Jon Fosse wins 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature for giving ‘voice to the unsayable’

The Norwegian’s plays have been staged worldwide. His masterpiece is a one-sentence, 1,250-page work about art and God.

Published : Oct 05, 2023 19:14 IST - 3 MINS READ

Jon Fosse.

Jon Fosse. | Photo Credit: Hakon Mosvold Larsen/NTB/REUTERS

The Swedish Academy on October 5 awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature to Norwegian author Jon Fosse. The academy hailed his “innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable”.

“I am overwhelmed and grateful. I see this as an award to the literature that first and foremost aims to be literature, without other considerations,” the author said in a statement released by his publishing house right after the Nobel Prize committee announced his name.

A master of contemporary theatre

Born in 1959 in the Norwegian coastal town of Haugesund, Jon Fosse is considered one of the most important contemporary European writers. He has been described as “the Beckett of the 21st century” by French daily Le Monde and as “one of the most provocative pens in contemporary theater” by Canada’s The Globe and Mail.

Fosse published his first novel, Red, Black, in 1983. He has since published numerous novels, stories, books of poetry, essay collections, and even children’s books. After his first play, whose English title is And We’ll Never Be Parted, was published in 1994, the prolific author went on to write some 40 theatrical pieces.

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His international breakthrough as a playwright came with the 1999 staging of Someone Is Going to Come by late French theatre director Claude Regy. The play centers on a man and a woman who move to a run-down house in the middle of nowhere to be alone, but quickly become paranoid that “someone is going to come”, sparking hidden jealousies within the couple.

According to the Booker Prizes website, his plays have since been staged more than a thousand times around the world in 50 languages.

Fellow Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, who used to be his student, details how influential Fosse’s work was for him in My Struggle. Fosse was made Chevalier of the Ordre national du Merite of France in 2003.

A one-sentence magnum opus

Fosse’s magnum opus is his “Septology”, published in three volumes from 2019-2021 under the titles The Other Name, I Is Another, and A New Name. Through a single-sentence monologue of an elderly artist talking to himself, the 1,250-page prose work offers a bleak but ecstatic reflection on art and God.

Fosse has told The New Yorker magazine that the aging artist’s reckoning with religion is “not autobiographical at all”, but the Norwegian author had his own religious awakening a decade ago. Until 2012, he described himself as an atheist, but he then joined the Catholic Church and during the same period, underwent treatment to overcome his long-term alcoholism.

The critically acclaimed work was shortlisted for several prizes, including the National Book Award and the International Booker Prize.

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Fosse divides his time between his homes in Austria, in Oslo and in the western part of Norway.

Aside from completing his own writing projects, Fosse has also translated other authors’ works, including Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which he describes as one of his favourite novels.

The Nobel Prize in Literature

The Nobel Prize is worth 11 million Swedish crowns ($990,000 or €948,000).

The Swedish Academy, the body responsible for selecting the laureates in literature, is made up of authors, historians, philosophers, and linguists. The academy has long been criticised for the overrepresentation of Western white male authors among its laureates and was rocked by a #MeToo scandal in 2018.

Last year’s winner was French author Annie Ernaux, whom the Swedish Academy praised for “courage and critical acuity”. In 2021, the academy honoured British Tanzanian-born writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose work explores exile, colonialism, and racism.

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