fonts, Garamond, Palatino... being able to submit manuscripts without those corrections [in pen] that I had to make on typewritten texts. I was very enthusiastic [about the computer]. I still use it… but, in recent years, I’ve lost interest a bit.

Q. And now?

A. Now, as you can see (demonstrating his ink-stained knuckle), I’m interested in ink. I have a large collection of fountain pens — around 300 — and different inks of all possible colors, about 150 types. I especially like the broad tip pens: it’s a lot like using a paintbrush. Septology was written on the Mac and corrected by hand. But, on the contrary, A Shining was written by hand from the start.

Jon Fosse
Jon Fosse, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature, during his interview with EL PAÍS in Oslo, Norway, on Tuesday, December 5, 2023 PACO PUENTES

Q. Much of your work is intimate and timeless. Shouldn’t literature deal with the problems of society?

A. Not at all. Literature is related to society in the same way that music is related to society. Art has a role in society and, therefore, a political impact. Like García Lorca, who had a political impact, although [his work] didn’t deal with political issues. I think that, if you try to bring forward the political message — or religious message, or whatever — too explicitly, you’ll probably end up writing badly. At least, that’s how I see it. I cannot remember any evangelizing literary work, so to speak, that’s a good work.

Q. A while ago, we visited St. Olav’s Cathedral, one of the places where you practice your faith. You converted to Catholicisim. As a Norwegian — most of whom are Lutherans — this isn’t very common.

A. There are only about four or five thousand of us ethnic Catholic Norwegians. There are Polish or Filipino immigrants [who are Catholic], but there are very few ethnic Norwegians who are Catholic. In the church you mention, there are about 40 nationalities represented. Sometimes, I go to mass and I’m the only one of Norwegian ethnicity.

Q. In Septology, you explore the possibility of being other people. Would you have liked to be someone else?

A. I’m not very happy with myself, to be honest.

Q. But you’ve won the Nobel Prize!

A. Yes, but I don’t try to express myself when I write. I try to escape from myself. The same as when I played music — it was to escape. Or when I read García Lorca’s poetry, to [mention] him again. But, if I were a happy person — happy with my mobile phone, feeling good and lucky — I don’t think I would write. Or, maybe I would have written one book and that’s it.

Q. You must be very dissatisfied, because you’ve written a lot.

A. That dissatisfaction has made me spend my entire life writing. There’s something wrong with me [and how I relate] with the world.

Consistency with aging

Q. Does the passage of time affect you?

A. I’m quite satisfied with that. My life is getting better the older I get. I believe that, if you don’t have health problems — like so many people do — getting older isn’t bad. In my works — as in Septology — I play with the passage of time. I go forward, backward, I stretch it… like the material from which the novel is made.

Q. You suffered from alcoholism in the past. Alcohol is often associated with the artist’s creativity.

A. I think that’s true. [Back in] ancient times, the Romans even complained about drunk poets hanging around. Some connection is created, because alcohol loosens certain limits, as long as you don’t abuse it. I’ve drunk a lot in my life, but I had to stop completely. And [quitting alcohol] didn’t spoil my writing in any way, quite the opposite. I started writing better. And I gained time to write. I liked to drink, I liked to drink wine and chat… but it’s not good if you do it a lot. That’s why I left it.

Q. The future looks very bad for the human species. How do you face the uncertain future that’s before us?

A. We’re living in very dangerous times, I agree. For example, the war in Ukraine is very dangerous. The more the West takes part, the closer we’ll be to nuclear disaster.

Q. How do you feel about the situation in Gaza?

A. That conflict is very sad. Hamas attacked children and the elderly, it was really horrible, they killed more than a thousand people and took some hostage. I understand that Israel had to respond to that in some way… but in that response, Israel cannot do whatever it wants.

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