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And The Nobel Prize for Literature Goes To . . .

Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • October 05, 2023

The 2023 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse. Starting in 1901, The Nobel Prize in Literature has been bestowed on an author from any country who has (in the words of Swedish founder Alfred Nobel) "produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction." Though individual works are sometimes cited as being particularly noteworthy, the honor, unlike many other literary awards, is based on an author's body of work as a whole. Read on to learn about this year's winner, as well as those from the past seven years.

2023: Jon Fosse

Lauded by judges "for his innovative plays and prose which gives voice to the unsayable," the Norwegian playwright is not well-known outside his home country. But among international literary circles, he has been called "the most produced living playwright." His spare and existential style has drawn comparisons to that of Henrik Ibsen and Samuel Beckett.

In addition to Fosse's plays, which have won many prestigious awards, his prolific works include novels, poetry collections, essays, children's books, and translations. His Septology I–VII is an extraordinary collection of seven novels that Fosse wrote following his conversion to Catholicism. Although English adaptations of his plays are somewhat rare, I Am the Wind, an existential story about two men in a fishing boat, was said by a critic to capture "a gut-level anxiety about elemental questions of identity."

2022: Annie Ernaux

The French writer claimed the prize "for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory." Known for intensely autobiographical work examining her experiences as a woman, Ernaux has often resisted classifying her work as either fiction or nonfiction.

She is known for an unflinching ability to explore and dissect the most intensely personal aspects of her life, including an unwanted pregnancy and abortion, love affairs, and ambivalence about marriage and motherhood. Some of her most celebrated titles include: The Years, A Woman's Story, A Man's Place, and Simple Passion.

2021: Abdulrazak Gurnah

The Tanzanian-born British novelist received the award "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents." Growing up in Zanzibar, Gurnah never planned to be a writer. But after a violent uprising forced him to flee his home country, he began writing about his experiences of displacement and loss.

His novels explore themes of exile, identity, and belonging. His most recent work Afterlives explores the generational effects of German colonialism in Tanzania. Some of his other notable titles include Paradise, By the Sea, and Desertion.

2020: Louise Glück

Judges praised the American poet and essayist for "her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal." Often described as an autobiographical poet, Glück's work draws on mythology or nature to meditate on personal experience with prominent themes of trauma and desire.

From 2003 to 2004, Glück was Poet Laureate of the U.S. Some of her most notable collections include The Wild Iris and Poems 1962–2012. In her Nobel lecture, she highlighted her early engagement with poetry by William Blake and Emily Dickinson.

2019: Peter Handke

Austrian novelist, playwright, translator, poet, film director, and screenwriter Handke was honored "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.

Considered one of the most influential and original German-language writers in the second half of the 20th century, he gained renown in the 1960s for avant-garde plays like Kaspar. His novels, like The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and The Left-Handed Woman, often offer highly objective and deadpan accounts  of characters in extreme states of mind. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a novella inspired by his mother who died by suicide in 1971.        

2018: Olga Tokarczuk

Beloved by readers and critics alike, the experimental Polish author was lauded "for a narrative imagination that, with encyclopedic passion, represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life." Tokarczuk has been a bestselling author in Poland for decades. She is known for her wry, complex novels that leap between centuries, places, perspectives, and mythologies.

In 2017, she was the first Polish author to win the Man Booker Prize for Flights, an enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original exploration of what it means to be a traveler. Other recommended titles include: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and The Books of Jacob.

2017: Kazuo Ishiguro

Memory, time, and lifelong deception are central themes for the British author "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world." His Japanese heritage influences his prose which is characterized by restraint, even in dramatic moments. His earliest novels, like An Artist of the Floating World, are set in Japan.

His 1989 historical fiction novel, The Remains of the Day, won the Booker Prize for fiction and was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. With recent novels Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun, he has ventured into the genre of dystopian science-fiction.  

2016: Bob Dylan

A controversial choice, Dylan was praised "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." He was the first musician/songwriter to win the esteemed prize. Rooted in the rich tradition of American folk music, Dylan's work is often characterized by refined rhymes and startling, sometimes surreal imagery. Along with his music, he has published a memoir of sorts, Chronicles: Volume 1, and a poetry collection, Tarantula.

Dylan’s lyrics over the decades have referenced many poets and other writers including: William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Erica Jong, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Arthur Rimbaud, and William Shakespeare.

In addition to Literature, Nobel Prizes are given in the areas of medicine, physics, chemistry, economics, and peace work. Winners receive a diploma and a medal, as well as a monetary award that varies a bit depending on the income of the Nobel Foundation. This year's prize amount is 11 million Swedish krona, which is nearly a million U.S. dollars. "Grattis" to all of the winners!

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