Home EVENTS 7 Questions That Examine Author Jon Fosse’s Fame And Faith

7 Questions That Examine Author Jon Fosse’s Fame And Faith

7 Questions That Examine Author Jon Fosse’s Fame And Faith


Earlier this month, Norwegian writer Jon Fosse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, an honor universally praised as much-deserved for a writer who has been one of Europe’s best for nearly a decade.

Fosse, 64, who writes in Norwegian Nynorsk (one of the two written forms of Norwegian), is also a convert to Catholicism — a change in attitude and outlook that comes through in much of his writing in recent years.

READ: 3 Books Take On Need For Faith And Community

To better understand what Fosse means to literature and faith, Religion Unplugged interviewed Norwegian journalist Øystein Lid, who works for the Christian newspaper Dagen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Clemente Lisi: Why do you think Jon Fosse has been able to get so much attention over the past few years?

Øystein Lid: Jon Fosse’s recent surge in popularity can be attributed to his 40 years of prolific writing across various genres. This long-term commitment has garnered him widespread fame and a range of literary awards. His works have been translated into 50 languages, and his plays have been performed on over a thousand stages worldwide.

In Norway, Jon Fosse’s presence is ubiquitous. His books are available in print — when not sold out — as e-books and audio books. Over the years, Fosse has evolved into a notable celebrity. He has been awarded an honorary residence and a lifetime state scholarship provided by the Norwegian state. While he is highly sought after, he often maintains a media-shy persona.

Lisi: What is it about Fosse’s writing that appeals to so many?

Lid: He has a unique blend of simplicity and profundity in his works that I find attract a broad range of readers. Many of his books are so simple that even a child can understand them — yet they possess a depth that captivates students at the highest level of academia. He hardly ever uses complicated words, his subject matter is universal and the surroundings are usually rural and simple.

Like all the greatest writers, he explores the deep existential dilemmas that have been at the heart of human inquiry throughout history. He deals with matters of life and death, consciousness and religion, friendship and love. In addition to his timeless relevance, Jon Fosse also addresses contemporary issues, grappling with the ailments of modern life such as loneliness, substance abuse, and the challenges of communication. His work not only transcends eras but also provides insightful commentary on the struggles faced in today’s society.

Lisi: Do you think faith plays a major role in Fosse’s writing and does that resonate with the Norwegian people?

Lid: Yes and no. Norway is among the most secularized countries in the world. More than half the population now identify as atheists and only 3% of the population regularly attend church services. So Fosse’s decision to write about God, prayer and spirituality can’t be seen as a smart move if his aim was to please the majority of the Norwegians. When he thanked God during his acceptance speech as Nobel laureate, some Norwegian newspapers omitted to report it altogether. Others felt the need to explain it away.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that faith has a prominent place in Fosse’s works. Even before his conversion in 2013 he wrote about being influenced by particular Norwegian forms of puritanism his grandparents taught him. He attributed his desire for literary simplicity and the meditative quality to the influences from pietism and the quaker movement. He called some of his earlier works a form of prayer in writing, and even stated that this prayer is what turned him away from atheism and towards the religious. In some of his later works faith is sometimes even more directly referenced.

The main character of ‘The Septology’ has a major spiritual awakening, and converts to catholicism just like Fosse himself. He goes regularly to communion in church, prays the rosary and the Our Father, much like Fosse himself. On the other hand there is a dobbelgänger-motif, where a character with the same name drinks himself to death. How alcohol addiction is presented as an alternative and substitute for religion seems to have an echo in Fosse’s own life.

Lisi: Norway is a majority Lutheran nation, but Fosse is a convert to Catholicism. Do you think that will help people in Norway to better understand Catholics and the Catholic faith?

Lid: To a certain extent yes, but primarily when reading his later works. It is also important to note that while Norway is culturally Lutheran, increasingly young people do not know much about Christianity at all. Assuming that the typical Norwegian reader is a secular person it might be better to say that reading Fosse will be an introduction to a Christian worldview.

Fosse holds the Holy Bible as his primary literary influence, and this is also apparent when reading his books. When I interviewed Fosse a few years ago we discussed his novella ‘Wakefulness’ about an expectant couple walking around in a city trying to find lodging. He told me that the novella ‘Morning and Evening’ is even more directly biblical in its outlook. It is full of biblical language and bible-like characters named John and Peter, and ideas about faith and God and the afterlife are clearly at the forefront.

Lisi: Can someone like Fosse help bring a religious revival among Norwegians or would it take much more than that?

Lid: It’s an interesting question. While I don’t think Norway is at the brink of a large revival such as the The Jesus Movement, The Azusa Street Revival or the Great Awakenings, I do think we will follow in the footsteps of our neighbor country Sweden in the near future. Fosse’s new religious orientation plays a role in that, and shows a way forward. In Sweden, religious matters are normal and ordinary topics of discussion in the public sphere, while the topic is still a touchy one in Norway. A commentator recently pointed out that Norwegians are still in the process of breaking away from the traditional state religion, whereas Swedes went through that process 40 to 50 years ago. For centuries, the Norwegians were required by law to belong to the one and only legal state church.

After the Reformation, people risked suffering the death penalty when trying to maintain the older, Catholic faith. So the modern Norwegian secular mind must be understood in this light, as a break with authoritarian censorship of faith. When Fosse returns to the form of Christianity, which first came to Norway 1,000 years ago, I think he takes on the role of prophet and forerunner. Both in Norway and in Sweden the historical churches are the fastest growing churches, mostly due to immigration from other countries. The return to pre-reformation Christianity is an ongoing form of religious revival in Scandinavia and Fosse is a part of that movement.

Lisi: Fosse was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Where does Fosse rank, in your mind, among Norway’s best writers ever?

Lid: I find it very hard to compare the contemporary Fosse with luminaries such as Ludvig Holberg, Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset. It’s safe to say, however, that he ranks right up there among those famed writers.

Lisi: Finally, what makes Fosse and his stories so typically Norwegian? What makes him so universal that people around the world now want to read him?

Lid: Fosse’s stories embody a typically Norwegian essence through their deep connection with nature, a reflective and introspective tone and an exploration of themes like isolation and community, which are integral to the Norwegian psyche and landscape. The purely geographical limits of fjords and mountains, the cold and rainy climate have formed the Norwegian mind.

The lack of communication skills and the isolation stand in stark contrast to the rich inner life of Norwegians. This is wonderfully captured in Fosses works, both the inner and outer landscapes of Norway.

Simultaneously, some of these characteristics are not limited to a Norwegian context. And as previously mentioned, Fosse’s universality lies in his exploration of existential themes: The complexities of human relationships, the search for meaning, the experience of time and existence, the religious yearning. These are universally human concerns, transcending cultural and geographical boundaries.


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