Photo: Claire Eriksson. © Nobel Prize Outreach

What to read: Jon Fosse

Want to get started with 2023 literature laureate Jon Fosse, but don’t know which book to pick up first? We spoke to Anders Olsson, Chairman of the The Nobel Committee for Literature who gave us three of his Fosse favourites.

Stengd gitar

My first choice is Fosse’s second novel Stengd gitar (1985), which presents us with a harrowing variation on one of his major themes, the anxiety of the stale-mate of action. As always Fosse goes for the existential core of everyday situations. Here a young mother leaves her flat to throw rubbish down the chute but locks herself out, with her baby still inside. She is panicking and the whole novel is one furious search for a solution, reinforced by Fosse’s intense and repetitive language. The novel stops however in the middle of a phrase, a very typical trait in Fosse’s extraordinary plays from the subsequent decades, expressing the fundamental inability to come to a resolution. You have to read this book in one sitting.  

Morgon og kveld

My second favourite is the short novel Morgon og kveld from 2000, in English Morning and Evening. It is written in the midst of a very productive period of dramatic output, and takes place not in an urban context like Stengd gitar but in Fosse land, the Norwegian west coast where he has his roots and where most of his narratives are situated. One morning, the sense of reality of the elderly protagonist and fisherman Johannes is dissolving in an uncanny way. Things lose their weight and start to shimmer, and Johannes cannot distinguish any more between real and imagined people. We understand that he is dying. Remarkable in this process towards death is the voice of the narrative, transmitting a tone of warmth and reconciliation, staying with us long after we have finished our reading.  

Septology

Fosse’s magnum opus in prose, however, remains the late Septology he completed in 2021: the English titles of the three books are The Other Name, I is Another and A New Name. Extending to 1250 pages, the novel is written in the form of a monologue in which an elderly artist speaks about another person with the same name as himself. Soon we understand that this other person may be another projection of himself. The narrator Asle, a Christian painter, is trying to save and find reconciliation with the other Asle, an alcoholic painter. Even if the work progresses in long periods without sentence breaks, it is held together by repetitions and prayers and is deeply absorbing and accessible. Fascinating is how the doppelgänger motif is inscribed in the painting that the narrator cannot be separated from and that he meditates on in every part of the novel: two diagonal strokes crossing one another, one purple, the other brown. As if the painted cross represents the reunion of the two parts of the split personality at the moment of death. 

The septology is no doubt a major achievement, and should be seen not only as Asle’s attempt at reconciliation with his own fate, it is also an elegy through which he mourns the premature passing of his wife, as well as a Künstlerroman dealing with his rather less than successful career as an artist. Ultimately, he is unable to tear himself away from the painting: should he even paint over it in white?

First published October 2023

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