An Afternoon with Jon Fosse

Published : 31 Jan 2008, 05:19 PM
Updated : 31 Jan 2008, 05:19 PM

To Sabiha Huq, an Ibsen admirer and detractor,
who inspired me to write the piece at one go.

He is a living legend of Norwegian literature. He is an all-in-one — a poet, a novelist, a playwright and an essayist. Above all, he is a prolific writer — tirelessly

Jon Fosse with the interviewer

contributing in all genres of literature. Norway's Literature Abroad (NORLA) would describe him as the country's "most popular dramatist both nationally and internationally". Being labeled as the 'most popular' writer could be wearisome — as more often than not, popularity demands yielding to cheap taste.

Fortunately, however, it has never been so for Jon Fosse (b. 1959). Every inch an artist, Fosse, on the contrary, gives utmost importance to the 'high' level of the piece being created. In other words, for Fosse, it is the standard of the

Jon Fosse at work
piece that makes a writer popular, and not the other way around. He has always been conscious of the portrait of an artist as well as of the significance of the art itself. That is why, as early as 1997, he could emphatically declare: "I want to make it clear that for me as a playwright it is impossible to write with 'social consciousness', as they say, while also writing good drama" (quoted in Leif Zern, Nordic Literature 2004). To write good drama and, for that matter, to produce quality literature has forever been Fosse's intention and obsession — marks of which are evident from his earliest work, Red, Black (novel 1983) to the latest I am the Wind (play 2007).

The fact that Fosse considers art to come first and foremost, has not escaped reviewers and critics. They have dealt with his brilliant exploit of 'stream of consciousness' as a writing technique in fictions 'until the mid-1990s' and his preoccupation with 'writing rhythm', 'which is so close to the first person's consciousness that one can speak of the novel's rhythm as mirroring the first person's experience of the world'. Fosse's critics have noted that "Without exception, his novels have dealt with severely tested people, who find that they aren't 'handling' their everyday life," and that "In his plays too, the encounters between the characters are the focus." Furthermore, "Not knowing brings into play a new speech, a kind of slip-of-the-tongue speech. … The little that is said is so charged that it communicates below the surface all it is impossible to say" (

I met Fosse at his temporary lodging in an Oslo hotel near Det Norske Teatret on October 27, 2007. He had travelled from Bergen, his hometown, and checked into the hotel just an hour before our meeting at 4:30. He was scheduled to give a recital from his novel in the evening, and the only free hour he was left with had been earmarked for our tête-à-tête. The playwright took me to a restaurant nearby where we, at length, talked about Ibsen and other playwrights, Fosse's vocation and his notion of art and literature. Following is an excerpt of the rendezvous.

Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman (Ahsanuzzaman): As you know, Jon, I'm here in Oslo to do a Master's in Ibsen Studies. Ibsen is one of my favourite playwrights, and I would say, to an extent he is also my obsession. Ibsen is your glorious predecessor. How would you evaluate 'the father of modern drama'?

Jon Fosse (Fosse): Ahmed, a warm welcome to Norway. Let me tell you I don't speak to the press that much. I agreed to meet you because you are an academic, a university teacher from Bangladesh and because I was convinced of your love and passion for literature. Anyway, in Norway people read Ibsen at school. I too read him in my tender years, and I must confess I found him rather stiff in those days. However, with years I realized how disturbing and demonic he could be. He is not for anything, but just for everything. And then he has that dark wisdom. I don't love Ibsen; but I am his big admirer.

Ahsanuzzaman: Isn't it a contradiction in terms that you admire Ibsen, but you don't love him? Could you please elaborate on that?

Fosse: I don't think it's a contradiction. You may admire someone without having love for him. What I wanted to say is that I don't have any doubt that Ibsen is one of the greatest playwrights of the world and that he is second only to Shakespeare. I also maintain that he is a genius. But what I object to is his sacrifice of the poetic self for the so-called causes of the society. The poet in Ibsen that we find in Brand, or in Peer Gynt, a play which I've translated into New Norwegian and which was staged by Robert Wilson in 2005, is not to be traced in his later plays. This is inevitable when one writes with 'social consciousnesses' upon his back. If the concerns of society enter your work automatically, it's fine. But, a writer should not be at all bothered about them.

