I was afraid of dying before finishing Septology. I had something I needed to say, and it felt like I had a duty to say it.
A long time ago, a young boy pedaled with difficulty along the country road on a blue ladies’ bike, his long, dark hair fluttering behind him in the wind. Everyone in the village knew that “the kid with the hair” was Jon Olav Fosse. He might have been heading to band practice with a guitar case in hand. Or maybe he was on his way home to the family’s smallholding, not too far from the fjord and the waves. There might have been a slight drizzle on the air. In Strandebarm, one either bikes in towards or out along the fjord, on a road that winds through farmland, past smallholdings, a church, a youth club, and a bus stop. Jon Fosse grew up in Fosse, Strandebarm, during the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. He had a bike, a guitar, felt like an artistic soul, and had the longest hair that anyone in Strandebarm had ever seen on a boy.
This was all a while ago now. Years. Almost everything has changed. Jon Fosse will soon turn sixty. In the last forty years of his life he has written extensively: novels, poems, plays, children’s books, essays, journalism; he has written adaptations and has translated works into Norwegian. His own work has been translated into more than fifty languages and has been mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize for Literature. This coming autumn will be special for Jon Fosse. He will be, among other things, celebrated with the International Fosse Festival at Det Norske Teatret (a theater in Oslo), and The Other Name—the first book in the Septology series—will be published both in Norway and internationally, including in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions, during the Frankfurt Book Fair.
I met Jon Fosse at the café Dagny’s at the end of St Olav’s street in Oslo. And before we continue, I should explain who I am—I have been Jon Fosse’s editor at Det Norske Samlaget, a Norwegian publishing house, since 2012. When Fosse turned fifty in 2009, my book on him—Jon Fosse. Poet på Guds Jord (Jon Fosse: Poet on God’s Earth)—was published. I work closely with Jon Fosse and know him well.
From Dagny’s, one can look over to the Catholic St Olav’s Church. There the Catholic Fosse goes to Mass when he is staying at Grotten in Oslo, an honorary residence for artists on the grounds of the Royal Palace. For the past seven years, Fosse has split his time between Oslo, Frekhaug, his cottage in Dingja, and Hainburg an der Donau, a small village near the Austrian capital Vienna. He is drawn to Austria—a country with deep, fixed cultural traditions, a place where classical music, theater, and the Catholic faith remain strong. But, Fosse notes, literature is just as important in Norway as it is in Austria. Time has passed since he biked along the roads in Strandebarm, and in a recent email he wrote: “I seem to have become old and feel easily frozen, and am looking forward to the arrival of spring and light!” But one thing remains the same: Jon Fosse’s hair is still long, long and gray, and gathered in a ponytail.
— Cecilie Seiness
Cecilie Seiness: Time is passing. You’re soon turning sixty?
Jon Fosse: It’s not great. But I felt fine turning forty, so much had happened in my life, and I was fine with turning fifty too.
Some things have happened after fifty as well, I would say.
[chuckles] Yes, even more has happened.
But why don’t you like turning sixty?
I don’t know. In the past, sixty was considered old. That sort of thing has changed a bit. What was once seventy is today eighty, and a sixty-year-old is perhaps not an old man anymore. In fact, I don’t mind becoming old, but I have had some good friends who have suffered with severe health issues and it’s horrible to witness. But it’s nice to have some tranquillity, to have lived a long time and done many things. I have never had it as good as I do now.
You are sixty and have six children—the youngest is a baby!
Yes, it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I’m finding that having a baby now is different than having one earlier in life. But it is of course better to have a father who is young. My late friend Lars Roar Langslet also had an old father and to comfort me when I worried about being one, he said, “I became a functioning human being as well, right?!” Anyway, there are fathers far older than me. I also complained to a Swedish actor. Then I got a quick reply: he was seventy-five and in the same situation—I had nothing to worry about in comparison.
Maybe more kids in fifteen years then?
[laughs] Live and let live, and what will be, will be.
To become older, regardless of how one looks at it, is to be closer to death.
I’ve never been anxious about death. Some people suffer from that anxiety, but not everyone does.
You can think about dying calmly?
