WASHINGTON — Jon Fosse, a Norwegian novelist, poet, and playwright who converted to Catholicism from atheism 11 years ago, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature Oct. 5 “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.”
In a statement, the 64-year-old writer said he was “both really happy and really surprised” to be awarded the prize, adding that even though he had been “among the favorites for 10 years,” he couldn’t believe it happened. He will receive the prize and prize money at a Dec. 10 ceremony in Stockholm.
When a reporter asked what he aimed to convey to readers with his works, he said: “I hope they can find a kind of peace in, or from, my writing.”
Those writings — from plays, novels, poetry, essays, children’s books, and works of translation — have been hailed by critics for their simplicity and pared-down prose.
Fosse said his writing, when it is well done, is a “second, silent language” that says “what it is all about. It’s not the story, but you can hear something behind it — a silent voice speaking.”
During an Oct. 5 news conference, Anders Olsson, the chairman of the Nobel literature committee, said the author’s language “probes the limits of words.”
Fosse, who was born in Norway, started his work, “Septology” — a single-sentence seven-part novel that deals with death and faith — after his conversion to Catholicism. The main character is a painter who is a Catholic convert.
A tribute to the writer in the New York Times Book Review Oct. 5 describes Fosse as “our age’s great writer of light and darkness. His characters reckon with the real presence of God in their lives and in the world, both of which, if God didn’t exist, would amount to a total void.”
Another critic compared Fosse’s prose to a liturgy, saying he uses “a lot of simple words and images and repetition to evoke memory, longing, and a spiritual search.”
But it’s not just commentators that talk about how Fosse weaves faith into his works. The writer has also not shied away from this subject. In a New Yorker interview last year, he described a “religious turn” he had, noting that as an atheist he couldn’t “explain what happened when he wrote and what made it happen.
“You can always explain the brain in a scientific way, but you can’t catch the light, or the spirit, of it. It’s something else,” he said.
He also said his mystical side goes back to when he had a near-death experience as a child that formed him as a writer. “This experience opened my eyes to the spiritual dimension of life, but being a Marxist, I tried to deny this as hard as I could,” he said.
The writer, raised in a Lutheran family, noted that for years he had no one to share his belief with until he started going to Masses and attending classes to become Catholic and ultimately being received into the Church at St. Dominic’s Monastery in Oslo.
Norway’s Catholic leaders told OSV News they welcomed Fosse’s award for its chance to raise Catholicism’s profile in the traditionally Protestant country.
“Fosse gives voice, with elegance and beauty, to the mystery of faith — having read him with reverence for years, I think our country is blessed to have a poet of his stature,” said Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim, Norway.
“A Catholic writer is someone who assimilated the grace of belonging to the Church in such a way that it’s perfectly innate and natural to their self-expression. In that sense, Fosse is very much a Catholic writer,” he added.