Reading the Norwegian writer and winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature Jon Fosse’s Scenes from a Childhood (2018) reminded me of Robert Walser and Franz Kafka. To be precise: Walser’s Berlin Stories (2006) and A Schoolboy’s Diary (2013), both originally published in 1956, and Kafka’s short prose pieces. To set the tone and mood for Fosse’s prose, let me first illustrate what exactly made me think of Walser and Kafka as Fosse’s literary precursors.

In Walser’s Berlin Stories, you read passages like these:

“You encounter eyes as you walk along like this: girls’ eyes and the eyes of men, mirthless and gay; legs are trotting behind and before you, and you too are legging along as best you can, gazing with your own eyes, glancing the same glances as everyone else. And each breast bears some somnolent secret, each head is haunted by some melancholy or inspiring thought. Splendid, splendid.”  

— ‘Good morning, Giantess!’, 1907

“On my way home, which struck me as splendid, it was snowing in thick, warm, large flakes. It seemed to me as if I heard homeland-like sounds ringing out from afar. My steps were brisk despite the deep snow through which I was assiduously wading. With every step I took, my shaken trust grew firmer again, which filled me with joy the way a child rejoices. All former things bloomed fragrantly and youthfully in my direction, like roses…

In the darkness a gray, tall figure was suddenly standing there on the road before me. It was a man. How gigantic he seemed to me. “What are you doing standing here?” I asked him. “I am rooted here. What business is it of yours?” he replied.

Leaving behind me this man whom I did not know, who after all surely knew what it was his duty to do, I went on. At times it seemed to me I had wings, though I was working my way forward laboriously enough… I was not wearing a coat. I considered the snow itself a splendidly warm coat.”

— ‘A Homecoming in the Snow’, 1917

Walser, who was diagnosed with mental disorder and admitted to a psychiatric ward in 1929, is a writer of sombre prose. In his deep monologues, Walser draws the landscape around him with the precision of a German expressionist. Thought and landscape are inseparably merged into each other. If thought paints the mood of the scene, the scene provokes the direction of thought. The meaning of life that is produced in language has a rich density, where the sensual and the cerebral together form the writer’s experience. Walser’s contemplative prose has the ability to see within and outside oneself. The writing self is a window that can open its shutters, both ways.

Take this passage on music from Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary:

“I think music is the sweetest thing in the world. I absolutely adore sounds. I would leap a thousand steps to hear a single sound. In summer, when I’m walking down the hot streets and I hear the sounds of a piano from a stranger’s house, I often stand there and think I should die on the spot…

Something feels like it’s missing when I haven’t heard any music, and when I hear music, then I really feel like something is missing. That’s the best I can do in trying to describe music.”

Or consider this from an untitled passage from Walser:

“If I were to take a trip in Switzerland, I would very probably get off the train in Basel first, spend the night in a hotel, and set out on foot early the next morning for a hike over the Jura Mountains. I picture the time of year as fall and my mood as passable. To sit in country inns and wait for lunch to be served is a savory treat and I would have the best possible conversations with the lady innkeepers and, where present, their daughters until the food came. Afterwards I would take to my feet again… In the bright, hot midday sun I would stop for a moment to rest under a fir, beech, or oak tree, stretching out on the moss or grass. It is so nice to relax, but that presupposes a preceding strain or effort, just as there is nothing truly good in this world of ours except where something bad has had to have been overcome. But where am I? Am I actually on a hike right now? How is that possible?”    

Becoming Fosse

With these passages, we are drawing closer to Fosse’s craft. I hold Walser to be Fosse’s precursor considering the shape that the Swiss writer gives to language that pauses, reflects and moves in that promising, or terrifying encounter between place and self. This encounter is the source of Freud’s unheimlich, or the uncanny, where a strange unfamiliarity is born out of an experience of alienation. It is often understood as the psychic state of modern life.

In Letter on Humanism (1946), Heidegger describes the modern condition as one of homelessness, a state of oblivion both in the ontological and ontic sense (in the idea of being and its material properties, at once metaphysical and physical). In literature, we find the expression of this state of being on occasions when a writer highlights existential discomfort and perplexity. In the 1910 passage, Walser begins by drawing an idyllic picture of his visit to Switzerland, till the uncanny sneaks in: “But where am I? Am I actually on a hike right now? How is that possible?” The writer and the reader are suddenly unsure of many things at once. There is radical uncertainty regarding any initial assumption on the stability of the writerly subject, and the surroundings he is describing.

