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The Incantatory Power of Jon Fosse’s Work

Jon Fosse’s English translator on the author’s evocation of peacefulness

Ole Berg-Rusten / NTB / AFP / Getty

Jon Fosse, the Norwegian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2023, was better known in the English-speaking world on announcement morning than many past winners have been. Last year saw the U.S. publication of the final volume of his Septology, which was shortlisted for several major awards and has attracted more and more readers by word of mouth. But Fosse has long been famous and beloved outside of England and America—in the rest of the world he is first and foremost a playwright. His plays have been translated into 50 languages and have been performed around the world; he is often called the most-produced playwright alive today. In this sense, he is the exact opposite of avant-garde or inaccessible—his work speaks to everyone.

The first fiction by Fosse I read, more than 20 years ago, was a German translation of the novel Melancholy, and I found an American publisher for it, found a co-translator, and started learning Norwegian; since then I have translated about 10 books of his, depending on whether you count a libretto, a play, and a forthcoming children’s book, and on how you count Septology—one novel, in seven parts, published in three volumes, not to be confused with his one-volume Trilogy or the two-book book Melancholy. (Like many of his characters, Fosse has a fraught relationship with math and numbers.) What I felt more than 20 years ago has continued to be true: I thought the writing was genius and absolutely needed to be brought into English. The novels he’s written since then have only deepened and strengthened his work.

Fosse is one of those writers, like Hermann Hesse, whose books sound terrible when they’re summarized but are powerful and moving when actually read. Siddhartha: a Buddha-like young man finds wisdom and enlightenment. Fosse’s Morning and Evening: a childbirth scene, partly from the baby’s point of view, followed by the last day in the life of the old man born in chapter one. Really? Can a setup that simple possibly have anything to say? But the book doesn’t say something; it does something—it works on us, giving us a kind of experience that’s impossible to get any other way. The incantatory writing, our absorption into the characters’ minds and the way Fosse the expert dramatist lets us inhabit the connections the characters make or fail to make with other people, give us a deeply moving sense of communion with other people and the larger forces in the world.

Fosse doesn’t say much about his own work, but one word he likes to use to describe it is peacefulness: The books have a serenity, a humble sympathy for the human condition, that prompts reviewers to invoke meditation, religion, dreams. A man pushing a woman on a playground swing can feel like the universe.

Septology has given Fosse his largest canvas to work on, so it may well be the best place for new readers to start. He called his writing in Septology “slow prose”—in some ways an unfortunate label; it’s not as though his other writing is speedy and glib, but he meant that he was giving himself the time and space to stretch out and let things unfold and accrue at a slower pace. Morning and Evening and Aliss at the Fire are shorter novels; A Shining, forthcoming in English later this month, is barely book-length. (Europeans are allowed to publish books at the length they should be, not the length publishers want and expect.) In even shorter forms, Fosse is also a prolific poet, a master of modernist moments, although little of his poetry has been translated into English.

Whatever the form, his writing has unique power over its readers. One of his books was the only book that had ever made me cry when translating—at the same passage, every draft, during editing, during proofreading, every time—and then his next book did it to me again. I translated a children’s book of his, in which an 8-year-old boy gets scared while he’s falling asleep, and when I read the translation to my 8-year-old son, he got scared and asked me to stop just before the sentence when the boy’s father reassures him and everything turns out okay. My son had the experience Fosse created for him, and Fosse gave my young listener consolation and comfort at the precise moment when he needed it—in a way, his books do that for me too.

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