Jon Fosse (Photo: Ansa-Zumapress/Jessica Gow)

Jon Fosse: In the hands of the other

The 2023 Nobel Prize winner for Literature is a Norwegian writer who lives in the royal palace, writes without periods and is convinced that “everything leads to God”. That is why “religion and art go together”. From the November issue of Tracce.
Alessandro Gnocchi*

In Norway he was already a national hero before he was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize for Literature. For years, playwright, storyteller and translator Jon Fosse, born in Haugesund in 1959, has lived in the royal residence of Grotten in Oslo. Even King Harald V is an admirer of his... Fosse is the most performed Norwegian author on stages all over the world after Ibsen (“I admire him a lot but I do not like his writing”). His teachers are his compatriot Tarjei Vesaas and the Irishman Samuel Beckett ("I was so afraid of his influence when I was writing my first play that, as if in response to Waiting for Godot, I titled it Someone Will Come"). As a novelist, Fosse declares that he is indebted to Franz Kafka. He translated the latter's The Trial into Norwegian but also tried his hand at Goethe's Faust, among other things. Fosse says that two things are crucial in finding inspiration: music and the landscape of Vestlandet, where he grew up. He keeps a boat and a cottage by the sea. He goes there often. Fosse is a difficult writer. His style has no periods, his repetitions are obsessive, but sometimes they become gentle, and give a hypnotic rhythm to the pages. When reading Fosse, one has the impression of entering, little by little, unknown territory. That is why this difficult writer is actually for everyone. He takes us to an unknown place, but tries to illuminate it with lyrical and enchanting prose.

Wittgenstein wrote: “About what one cannot speak, one must keep silent.” But he added that the things one cannot talk about, unfortunately, are the decisive things in our lives. Wittgenstein is Fosse's point of reference. As a good pupil, the writer, at one point, betrayed the Austrian master. In fact, he placed at the centre of his work that which cannot be spoken about because it does not respond to the laws of logic: spirituality. If it does not respond to logic, perhaps it will respond to art. Fosse says: “For me the human being is spiritual. Both language and literature have a kind of spiritual or invisible existence. It is that dimension that gives them importance. There is a kind of religious dimension in my writing or perhaps, more precisely, a mystical dimension. I am a religious person.” A Catholic with Gnostic undertones, he says that “confession, all things considered, does not matter.” Undoubtedly, all of Fosse's characters are crossed by a doubt: God exists, but what if he is not omnipotent? How else can Evil be explained? Fosse believes in the existence of the devil and the strenuous struggle to take souls away from God. There certainly are Gnostic undertones to his faith.

In his novel Morning and Evening, Fosse recounts what the human is through two fundamental moments of life: birth and death. The meaning of birth and the mystery of death. The child, child of love, strongly desired, prepares to face the world. Being born, living, dying: it is not a race from nothing to nothing through nothing. No, the presence of God, but also that of Satan, give meaning to our words and actions. Here is the word, indeed the Word. Fosse's pages, every now and then, tremble with fear: what if words and the Word had no meaning or had an unattainable, incomprehensible meaning? What if we have not established, among ourselves and with God, a true covenant, because words are not true? What if everything is 'only divided and separated' and the cry of the newborn, like the gasp of the dying, is only 'noise'?

This fear explains Fosse's style: the repetition of words and entire expressions; the starting new lines, without periods, which isolate, and thus emphasise, certain words and passages; punctuation reduced to a minimum, because harmony is the child of words, and not of the armour we build around them. All this works thanks to an innate sense of rhythm: it is no coincidence that Fosse writes metrically impeccable sonnets. Fosse's pages are not too far removed from Samuel Beckett's Molloy, yet the meaning is opposite. Beckett sinks into himself and finds nothing there. This frustrated search sometimes makes one laugh from despair, sometimes makes one cry from despair. More often it makes one laugh and cry.

