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Nobel Prize in literature goes to Jon Fosse for ‘innovative’ works that ‘give voice to the unsayable’

Christian Edwards and Ed Upright, CNN

(CNN) — The 2023 Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded to Jon Fosse for “his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable,” the Swedish Academy announced in Stockholm on Thursday.

Fosse, 64, was born on the west coast of Norway. His work consists of around 40 plays, as well as a number of novels, poetry, essays, children’s books and translations.

The committee lauded the author’s style, which has come to be known as “Fosse minimalism.”

“Fosse presents everyday situations that are instantly recognizable in our own lives. His radical reduction of language and dramatic action expresses the most powerful human emotions of anxiety and powerlessness in the simplest terms,” the committee said.

His magnum opus – seven sections in three books grouped together into a single volume titled “Septology” – tells the story of an aging painter and widower who lives alone as he reckons with the realities of religion, identity, art and family life.

“Septology” has been praised for its formal experimentation. Fosse’s meditative prose is rarely interrupted by periods, creating an incantatory flow to his philosophical interrogation.

“And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line, it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly,” the novel begins, continuing slowly, but breathlessly for almost 1,000 pages.

The three individual books comprising “Septology” – “The Other Name,” “I is Another” and “A New Name” – tell a story that unfurls over seven days.

“The work progresses seemingly endlessly and without sentence breaks but is formally held together by recurring themes and ritual gestures of prayer,” Anders Olsson, chair of Nobel committee, said at the announcement news conference on Thursday.

The novel details the struggle of Asle, the narrator, to complete his painting – and compares him throughout to another Asle, who is also a painter but is consumed by alcohol, who functions as his doppelganger. The novel asks how we become the people we become by staging two versions of the same person against one another.

“The Septology is a major work, being at the same time a reconciliation with his own fate, an elegy to his dead wife, and a Kunstlerroman, dealing with his own career as a painter,” said Olsson.

“Fosse combines strong local ties, both linguistic and geographic, with modernist artistic techniques,” the committee said, listing the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and the Austrian poet Georg Trakl among those who influenced his style.

“While Fosse shares the negative outlook of his predecessors, his particular gnostic vision cannot be said to result in a nihilistic contempt of the world. Indeed, there is great warmth and humor in his work, and a naive vulnerability to his stark images of human experience,” the committee added.

Fosse’s award marks the latest coup for Fitzcarraldo Editions, an independent London-based publisher founded in 2014, which has now added a fifth Nobel Prize-winning author to its ranks.

In the past nine years, four writers published by Fitzcarraldo have won the Nobel Prize, including Fosse, then Svetlana Alexievich in 2015, Olga Tokarczuk in 2018 and Annie Ernaux in 2022. Fitzcarraldo also publish translations of Elfriede Jelinek, who won the award in 2004.

But the choice of Fosse as this year’s laureate will do little to counter criticism from those who say the committee rewards European writers at the expense of authors in other continents.

Male writers have also historically dominated the award: Of the 120 laureates in literature, only 17 have been women.

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