Yes, but becoming a father again does complicate things. That’s the drawback to becoming a father when one is older, but my view is to let life happen, let children be born, live and let live. I don’t worry about dying; there is a lot of pain in life. And in me there is a lot of sorrow. As Ibsen said: “I received the gift of sorrow, and then I became a poet.” Pain, sorrow, melancholia, and depression are a gift too. You can make something good out of them.
Jon Fosse’s life story is an unusual one, and in particular his career as a dramatist, which is a profession that he entered almost against his own will. For the young Fosse, theater seemed to be more about affectation than about art and he had no interest in entering the world of theater. The director Kai Johnsen tried several times to get Fosse to write a play. He had read Fosse’s novels and was certain that Fosse was a playwright, but Fosse adamantly declined. Still, in 1993, some ten years after Fosse was first published, he wrote a play for the first time. What made him yield? Fosse needed the money: he was broke. He wrote dialogue for the first time, the beginning of Someone is Going to Come, and found it remarkably easy. Fosse has described writing a play for the first time as “the biggest revelation in my writing career.”
One of Fosse’s plays was first staged in Norway at Den Nationale Scene [The National Stage] in Bergen in 1994. His first play abroad was staged in 1997. The forty-year-old Jon Fosse was on the cusp of his big international breakthrough. In 1999, Fosse was well established in Norway and was beginning to be known in other countries. On September 28, 1999, Someone is Going to Come had its premiere in Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris. The director was the world-renowned and legendary Claude Régy and the production laid the foundation for Fosse’s great breakthrough in Europe. It was a strange and surprising performance, and Jon Fosse woke up in a hotel room in Paris the day after the premiere. It was his fortieth birthday, and he realized that Régy’s production signaled the beginning of his international career as a playwright.
By the time Fosse turned fifty, he was exhausted. He had written plays at an incredible pace for years. One play had followed another; he could write two plays in one summer. Close to his fiftieth birthday, he announced that the continuous creation of plays was coming to an end. After having chosen writing in order to be alone, Fosse had found himself the center of attention. He could now live the high life all year round, but he had had enough. Disliking the spotlight, Fosse made the decision to withdraw from it. He didn’t want to travel or write plays; at least for a while. Thirty theatrical plays, eight short plays—that would have to do.
After I had written the play I Am the Wind I went straight into writing prose. I wrote Sleepless, began Trilogy. There lies the transition from theater to prose. After I Am the Wind, I had to write the play These Eyes. It was a play I had been asked to write and I’d already agreed to it. It was tremendously difficult.
You had finished as a dramatist then?
Yes, I didn’t want to do it anymore, and the decision was overdue. When you’ve been a dramatist for many years then you can write a play. One play is similar to the next with me. And that’s good! For a distinct storyteller, one work glides into another. Only look at the poet George Trakl, who I have recently translated into Norwegian. In my case, you could imagine that some of the pieces are different acts in the same play: The Name could be the first act, Nightsongs the second, for example; Winter is the first act, Someone is Going to Come, the second.
It isn’t a secret that for a time Jon Fosse drank heavily. But never when he wrote—for that he needed to be sober. For many years, Fosse drank as a means of clouding out his anxiety, which affected all aspects of his life other than his writing. But after a while the alcohol took over. He was never inebriated, but had to drink to be normal, as he describes it. Fosse drank around the clock for a couple of months and, in the spring of 2012, he collapsed. In an email from that time he wrote: “I have taken the sudden decision to stop drinking (alcohol is, like many things, both of the good and the bad), so maybe next time we could meet at Kaffistova [a café in central Oslo]?!”
I had severe delirium and alcohol poisoning. I have read that thirty percent of people die from it if they don’t get treatment. Thirty percent die with treatment.
2012 was a turning point. You stopped drinking in March and converted to Catholicism that summer.
Yes, that was a change. I took charge and changed the course of the ship.
Fosse stopped going to bars; he almost entirely stopped watching productions of his own plays, stopped doing readings and being on the stage. He chose another, less social life. He hasn’t had a drink in seven years.
