MIRROR: Mr Fosse, you will be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm on 10 December. Are you looking forward to the evening?
Fosse: Not really. I am a shy, not very sociable person and prefer to stay away from social events. After all, the award ceremony in Stockholm is such a big event with a huge banquet that it scares me less than a smaller celebration. Supposedly, all I have to do is say thank you. My wife will come with me and our eldest daughter, she is twelve.
MIRROR: As a writer, you are notorious for somewhat enigmatic and often plotless plays and novels. Is the Nobel Prize jury right when they justified the award to you by saying that you "give voice to the unspeakable"?
Fosse: Basically, that is precisely the task of literature. I'm a romantic. The point of literature is that it manages to express something that cannot be said in any other way.
MIRROR: In your giant novel »Heptalogy« from 2019, which depicts the life balances of two twin painters on seven days before Christmas, you say it in more than 1100 pages and without a single point. The whole book consists of a single sentence. Why?
Fosse: It's a flow. I call it slow prose. I know that sounds stupid at first. But if you want to describe a glass of water precisely, you can hardly do that in a play. In prose, this is possible. I've been writing this book for four years, and I wanted to create the opposite of the intensity of a play. I wanted the slowness.
MIRROR: Aren't your globally successful plays, in which, for example, a taciturn young couple meditate on the name of their child or a family comes together for the grandmother's funeral, also extremely slow?
Fosse: Of course, that's what some people say. But it's not really true. There's an inner speed in my pieces.
MIRROR: Are you in any way interested in what your literature does to readers and theatre audiences?
Fosse: Not in the least. I don't have any intentions. If you want to make a difference with your writing, you don't write good literature. He preaches. That's not art, at least not for me. For me, it's about listening and writing as well and sincerely as I can.
MIRROR: Who are you listening to?
Fosse: There's another one in me. As a writer, I'm the one who listens to him. Each work, each book is a universe of its own, with its specific rules and conditions. I design these universes. I don't write to express myself. I write to get rid of myself, to move away from myself.
MIRROR: You joined the Catholic Church a few years ago. In your mind, is it God that you listen to as you write?
Fosse: I don't use the word God. I hope it's some kind of good power.
MIRROR: Why don't you call a spade a spade and write in "Heptalogy" that God is "something we cannot think"?
Fosse: As far as I'm concerned, we can't say anything about him. He's behind things. We can't say what was before we were born. We can't tell where we're going. We can only say that we were not born before and that we will disappear from here at some point. Everything else is on the other side. And God is on the other side.
MIRROR: But you are convinced that there is another side?
Fosse: Yes, I think so. I am a believer. I'm a believer.
MIRROR: Does that mean that you do your work as a writer as a kind of medium?
Fosse: No. I have to make it work. I have to transform it. To put it simply, it comes from the outside. I have to let it in. I hear it, I use it, it only becomes literature with the help of my person. I play a kind of music, my kind of music.
MIRROR: Do you realize that 99 percent of the literature is completely different from yours?
Fosse: I wouldn't say that I read and perceive literature in a broad sense at all.
MIRROR: As a decidedly religious author, you are certainly an exception in the European literary scene of the 21st century.
Fosse: I am now a religious writer. That wasn't the case with my first novels. My first one was published exactly 40 years ago. It's called "Red, Black," and it's a dark book. The second even more sinister. At that time, I was against everything, including Christianity. I was an aggressive hippie. It was my heavy metal phase.
MIRROR: You grew up in a family of fruit growers not far from the city of Bergen. Is it true that an accident you suffered as a seven-year-old inspired you to write?
Fosse: I lost a lot of blood back then, and I still write from that experience as a seven-year-old. That shaped me a lot as a writer.
MIRROR: You wrote your first lyrics as a twelve-year-old, what were they about?
Fosse: I was a strange child. I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin and felt different from everyone else – like probably many young people at that age. I wrote little poems and short stories, but mostly song lyrics, because I was very interested in music at the time. I still remember one lyric, it's really embarrassing. Soon I was playing in a band, just boys, we were performing at dance festivals, with songs from bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Who'll Stop the Rain" and stuff like that.
