A review of “A Shining” by Jon Fosse – a spiritual odyssey.
On a chilly autumn day, a man takes a drive deep into the countryside, passing deserted farmhouses and cabins. Eventually, he reaches a forest and drives down a rough road until his car gets stuck. As the sun sets and snow starts to fall, the man decides to leave his car and venture into the dark woods in search of assistance.
This passage could be the start of a scary story, but instead it serves as the introduction to A Shining, a new and compact novella written by Jon Fosse, the 2023 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Fosse’s writing has the remarkable ability to blur the lines between the physical and spiritual realms. Prior to receiving the Nobel Prize, English-speaking readers may have encountered Fosse’s work through his plays, which are widely performed in Europe, or his seven-book series called Septology. The Septology consists of three volumes, each containing a single sentence monologue that serves as a poetic liturgy, a story about a lookalike, a reflection on the art of poetry, and a poignant contemplation on love, aging, and death. Upon completing the final book of Septology, I found myself in a daze, grateful for my existence. Fosse’s writing is so remarkably unique and difficult to categorize that it appears he has created a new genre of literature, one that shares similarities with Samuel Beckett’s work but is much more gentle and deeply infused with spirituality. Despite the potential intimidation of a thick, metaphysical novel filled with monologues, Fosse’s writing is surprisingly accessible to anyone who is willing to surrender themselves to its gentle flow.
Fosse’s translation into English by the talented Damion Searls has played a role in making this work accessible. Searls’ intelligence, subtlety, and attention to rhythm are once again evident in A Shining. As the main character journeys through the dark and snowy forest, reality begins to falter. He senses a presence approaching, one that is human in shape but not truly human. This presence is described as “luminous in its whiteness, shining from within.” It reaches out and touches the protagonist, bringing warmth and speaking to him. The protagonist hears a voice that says, “I’m here, I’m always here, I’m always here.” This startles him, as he is certain he has heard a voice – a thin and weak one – but it also carries a deep warmth and fullness. It is almost as if there is a hint of love in the voice.
After the departure of the presence, the man comes across his parents in the forest. Despite constantly moving towards them, they never seem to get any closer. When his parents depart, he spots a man wearing a suit but with bare feet in the snowy ground. The man guides him towards a magnificent blooming of the bright white presence he had witnessed before. Although the novella starts with brief sentences and in the past tense, as the story progresses, it transforms into the present tense. The ending is a grand culmination of an intricately long sentence, adding a stunning glimmer to the prose itself.
A Shining can be interpreted in various ways: as a realistic monologue, a fable, a Christian-inflected allegory, or a nightmare retold in the morning with lingering horror, but slightly softened by the comfort of daylight. What makes Fosse’s writing truly magnificent is its rejection of a single interpretation; rather, as one reads, the story evokes a complex chord with multiple possible meanings. This refusal to conform to simplicity and binary thinking, and instead acknowledging the immense mysteries and contradictions of death and God, is a quietly powerful moral stance in our increasingly divided world.