National jubilation after Norwegian author Jon Fosse won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2023 hit fever pitch this week. It took many forms, and peaked when the modest and admittedly shy Fosse appeared even more dressed up than other winners at Sunday’s lavish prize ceremony in Stockholm, to receive his Nobel gold medal, diploma and congratulations from King Carl Gustaf.
Fosse had claimed earlier that he dreaded all the formalities, and even set off worries that he might not attend. Fosse is known for shunning the spotlight and has a profound fear of public speaking. “I was terribly, terribly nervous,” he admitted to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), and his hands were visibly shaking when he read his acceptance speech (officially called the “Nobel Lecture” and a mandatory exercise for Nobel Laureates) while sitting down on Thursday.
It came off well, though, as he began his lecture by recalling a “sudden fear that overpowered me” when a teacher asked him to read aloud while in junior high school. It turned out to be a formative experience: “In a way it was as if the fear took my language from me, and that I had to take it back,” Fosse said. “And if I were to do that, it couldn’t be on other people’s terms, but on my own. I started to write my own texts, short poems, short stories.”
Doing so “gave me a sense of safety, gave me the opposite of fear,” and the rest is history. Now Fosse, at age 64, has earned what commentator Ingunn Økland called “a solid place in Norwegian history” over the weekend. “We know now that Jon Fosse’s authorship will be presented for school students and studied by academics from now on,” Økland wrote in newspaper Aftenposten. “New generations will come to experience his unique style.”
Fosse’s lecture itself provided more information about himself and his life as a writer than he’d ever shared. His own deeply personal motivation, Økland noted, made Fosse “quite resistent to both praise and criticism” and he hung on to his monotone and repetitive style. He also revealed how some of his early manuscripts were turned down by publishers, but so have those of the only three other Norwegian authors who’ve won Nobel Prizes: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset.
Fosse also spoke about “the biggest surprise in my whole life as a writer,” when he wrote his first play and could use the word “pause” for silent speech. He had tried both in prose and poetry “to write what usually, in usual spoken language, cannot be said in words. I tried to express the unsayable, which was given as the reason for awarding me the Nobel Prize.”
To read Fosse’s entire lecture, click here (external link to the Nobel Prize website).
Professor Anders Olsson, a member of the Swedish Academy of Arts and Sciences and leader of the Nobel Committee for Literature, noted in his speech at Sunday’s award ceremony (external link) that Fosse’s “rare quality is that he succeeds, as the award citation reads, in ‘giving voice to the unsayable.'” Olsson spoke of how Fosse “uses the simplest of words and writes about experiences to which we can all relate: separation, death and the vulnerability of love.”
Olsson thinks any difficulty with Fosse’s writing “rather concerns our readiness to open ourselves to the existential uncertainy upon which he constantly touches.” Fosse’s simplicity, he said, gains depth and intensity through repetition and variation.
Fosse is also, Olsson noted, the first Nobel Prize laureate in literature to write in Nynorsk, one of two official forms of the Norwegian language based on rural dialects, and in doing so “combines strong local ties with a belief in the possibilities of contemporary literature.” Fosse also consistently speaks in Nynorsk, instead of the more widespread Bokmål form of Norwegian.
Celebrations of Fosse’s prize began right after the prize announcement in October, even amidst admissions by many that they hadn’t read many of Fosse’s more than 70 works including novels, short stories, poems, essays and plays. They are now, with Fosse’s agent in Porsgrunn quickly needing to beef up staffing to handle all the sudden demand, especially abroad.
Gina Winje of Winje Agency told Aftenposten that she, like Fosse, is also 64 and has worked all her life “but never as much as now.” Fosse’s epic Septologien had already been sold in 25 different languages before his Nobel Prize was announced, but now his entire range of works “is of great interest abroad.” More than 50 contracts for new sales have been handled since October.
“I knew this (a Nobel Prize) could happen, but it could also never happen, so you can’t really be totally prepared for this,” Winje said. “But a Nobel Prize is a great joy, just fantastic.”
Fosse himself didn’t initially seem to view it that way, telling newspaper VG right after the prize announcement that “large social gatherings don’t give me any joy, just the opposite.” He turned down many items on the program during his time in Stockholm, including a reception at the Norwegian Embassy, and when asked what he most looked forward to, he responded with a written message: “to get it over with.” Some accused him of ingratitude but he denied that, claiming he just doesn’t have the energy for a busy program or lots of socializing.
He did agree, however, to visit the library at Rinkeby, an area known for conflicts and a large immigrant population. That seemed to go well, with Fosse smiling and sitting around a table talking with young school students who had read and studied his works and were clearly interested. He’d been warmly welcomed by his young hosts who’d even learned some Nynorsk. They read poetry, sang, had drawn pictures of Fosse and even some of the characters in his stories. Fosse confirmed to Aftenposten on his way out that “yes, this was nice.”
Fosse has also spoken about being overwhelmed by all the reaction to his prize, and the hundreds of congratulatory messages that have poured in, including one from the pope. He has worried that he’s written so much about suicide that he may be viewed as legitimizing it, but was greatly relieved to hear from some readers that his work had instead saved their lives. “It makes me happy that others are so glad,” he told news bureau NTB.
His hometown region in Hardanger celebrated with flags and get-togethers, while NRK broadcast 40 straight hours of readings from all of his 41 plays at the Vestnorske Theater in Bergen. The Norwegian government, meanwhile, launching an annual Fosse festival of sorts, with a “Fosse Lecture” to be delivered by an internationally renowned author, playwright or researcher, along with other events in connection with the National Libary of Norway.
Norway will also award a Fosse scholarship as part of an effort to “demonstrate how important Fosse’s works are,” both for Norway and internationally. The scholarship, along with a period of residence in Norway, will go to professional translators who translate Norwegian literature into other languages.” Recipients will be selected by NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad) in consultation with the National Library
“This is the first time an author who writes in Nynorsk has been honoured in this manner, and it’s been 95 years since the last time a Norwegian author won the Nobel Prize in literature,” said Lubna Jaffery, Norway’s government minister in charge of culture and equality, who attended Sunday’s award ceremony and Nobel Banquet afterwards, escorted by Sweden’s own prime minister. “This is an historic event, and Fosse will now forever be written into the annals of literary history.”
Fosse already lives in the state’s honorary residence for artists, located on the fringe of the gardens around the Royal Palace in Oslo. He’ll also now receive a cash prize of SEK 11 million, meaning he can no longer accurately refer to himself as “a poor author.” He still claims, however, to prefer quiet, ordinary days to those filled with appearances or obligations.
“There’s been a lot of commotion over a Nobel Prize for many years, and I’ve had to become used to it, but it doesn’t mean I like it,” Fosse told NTB. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful, but it’s just so much. Ordinary days are the best days, to put it that way.”