A Somewhat Eccentric Writer

By Dewey, Donald | Scandinavian Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

A Somewhat Eccentric Writer


Dewey, Donald, Scandinavian Review


Jon Fosse can't stop producing novels, plays, poems, essays - or disputes about his place in European letters.

WHO HAS BEEN THE MAIN INSPIRATION FORJON FOSSESamuel Beckett or Robert De Niro? For champions of the 51 -year-old Norwegian novelist, playwright, poet and essayist, Fosse's mantric approach to social relationships makes him the most accomplished contemporary disciple of the Irish playwright-novelist. For those who have grown restless with his penchant for reiterating and then reiterating again arid prose observations or stage dialogue, the experience is like being trapped in a room with De Niro's Taxi Driver character of Travis Bickle and being badgered with "You looking at me? You looking at me? Are you sure you're not looking at me?" Given that span of views, it hardly came as a surprise that the recent awarding of the 2010 Ibsen Prize to Fosse has left critics, especially those in Norway, facing one another over barricades.

The award-giving committee, chaired by actor-director Liv UIlmann, spared little praise in explaining its choice. According to the panel, Fosse has forged his way "into an existential, partially religious-tinted authorship that stands alone in contemporary theater." The Haugesund native was also extolled for "forcing the theater and its audiences to think in new ways. He is the poet of the unknown. That may be how we can explain his immense success: He provides us with something we lack."

Certainly, there is no contesting Fosse's popularity. Varying estimates have counted between 700 and 900 productions in 40 languages of his more than two dozen plays in Europe, Japan, Australia and Chile. In the United States, he has become something of a crusade for the theatrical presentations of Sarah Sunde and Anna Gutto. This is all the more notable insofar as playwriting did not attract him until the 1 994 production oîOgAldri Skaï Vi Skiljast Ana We'll Never Be Parted), more than a decade after he had established himself as a novelist. Nor was the Ibsen Prize an attempt to make up for previously denied honors for a man who has described himself as ein noko eksent/isk diktar (a somewhat eccentric writer). On the contrary, Fosse already had to be in the market for an extra mantelpiece or two for such earlier acknowledgements as the Nynorsk Literature Prize (1988 and again in 2003), the Brage Prize (2005), Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav (2005) and national medals from Sweden, Germany and France. His 50th birthday in 2009 sparked special cultural festival events in Bergen, his city of residence. Few writers under 80 on any continent have collected so much congratulatory hardware.

AND ALL THAT COMMOTION HAS TOUCHED DIRECTLY ON one of the criticisms leveled against the Ibsen committee after it had tapped Fosse: Neither he nor Norway had needed it. First there was an outcry that selecting him in merely the third year of the award's existence undermined whatever cachet the honor was aimed at securing internationally. Hovering over that accusation was the dreaded implication of provincialism - a charge with a long bloodline in Norwegian letters. Considering that the Ibsen prize had been instituted by the Oslo Government only in 2007, the critics wanted to know, wasn't it a little premature for a home citizen to be given such a recognition so quickly (the first two awards had gone to British director Peter Brook and Theatre du Soleil creator Ariane Mnouchkine)? Among those with no doubts on that score is Ajtenposten drama critic IngerMargrethe Lunde, who called the committee's selection "immodest." Lunde also likened the haste in honoring Fosse to the Nobel Committee's earlier choice of U.S. President Barack Obama for the Peace Prize. She has warned that the decision to honor a Norwegian, Fosse or anyone else, can only damage the seriousness with which those outside the country view the award.

This slap and attendant Internet chat room critiques along the same lines have brought forth rejoinders from Ibsen committee members that it was Lunde and her kind of worries that amounted to the real provincialism. …

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