TagTarjei Vesaas

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas

“What can you do when everyone around you is strong and clever?”

Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds (1957)
Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)

Cover of The Birds, novel by Tarjei Vesaas

Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace was one of the stand-out books I read a couple of years ago, so it was a pleasure to read another of his novels and find it similarly affecting.

Our viewpoint character this time is 37-year-old Mattis, who lives with his older sister Hege in a cottage by the lake. The locals call him ‘Simple Simon’, and he doesn’t have much luck – either with getting women to notice him, or finding work. At one point, we see him join in with thinning out the rows of turnips on a local farm, but he simply can’t keep up.

There’s always the possibility that things will change, though. Towards the beginning of the novel, Mattis sees a woodcock fly directly over the house. He’s never seen one do that before. Mattis’s world is reordered: “It seemed to be a different house now, you had to look at it with different eyes.” He is eager to tell Hege what’s happened, but her reaction is a weary, “go and get some sleep now, Mattis.”

This is the way life tends to go for Mattis: things that mean so much to him leave others indifferent, and he can’t understand why. As readers, we can share his delight and frustration, but we can also see how difficult Hege has found it living with him – even though she doesn’t want to let it show.

***

There are a couple of chapters in the middle of The Birds that I think will go down as one of my favourite sequences in fiction. Mattis has been out in his boat and become stranded. He is found by a couple of holidaying girls, Anna and Inger, who take him back to shore. I was stunned by the range of emotions covered with such subtlety in these scenes. You see so much all at once.

Mattis is innocently overjoyed that finally some girls have paid attention to him. What’s more, they don’t know him, so he can revel in the freedom of being someone else. At the same time, his wandering eye and emotional intensity make Anna and Inger uncomfortable. But they also feel it would be wrong to leave him there. The sense is that they know on one level that Mattis means no harm, but on another they are instinctively wary of him. Vesaas makes clear that all these emotional contradictions are bound up together, and the tension between them helps give these scenes their power.

***

Mattis later tries to earn a living as a ferryman, but ends up with only one passenger: Jørgen, a lumberjack. Jørgen needs a bed for the night, so Mattis invites him back to the cottage – and there the lumberjack stays, because Hege falls in love with him. Now the balance of Mattis’s life is upended, and he has to work out his place in the world anew.

The touchstones of Mattis’s world – small events in nature, Hege and her constant knitting – are not those of other people. This is what makes it so difficult for him to relate to others, and them to him. But there are still times when he wants to ask the big questions – “Why are things the way they are?” – if someone would only listen. Vesaas depicts Mattis and his life with piercing clarity.

The Birds is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics (in association with Peter Owen Publishers), and in the US by Archipelago Books.

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

Today, I’ve got a Norwegian classic for you. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) came from the village of Vinje, a village in the southern Norwegian province of Telemark. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 25 novels, including 1963’s The Ice Palace. I’m reviewing the new Penguin Modern Classics edition, which has been published in association with Peter Owen Publishers. Before I start on the novel itself, I must say that I think the cover image is gorgeous. It’s by Hsiao-Ron Cheng, a Taiwanese artist; if you like this picture, there’s more on her Instagram.

Now, back to The Ice Palace. It’s the story of two 11-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is the leader in her school playground, the one whom all the other children gravitate towards. Unn is a recent arrival from another district, come to stay with her aunt (rumour has it, because she has been orphaned). Unn stands apart from all the others in the playground, but Siss is drawn to her nonetheless. It turns out that Unn would like to spend time with Siss after all, but will only do so if Siss visits her at home after school. Siss accepts the invitation.

The scene where the two girls are sitting in Unn’s bedroom is remarkably powerful. Tension builds and builds, but so much remains elusive. In this passage, for example, Siss and Unn are looking at their reflections in a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: Gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation.

In that moment, a unique spark of something has ignited between Siss and Unn; the whole sequence is full of the raw sense of two children working out the shape of their new friendship in the moment. As the scene progresses, it appears that Unn would like to disclose a deep secret to Siss, something that she hasn’t felt able to say to anyone else. However, just as Unn begins to do so, Siss feels uncomfortable and asks to leave.

The following morning, Unn (in the only chapter written from her viewpoint) feels that it would be too embarrassing to meet Siss again that day. Instead of going to school, Unn decides to explore the ice palace, a mysterious and beautiful structure which has been formed by a frozen waterfall. It’s there that Unn vanishes.

The rest of the novel revolves primarily around Siss, and her response to a world without Unn. At first, Siss promises to think about Unn – and no one else – for as long as Unn is missing. However, that leaves Siss the isolated one in the playground. She needs to find a different way to be. In this aspect, The Ice Palace is a coming-of-age story.

Vesaas’ book is also concerned with the interaction of place and people: Siss and Unn’s aunt as members of the village community; the different circles of belonging at school; people’s fascination with the ice palace. When a group of village men are out late searching for Unn at the waterfall, Vesaas makes clear that any mystery or beauty about the place is a product of its observers’ perception:

There is something secret here. [The men] bring out what sorrows they may have and transfer them to this midnight play of light and suspicion of death. It makes things better, and through it they fool themselves into enchantment. They are dispersed in the angles of ice, the lanterns shoot transverse gleams, meeting the lights from other cracks and prisms – quite new beams are illuminated, just as quickly extinguished again for good.

The prose, in Elizabeth Rokkan’s translation, is a mixture of flowing sentences and jagged fragments. It helps turn what might seem on the surface to be a fairly straightforward novel into a sharper reading experience that stays long in the mind.

Book details

The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan (1993); original pub. Peter Owen, this edition Penguin Modern Classics; 140 pages; paperback (review copy).

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