March 2013

Hannah Sheldon-Dean


The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Michael Barnes and Torbjorn Stoverud

"If only one was different in three ways," says Mattis to his sister Hege. "What three ways?" she asks, and he replies: "It's to do with what I didn't tell you." Hege, forty years old and graying early, rarely understands the things her brother does tell her. Since their parents' early deaths, the two have lived alone in a small cottage by a lake, in a peaceful Norwegian village where the townspeople know Mattis as Simple Simon. With Mattis unable to hold down a job -- when he tries to work, he finds that "his fingers wouldn't do as they were told, they misunderstood his thoughts" -- brother and sister get by on the money that Hege makes knitting and selling sweaters. "Hege keeps me all the year round," Mattis thinks. "Keeps me. Keeps me. The word had a bitter taste."

The Birds, Tarjei Vesaas's novel, which was first published in English in 1968 and is receiving a new paperback printing from the Modern Classics imprint of Peter Owen Publishers, is Mattis's story, his version of the spring and summer during which Hege ceases to keep him. From the start, Mattis is keenly aware of the barriers and differences between himself and those around him; there are the strong and clever ones, like Hege, and then there is him. Wholly reliant on Hege and terrified of losing her, Mattis simultaneously clings to the familiar and yearns to find a place for himself. He dreams of a role that would allow him to be different in the three ways he secretly prizes: wisdom, beauty, and strength. Rowing expertly on the lake with two friendly visitors from out of town, Vesaas writes: "This was how it should be. This was what he ought to be able to say about so many things: I know all about this. And: I've set my course. And much more."

In the midst of Mattis's quotidian longing and confusion, a woodcock begins a daily flight over his and Hege's house. Mattis is enamored of the woodcock, of the way it seems to choose him and of the straightness of its flight, which he envisions leaving clear trails of light in the air above the house. With its arrival, Mattis is sure, he and his life have been changed. The flight of the woodcock sets off a chain of events that leads him into ever-deeper contemplation of his world and its tangled workings. To call the plot points "events" is perhaps misleading; only infrequently do material occurrences move the novel forward. The tension here derives almost entirely from changes in Mattis's own thoughts and beliefs, and the great feat of The Birds is how fully authentic and engaging that tension is.

Along with The Birds, the best-known novel of Norwegian literary treasure Vesaas's is probably The Ice Palace, the story of a mercurial friendship between two young girls. Gazing into a mirror together, the girls see "gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone -- into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is." Throughout that novel, the two girls' identities are intermingled, illuminating and shadowing each other to an infinite degree. Vesaas pulls off that same trick in The Birds, but this time, the relentless reflecting occurs between Mattis and the reader. We can't parse his verbal attempts to express himself any better than Hege can. But as Vesaas's straightforward prose subtly reveals Mattis's perspective, we find ourselves shifting irrevocably from observers of his experience to participants in it. His fears and desires become our own, even as the language at hand only skirts delicately around what, exactly, those fears and desires are. We don't care about Mattis because we feel that we are similar to him; we do so because we feel that we are him.

Examining marks on the muddy ground where the woodcock has been, Mattis thinks: "You are you, that was what was written. What a greeting to receive!" Later, he simply speaks the names of the new friends he makes out on the lake, and "with those words everything seemed to have been said." Clarity of identity is Mattis's greatest treasure, but as the narrative progresses, he finds more and more that an essential part of being an individual is reflecting other individuals. When Mattis finally finds a job that suits him, it's as a ferryman, working always to shuttle people across his lake and into one another's lives. In that job, his thoughts obey him, and he is able to row straight. But when he ferries someone into his life who threatens to change it irreparably, he reflects as well on the danger of breaking down the barriers between individuals. Looking at his boat, Mattis thinks: "Who was the most to blame for Jørgen's arrival, the boat or himself? Neither of them could have brought Jørgen across to the house alone."

By the book's conclusion, Mattis's muddled inner life has proved to be a deeply nuanced examination of identity and responsibility, with abundant narrative suspense and hauntingly beautiful writing besides. The inexplicable thoughts that recur to Mattis will do so to readers as well, long after the book has ended. Some aspects of the narrative remain frustratingly unresolved, but that very ambiguity is central to Mattis's experience and thus to the book's success. Failing as ever to tell Hege what he's thinking, Mattis touches her gently and thinks: "It was impossible to explain what he meant, but at least he could lay his hand on her arm." The Birds offers its readers that same gesture, and that the novel explains nothing and yet conveys everything proves to be its greatest strength.

The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Michael Barnes and Torbjorn Stoverud
Peter Owen Publishers
ISBN: 978-0720614947
192 pages