One might wonder what sort of alcoholism it was that I had. I drank far too much, but it wasn’t difficult to refrain from drinking once I had stopped. Now I don’t go to bars—I go to a café instead. At first, I thought I would be sober for five years, and then I could maybe have another few glasses. But I haven’t wanted to do that. Nonetheless, the idea is still to sooner or later have a glass or two once in a while. Many can still function while regularly consuming large amounts of alcohol, but I went over that line. Per Olov Enquist said that to drink a bottle of wine a day is to be an alcoholic. I think that for some a bottle of wine every evening can be fine. But one shouldn’t add a bottle of whiskey! Alcohol is for many a great pleasure; only for a relative few is it a big problem. I have no issues being amongst others who are enjoying a drink, even though I don’t drink myself. But it goes without saying that there won’t be any more afterparties for me. That time is over.
And something else happened around this time, around 2012?
Yes, many things came together. I also met Anna, and we got married. We had our first daughter, Erli. And then I was granted Grotten. We have mostly lived there half the year, but last year we spent all our time there and from the autumn we will live there permanently.
Fosse, who hails from the west of Norway, was awarded Grotten in 2011. What would happen to his literary output once he was at a distance from western Norway, away from the constant rains and the view of the mountains and the fjords? Fosse was certainly not convinced when he first received the offer. He wrote this in an email in April 2011: “This is not official, and it is a secret, but I went to have a look at Grotten yesterday. I’ve had an offer to live there. Am really wondering how to respond.” Fosse felt after a while that it was a good idea, considering what he represents, namely Nynorsk—Nynorsk, or New Norwegian, being one of two distinct written varieties of Norwegian and is mostly used in western Norway. The other written variety is Bokmål and is more widely used across the rest of Norway.
Yes, a lot has happened over the past ten years. So much was happening that I had to take a break from writing. I experience things in life, and I experience things when I write. What I experience when I write has as great an impact, if not greater, than what I experience in life. To write is to dream while awake, to place oneself in a controlled dreamlike state where one advances by listening. So I didn’t want to write in a fragile period, one where I had stopped drinking and had recently converted. I would first have to return to my usual reality.
You feared writing at that time?
No, but I dreaded it. I didn’t want to let myself go. And to write is to expose oneself to the unknown. There was already enough uncertainty.
Fosse felt he had written all he wished to express as a dramatist and returned to prose, to his origins as a writer. And Sleepless, Olav’s Dreams, and Weariness became Trilogy, a work for which Jon Fosse received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2015. He was delighted with the nomination, but, eschewing public events, had no plans to attend the award ceremony in Reykjavik. The organizers eventually managed to persuade Fosse to go. He had a strong suspicion that he was going to be awarded the prize. Fosse landed right before the ceremony, which was taking place in the Harpa concert hall, and accepted the prize. He was delighted and grateful, but when [Norwegian Prime Minister] Erna Solberg congratulated him and carelessly claimed that it was also a prize for Bergen, the sense of happiness left him. Fosse didn’t accept that: the prize was for western Norway and Nynorsk, not Bergen, where Riksmål and Bokmål dominate. Fosse reprimanded Solberg, gave interviews to the journalists, and rushed to the hotel. He was in bed long before the party had really started. But the following morning, he breakfasted early, feeling content with both the prize and his new life.
The Nordic Council Literature Prize had a positive effect, and in his acceptance speech Fosse declared that it came at a fortunate time as he intended to focus on writing only prose for the foreseeable future. For a few years, Fosse had been reluctant to write, but by the summer of 2015, he had decided to start again. He received unlikely help from a heatwave: “A bit of rain would be nice!’”was Fosse’s usual rejoinder to those enjoying the summer sun. Fosse isn’t one for shorts or going on beach holidays. In the summer of 2015, Fosse went to stay at the Château de Brangues in France, the castle of the French poet Paul Claudel. He had been invited by one of his descendants; one of Fosse’s translators had married into the family. He had a plan to begin again with prose, and the castle was an opportunity to take a break from daily life.
There was a heatwave while we were there. It was so hot when one went outside, it felt like being met by a wall of heat.
Heat isn’t something you enjoy?
No, no, I deal with heat badly. People were knocked out, and I wasn’t faring well at all. Luckily, we had a room on the cool side of the castle. In the early evening I went outside. During the day I wrote the opening of Septology. I just started with my laptop on my stomach in bed. I write easily. Something comes to me when I sit down to write. I have never had writer’s block.