This is reminiscent of Kafka’s prose piece, “On the Tram” (1958):

“I stand on the end platform of the tram and am completely unsure of my footing in this world, in this town, in my family…

The tram approaches a stopping place and a girl takes up her position near the step, ready to alight. She is as distinct to me as if I had run my hands over her. She is dressed in black, the pleats of her skirt hang almost still, her blouse is tight and has a collar of white fine-meshed lace… Her small ear is close-set, but since I am near her I can see the whole ridge of the whorl of her right ear and the shadow at the root of it.

At that point I asked myself: How is it that she is not amazed at herself, that she keeps her lips closed and makes no such remark?”

Kafka picks up from Walser the awareness of uncertainty, of a deep dislocation from reality, of being suddenly nobody in the middle of nowhere. The girl he watches with delicate and intense attention transforms into an enigmatic figure whose world is infinitely close and distant from him. Kafka aches to describe the paradox of proximity by describing (and exposing) his being vulnerable and ridiculous at the same time.

Fosse has named Kafka among his inspirations. In Scenes from a Childhood, Fosse, like Kafka, raises the uncanny to a sinister level. The nature of Walser’s quiet reflections reverberates with more urgency in Fosse.

The memory snippets in Scenes From a Childhood portray scenes that encircle you in the opposite direction of a spider’s web, moving towards an elusive centre. The stories fall off the edge when you reach the end. Fosse brings minor, often intense, moments of life to light and makes it vanish as suddenly as it appeared. The writer tells us memory is a fragmented cluster of images where you retrieve fleeting consolations and terrors of life. The self discovers no ground of its own except grappling with life’s accidents.

“It’s Maybe Four o’Clock” is a paragraph-long fragment strung together by images alone. “I Just Can’t Get The Guitar Tuned” is an amusing episode over two pages that tells you how often a situation spirals out of control and leaves you exasperated, yet with a scope to innovate. “The Axe” is two sentences long:

“One day Father yells at him and he goes out to the woodshed, he gets the biggest axe, he carries it into the living room and puts it down next to his father’s chair and asks his father to kill him. As one might expect, this only makes his father angrier.” 

The father is angry within limits. The son, in his vulnerable rage, provokes the father to cross the border of his anger and transform that anger into an act of violence. It does not cure the father’s anger. There is no resolution to the violence of anger by attempts to intensify it.

Images etched in frozen time

“My Grandmother Is Lying In Bed” is a touching story in three parts depicting the uncommunicable nature of the conversation between grandchild and grandmother, where language is reduced to two syllables, “yes” and “no”. “Water Gun” is a two-page story of childhood terror where a simple errand turns into a nightmare. Fosse leaves the fragments as they are, telling us that indecipherable episodes of childhood remain forever indecipherable. These fragments are not really stories because they go nowhere. They are proto-stories, episodes that are remembered from childhood probably because they remain a piece of wonder or a mark of scar in the mind.

Fosse’s small autobiographical pieces are in Proustian mode but without Proustian certainties. His landscape of memory is drowned in snow.

In “Red Kiss Mark On The Letter”, Fosse reduces what is probably a longer story of association with a girl when they were 14 years of age, into four short sections on a page. There are simply two things we ought to know from the story: the girl smears her letters to him with lipstick kisses, and she dies a year after he came to know her. There are fragments that are almost nothing, just a trace of smoke and a kiss on the cheek before the door of the chapel, or the sudden impulse to have a dog of one’s own, or a cousin buying Asle a secondhand guitar, or buying a book by Karl Marx that prompts the need to buy a dictionary to “look up a lot of words” but “understand a little”, and yet that makes him say, “I’m happy”. These fragments are not meant to impress readers looking for artifices but to tease out the intensity of lucid memories. A writer’s skills are not always aimed at devising intricate literary techniques to make readers ponder on life. Childhood is about associations, and Fosse is sharing images etched in frozen time.

In one of the fragments, Fosse writes about his discovery of “a kind of music where everything goes back and forth and stays quiet and nice to think about”. This description comes closest to what the fragments in this book are doing. They are memories set in musical pieces, often made of a single note.

