Presentation Speech by Professor Anders Olsson, Member of the Swedish Academy, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature, 10 December 2023.
Your Majesties, Esteemed Nobel Prize Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
To enter the world of Jon Fosse is to set foot in a domain beset by the greatest anxiety and torment of indecision. His rich oeuvre revolves around the disorientation of the individual and the difficulties experienced in finding a path in life. Whether in prose, drama or poetry, his writing approaches a state of uncertainty that can open a relation to the divine. With commonplace words here seeming inadequate, Fosse’s rare quality is that he succeeds, as the award citation reads, in ‘giving voice to the unsayable’.
Early on in his authorship, Fosse captures the unsayable in his short prose piece I Couldn’t Say It to You from 1991. Here we meet an old man who is unable to rid himself of the vivid memory of something he has failed to say to his beloved throughout all their years together. He has not forgotten the look in her eyes as she sits alone at a table in the school cafeteria, a memory that remains lodged in his mind from that day forward. This is the case even on her deathbed; words and life have drifted apart. But when Fosse allows the old man to voice the unsaid, the impossible is transformed into both a touching elegy and a triumph over speechlessness.
In the late masterpiece Septology, completed in 2021, the main character Asle is an elderly artist who, in the spirit of the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, turns in prayer to a God beyond all concepts and ideas. Both in the previously mentioned early piece and here in this later novel, the protagonist is nevertheless filled with an anxiety which creates a tension between the mundane and the divine. It is this anxiety that lends the work its internal drama.
Jon Fosse is not a difficult writer. He uses the simplest of words and writes about experiences to which we can all relate: separation, death and the vulnerability of love. Any difficulty with Fosse rather concerns our readiness to open ourselves to the existential uncertainty upon which he constantly touches. But the fact that he is one of today’s most widely performed playwrights indicates that this is a torment shared by many.
What is remarkable about Fosse’s simplicity is that it gains depth and intensity through repetition and variation. In his harrowing early novel Closed Guitar, in which a mother locks herself out of her flat and becomes separated from her baby daughter, a sense of panic merges into the language form. In the shimmering world of Morning and Evening, anxiety turns to wonder and profound consolation as an old man named Johannes awakes one morning to find he is dying and begins to lose his sense of reality. In Septology, the rolling prose devoid of sentence breaks becomes one with the painter Asle’s wandering thoughts, drawing in the reader with hypnotic power.
Either Fosse focuses on the unsayable, as in these works, or he chooses the language of silence, as in his radical renewal of world drama during the 1990s. Beginning with Someone Is Going to Come, the play with which he made his international breakthrough, he discovers the possibility of allowing speechlessness to materialize on stage. In the theatre, all that is internal must be revealed, and what cannot be said must too be given a voice. This is demonstrated in a long series of emotionally charged plays that includes The Name, Dream of Autumn and Death Variations. Here, time expands to allow the dead to take their place on stage.
Jon Fosse is the first Nobel Prize laureate in Literature to write in Nynorsk and, like his great Norwegian predecessor Tarjei Vesaas, he combines strong local ties with a belief in the possibilities of contemporary literature. He shies away from what we might consider to be definitive wording, making it almost impossible to quote him. As such, he is the master of ambivalence and of the unresolved. In his world, uncertainty pulses with a secret light.
Dear Jon Fosse, allow me to convey the warm congratulations of the Swedish Academy, while asking you to step forward to receive from the hand of his Majesty the King the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Translation: Chris Hall
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2023
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