Believe it or not, I predicted this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature would go to Jon Fosse. It’s the only time I’ve been right, and I’ll probably never be right again. Somehow, it was an easy one to call, and I was far from alone.
The author is from Norway, which is, you know, close to Sweden, where the Nobel Prizes are administered. His style is esoteric, although he’s gained international recognition including prize nominations in the U.S. (for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award) for glorious translations by Damion Searls of A New Name, the final volume of Fosse’s Septology (Transit). Critic Merve Emre even wore a custom Fosse-themed dress to last year’s NBA ceremony.
In other words, Fosse simultaneously bore the characteristics of a Nobel Prize winner and seemed like a choice that might shield the Nobel committee from complaints of snobbishness or insularity. So it was a surprise to read a piece in the Economist on the day of the announcement that reported on wide reactions of puzzlement over the choice, wagering a claim that “many literary buffs had never heard of him.” Most galling, given Searls’s well-received contribution, was the story’s emphasis on Fosse’s choice to write in Norway’s minority Nynorsk language, as if only the few people who read Nynorsk could hope to make sense of the work.
Searls’s translations began in 2006 with Melancholy (Dalkey Archive) followed by several other books before the three volumes of Septology earned Fosse wide critical acclaim in the U.S., beginning with The Other Name in 2019. In a starred review, PW called it “that rare metaphysical novel that readers will find compulsively readable.” It’s about a painter named Asle who contemplates his life while looking at his canvases in preparation for a show. It’s also a doppelgänger story, as another, less fortunate Asle bleeds into the first Asle and suggests another path he could have taken. Over the course of the three volumes, Asle’s searching takes on a spiritual dimension, and in A New Name, Fosse unfurls the most beautiful and least oppressive description of God I have ever read.
But, wait. Assuming I’m right and the Economist was wrong, there’s a good chance you already knew all about Fosse before you heard the news on October 5—in which case you don’t need to hear anything more from me. Nevertheless, I’ve been asked to round up a few Fosse-related books as a primer, just in case. (“5 Norwegians Who Will Never Win the Nobel Now” was my favorite of my editor’s half-serious prompts.) So if you somehow missed the Fosse train, here’s another chance to get on board. But what shall we call this? How about…
Six Gateways to Septology
It’s tempting to compare Fosse’s work to that of his former student Karl Ove Knausgård, fellow author of a multivolume novel where not much happens. Though Fosse is no less engrossing, Knausgård is much easier to read. His prose is more conventional, and he can generate suspense with drawn-out scenes of mundane action, like a teen’s search for beer hidden in the snow or a father strapping his children into a car. Still, his glacial pace and attention to detail owe something to Fosse’s approach, and to other slow, plotless books like Naipaul’s. On the New Yorker Fiction podcast, Knausgård described the impression Naipaul’s 1987 novel made on him in his early 20s: “It was so boring, because there’s nothing there, but it’s been on my mind ever since.” It begins with a man arriving at a cottage in the English countryside and much of the action involves him gradually orienting himself with and describing his surroundings. “It’s about seeing the world,” Knausgård added, explaining how the narrator’s preconception of the place is slowly overwritten by what is in front of him. Only when it begins to snow does the place come into relief, an element that came to mind while I read an arresting scene in Fosse’s The Other Name, in which the narrator Asle’s strange relationship with his doppelgänger is brought into focus after he falls in the snow and a woman takes him for his double.
Tonally, Fosse rises higher than the Austrian gloom maestro. But readers of Bernhard will find familiarity in Septology’s recursive structure as well as the prose’s rhythmic cadences and Fosse’s ability to sustain an idea worked through by the narrator from the first page to the last. Bernhard’s shorter novels like The Loser and Woodcutters also come to mind, for the way they anchor the discursive and sprawling narration on a paused physical action (the narrator walks through a doorway or sits in a chair, respectively). But despite the morbid and ironic plot of Correction (1979)—it’s about a man who builds a conical house in the woods for his sister that ends up killing her—Bernhard’s swelling commitment to obsession makes this one the best preparation for Septology among his work.
One of the satisfying challenges of Septology is in piecing together its mysteries—who is this other Asle and why are there two of them? His friend Åsleik has a sister named Guro who also has a double—what’s going on with all these doubles, and what do they have to do with Fosse’s larger existential questions?—so it’s worth coming in with your brain primed for intrigue and problem-solving. Fever and Spear (2002), the first of Javier Marías’s genre-bending Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, traces the origins of a man’s recruitment into espionage work by a retired Oxford professor. Like Naipaul’s book, it’s about perception, and Marías’s beguiling and captivating prose sustains the trilogy’s meandering plot and eked-out revelations.
There’s really no one to compare among Fosse’s notable Norwegian contemporaries, at least those who are well-known in English translation—Dag Solstad is compressed and funny, Per Petterson hits hard but with novels that are more conventional—but Love (2019), Ørstavik’s brief and haunting story of a nine-year-old boy and his mother lost to each other in the snow, offers a good primer. Again with the snow! This novel is different from the others on the list, and it’s different from Septology, but Ørstavik’s depiction of the boy’s consciousness as he searches through the cold night for his mother, steadfast in his belief that he’ll find her or be found, is reminiscent of Asle’s faith—as is the inner warmth Ørstavik casts against the bleak landscape.
I thought, on Oct. 4, the day before the Nobel was announced, that if they don’t give it to Fosse, maybe they’ll give it to a writer from the former Eastern Bloc. You know, Economist? Big names like Krasznahorkai or Mircea Cărtărescu. If we’re being completely honest, personally I was gunning for Scholastique Mukasonga. Still, I’m a fan of all these writers, and I’m deeply happy for my friends at Transit. Plus, there’s always next year. Satantango (2012) is about manipulation and power, so in that sense it feels like an odd entry. But Krasznahorkai’s exercise in stamina—pages-long paragraphs, sinuous sentences, a cacophonous array of narrators—offers ideal conditioning for Septology. (Did I mention Septology’s 600-plus pages take the form of a single sentence?)
If you want a taste of Fosse but aren’t ready to go the distance, A Shining is a good start. Its horror-moving opening is worthy of the Halloween on-sale date. The narrator is taking an aimless drive into the mountains, where he gets lost after a series of turns into deeper woods with narrowing roadways until he gets stuck in a rutted dirt track. Somewhat like Lorrie Moore’s excellent recent novel I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home (Knopf), which revolves around a snowy car crash, the narrator exits his doomed vehicle and enters a world of magic and dreams. As he hikes in search of assistance, he encounters a glowing presence. Later, his parents show up—or do they?—and aren’t much help. Themes of mortality and hope for salvation are more deeply explored in Septology, but this story of an elusive angel figure and a reckoning with fate is still deeply satisfying.