Book review: Vesaas’s The Birds
Christine Foster Meloni
Tarjei Vesaas is considered one of the greatest Norwegian writers of the 20th century. He was born in 1897 in Vinje, Telemark, and grew up on his family farm there. He spent considerable time alone in nature as a boy, and his closeness to the natural world is evident in his works, including The Birds (1957). In all of his works, he showed great psychological insight. He wrote both poetry and novels from 1923 until his death in 1970. He was married to the writer Halldis Moren Vesaas.
Vesaas received several prestigious literary awards including the Venice Prize for The Winds in 1953 and the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for his novel The Ice Palace in 1963. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960.
The protagonist of his hauntingly beautiful novel The Birds is Mattis, a man in his 30s who is known as Simple Simon to the people in his town. He has serious problems dealing with others in social contexts and with applying himself in work situations. He is completely dependent on his older sister Hege, who assumed responsibility for his care after the death of their parents.
Hege has not had an easy life as her brother’s caretaker. To support the two of them, she spends most of her waking hours knitting sweaters. She rarely leaves the house and has virtually no social life. She has just turned 40 and her hair has begun to turn gray. She realizes that she is growing old without really having lived. She tries to be kind to Mattis, but he is a cause of great frustration for her.
Mattis lives in another world. His encounters with other people quite frequently end in disaster. He knows that he is different and tries very hard to understand others and to act as is expected.
One day, for example, he is standing on the road waiting for someone to pass by so he can ask a very important question. When he sees a man approaching, he rushes up to him and asks, “Well, what have you been doing today?”
The man is tired and the question irritates him. He immediately counters with “What have you been doing?” This abrupt question frightens Mattis and he quickly tells the man that he asked that question only “because it is the sort of thing people do.” His real question is another, one that he feels is very important.
His sister tries to encourage him to look for work although she and Mattis both know that he is rarely offered a job and, if he is, it doesn’t usually end well. To his surprise a farmer one morning offers him work in his turnip field, pulling up weeds. But soon after initiating the work, his mind begins to wander. He gets confused and starts pulling up turnips instead of weeds. He becomes angry at his own ineptness and takes it out on the vegetables. “The precious turnips infuriated him. They lay there puny and threadlike when he’d pulled up the things they were resting against.”
Mattis, therefore, tries to avoid the stress of social interactions and the challenge of work. He prefers being on his own, feeling more at home in nature than in society. Although he fears nature at times (he is terrified of thunder and lightning), he usually finds great solace in it. He feels especially close to birds and is convinced that he can communicate with them.
He is thrilled when a woodcock begins flying over their house at night. He knows it is an omen that things will now be different. When he notices it the first night, he rushes in to awaken Hege and insists that she come out to see the bird—at once. She refuses, not giving much weight to this new event. He is nonplussed. How can she not understand what it means?
This woodcock gives Mattis great joy. In his mind they develop a relationship. When he finds its scratches in the dirt every morning, he assumes that they are the bird’s messages to him, so he takes a stick and writes back. They use the same language! But their relationship comes to an abrupt and tragic end when he innocently mentions the bird to a young hunter who then kills it.
His life takes a serious turn for the worse shortly thereafter. He begins a ferry service on the nearby lake. He is able to attract, however, only one passenger, a lumberjack whom he ferries from the far shore and invites to come home with him. Unfortunately for Mattis, Hege and Jørgen fall in love. He feels that his world is falling apart. He will be left alone and won’t be able to survive on his own.
The novel rushes to a conclusion, but the ending appears to be ambiguous. What really happens in the end? One must dig into Mattis’s mind to try to understand what happens and why.
One intriguing aspect of this novel is that Vasaas writes it in the third person, not from the point of view of Mattis. One feels, however, that it is Mattis who is speaking throughout. The advantage of this point of view is that the reader sometimes sees what Mattis himself does not.
Vasaas creates his protagonist with great understanding and sensitivity. The prose is simple in language but profound in the insights into this man who tries hard to make sense of his universe with limited success.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.