STOCKHOLM – Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, whose work tackles birth, death, faith and the other “elemental stuff” of life in spare Nordic prose, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday for writing that prize organizers said gives “voice to the unsayable.”
The novelist and playwright said the prize was recognition of “literature that first and foremost aims to be literature, without other considerations” — an ethos expressed in dozens of enigmatic plays, stories and novels, including a seven-book epic made up of a single sentence.
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.”
WHY DID THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE GO TO JON FOSSE?
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 sparse, minimalist style.
Edmund Austigard, executive officer of Fosse’s publisher, Samlaget, said the author described his work as “slow writing and reading literature.”
“It’s not a type of literature that you bring to the beach and read in an hour or two," he said. “It’s a type of literature ... that invites you into a unique world and invites you to stay there for a while.”
WHAT IS THE NYNORSK LANGUAGE?
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 versions of the Norwegian language. 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.
Guy Puzey, senior lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, said Bokmaal is “the language of power, it’s the language of urban centers, of the press.” Nynorsk, by contrast, is used mainly by people in rural western Norway.
“So it’s a really big day for a minority language,” Puzey said.
Norway’ culture minister, Lubna Jaffery, told news agency NTB that it was “a historic day for the Nynorsk language and Nynorsk literature.”
Norway's 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.
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. The final volume in a seven-novel exploration of life, death and spirituality contains no sentence breaks.
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.”
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.
HOW DID JON FOSSE REACT TO THE NEWS?
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.
“I stand here and feel a little numb, but of course very happy for the great honor,” Fosse told Norway's TV2.
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.
SHOULD I HAVE HEARD OF JON FOSSE?
Though his books have been translated into dozens of languages and his plays produced around the world, Fosse is what some critics might see as a classic, safe Nobel choice: A highbrow European man with little name recognition beyond small literary circles.
The prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers of style-heavy, story-light prose. It's also male-dominated, with just 17 women among its 119 laureates, including last year’s winner French author Annie Ernaux.
Others point out that the prize has gone in recent years to a strong mix of authors with both critical acclaim and robust sales, such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Mario Vargas Llosa and Alice Munro. And the most populist choice by the committee – 2016 laureate Bob Dylan – also sparked plenty of controversy and debate about whether his lyrics rose to the level of literature.
Publisher Austigard said Fosse's slow prose could be “ just what we need and just what people are looking for” in a frenetic world.
“It’s birth, it’s love, it’s death. It’s about what it means to be a human being."
Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands, and Lawless from London. Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen contributed from Copenhagen.
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