He had a beginning, but no thought of writing a novel; still he kept on writing. After a while, the text became seven parts and the work gained the title Septology. The main character and narrator is named Asle. He’s a painter and widower who lives alone in Dylgja, north of Bjørgvin. His only friends are his neighbor, Åsleik, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in town. In Bjørgvin lives another Asle, who is also a painter. The narrator Asle and the other Asle are in a way doppelgängers enacting two versions of the same life. We follow the lives of both Asles, and find out their pasts through flashbacks. They are both one and two people.
I began with one main character, but the two Asles separated as I wrote. They are the same, and they are not the same. That’s the basic concept of the novel. You could say it’s a classic doppelgänger novel.
Fosse wrote the majority of the text in Hainburg, where he has a study with a view of the street and a block of flats, but if he leans a little toward the window he can see the ruins of the town’s castle that dates from the Middle Ages.
One of the perks of living in Hainburg is that, to exaggerate a little, while I’m there I only have contact with my closest family. I go to Mass once a week, and yes, I do the shopping once a week. It’s calm and peaceful. I go to bed at nine and get up at four or five. The whole of Septology was written between five and nine in the morning.
Why do you write at that time of day?
My writing habits changed when I stopped drinking. I used to be a night owl. I enjoyed a glass in the evening. It was a nice way to live. But when I stopped drinking, I started to go to bed early and to take naps in the afternoon. Septology is the result of early morning work in a small town close to Vienna.
Does writing while you’re far from home have an impact on your storytelling?
Yes, in Hainburg I’m connected to so many things that aren’t directly there. That offers a sense of freedom and space that I don’t experience at home in Norway. And now that I have gone through the whole work, the whole miserable thing, I wonder, “How did I manage that?!” The manuscript was at first 1750 pages, now it’s around 1500.
Fosse felt the need to let the writing flow at its own pace, and he imagined writing what he describes as “slow prose,” that is to say, fiction that takes its time, is a bit meandering and hypnotic, and doesn’t rush from one thing to the next—prose that slowly turns or bends forward, with “transport stages” and “descriptions” and “reflections.”
For many years I worked intensely on plays. My way of writing plays is about restriction, to achieve concentration and intensity. A play doesn’t necessarily need a lot of exterior drama, but it needs a strong inner tension, to be charged. Slow prose is the negation of the fast play. Prose takes much longer to write than drama, and requires more peace within me and within my daily life.
Jon Fosse needed a main character for Septology, but didn’t want him to be a writer. Instead, he chose a painter. He has always been interested in art, especially oil painting. He also painted in his teens, and in his early thirties he both sketched and painted a lot.
But I destroyed the pictures, I should have stopped painting long before then. I have dabbled with painting, yes, and often been to galleries and museums. I also have several friends who are painters.
Fosse has gained an understanding of the practical aspects of being a painter through conversations with his friends, the artists Håvard Vikhagen, Oddvar Torsheim, and Camilla Wærenskjold. He asked in-depth questions about every practical aspect of the subject: the study of it, the exhibitions, how to mix colors, how to use the canvas.
My most important conversational partner has probably been Håvard. The creative process is the same if one’s a painter or a writer or a musician.
Fosse has on several occasions described himself as a poet at heart. He is a poet in everything he writes. For Fosse, the rhythm of a sentence is paramount; form and content are not separate, they are entwined and should have the same impact on the reader. The content is essentially a part of the form. It’s the methodology of poetry. Fosse has often noted that this manner of writing differs from that of many other writers of fiction: they do research. But for Septology, Fosse has worked like many of his colleagues.
For the first time in my writing there are essayistic components, and I also refer to real people, though not that many. Samuel Beckett, Georg Trakl, Lars Hertervig—all figures who have been very important to me—make an appearance, and I refer to certain paintings like Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord by Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude. Meister Eckhart, the thinker who has perhaps been most important to me, is also included.
Does it seem radical to refer to the real world in your writing?
