The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas

The Ice Palace, Tarjei VesaasTarjei Vesaas won the Nordic Council Literary Prize for The Ice Palace (original title Is-slottet) in 1964. It is a short, very captivating and interesting novel, very open to interpretations.

In Norway, Vesaas is regarded as perhaps the most important Norwegian author since Knut Hamsun. Tarjei Vesaas wrote in New Norwegian, and most of his books adapt a somewhat condensed style, with a seemingly simple and very elegant prose rich with symbols. Remarkably, Peter Owen, the British publisher, described it as "the best novel I ever published". Vesaas was considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature on three separate occasions (1964, 1968 and 1969), and is regarded as one of the greatest prose stylists never to have won.

Tarjei Vesaas

Tarjei Vesaas (20 August 1897, Vinje - 15 March 1970) was a Norwegian poet and novelist. Born in Vinje, Telemark, Vesaas is considered to be one of Norway's and Scandinavia's greatest writers of the twentieth century and perhaps its most important since World War II.

Vesaas spent much of his youth in solitude, seeking comfort and solace in nature. He was guilt-ridden by his refusal to take over the family farm, and this guilt permeates much of his authorship. The destruction he witnessed after World War I made a deep impression on him. He married the writer Halldis Moren Vesaas and moved back to his home town of Vinje in 1934.

His authorship covers almost 50 years, from 1923 to 1970. Written in Nynorsk (New Norwegian), his work is characterized by simple, terse, and symbolic prose. His stories are often about simple rural people that undergo a severe psychological drama and who are described with immense psychological insight. He often deals with themes such as death, guilt, angst, and other deep and intractable human emotions, and the Norwegian natural landscape is a prevalent feature in his works.

Tarjei Vesaas

Bibliography, selected

  • The Great Cycle, Det store spelet, 1934
  • Women Call Home, Kvinnor ropar heim, 1935 (sequel to The great cycle)
  • The Seed, Kimen, 1940
  • House in the Darkness, Huset i mørkret, 1945
  • The Winds, Vindane, short stories 1952
  • Land of Hidden Fires, Løynde eldars land, poetry 1953
  • Spring Night, Vårnatt, 1954
  • The Birds, Fuglane 1957
  • The Ice Palace, Is-slottet, 1963
  • The Bridges, Bruene, 1966
  • The Boat in the Evening, Båten om kvelden, 1968
  • Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas, 2000
(Novels, unless otherwise noted.)

The story in The Ice Palace focuses on two young, eleven-year-old girls, Siss and Unn, living in a rural community in Norway. They become friends, but have very different personalities. Siss is a natural leader, quite vivacious, while Unn is more introverted, perhaps even a little shy.

Tarjei Vesaas masterfully sets the mood for the novel with a few sentences on the first page:

"It was really only afternoon, but already dark. A hard frost in late autumn. Stars, but no moon, and no snow to give a glimmer of light - so the darkness was thick, in spite of the stars. On each side was the forest, densely still, with everything that might be alive in there at the moment."

Even before they meet for the first time, Siss and Unn are attracted to each other, and cannot wait to meet. When they finally do, at Unn’s house, they talk for a while, Unn shows Siss a picture from the family album of her father, and then Unn persuades Siss that they should undress, just for fun. They do, watching each other. The scene introduces a recurrent mirroring and reflection process that is constitutive of the narrative in The Ice Palace. Then Unn asks whether Siss can see if she is different. Siss say no, she can’t, and Unn says she has a secret and is afraid she will not go to heaven. Soon they dress again, and the situation is rather awkward. Somehow the tension and awkwardness of their first meeting becomes a permanent feature of their relationship – close but troubled.

Unn is the one who discovers the 'Ice Palace.' It is a marvelous creation, almost like an otherworldly hard and shining thing, with subdued colors and strange light: a formation of ice created by a waterfall. A large, magnificent structure while it lasts. Unn is completely baffled by its ephemeral beauty.

"Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and curved tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone."

Unn moves around in the ice palace, and gradually loses all sense of direction. She can’t find her way out, and ends up losing her life in its irresistible beauty.

So at the very beginning of their friendship the two young girls are separated by the death of Unn in this strange world of ice. Siss is left alone, and has to somehow come to terms with what has happened and her loss. What is more, when the search for Unn remains fruitless, people start to wonder if Siss knows more about the disappearance than she lets on. They wonder what had passed between them the night before. Siss on her part is overwhelmed by loss and loneliness, and makes a promise that she will never forget Unn. Therefore, Siss takes upon herself the role Unn had: standing alone in the school yard refusing to play or speak.

Even now, when the Ice Palace now has become a place of dangerous beauty, Siss is still somehow attracted to it and finds it hard to leave it alone. It is almost irresistible to her – a temptation perhaps too strong for to resist.

The Ice Palace is a serene, beautiful and very evocative novel. It is a very memorable tale of dawning adolescence, love and loyalty. The imagery Vesaas uses is wonderful, and the prose poetic. I love his sensitive and tension-filled yet beautiful descriptions. This is one of the most atmospheric novels ever written. It feels clean and calm, not unlike master-piece of classical music, yet also intense and lingering. A remarkable and splendid novel!

See also our review of Is-slottet, the movie based on this novel!

The Birds, by Tarjei Vesaas

The Birds, Tarjei VesaasThe Birds by Tarjei Vesaas is a true literary masterpiece – most likely one of the most beautifully haunting novels you will ever read. It is perhaps less known than The Ice Palace, by the same author, but in my opinion it is an even more remarkable and penetrating novel.

Set in Norway, The Birds tells the extraordinary story of Mattis, a young man with severe learning difficulties, and his doomed attempts to make sense of the world. Mattis lives with his older sister, Hege, who loves him deeply and has devoted her life to taking care of him.

The Birds is a marvelous and extremely sensitive exploration of the boundaries between madness and "normality", at times just splendid and utterly delightful. Written in a clear and concise manner, with simple and powerful prose, yet very lyrical, it conveys the tale of Mattis and shows us a young man's sacrifice on the altar of common sense and social unwritten rules. Is asks “How much reality can we stand before losing our mind?”

Mattis is a wonderful character. He is known as “Simple Simon” throughout the village, yet his inner-imagery-life is as complex as any inner-life can be. He can’t hold a job, and overall he can’t do much. He has a hard time communicating his thoughts and experiences. He can sit for hours a day throwing pebbles into the lake.

Mattis has some kind of contact with nature. He understands it. He feels it. He can understand swans and the woodcocks. And he has his own, at times delightful logic. I particularly enjoy his delightful conclusion regarding rocks: “Flat rocks are to sit on”. For Mattis, the world is alive and meaningful; and through Mattis, Vesaas makes strong use of repetitive symbols, which lends the book a dreamscape.

Vesaas’ writing style is very hard to describe, as it simply is quite extraordinary. It is sure and steady, and lyrical to the extreme. It is stark yet rich. It is simple with clear, beautiful sentences, yet at the same time very complex – the simple sentences play against other simple sentences in a way that is both evocative and thought-provoking. And his descriptions – both of nature and of Mattis’s simple but intriguing mind-set is both beautiful in its clarity and brevity, at the same time as the underlying images and ideas are completely captivating.

There is a spaciousness, a delicate calm, in Tarjei Vesaas’ writing that sets him apart. A kind of almost mesmeric quality. Reading him, you come alive within his tale. It’s a book that softly works its way into you. A book to love, to read and re-read, and then some time later read again. The Birds is a literary gem.

Praise for The Birds:

“A spare, icily humane story - The character of Mattis, absurd and boastful, also sweet, pathetic, even funny, is shown with great insight.” - Sunday Times.

“[This] novel...gave me particular pleasure.” - Doris Lessing

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