Instead, Fosse opens the door wide and goes in search of confirmation. Death is a paradoxical homecoming, after a tortuous and Kafkaesque path along which we meet ourselves and our loved ones, for a final farewell, not without fear, before finding ourselves on the other side, where everything we love is there and everything we hate is missing, where everything is divided and yet without division. And here words finally fall silent, as Dante falls silent when overwhelmed by the vision. It is strange to see the usually nihilistic avant-garde approach Fosse's shore. If we asked ourselves what Good is and which characters are good is his books, we would find simple answers, even if the path to get there can be tortuous.

The good man in Morning and Evening is the fisherman Johannes, who cannot swim. He has supported, struggling against poverty, his wife Erna and his seven children, who loves and is loved by his daughter Signe, who has friends as simple as he is, who has never left the island where he was born.

Morning and Evening is the best way to approach Fosse's work. His masterpiece, however, is Septology, which won him the Nobel Prize for “his innovative works and prose that give voice to the unspeakable.” Septology consists of seven novels that reflect on what we really say when we say 'I'. But what is Septology as a whole? Fosse recounts: “The novel, 1,250 pages long, is written in the form of a monologue. An elderly artist, the Christian Asle, speaks to himself as if it were another person. But, in fact, it soon turns out that there is another Asle....” Let us leave the reader the pleasure and surprise of understanding how the lives of the first and second Asle intertwine. Stylistically, the work resembles Morning and Evening and exposes, more than the previous book, Fosse’s theatrical vocation, author of more than thirty plays. The novel is held together by a time span of seven days in each section. Each volume also opens with the same sentence and concludes with the same prayer to God. The theme of the Cross is central.

The Other Name (Septology I-II) begins with the painter Asle regretting that he could never complete a crucifixion. I is Another, taken from a quote by Arthur Rimbaud, shows us the artist as a young man, and explores a possibility: Asle indeed could have been another, had he made different decisions.

At the same time he makes a profound reflection on art, religion and life: "Baptism is also a part of the truth, it too can also lead to, yes, lead to God, I think, or at least to God insofar as I can imagine Him, but there are also other ways of thinking and believing that are true, other ways of honestly turning to God, maybe you use the word God or maybe you know too much to do that, or are too shy when confronted with the unknown divinity, but everything leads to God, so that all religions are one, I think, and that’s how religion and art go together, because the Bible and the liturgy are fiction and poetry and paintings, are literature and drama and visual art, and they all have truth in them, because of course the arts have their truth, I think.”

The overlap between art and religion is complete: “As far as I am concerned, neither what I have experienced of life nor what I have experienced of death has moved me from my quiet atheism; writing, on the other hand, has done it, days and years of writing, days and years totally confronted with writing; in the happy moments, not confronted, but within writing. It is writing that has transformed me and dissolved my reprehensible certainty, replacing it with a humble certainty of being handed over to the other and in the hands of that which is other, that I am, I myself, is thus an I in the condition of the grace of the one and of that which is other” (Gnostic Essays).

One can thus understand his words after the Nobel Prize, a prize that, in his case, exalts “the literature that first and foremost aims to be literature, without other considerations.” The “other considerations” are political engagement and being pop. It is no coincidence that Fosse criticised the recognition to Dario Fo and Bob Dylan. The role of literature that “aims to be literature” is infinitely more complex and decisive, being, we have seen, the conduit to divinity.

Read also - The mystery uses the unknown to attract

Fosse is a writer who goes against the tide. He uses the avant-garde to restore tradition, he does not abuse irony, he does not know, at least in fiction, sarcasm. His language, says those who have translated it, has the refined rhythm of the poet but also the primordial force of the words used by peasants. Fosse takes life and death seriously. His solution to the world's pain might seem insufficient if we did not know how he got there. The simple, gentle gestures are full of an unprecedented strength: they are a good start to save oneself and others.

*Journalist and writer, responsible for the cultural section of 'Il Giornale'