Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

Book cover of Jon Fosse's 'A Shining'

The forest of discovery in Jon Fosse’s ‘A Shining’

Norwegian writer, Jon Fosse (1959–), won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2023. He was praised for his ‘innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable’.[1]

This description seems applicable to his latest book. In A Shining (2023)—a 46-page, single-paragraph story about an almost indescribable, imperceptible, journey to an impenetrably dark forest—Fosse’s narrator is never sure what is going on. They are often contradictory and commonly confused.

Briefly, the narrator has driven a car to the edge of a forest in late autumn. They want to go home, but instead enter the forest where they get increasingly lost. They see things—people, the shining presence of the title—that could be there, but these visions always suggest absence or ghostliness.

It’d be wrong to say that I totally understand what the book is about. But there are other texts it reminds me of: Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels (1951–3; especially Molloy and The Unnamable);[2] Søren Kierkegaard’s essay ‘Either/Or’ (1843); Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–92); and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from the Republic (book VII).

The last one draws my interest here and I will focus on Fosse’s inversion of Plato.


Plato’s Allegory of the Cave explains how humans need to seek out truth. To simplify, Socrates describes a situation in which someone is chained up inside a cave. Behind them a fire blazes that casts shadows in front. This is the only thing to watch and so, ‘To them, […] the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.’[3]

But when they break their chains, they can exit the cave and see daylight. The sun blinds them, with new shadows and new colours: a new world. The veil of ignorance is lifted and the chained human is now enlightened.

Socrates likens this escape from the cave to the true value of education. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), analytic philosopher and also a Nobel Prize winner in Literature (1950), points out that Plato sets up the cave allegory by first establishing ‘the necessity of the world of ideas’. Plato describes intellectual development through reason and understanding, and also explains how ‘sense-perception’ leads to ‘confused vision’. This is because of the significance of light: ‘in twilight we see confusedly, and in pitch-darkness not at all’.[4]

Direct light therefore becomes equated with the possibility of intellectual growth.

These two threads—the intellectual and sense-perception—are both edified when the human escapes the dark cave into the sunlit day.

A heuristic

But in Fosse’s A Shining, which appears to end in another kind of allegory about illumination with a ‘shimmering presence that lights up a breathing void’, the narrator has had to enter the forest in order to discover some kind of truth.[5]

I think of this as some kind of heuristic narrative. From the Greek heuriskein, a heuristic describes a discovery or process of problem-solving. We see this in A Shining when the narrator swings between certainty—’That [shining is] what’s here. That and me.’ (p. 21)—before stating the opposite further down the page:

But who can it be, is there anyone else here deep in the dark woods, no, so who can it be. But it may well be that there are people besides me in this forest. How can I be so sure that there’s just me in this cold dark forest.

Fosse, p. 21

There are no question marks at the end of any of the dozens of questions in the book. However, by posing the questions anyway, the narrator is showing how the forest is a heuristic space—a place of discovery that answers questions.

Interestingly, though, the shift between certainty and uncertainty isn’t oppositional. Instead, these states of knowing/unknowing are paralleled. They happen, quantum-like, at the same time, without threat of contradiction.

Parallel opposites

The shining white presence invokes this sense of parallelism. When asked why the presence is following the narrator, it replies: ‘I’m not following you. I say: so what are you doing. The presence says: I’m walking with you.’ (Fosse, p. 26) A spirit, an ‘angel’ (p. 21), the narrator’s soul, or another ethereal being, the presence refuses to be antagonistic. Instead, it resembles a partner.

Later on this heuristic becomes creative. First the narrator wonders, ‘And the white presence […] where did that go,’ before answering their own question: ‘But aren’t I seeing it over there now, yes, on the other side of the man in the black suit.’ (Fosse, p. 21) Thinking makes it so.

Here is the narrator, ‘Deep in the dark woods’ (p. 41), in the insensible shadows where neither reason nor understanding can reign. And yet reality emerges from this insensible, irrational, misunderstood darkness.

This boldly refuses the premises of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Instead of the light outside, the interior darkness is the source of true illumination.

[1] See

[2] Not the first time on this blog that I’ve spied Beckett’s influence.

[3] Plato, The Republic, Book VII, in The Portable Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett, ed. Scott Buchanan (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 547.

[4] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2010 [1946]), pp. 125–7.

[5] Jon Fosse, A Shining, trans. Damion Searles (London: Fitzcarraldo, 2023), p 46.





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