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Jon Fosse: 2023 Nobel Laureate

“Everything I’ve written can perhaps be called a sort of mystical realism⁠ — not ‘magical,’ but mystical⁠.”

In 2012, the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse decided it was time to face his limitations. A prolific
playwright, he had seen his theatrical works produced more times than almost any living author. But in addition to artistic burnout he confessed to himself that he was an alcoholic. That year he stopped writing plays, gave up drinking, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a fairly ordinary story, as Fosse himself would be the first to admit. What brings it to our attention is that Fosse recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

While his plays continue to be widely staged, his international recognition has come largely from his fiction, which he began to write in the wake of his personal crisis. His best-known work — and it must be said that he is not exactly a blockbuster author — is simply called Septology, which is a long novel in seven parts, as its name implies. It is a book that takes a little getting used to, because the writing style is so unusual. In some ways it is similar to what has been called “stream of consciousness” — instead of a narrator telling a story we are more or less plunged directly into the head of the protagonist. In fact, the first novel starts in the middle of a thought and it quickly becomes clear that the whole book is one long sentence, connected by a lot of phrases like “I think” and “yes.” It would hardly be surprising if a lot of readers might find this literary approach off-putting. However, as I have discovered, with a little patience, it is possible to fall into the rhythm of the prose and get caught up in the life of an old Norwegian artist named Asle, a man whose deeply Catholic wife passed away many years before.

The opening words of Septology are:

And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line, it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, the paint is thick, two long wide lines, and they’ve dripped, where the brown line and purple line cross the colors blend beautifully and I’m thinking this isn’t a picture but suddenly the picture is the way it’s supposed to be, it’s done, there’s nothing more to do on it I think, it’s time to put it away, I don’t want to stand here at the easel any more, I don’t want to look at it any more.

These words are spoken – or perhaps more accurately, thought – by Asle. As the excerpt indicates (beginning mid-thought with a conjunction), we are immersed directly into Asle’s head in a sentence that will literally never end. Even the final words of Septology also break off mid-stride. Fosse has called his style “slow prose”; his translator says “Fosse writes pure, repetitive, musical phrases in a stripped-down vocabulary.” Fosse’s “repetitive, musical phrases” attains an almost liturgical form (and they are supplemented by Asle’s attempts to pray the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Jesus Prayer). Geltner writes of Fosse’s narrative style: “It is not merely the representation of the consciousness of one man: it is the representation of everything as consciousness, or what it may finally be more accurate to call the spirit.” Or as Fosse put it: “Everything I’ve written can perhaps be called a sort of mystical realism⁠ — not ‘magical,’ but mystical⁠.”

It turns out that Asle eventually became Catholic himself, and finds the classic prayers of the faith to be profoundly comforting. He becomes fascinated by Christian mysticism and in particular the thought of the medieval mystical theologian, Meister Eckhart. One other complication of the storytelling in Septology is that it becomes clear that Asle knows another old painter named Asle, a man who did not give up drinking or find faith. In that sense, this book is what Fosse calls a “classic doppelganger” tale — the mysterious and daunting encounter with oneself. It raises many questions: what sort of grace or preference did “sober Asle” receive to be able to change his life and why didn’t that happen to “drunk Asle”? Why does one experience Christ as a living presence, even in the midst of a very ordinary and messy life, and the other does not? What is the source of an encounter that can change a life?

There’s much more than can be said about this Nobel Laureate, but hopefully enough has been sketched out here to entice some to become readers. In fact, if Septology sounds too daunting, he has a new short novel out now called A Shining. I’ll be delving into it soon.

Greg, Seattle, WA