The Hardangerfjord, Norway’s second largest fjord, winds its way from the North Sea to the distant mountains of Vestland. About halfway up the fjord, where the light on the shore is dark and the darkness of the water is silvered with light, is the village of Strandebarm. It is home to the Fosse Foundation, an organization dedicated to Jon Fosse—novelist, essayist and one of Europe’s most produced contemporary playwrights—who was born there in 1959. Foundation members meet in a small gray prayer house overlooking the curve of the port; a waterfall flows over the black rock wall behind it. Down the road from the foundation are two white houses: the house Fosse grew up in, where his mother still lives, and the house that belonged to his grandparents.
Last August, the Fosse Foundation organized a lunch for the translators, editors and journalists who had gathered to attend the International Jon Fosse Symposium. On the top floor, a violinist played a waltz on the Hardanger violin, which is strung with four upper strings and, below, four sympathetic strings, which vibrate according to the notes played on top. On the ground floor, visitors could peruse an exhibit by textile artist Åse Ljones, who had sewn phrases from Fosse’s writings onto sheets, handkerchiefs and nightgowns. A member of the Fosse Foundation held up one of Ljones’ sheets and asked one of Fosse’s six translators to translate it. The words were haphazard, the corrections grumbled in a low voice. There was a feeling of competition, of lust in the air.
The word that comes to mind to describe all of this – the light, the music, the sacred waters, the sacred vestments – is “pilgrimage”. You rarely see living writers treated with such respect. “I’m just a weird guy from the western part of Norway, from the rural part of Norway,” Fosse told me. He grew up a mixture of communist and anarchist, a “hippie” who liked to play the violin and read in the countryside. He enrolled at the University of Bergen, where he studied comparative literature and began to write in Nynorsk, the written standard specific to rural western regions. Her first novel, ‘Red, Black’, was published in 1983, followed over the next three decades by ‘Melancholy I’ and ‘Melancholy II’, ‘Morning and Evening’, ‘Aliss at the Fire’ and ‘Trilogy’. . After a hugely successful and turbulent period in which he worked almost exclusively as a playwright, Fosse converted to Catholicism in 2012, quit drinking, and remarried. He then began writing “Septology”, a seven-volume one-sentence novel illustrating what he described as his turn to “slow prose”. (The book was translated, by Damion Searls, for Fitzcarraldo Editions, UK; a US edition came out this month, from Transit Books.) The narrator of “Septology” is a painter named Asle, a convert to Catholicism , mourning the death of his wife Alès. On Christmas Eve, Asle finds his friend, also a painter named Asle, unconscious in an alley in Bergen, dying of alcohol poisoning. Their memories double, repeat and gradually fade into one voice, a diffuse consciousness capable of existing in multiple times and places at once.
To read Fosse’s plays and novels is to enter into communion with a writer whose presence we feel all the more intensely because he seems reserved, his withdrawal. His plays, whose characters usually have generic names – Man, Woman, Mother, Child – capture the intensity of our primordial relationships and are alternately dark and comical. “Septologie” is the only novel I have read that made me believe in the reality of the divine, as described by the 14th century theologian Meister Eckhart, whom Fosse carefully read: “It is in darkness that the “we find the light, so when we are in grief, then that light is closest to us. None of the comparisons with other writers seem fair. Bernhard? Too aggressive. Beckette? Too controlling. Ibsen? “C he’s the most destructive writer I know,” says Fosse. “I feel like there’s a kind of — I don’t know if that’s a good English word — but a kind of in my writing. Or, to use the word Catholic or Christian, peace.
Fosse had not come during the outing to the Hardangerfjord, but had attended the dinner the day before hosted by the Norwegian Ministry of Culture in Bergen, where the Norwegian Minister for Foreign Affairs had quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What we can’t talk, you have to be quiet.” We chatted over dinner, then met at the House of Literature, in the Fosse Room, where a black-and-white mural of Fosse’s face stared back at us. More than the mural, Fosse resembled his description of Asle: long gray ponytail, black overcoat, black shoes, snuffbox in his pocket. He sometimes seemed pained by the need to speak, but quite sure of him in what he said. Often, during our conversation, I felt the same competing impulses to which his writing gives rise: both curiosity and protection towards the man behind the words; both the scep ticism and faith in his mystical descriptions of how he writes fiction. Above all, he struck me as someone with a deep kindness, as evidenced by his willingness to talk about everything: grace, love, jealousy and peace, his near-death experiences and his love of translation . Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
You don’t do a lot of face-to-face interviews.
I prefer to do interviews by e-mail. I have the impression that it is often easier to write, even in English, than to speak.
I’ve interviewed several writers who claim the reason they write is because they can’t talk.
Yes, that’s a bit like that for me. The Foreign Department man quoted Wittgenstein: What we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence. You know this famous Jacques Derrida twist: “What you can’t say, you have to write it down.” It’s closer to how I think about it.
Derrida is extremely present in your first tries in “An Angel Walks Through the Stage”. You can sense his thought patterns in many of your plays and novels, especially around the play of speech and silence.
I started studying Derrida in 1979. At least here in Norway, the university, or the spirit of the university, was very much influenced by Marxism. We had an extreme Maoist party which was very strong among scholars, writers and people like that. It was the spirit of the times, even for me. I started studying sociology. And I felt like that was completely stupid. This way of thinking, this positivist way of calculating things, it was nothing at all. So I moved on to philosophy. And there was a big change in those years, from Marx to the French post-structuralists. I remember reading Derrida for the first time, somewhere in the Norwegian countryside. It was a Danish translation of “Of Grammatology”.
“Of Grammatology” had a certain influence on me. You have read Sein und Zeit by Martin Heidegger. I studied and read Heidegger a lot. It was challenging, but also very inspiring. I had the impression that what Derrida was doing was turning Heidegger on his head. The main question for Heidegger was: what is common to all that exists? The main question for Derrida was the reverse: what makes everything that exists different? And I thought that the act of writing is something very particular. It’s not like talking. It is something different, very different. And that also gave me a kind of connection, of course, with Derrida and his concept of writing.
And then I started to study comparative literature. By then I had already written my first novel and various literary things. The theory of the novel was my main subject. These theories have always had the narrator as a basic concept: narrator, person, character, the relationship between their points of view. And they are quite important, but I still felt that the basic concept of a theory of fiction should not be the narrator, which derives from oral tradition. It should be the writer. The way I viewed the writer was like the corporeal part of what was written, the materiality that went into your writing. And I wanted to write my own little theory of storytelling or fiction written with the writer as the main concept.