Ahsanuzzaman: Well, I'm now translating Jens Bjørneboe's Amputation into Bangla. As you know, Bjørneboe is known for his anti-establishment attitude as well as his disregard for so-called democracy which, in practice, kills individual's freedom of expression and thought. Bjørneboe is distinct in his approach to theatre with his provocative announcement: "The dynasty of 'Bourgeois Drama' in the line of Hebbel-Ibsen-Strindberg-O'Neill has abdicated" for he has the conviction that "the themes that were the basis for all bourgeois and naturalistic-psychological drama are hard to take seriously when mentioned in the same breath as the 600,000 old people, women, children and unborn Japanese slain in August 1945." Your comment?

Fosse: I must confess I've not read Amputation. However, as a young man I loved Bjørneboe's works including his novels. I would say, it was his aggression and sympathy for the outcasts or 'social rejects' which appealed to my young mind. However, he is limited; and his limitation is due to his overt political concerns. As you know, he is a Marxist playwright. And I don't at all agree with him that Hebbel, Ibsen, Strindberg, O'Neill and the likes are bourgeois playwrights. They are still performed because they are just great.

Ahsanuzzaman: How do you look at Shakespeare?

Fosse: Well, Shakespeare is at the centre of European tradition, and European literature without Shakespeare just doesn't make any sense to me. If there were no Shakespeare, there would have been no Ibsen.

Ahsanuzzaman: That brings me to Ibsen once again. I have gathered that you wrote a play about Madam Ibsen, which is entitled Suzannah. Was there any special reason for writing the play?

Fosse: Far from it — in fact, I was commissioned by Norway's state television to write a play about the Ibsens. And the result was that play. However, I don't think that you, being an Ibsen researcher, will get anything of importance in it. It isn't a play in which I interrogated history or the Ibsen biography for that matter. Mine is a very personal encounter with Suzannah.

Ahsanuzzaman: Leif Zern termed you as "an alien" in the world of theatre because you were rather reluctant to come to the stage. Indeed, you made your debut as a playwright with And Never Shall We be Parted in 1994. Now that you have been in theatre for over a decade with might and dominance, how will you account for your 'alien' status?

Fosse: Yes, I entered the world of theatre rather late. However, it was not because I was reluctant or hesitant. I was writing poetry, I was writing novels, I was writing essays. And I was enjoying them. It just didn't occur to me that I would write for theatre. Then I was asked to write for it, and I found out that to write for the theatre was a different kind of experience, an experience which I had begun to love. So that's how it was, and is. I can't say if I have been in theatre with might or dominance. I can say only that as long as I have love and passion for theatre, I'll continue to write for it.

Ahsanuzzaman: You have contributed to all branches of literature. Do you have any special fascination for any one of these?

Fosse: Not really. I like to write. Sometimes it takes the shape of a poem, sometimes it's a drama, or a novel, or an essay. It so occurs that I end up writing a story for children. To tell you frankly, I don't plan my writing; I just keep on writing. And all the while I keep on reminding myself: Jon, you cannot let down the artist in you.

Ahsanuzzaman: Does Fosse figure in Fosse's works?

Fosse: I would say, no. But, then you know, I've experiences which my characters also experience. Or, if I am to put it in a different way, the experiences of my dramatis personae become mine in one way or the other. I explore human relationships, and in doing so, I may have occasionally betrayed Fosse the individual. But, I maintain, I have never consciously expressed myself in my works.

Ahsanuzzaman: Your fiction employs the first person narrative technique; the dialogue in your drama is sheer monologue. And it's a wonder how you manage to create a poetic language out of ordinary, everyday utterances.

Fosse: I am always concerned about the rhythm of the language in my work. It's like a piece of painting. I'm painting through metaphors. Every word has its special importance. They need to be arranged as much the same way shades and colours are arranged in painting. The lasting impression that painting generates is that it's a piece of poem. The work of literature cannot be an exception. That was what I aimed to attain when I wrote the two-part novel, Melancholia. As you probably know, it's about tragically 'self-assertive' Ibsen's contemporary Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig. Well, my characters speak poetically because it's my reconstruction of the language I hear or think, I overhear. The reconstruction of oral language means for me that it will have to be realistic and at the same time artificial, a feature one can see in Ibsen.