Fosse’s mastery is most visible in the fragment, “Waiting”. Brother and sister wait for their pregnant mother to come back home from the hospital with a new sibling. It is like a silent, Abbas Kiarostami film on waiting children. The children in Fosse’s story move in opposite directions on the road. They sit and wait separately. But finally, exasperated from waiting all alone, they sit and wait together. The subtle fact is unmissable: It is difficult for children (or even adults) to wait in one place. Waiting involves a directionless activity where the mind intensely revolves around itself. To change place is a psychological act meant to prevent exhaustion.

The longer pieces in the book are closer to stories and yet retain their fragmentary nature. “How It Started” is about a game that leads to kissing, but the intensity lies in the atmosphere, rather than the act. Desire is felt like a growing music in the body, and words are obsolete. Desire is the beating of language without words.

In the famous story in this collection, “And Then My Dog Will Come Back To Me”, Fosse brings his style of repetition to powerful use. Repetition is often used as a psychic trope (akin to Freud’s “repetition compulsion”) that is used as a literary technique to register traumatic memory. The story of the murder of a person who murders a dog takes on a hallucinatory note when the surviving murderer is caught in a daze, unable to either attach himself to or disassociate himself from his crime. He makes clumsy attempts to hide his tracks or deny his crime. It is as if the rage which makes him kill the man who killed his dog left him with a self he cannot recognise. He becomes a stranger in the nightmare of his own making. There is an interesting connection between the moment when he hears about his dog’s murder and the moment when he is forced to confront his own act.

Moment I:

“I think the man by the bend has shot your dog, she says

I hear her say that she thinks the man by the bend has shot my dog. What? What is she saying? Shot the dog? What’s she talking about? ... She can’t really mean someone’s shot my dog.

I saw the dog and I heard a bang.

What the fuck is she saying? Shot the dog? What the fuck does she want?”

Moment II:

“It wasn’t you, was it?”…

No, I say…

I didn’t kill him, I say.

It was you, she says…

I shouldn’t have told you he shot your dog, she says…

It wasn’t me, I say…

She looks at me…

You did it, she says.

I look down, straight in front of me.

Just tell me, I won’t tell anyone.

I nod.

It was you?


The main protagonist is unable to believe his dog is shot, and later tries to hide his own crime. But we soon realise he is no longer pretending to not accept the act before his neighbour. He has come to believe he hasn’t committed the murder. Hallucination is not a moral state of being. The man is not trying to absolve himself of guilt. Hallucination is a dismissal of reality. The story ends with the man telling himself, “Now the dog needs to come back soon. And what’s going on? Now the dog needs to come back home.”

In the last story, “Little Sister”, Fosse gives us profoundly tender snippets on childhood. There is a striking line in the second segment: “She, his mother, mustn’t see him crying just because he looked at the fjord and a sky and a blade of grass in front of the cloud that was almost nothing but a couple of wisps”. The boy does this in the middle of the night and scares his mother who yells at him and pulls him in roughly by the arm. The little boy must hold back his tears because his innocence is hurt. Being unaware of danger is a mark of innocence. The mother scolds him and his younger sister later, for wandering off in the neighbourhood on their own. The conversation goes between mother and her little son goes, “You are not allowed to, she says. But I want to, he says.”

The daring of innocence comes from the desire to face danger and discover the possibilities of freedom. The knowledge of adulthood, the adulthood of knowledge, is to learn the nature of danger and the limits to freedom. Childhood and adulthood are opposed to each other as they are separated by the two ends of this discovery.

In his short essay, “Kafka and His Precursors” (1951), Jorge Luis Borges chose “Zeno’s paradox against motion” as Kafka’s first precursor. In the fifth century BCE, Zeno put forward a counterintuitive argument in the Achilles Paradox that Achilles can never catch up with the tortoise that has started off much before he did. If the tortoise is a metaphor for slowness, Achilles is the metaphor for someone forever trying to beat his slow challenger.

Fosse is the tortoise who shall slow you down with his repetitions, the strange and oblique pathways that he undertakes, and his determined efforts to keep you trapped in the slow movement of his stories. Slowly, you will begin to realise like Achilles in the 21st century, you can’t overtake the slow writer. You will discover that the memory of life runs slowly, despite the speedy transportations that overwhelm reality.