Throughout a decades-long career, the playwright and author Jon Fosse has inspired comparisons to Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett and even George Harrison from the Beatles.
One of his English translators, Damion Searls, writing in The Paris Review in 2015, described Fosse’s work this way: “Think of the four elder statesmen of Norwegian letters as a bit like the Beatles,” he wrote. “Per Petterson is the solid, always dependable Ringo; Dag Solstad is John, the experimentalist, the ideas man; Karl Ove Knausgaard is Paul, the cute one; and Fosse is George, the quiet one, mystical, spiritual, probably the best craftsman of them all.”
His work is spare and existential, often focusing on the interior lives of rather solitary characters. Winding, run-on sentences are common; so are fishermen. “You don’t read my books for the plots,” he told The Financial Times in 2018.
Here is a guide to his major works.
Written in the wake of Fosse’s conversion to Catholicism, the seven novels in the extraordinary “Septology” series track an aging artist’s reckoning with the divine, and represent his most significant novelistic work. “Each novel begins, midthought, the same way, with Asle reflecting on how to finish his painting of the St. Andrew cross; each one ends the same way, mid-Latin prayer, at least until something else happens in the final book,” Randy Boyagarda wrote in his review.
Morning and Evening
This short, powerful novella opens with the birth of Johannes, whose parents hope he will become a fisherman like his father. Years later, as an old man, Johannes reflects on his family and close friendships. (Yes, he did end up becoming a fisherman.)
These novels fictionalize the life of Lars Hertervig, a 19th-century Norwegian painter, as he careens into madness. While studying in Dusseldorf, Hertervig is paralyzed by anxiety about his talent and is left essentially homeless after his attraction to his landlady’s daughter leads him to outrageous sexual delusions.
Aliss at the Fire
A woman named Signe thinks back to more than 20 years earlier, when her husband set out by boat and never came back. Soon, her thoughts take on a metaphysical quality, and even include the memories of family members from generations prior. The fjord where Signe lives is a constant across all of the memories of loss and grief.
Late at night, as an unnamed narrator drives aimlessly through the remote Norwegian woods, his car becomes mired in the rutted road. Hopelessly lost, he finally gets out of his car, only to see a strange creature, “a shining whiteness,” approaching him.
Fosse’s literary agency calls the work, which will be released by Transit Books in the United States on Oct. 31, “a brilliant novel about the border between life and death.”
After a man — more or less a hermit — encounters an old friend and his wife, the three become enmeshed in a sinister love triangle.
“I Am the Wind”
Fosse has been said to be the most performed of living European dramatists, though English adaptations are less common. “I Am the Wind” is an existential play centered on two men in a fishing boat. “Fosse’s terse, rhythmic script captures a gut-level anxiety about elemental questions of identity,” a critic for The Times wrote in 2014.
“A Summer Day”
This may remind you of “Aliss at the Fire” — the emotional center of this play is a woman waiting plaintively for her husband to return from a fishing trip. Even with a clear, unabiding sense of dread, the play “exerts a strong but stealthy undertow, a distinctive dramatic momentum,” the Times critic wrote.
“Someone Is Going to Come”
In this play of jealousy, sexual tension and paranoia, a couple move to a remote, tattered old house by the sea where neither can shake the thought that “someone is going to come.”
A young pregnant girl moves to her parents’ home, along with the child’s father. Her parents don’t know that she’s expecting, adding to the play’s sense of claustrophobia and the tension of the unsaid.