Heartwood 6:2 – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

IcePalaceThe Ice Palace is a story set in Norway about a girl, Unn, who has moved to a new town to live with her aunt after the death of her mother (her still-living father is someone she has never known). At school Unn is welcomed by her new classmates but she is reluctant to join in with them. When Unn finally invites the leader of the other eleven-year-olds (Siss) to her house, they quickly establish an intimate connection, but one that is grounded in large part on the mysterious and unspoken. During this brief encounter, Unn is tempted to share a secret with Siss, but then does not; a little later, when she again appears ready to share her secret, Siss becomes uneasy and leaves the house in haste.

The next day, Unn does not go to school, but instead goes to visit the ice falls along the river, a natural wonder the class is scheduled to visit in the coming weeks. Siss is surprised that Unn is not at school, where she had hoped to approach her again and make things right between them. Siss decides she must visit Unn again immediately after school, but when she gets to her aunt’s house discovers that Unn is not at home, and the aunt learns that Unn had never arrived at school.

An all-night search is organized and although the reader knows what has happened to Unn, her disappearance hangs unresolved for the book’s characters, and her withheld secret puts Siss in an awkward position as everyone asks what Unn had said to her but she is unable to tell them. The focus then shifts to Siss and the unfolding days of remorse, self-blame, and mourning that she has to endure throughout the long winter and spring.

Vesaas is a lyrical storyteller for whom what is withheld is as important as what is revealed; his characters are desirous of friendship and intimacy but are also presented as complex beings that can never be completely known by another. The magnetism between the girls is a beautiful example of this. On the night they met at the aunt’s house, Unn takes a mirror off her bedroom wall and has Siss sit by her side as they silently gaze at themselves and each other in reflection. Later, Unn suddenly suggests they undress, and just as quickly that they put their clothes back on after they have stood for a moment “shining” before each other.

This is a gorgeously told story, filled with Norwegian winter scenery and the ache of living, love, and loss.

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The Ice Palace won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1964. For my review of Tarjei Vesaas’s The Birds click here.

Heartwood 4:4 – The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

The Birds with citationThe Birds is the story of Mattis, a man with learning disabilities in his late 30s, and his sister Hege who takes care of him. They live near the shore of a lake somewhere in rural Norway. Hege knits sweaters almost constantly to bring in the little money that supports the two of them. Due to his general ineptitude, Mattis is unable to secure much in the way of work  – he’s even worn out his welcome as a day laborer, though his neighbors could always use the help at harvest time.

Mattis is afraid of thunderstorms, is spellbound by the habitual flight-path of a woodcock, and sees omens in the two dead aspen that everyone refers to as Hege and Mattis. The story is told from Mattis’s point of view and we quickly discover his enthusiasms and desires as well as his worries and fears. We also come to understand with great intimacy the complex personality that lies beneath his “simple,” slow, and clumsy behavior. Every detail is significant in Mattis’s life and the natural world is especially filled with meanings, both awe-inspiring and frightening.

In one of my favorite scenes, a couple of bikini-clad girls rescue Mattis and his sinking rowboat from an island in the lake. He manages to take charge of the situation, rowing the girls in their boat and towing his empty boat behind as the girls indulge his vanity and chat with him along the way. This success helps convince him that he should offer a ferry service to take people across the lake. But everything changes for Mattis when he brings a lumberjack across who then takes lodging at the house with him and his sister.

I don’t know if I would have ever heard about this tremendous book if I hadn’t been reading My Struggle, the remarkable, multi-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard that’s been getting all kinds of coverage in the literary world in recent months. There is quite a bit in Knausgaard about art and music and literature, and somewhere in Book Two he complains about Norwegian fiction of the past fifty years, contentiously claiming The Birds (from 1957) is one of that country’s last successful novels. I love to follow leads like this, what Alan Jacobs calls reading upstream –  that is, finding out who has influenced the writers you admire and then reading the books they have read or enjoyed. Since reading so often shapes a writer, it’s frequently worth taking the bait when an author you like starts dropping names. It definitely worked for me in this case. So, who influenced Tarjei Vesaas? I don’t know yet, but after reading The Birds I’m beginning to think I should find out.

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