Yes, it does almost seem radical to include such real references. Everything I’ve written can perhaps be called a sort of mystical realism—not “magical,” but mystical—which is partly the reason why I’ve probably avoided direct references and essaystic additions. But Septology, specifically, is so clearly mystical realism that it kind of felt right with real references, and also essayistic components, which in my opinion is completely connected to the way the narrator in the novel thinks. To be clear, his thoughts aren’t necessarily my thoughts.
One of the main themes of Septology is the nature of art, but it is also about God and alcoholism. Would you agree?
Yes, but it’s just as much about dying. In the novel, alcohol is connected to death. It’s also about the self-destructive. It follows on from a suicide. It’s the ocean, death, and love.
Yes, again. [laughs] The whole of Septology is possibly just an instant, a loaded one, a moment of death. When a person dies it is said that one sees life repeated. Septology can maybe read as such a moment. In Septology, I use different experiences from books that I’ve read, from things I know something about, but to write is ultimately its own experience. In writing there is a transformation of all the things that I’ve read, learned, heard from others, or been a part of. It is that transformation and its promise that constitutes storytelling and makes the struggle worth it.
You wrote about an artist who thinks a lot about God and who struggles with alcohol. How close is this to your own life?
The principal aspects are close to my own life, but are of course completely reconstructed. But I’m flirting with it! The main character has gray hair in a ponytail, same as me. He has two black velvet jackets. I now have a pair as well. First, I wrote about these velvet jackets and then I bought them myself! The lives I’m depicting are possible versions of my own. I could have been Asle the painter or his childhood friend Sigve, who works in a furniture factory.
There is a lot of driving in Septology. You also love driving and telling of cars and car rides. Is this another parallel to your life?
Yes, I enjoy long car rides, but I hate driving in cities. Oslo is an impossible town to drive in. I’ve learned how to drive back and forth to Grotten, that’s it. If I were to have a more traditional job, I could imagine being a truck driver and driving far distances across Europe. But that would have to have been when I was younger. Now I wouldn’t have the energy for it.
Would you have listened to audiobooks then?
Yes, my favorite of all audiobooks is [Tarjei] Vesaas’ reading of The Birds. It’s beautiful. I’m happy to listen to audiobooks when I drive long distances, like between Oslo and Bergen.
Do you feel relieved now that Septology is finished?
Yes, it was incredibly important to me that I wouldn’t die before this work was finished. That might sound crazy, but I was afraid of not getting to the finishing line. We will all disappear, and I was afraid that my health and strength wouldn’t hold out. I have, after all, experienced what I’ve experienced. But I’ve been like this forever; I can even remember when I was writing my first books that I was worried about dying before I finished writing them.
But why do you think like that?
Maybe because it feels so important to say what has to be said. It’s my obligation to say it.
You had to write Septology because you felt you had something you had to say?
Yes, it’s about the form, but also about having something that needed to be said, that couldn’t be said any other way than through storytelling and its qualities of form and content. Good writing is as unique as a face. Each new work is a new face, let’s put it that way.
The sixty-year-old Fosse has finished a gigantic work of prose. When he turned fifty, he had almost finished writing plays. The forty-year-old was present at his breakthrough in Paris. But what about the thirty-year-old? What about him? What happened in 1989? Strangely enough, this milestone was another turning point. Fosse was a well-established writer at that time. He made his debut in 1983 with the novel Raudt, svart (Red, Black), which is about a high school student in a village on the west coast of Norway. He continued with several novels, and in 1986 he published poems for the first time. But it was in the autumn of 1989 that Fosse had his real breakthrough in Norway. That came with the novel Boathouse, which contains this characteristic opening: “I don’t go out anymore, a restlessness has come over me, and I don’t go out.” With Boathouse, Fosse was nominated for the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and received critical acclaim. He was a part of the elite, an insider. At the time, he was also a teacher. He hadn’t wanted to become a teacher, but became one, nonetheless, at Skrivekunstakademiet i Bergen [the Penmanship Academy in Hordaland]. There he taught, among others, Karl Ove Knausgård. The writing teacher appears briefly in My Struggle.
Fosse was twenty in 1979. In the spring of that year, he graduated from high school in Øystese. He had lived in a dorm there, and in the autumn of 1979 he moved to Bergen. He had no firm plan for his studies when he moved there, but he ended up with a master of arts, having studied sociology, philosophy, and literature. That first autumn in Bergen, Fosse also got a job at the newspaper Gula Tidend. He was a freelancer with a severe impediment: he really didn’t like talking to people, but he liked to write. He liked sitting in front of the huge computer, and ever since he has dedicated himself to writing.