MIRROR: Were you good?
Fosse: No. Even in the band, all the guys were better than me, I lacked the talent on the guitar. I had more talent for painting. But then I found my way to writing and abruptly stopped making music. What I liked about it, I transferred into writing: the repetitions, the rhythm.
MIRROR: Were you able to make a living from this writing?
Fosse: Not from writing books. I still don't have a large readership, I'm not a bestselling author. During my studies – I studied literature, sociology and psychology – I worked as a journalist. I wrote for a small newspaper in Bergen about what was happening in the countryside. I liked working at a desk, but I didn't like meeting people or talking to them on the phone. It was especially bad when someone called because I had made a mistake or hurt someone. That made me very insecure.
MIRROR: You then taught literature as a lecturer for a while, one of your students was Karl Ove Knausgård, who is almost ten years younger than you and became a bestselling author with his six-part novel cycle »Fighting«.
Fosse: I remember very clearly saying to him: "Karl Ove, you can't just write down what's happening in your life. You have to transform it!" But he did what all good students do: exactly the opposite of what his teacher advised him to do.
MIRROR: They reject the literary genre of autofiction, the writing about one's own life, which made Knausgård famous. Why?
Fosse: Because it doesn't work for me. In my book »Childhood Scenes« I tried to write about my childhood as honestly and as truthfully as possible. I failed at that. I had to transform it to give it some kind of truth. In this respect, I work more like a painter.
MIRROR: Aren't writing and painting two very different art forms?
Fosse: I think all good art talks about the same thing. Of what cannot be said otherwise. Take a look at the pictures of Mark Rothko. They, too, tell of exactly that, of an inner glow.
Author Fosse on November 28 in Oslo
MIRROR: In your opinion, is it possible to teach literature at all?
Fosse: The technical aspects of writing do, but not the rest. But the more someone reads, the better their literature becomes. I, too, learned through reading and continue to learn to this day.
MIRROR: Who were your teachers?
Fosse: Georg Trakl, the great Austrian poet, and Tarjei Vesaas, a great Norwegian poet. And I learned a lot from Samuel Beckett's plays. The title of my piece »Da kommt noch wer« is already an answer to »Waiting for Godot«. I wanted to show that people don't wait in vain.
MIRROR: Have you been happy with the success of your plays, which have been translated into 44 languages so far?
Fosse: No. For a shy man like me, it was actually the wrong job. I kept getting new commissions, I was played in many theatres. In Germany, there were years when almost every major house had productions of mine. Of course, it was all very exciting and changed my life. I was used to being alone with myself while writing. Then came these invitations to the Salzburg Festival or to Paris, and of course I went. I was already interested in Salzburg because of Georg Trakl, who grew up there. I didn't want this tumult, and I wanted it, it was very contradictory. Until one day I decided to stop writing for the theatre.
A new name
Translation: Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel
Number of pages: 256
Translation: Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel
Number of pages: 256
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Fosse: I was tired of traveling. I was sick of drinking. I felt that I had exhausted my possibilities as a playwright. Rationally speaking, it was stupid, I was at the peak of my career back then, in 2012. But I wanted to get back to where I came from, to prose and poetry.
MIRROR: Around that time, you had a breakdown and ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.
Fosse: That was shortly after the decision to quit the theatre. But, of course, it had to do with that. So I decided to stop drinking as well. Afterwards I was unsure if I would be able to write prose at all.
MIRROR: Because you missed the alcohol?
Fosse: No. I have no doubt that there is a fruitful connection between alcohol and literature. But as for those, I had drunk my dose of alcohol. In fact, I'm sure I'm writing a lot better since I stopped drinking. When I returned to writing after my breakdown, I wanted to get away from all action and drama. I wanted to work in the utmost peace, in peace. At that time, I wrote my book »Trilogy«.
