(Philip Oltermann’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/5; Photo: A serious contender for a good decade … the Guardian.)
The critically acclaimed author is the first ever laureate in the prize’s history to write in Nynorsk and his win marks a further step in the Nordic state’s rise as a cultural powerhouse
This year’s winner of the Nobel prize in literature, Norwegian author Jon Fosse, was one of the bookies’ frontrunners and has been considered a serious contender for a good decade.
Yet when the Nobel Committee’s permanent secretary Mats Malm read out Fosse’s name, it still came as a surprise. A day beforehand Swedish critic Agri Ismaïl said the possibility of a win for the Norwegian playwright and novelist would be: “Too obvious”. The Swedish academy had defied bookies’ predictions and wrongfooted critics too many times in the past, and if there was one consensus in the run-up, it was that the prize would not go to Europe, where six of the last ten winners had come from.
Yet in Fosse, the prize went not just to a European author but a deeply Nordic one. “A rather introverted and tricky writer,” literary critic Per Wirtén commented on Swedish broadcaster SVT. Fosse’s early novels were “kind of mumbling monologues, often from the fringes of society: alcoholics, poor people, outcasts. I think it’s a great choice.”
Fosse is not just the first playwright to win the world’s most prestigious literary prize since Harold Pinter in 2005, and the first Norwegian recipient since Sigrid Undset in 1928, but also the first ever laureate in the prize’s history to write in Nynorsk, one of the two official standards of the Norwegian language alongside Bokmål. While 85-90% of Norwegians today use Bokmål as their written standard, Nynorsk is only used by about 10-15% of the population. Fosse’s English translator Damion Searls says many Nynorsk speakers see him “as a kind of national hero” for his championing of the language.