This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature went to a Norwegian who is surprisingly Christian

Fifty years ago, in 1973, an Australian won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White. No one from Down Under has repeated the trick, although the late Les Murray, a poet, and novelist Gerard Murnane have been on short lists.

Revisiting Patrick White is a dreary experience. Reading one of his paragraphs is like a sip of fine wine; reading one of his novels will drive you to drink. Gay he was in modern parlance; gay he was not in its older meaning. I remember that a German scholar did his PhD on the use of the definite article in White’s novels; he was that kind of writer – monumental but suffocating.

The Nobel pick is always going to be controversial. At least half of the writers will be unknown in English before the winner is announced, and probably afterwards as well.  Wisława Szymborska (Poland, 1996) or Elfriede Jelinek (Austria, 2004) or Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden, 2011) are still not household words in New York or London.

And unfortunately this could be the case with this year’s winner, Jon Fosse, a Norwegian who writes in a very small dialect of a very small language. However, he is the most performed Norwegian playwright after Henrik Ibsen. His latest novel is Septology I-VII, three volumes, 800 pages and one sentence. So much for advice from your high school English teacher about run-on sentences.

It’s about the last few days of an elderly widowed painter who reflects on his life and dies before a Christmas dinner with some neighbours. It has been praised as a masterpiece that conveys “a sense of wonder at the unfathomable miracle of life, even in its bleakest and loneliest moments”. 

Which leads me to the strangest thing about Fosse – that he converted to Catholicism in 2012 – not so long ago, really, and long after he had become famous in Europe. His early life was quite turbulent – a Marxist, an atheist, an alcoholic … He has been married three times and has six children.

Norway is nominally Lutheran, but nowadays is one of the most secular places on the planet. Other traditionally Christian countries like Australia or Ireland seem to churn out apostate novelists who reminisce about the horrors of convent schools or maniacal priests.

So it is a bit head-scratching to find that this year’s Nobel laureate takes God very seriously. In fact, it is even more head-scratching that Norway has produced four Nobel Prizes for Literature and two of them have been Catholic converts – Sigrid Undset (1928) and Jan Fosse. Perhaps that’s balanced by the fact that the most famous of the four is Knut Hamsun (1920), who was a Nazi collaborator and was tried for treason after the War.



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A recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books gives some appreciation of the depth of his faith:

I started reading Meister Eckhart [a 14th century theologian and mystic] in the mid-1980s. It was a great experience. After finishing university, I read him a lot, alongside Martin Heidegger. I felt he was like Heidegger, but in a much deeper way. Eckhart is the writer who has influenced me the most. He has a vision completely his own.

In my teens, I was a kind of stupid Marxist and atheist — it was the normal thing to be in those days for young, aspiring intellectuals. But in the process of writing, there was something I couldn’t quite understand, some mystery: where does it come from? It doesn’t come from here [points to his heart]. No, it’s from out there.

I started to believe in God as a person, in a way. I call myself a believer in God, as a presence simultaneously out there and right here. But like Eckhart, I had no dogmatics.

I felt the need to share this way of believing with someone else, so I went to the Quakers. You’re in a silent circle, and if you feel like you have something important to say, then you say it. If not, you just keep quiet. At a certain point, I felt no need for it anymore. I felt that my own writing was my own “silent meeting” or my way of being a Quaker — my way of praying.

Then I was simply a writer for many years, and I had no one to share my kind of belief with. In the mid-1980s, I went to mass in a Catholic church in Bjørgvin, and I liked it, to the point that I even started to attend a course to become a Catholic — yes, like Asle, more or less. Only many years later, I decided to convert to the Catholic Church. I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for Meister Eckhart and his way of being both a Catholic and a mystic…

This mystic side has to do with when I was seven years old and close to dying. It was an accident. I saw myself from outside, in a kind of shimmering light, peaceful, a very happy state, and I’m quite sure that accident, that moment, that close-to-death experience formed me as a writer. Without that, I doubt I would have even been one. It’s very fundamental for me. This experience opened my eyes to the spiritual dimension of life, but being a Marxist, I tried to deny this as hard as I could.

What changed my mind is my own writing. The older I got, the more I felt the need to share my belief with others. I felt it in a good and peaceful way in the Catholic Mass. I prefer the Orthodox Mass, but for a Westerner, it’s very hard to get into the Orthodox mindset — the references are quite different. I knew so much of the Catholic Church that I didn’t manage to jump over to the Orthodox Church.

I think that I’ll be spending a Norwegian-themed Christmas reading Septology and Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. It will be a bit more cheerful than reading Patrick White’s The Burnt Ones again. 

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator. 

Image credit: screenshot from Time   


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