MIRROR: A sad, sinister love story that begins with a young couple, heavily pregnant, leaving their fishing village in a rowing boat for the city because they want to start anew there.
Fosse: I wasn't sure if I was still suitable as a prose writer after my long involvement with the theatre. »Trilogy« was my first attempt in 15 years. That's why it was incredibly important for me to receive the Nordic Council Prize for this. This is the most important prize in Scandinavia after the Nobel Prize.
MIRROR: Do you struggle to write, as a reader of your often sparse texts might assume?
Fosse: Not at all. I'm an extremely fast writer. I'm a maniac. I never make a plan beforehand when I'm working on a book or a play. I don't do any research either, I just start writing, listen and keep writing. At some point I started to ask where it all came from.
MIRROR: What did you find?
Fosse: The realization I came to destroyed my Marxism and my atheism. I realized that there must be another dimension that I am connected to when I write. I couldn't explain it in a materialistic, atheistic way. I became a seeker. That's how I ended up with the Quakers.
MIRROR: A religious community based on Christianity that emerged in the 17th century.
Fosse: The Quakers have no priests, no dogmas, and no liturgy. And they are quiet. When you meet each other, you sit in a circle, kind of like we do here. When someone feels they have an inspiration, they say something. Otherwise, he keeps his mouth shut. The meeting is over when someone stands up, that's the only demonstration of power there is at all. The Quakers are against any kind of authority and do not go to the military. I attended the meetings of the Quakers in Bergen, but I never became a part of the community. It seemed unQuaker to me to have to belong to the community.
MIRROR: In your search, did you never think of trying psychoanalysis?
Fosse: No. I read a lot of books by Sigmund Freud and learned a lot when I was young. Of course, I'm neurotic. If you spend your whole life in a certain solitude as a writer, then you can't be a normal person. There must be something wrong with you. I am 64 years old and have been writing for more than 50 years now. But my neuroses are very productive for me. I write to get away from myself.
MIRROR: A kind of self-therapy?
Fosse: It's not therapy, it's a way of life. Maybe even a way to survive.
MIRROR: About ten years ago, you converted to Catholicism, which is authoritarian and in many ways completely different from the Quakers. What did you find even more attractive about it?
Fosse: Sometimes extremes meet, or so they say. At the end of the 1980s, I once attended a Catholic mass in Bergen. I liked it much better than the Protestant services I had grown up with. Among the Protestants, one had to listen to an unbearable amount of chatter from often stupid pastors. In Catholic worship, there is little talk beyond the fixed liturgy.
MIRROR: Couldn't the same be said about your literature, in which there is almost always a liturgy of key words, the fishing boats, the sea, the storm?
Fosse: Maybe there is a similarity, and that's why I was drawn to the Catholic Mass. In the liturgy, the words are emptied of their meaning. You hear the words so often that they develop a spell, a spirit. The Mass is also about gaining something that cannot be expressed in words.
MIRROR: In your opinion, was it a political gesture to make you, of all people, the Nobel Prize winner this year?
Fosse: I don't think so. The price has little to do with politics. Or do you think that Peter Handke was named a Nobel laureate in 2019 because of his political views? He was probably elected in spite of his views. I hope that my prize will also be primarily about literature.
MIRROR: Is your literature avant-garde or old-fashioned?
Fosse: These categories no longer apply.
MIRROR: Handke says it comes from Homer, the forefather of Western poetry. Bob Dylan, who received the Nobel Prize in 2016, has also referred to Homer more often.
Fosse: That's probably true for me as well. I, too, come from a European tradition.
MIRROR: Do you consider yourself a political writer?
Fosse: Not in the way Bertolt Brecht thought he was. I hate his boring way of lecturing people. But, of course, I am familiar with the argument that everything you do has some kind of political effect. In this sense, of course, I am also a political writer. I find there is a peace, a glow in my writing, a kind of love. That's also a message.
MIRROR: Mr. Fosse, thank you for this interview.