Translated by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes
I discovered the beautifully observed novella The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (reviewed here) during last year’s Nordic FINDS, it was as much a hit with me as everyone else who had been reading it since Penguin brought out their new Modern Classics edition. Penguin followed up with another of Vesaas’ novellas, The Birds – which I didn’t get hold of until after the event, but Lizzy reviewed it last year here and several others of you including Jacqui have recommended it to me. The Birds was first published six years before The Ice Palace, in 1957, and this translation was first published in 1968 by Peter Owen.
The Birds is the story of Mattis; he is forty, and is looked after by his sister Hege. They live in a cottage by a lake in the Norwegian countryside, and Hege works hard knitting jumpers to provide for them both, as Mattis is not able to hold down a paying job, many of the locals call him ‘Simple Simon’. His mental disability makes him lose concentration and things tend to go wrong on the few occasions he has worked casually on local farms. One day a farmer gives him a chance, helping to weed and thin rows of turnips…
Mattis had long since stopped stooping down, he had begun crawling forwards on his knees. His fingers wouldn’t do as they were told, they misunderstood his thoughts, and now and again they held up the work completely.
He recognized it all so well from past experience, he expected it. He carried on as best he could, but his thoughts were darting in all directions. After a while he noticed that he was pulling up turnips instead of goose-foot. He gave a start, got up on his feet and stood trembling.
It’s hard not to sympathise with Mattis. He realises that he is not normal in the way that others are, but doesn’t know how to do anything about it, although rare small victories like talking to a girl, doing the shopping for Hege and so on do make him swell with pride. However, his distractions and obsessions overtake his emotions and he can’t keep it up.
As the novella starts he becomes obsessed with a woodcock that has started to fly over the house, seeing this as a sign. If it were a sign, he has no idea what it means though, and Hege isn’t bothered by it frustratingly for Mattis. Poor Hege, she’s long-suffering but clearly does love her younger brother – but he can get in the way, and Mattis doesn’t understand her own depression.
One day she suggests that he starts a ferry service across the lake – going out in his rotten rowing boat to fish (usually unsuccessfully) is something Mattis does do – he jumps on this suggestion, little realising that there won’t be any traffic, but he is prepared. He will have but a single customer, a lumberjack called Jørgen, who needs somewhere to stay and Mattis offers their attic.
It is immediately obvious where the introduction of Jørgen will take us, and Mattis’ life won’t – can’t – be the same ever again – I won’t tell you how it ends, but you can read between the lines, sadly.
This novella has some exquisite characterisation, Vesaas handles Mattis so sensitively, and captures Hege’s effective imprisonment within her life – so when the chance for happiness comes, you can’t deny it to her. On the cover, Karl Ove Knausgaard says The Birds is ‘the best Norwegian novel ever’; while I loved it and would award it a full 10/10, personally, I preferred The Ice Palace just slightly I think for its optimistic outlook at the end. I also adore the covers of both.
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Penguin Modern Classics paperback, 186 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.