Even though Fosse has said that his playwriting days are over, he has written another play, called Sterk vind (Strong Wind). It will be performed at Det Norske Teatret in 2020 or 2021.
Writing it was a breeze! And it was a great pleasure writing dramatically again after a long break, and managing to do it. Shaping a play is completely different than creating slow prose. I spend only a few weeks or months on a play. It’s more like writing in one go. Kind of like a poem. Usually, almost everything comes together in the first draft. But plays are also—yes, mystical realism, as I’ve suddenly had the notion to call it. But I’m already regretting that I’ve used that expression.
Will you be writing more for theater from now on?
There will probably be more plays, I think, but it’s not for certain. I look at writing as a gift, and one can’t be certain if one will receive more gifts. But nonetheless it’s clear that I want to take a break between plays, I don’t want to write at the same speed as I once did.
What about retiring at some point?
No, that wouldn’t work. Some stop writing, and others write for as long as they can. I need to have a project, without one I get restless and unhappy.
In 1969, Jon Fosse was ten years old. That was before he had long hair, before he was rebellious, before he started to hate school, and before he found writing at the age of twelve. At that time, he lived in Fosse, which is right before one arrives at Strandebarm if one drives along the Hardangerfjord. Jon Olav, as he is actually named, grew up on a smallholding right by the fjord and the waves. His grandparents lived in one of the houses on the farm, while Jon Olav, his parents, and two sisters lived in the other. His father was a manager of Strandebarm Cooperative, his mother was a homemaker. Jon Olav spent some time at the cooperative with his dad, but he wasn’t a loner nor a voracious reader. There were kids in every household in Fosse, and the children were free to roam about in the landscape, in their own fantasy world and on the fjord. It was carefree and adventurous, a nice and safe childhood between the house of prayer and the youth club.
Many at your age long for the world of their childhood. Have you reached that point?
My dad turns ninety this autumn. I feel like I’ve taken it for granted that my parents are there. That is, of course, a stupid thought! I don’t long to return. I’m not attached to Strandebarm, quite the opposite. I’m attached to what Ingvar Moe referred to as “the west coast within me.” But for me it is something good, not troublesome in the way that Ingvar meant it.
Why are you not attached to Strandebarm?
It has to do with my character. I was treated well there, but it was a difficult time for both me and others. Maybe mostly for me.
But the fjord, the mountains, the rain, the water?
The main character in Septology sits and looks out over the waves. I look at my own interior waves in the heart of Europe.
But you persist?
Yes, yes, yes. I have always been an adaptable person. I don’t have to live in a particular place. I have lived on the road since I was thirty because of the theater. I’ve had many different homes,
And you also have your cottage in Dingja, and from there you can see the ocean.
Yes, it’s nice to be there. The light there, it’s astonishingly gentle and blue. And to be on the sea and the knolls and the heath. I don’t know why, but it feels good.
Translated from the Norwegian by Siri Haeggqvist
This interview was originally commissioned and published by the Norwegian quarterly magazine Syn og Segn, who have granted permission for it to be translated into English and published in Music & Literature.
Jon Fosse was born in 1959 on the west coast of Norway and is the recipient of countless prestigious prizes, both in his native Norway and abroad. Since his 1983 fiction debut, Raudt, svart (Red, Black), Fosse has written prose, poetry, essays, short stories, children’s books, and over forty plays, with more than a thousand productions performed and translations into fifty languages. Septology, his latest prose work, will be published in three volumes by Fitzcarraldo Editions, starting in 2019.
Siri Haeggqvist is Norwegian and Swedish and has an MA in literature and film from UCL. She is a freelance reader for literary publishing houses, and divides her time between the UK and Scandinavia.
Cecilie Seiness is an editor at Det Norske Samlaget. In addition to editing the Septology and other works by Jon Fosse, she is author of Poet på Guds jord, the definitive critical biography of Fosse.
Banner image: Jon Fosse, photo credit Tom Kolstad/Samlaget