Jon Fosse (Haugesund, 64 years old), the elusive Norwegian writer, not given to public exposure (he rejects "95% or more" of proposals, according to his own calculations), gives an exclusive interview to EL PAÍS shortly before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, next Sunday in Stockholm. There he will only give the obligatory speech at the ceremony and will abstain from any other act or meeting with the press.
In Oslo it was twelve degrees below zero on Tuesday at noon. The weather is crazy: Norway is not exactly a hot country, but these underground temperatures are too low for the season. So the writer appears stuffed into his green anorak, his face peeking out of his hood, half shivering, just as the rest of the citizens of Oslenses are these days, between surprised and frozen: "Damn cold!"
Norwegian storyteller and playwright Jon Fosse, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature
Fosse, playwright, poet, novelist, is the author of a prolific body of work: nearly 40 novels and collections of short stories, more than 40 plays, 13 collections of poems, some children's books. Septalogy (De Conatus) is often considered to be his masterpiece, strikingly late, since its last part was published in 2021. Now, on this trip financed by the Norwegian Embassy in Spain, he sits at the table, to the curiosity of the surrounding customers (the Nobel laureate!), in front of a café con leche, with a consignment of books waiting to be signed and the knuckle of the middle finger of his right hand stained with blue ink.
Question. First of all, congratulations on the award.
Answer. Thank you. I've been on the list of candidates for about ten years, on the betting lists, so many times I've been attentive to the announcement, very excited, at one o'clock in the afternoon o'clock sharp... But it wasn't for me. This year I was sure it wasn't going to be me. It was a surprise. That day I was driving near my village, which is north of Bergen in western Norway, where I grew up. I like to drive on country roads. Then I saw a number ringing on the phone starting with +46, the Swedish prefix...
Q. ... and then he knew he was a Nobel laureate.
A. No, I thought it was someone who called me from Sweden for anything; I don't know, my agent. But of course, because of the date and time, because of the phone number, it could also be the Swedish Academy. And he was the one he was calling Mats Malm, the permanentsecretary of the Academy.
Q. What does this award mean to you?
A. When I found out, I felt happiness, yes, true happiness. Then I was also a little scared, because of everything that was coming my way.
Q. My mother had a collection of Nobel Prize novels at home. When I looked at the spines, many names didn't even ring a bell.
A. My father-in-law had a similar collection... Many of them are still in force. The forgotten ones are, above all, from the early years. For example, in 1903 the prize went to the Norwegian Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, not to his more remembered contemporary Henrik Ibsen. He wrote in a more idealistic way, as Alfred Nobel wanted.
Q. Then things changed.
A. When I look at the list I see many authors important to me. I see Faulkner. I see Beckett. I see Peter Handke. Many. Or Pindarello and Maeterlinck, if we're talking about playwrights. It is a mixture of authors who are still read and others who have been forgotten. Oh, and many of the authors I admire the most don't have the Nobel Prize, like Lorca, Proust or Kafka. What they have in common is that they died quite young. I'm average, in my sixties.
Q. In other words, the Nobel Prize does not guarantee eternity.
A. No, no, no. The only thing it guarantees is a spot on this list. And in the collection that your mother had at home.
Writer and Nobel Prize in Literature Jon Fosse at Oslo's Café Kaffistova on Nov. 5, 2023. PACO PUENTES
EL PAÍS travelled to Norway to explore, among other things, Jon Fosse's physical and social environment, although, at first, without the possibility of interviewing him. Unexpectedly, however, the Nobel laureate agreed to meet an editor and photographer from this newspaper in Kaffistova, his usual café in the center of Oslo. The writer is amused by the idea: "You have to put that in, that you came to investigate Fosse and that Fosse finally showed up," he says with amusement.
Q. It's just that you're not very prone to exposing yourself.
A. I don't like it very much, but, on the other hand, I'm pretty used to it. My first novel was published in 1983, 40 years ago, and there were great pictures of me in the local press in Bergen: suddenly, I was a public person. And when my plays began to travel to more and more countries, that facet grew the more. I can't say I like it, but I've learned to live with it. I regulate it as much as possible, I reject almost everything. I'm really tired of the events, the premieres, the receptions... I prefer to save myself for the moments where I really play a role. The rest I avoid.
Q. What's your lifestyle like, then?
A. I prefer to live as boring as possible. Not seeing anyone, just being at home with my family. In recent years I have spent my evenings writing. I get up at four and write from five to nine. I can't write all the time, if I do it goes wrong, I have to take breaks to recover the energy, the spirit. But when I start writing, I need about a week in a row to get in the mood. I wrote Septology entirely in Austria, without setting foot in Norway, in sessions from five to nine in the morning.
Q. You are very prolific.
A. I'm a fast writer...
Q. Maybe it's because it uses few punctuation marks. The text flows...
A. In some of my novels there are no dots, then in others they reappear... It's a matter of pace.
Rhythm is a fundamental concept in Fosse's literature, whose rhythmic and repetitive prose is an unmistakable trademark of the house. As he explains, in his work the plot is not as important as the rhythm, the sonority, the resonance, an eagerness that perhaps comes from his youth as an amateur musician, whether it was rehearsing for many hours at home with the guitar or being part of a teenage rock band. He is, at heart, a poet. Currently, his complete poetry is being published in Spain by Sexto Piso (it is the first country where all his poems will be available in translation). Narrative works that were not in De Conatus' catalogue have recently been acquired by the Penguin Random House group, which has already published Melancholia and Whiteness. From those musical beginnings, Fosse now prefers to play with silences and the subtle mental flow, the poetics of interior, almost dreamlike repetition.
