This year’s winner of the Nobel prize in literature, Norwegian author Jon Fosse, was one of the bookies’ frontrunners and has been considered a serious contender for a good decade.
Yet when the Nobel Committee’s permanent secretary Mats Malm read out Fosse’s name, it still came as a surprise. A day beforehand Swedish critic Agri Ismaïl said the possibility of a win for the Norwegian playwright and novelist would be: “Too obvious”. The Swedish academy had defied bookies’ predictions and wrongfooted critics too many times in the past, and if there was one consensus in the run-up, it was that the prize would not go to Europe, where six of the last ten winners had come from.
Yet in Fosse, the prize went not just to a European author but a deeply Nordic one. “A rather introverted and tricky writer,” literary critic Per Wirtén commented on Swedish broadcaster SVT. Fosse’s early novels were “kind of mumbling monologues, often from the fringes of society: alcoholics, poor people, outcasts. I think it’s a great choice.”
Fosse is not just the first author primarily known for his plays to win the world’s most prestigious literary prize since Harold Pinter in 2005, and the first Norwegian recipient since Sigrid Undset in 1928, but also the first ever laureate in the prize’s history to write in Nynorsk, one of the two official standards of the Norwegian language alongside Bokmål. While 85-90% of Norwegians today use Bokmål as their written standard, Nynorsk is only used by about 10-15% of the population. Fosse’s English translator Damion Searls says many Nynorsk speakers see him “as a kind of national hero” for his championing of the language.
Astrid Hygen Meyer, the literary editor of Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen, argued that it added a political dimension to the prize in the Norwegian context: “Nynorsk is a minority language that is under constant pressure, and Fosse is a persistent advocate of Nynorsk who has shown the distinctive literary qualities of this written language,” she said.
For Fosse, the prize marks his true arrival on the international stage. His works have been translated into more than 50 languages, and many of his plays are regularly performed in Scandinavia, as well as in Germany and France. Yet they never quite penetrated theatres in the Anglosphere. His septet of novels, the Septology, changed that, with its parts VI-VII, A New Name, being shortlisted for the International Booker in the UK and the National Book Award in the US.
Fosse’s triumph on Thursday also marks a further step in Norway’s quiet rise to its status as Europe’s unassuming cultural powerhouse. Recent years have seen the success of Karl Ove Knausgård’s novels, critical acclaim for Joachim Trier’s romantic comedy The Worst Person in the World, and impressive ratings for less high-brow Netflix productions such as Trolls and Ragnarok. Now the Nordic state, which is home to just over five million people, has another Nobel title to boast.