Ahsanuzzaman: See, we are back to Ibsen again! The Norwegian great was a contemporary of the Russian master playwright Chekov. How will you evaluate Chekov?

Fosse: I've been throughout an admirer of Chekov. Sea Gull, The Cherry Orchard are prized treasures of world literature. I would even prefer him to Ibsen for his musicality and humanity.

Ahsanuzzaman: How do you look at contemporary Norwegian literature?

Fosse: I would say that the standard is very high overall. However, I'm not particularly happy with what's being done in theatre. I feel the contemporary theatre of Norway needs the kick to get going.

Ahsanuzzaman: Well, because I myself am a student of English literature, I ask this question. Do you follow English or American literature?

Fosse: To a very low degree — but of course, I'm familiar with the modern classics of English and American literatures. I read Yeats, Eliot, O'Neill and Miller and the likes.
Ahsanuzzaman: You are often called a post modernist because of your exploit of Derrida's concept of 'absence' in your fiction. What do you have to say to this estimation of yours?

Fosse: I don't know exactly if I'm a post modernist. But, Derrida was obviously an early influence on me. In fact, I read him extensively and influenced by Derrida's theory of writing I submitted my master's thesis about the theory of the novel.

Ahsanuzzaman: If you are asked to pick out two authors, whom will you go for?

Fosse: One is my compatriot, who is, though little known to the world outside, Olav H Hague. He, in one sense, inspired my collection of poems, Angel with Water in His Eyes, published in 1986. The other is one of the heavyweights of world literature, Samuel Beckett.

Ahsanuzzaman: Let me bring back the Ibsen issue here again. What about a comparison of the two?

Fosse: Beckett is my favourite writer. However, I feel that Ibsen is a greater playwright than Beckett. But, as you know, one can be your favourite even when he is not the greatest.

Ahsanuzzaman: You are a celebrity. How do you feel being a celebrity?

Fosse: To be honest with you, I have had enough of it. Sometimes I feel I don't need it any more. The mere thought of being a celebrity tires me these days.

Ahsanuzzaman: Once you wrote, "But who am I then, who is supposed to be Jon Fosse?" It is one of the questions that disturbs every creative individual at a certain phase in his career. The answer to the question is, of course, difficult to get by. You have been on the lookout for it all these years. How do you feel about it?

Fosse: Yes, it's a question related to my existence as a writer. I don't have an answer as yet.

Ahsanuzzaman: What are you writing now?

Fosse: Well, of late I've finished two plays. I am working on a translation of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. The Trilogy—King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone—in my version will turn into one play. The play will be my interpretation of Oedipus, and not Sophocles's Oedipus though there will not be any deviation from the source.

Ahsanuzzaman: I wonder if you are aware of Bangla literature or theatre in Bangladesh. If I could bring up, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore mentioned Ibsen nearly one hundred years back and Ibsen's influence is quite evident in his female portrayals. And apart from Ibsen, in our theatre we have had plays by Shakespeare, Chekov, Brecht, Muller and Moliere, among others.

Fosse: I know about your rich tradition and heritage. But let me confess, I haven't read Bangla literature, not even Tagore if reading implies understanding of the subject. I didn't know Tagore's mention of Ibsen in his works either. And to tell you frankly, I don't know anything about your theatre. But, I feel I ought to give your literature and drama the attention they duly deserve.

Ahsanuzzaman: I've been reading your plays with a view to translating them into my language. In fact your literary agent in Stockholm sent to me the English translations of some of your plays. I'm hoping to complete the translations of Someone is Going to Come and The Man with a Guitar soon. It looks like a real possibility that in the near future Fosse will be performed in Bangladesh.

Fosse: That will be wonderful. I'm looking forward to it. Meanwhile, good luck with your work of translation.

Ahsanuzzaman: Thank you so much for giving me your time.

Fosse: Thank you too. I hope we will be in touch.

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