Q. Is that so?
A. The important thing for me is the form. Musicality. Even the content, so to speak, is for me part of the form. More than a writer, I function as a composer. One day in my youth I stopped playing music and started writing, but I kept experimenting with the same thing. Repetitions, variations. And I became known for that.
Q. Music, poetry...
A. And the theater: Lorca said something like that a play is a poem standing up. It's a perfect description of what I feel writing a play. Theatre doesn't need as much intensity as the poem, it also needs action, but it requires that poetic intensity to work. And in my fiction narrative it's similar: my long work Septology could also be seen as a long prose poem. It's a novel, but it's also like a poem. And all because of the music.
Q. Some readers find his style difficult.
A. I don't find it difficult. Some people find it difficult and others very simple.
Q. I think it's both at the same time. What is said is very clear, but it is not so simple to approach because of the hypnotic style.
A. That's what I believe. From the beginning there are people who love my writing and people who hate it. It's like music: if you're a musical person, you like it, but some people don't understand it. Or like math: some people are good with symbols and others who aren't. Of course, a lot of people didn't like my first novel and over time it has been adapted to my style.
Passion for fountain pens
Q. How do you write, or rather, compose physically?
A. I started using a typewriter. Then I switched to the Mac. I was one of the first Mac users in Norway. I loved switching to the computer: being able to correct on the screen, being able to print it, changing the fonts, Garamond, Palatino... To be able to deliver manuscripts without those corrections that I had to make in the typed texts. I was very enthusiastic. I still use it, but in the last few years I've lost a bit of interest.
Q. And now?
A. Now, as you can see [from the stained knuckle], I'm interested in inks: I have a large collection of fountain pens, about 300, and of different inks of all possible colors, about 150 types. I especially like wide-tipped pens – it's a lot like using a paintbrush. Septology was written on the Mac and proofread by hand. On the contrary, Whiteness was written from the beginning by hand.
The writer and recent Nobel Prize for Literature, Jon Fosse, during an interview given this Tuesday in Oslo.PACO PUENTES
Q. Much of his work is intimate and timeless. Shouldn't literature deal with the problems of society?
A. Not at all. Literature is related to society in the same way that music is related to society. As Lorca's poems and works are. Art has a role in society, and therefore a political impact. Like Lorca, who has a political impact, even if he doesn't deal with political issues. I think if you try to bring the political message, or the religious message, or whatever, explicitly, you're likely to end up writing it wrong. Or at least that's how I see it. I can't think of any work of evangelization, so to speak, that is a good work.
Q. A while ago we visited the Catholic church of St. Olav, one of the places where you practice your religiosity. He converted to Catholicism as a Norwegian, which is not very common.
A. We ethnic Catholic Norwegians are only four or five thousand. There are Polish or Filipino migrants, but ethnic Norwegians are very few. In the church you mention, there are about 40 nationalities connected. Sometimes I go to Mass and I'm the only one of Norwegian ethnicity.
Q. In Septology you explore the possibility of being other people. Would you have liked to be someone else?
A. I'm not very happy with myself, to be honest.
Q. But you have the Nobel Prize.
A. Yes, but.... It's just that I don't try to express myself when I write, I try to escape from myself. Just like when I played music, it was to escape. Or when I read Lorca's poetry, to quote him again. But if I was a happy person, happy with my mobile phone, feeling good and lucky, I don't think I would write. Or I would have written a book and that's it
Q. You must be very dissatisfied, because you have written so much.
A. That dissatisfaction has made me write my whole life. There's something wrong with me, with the rest of the world.
Q. Does the passage of time affect you?
A. I'm pretty happy with that. My life gets better and better the older I get. I believe that if you don't have health problems, as so many people do, getting older is not bad. In my works, as in Septology, I play with the passage of time, I go forward, backward, I stretch it, like the material of which the novel is made.
Q. You suffered from alcoholism. Alcohol is often associated with the creativity of the artist.
A. I think that's true. Since ancient times, the Romans complained about drunken poets hanging around. Some connection is created, because alcohol loosens certain boundaries, if not abused. I've had a lot of drinking in my life, but I had to stop completely. And leaving it didn't mess up my writing in any way, quite the opposite. I started to write better. And I bought time to write. I like to drink, I like to drink wine and chat, but it's not okay if you do it a lot. That's why I quit.
Q. The future looks very bad for the human species. How do you face this uncertain future that we are facing?
A. We are living in very dangerous times, I agree. For example, the war in Ukraine is very dangerous, and the more the West takes, the closer we get to nuclear disaster.
Q. How do you feel about the situation in Gaza?
A. That conflict is very sad. Hamas attacked children and the elderly, it was really horrific, killing more than a thousand and taking hostages. I understand that Israel had to respond to that in some way, of course. But in that answer he can't do whatever he wants.
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits
I'm already a subscriber