Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace was one of the most memorable reads from my immersion in Nordic literature last January. After the magical and terrifying evocation of winter in that most chilling of Norwegian novels, I was fully prepared to shiver my way through the next Vesaas translation on my bookshelf this February, only to discover how untimely such an attempt would be. While ‘The Ice Palace’ begins in late autumn and ends with the thaw, punctuated by the forming, creaking and melting of ice, ‘The Birds’ starts in the summer and dramatic moments are accompanied by awe-inspiring summer thunderstorms.
Terrified by such storms, the main character, Mattis, lives in an uncannily close relationship with the nature that surrounds him. Uncomfortable with people, utterly dependent on his long-suffering sister, he is enraptured by birds, by song and by the idea of love. His tortured encounters with his neighbours almost reminded me of the start of We Have Always Lived in the Castle but Mattis is far more of a fairy-tale simpleton than Jackson’s fearsome protagonist. Indeed, when his relationship with his sister is threatened by an unexpected stranger, the interloper is no urban smooth-talker, but a hardy and capable woodcutter.
And so the fable continues, but, somehow, the magic that I found in ‘The Ice Palace’ failed to ring true. Instead, I found myself increasingly troubled by the view Vesaas gives of outsiders and their place in society. I don’t want to give away any plot points, but the two of his novels that I’ve read explore doomed love between an insider and someone who is not part of the community, someone without the skills to survive the dangers of the natural world. While the descriptions are dreamy and beautiful in their simplicity, the underlying message is worrying and, the more I became aware of it, the less I was able to lose myself in the story.
If anyone can recommend other books by Vesaas I’d love to learn about them. I am going to be wary though, ‘The Birds’ actually made me concerned about re-reading ‘The Ice Palace’ for fear that the message I managed to ignore the first time round will now be impossible to overlook. Still, the good news is that it’s months away from winter now. Maybe by the time the cold weather starts I’ll be able to face ‘The Ice Palace’ with cool indifference to what might lie beneath, only taking the best from a writer with a masterful sense of space, time and how humans can both love and fear their natural environment.