The Hills Reply

Book review

Leif Larson
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Seated outside a cafe in Bergen, I slid a book across the table to my godfather, Svein.

“Ahh, Tarjei Vesaas,” he said ponderously as if he hadn’t thought of the author in years.

“Have you read his books?” I asked.

“Many, as well as his poems, but I was young. Everyone knew who Vesaas was then. His nynorsk writing was considered difficult to read, but everyone knew him.”

He turned the book over to study the back cover, and I thought how fascinating it was that a writer so familiar in the canon of Norwegian literature was, I assumed, unknown to general American readers.

In the United States, one would be lucky to find Vesaas’ work at the bookstore or even the local library. An English reader’s access to Vesaas is largely limited to British publications and expensive, used, out-of-print editions online; however, in 2016 a non-profit publisher in Brooklyn, Archipelago Books, published Vesaas’ The Birds, a novel commonly regarded as his masterpiece. Browsing at the bookstore, one may now find Vesaas beside Vonnegut.

Despite writing nine novels and one play prior to World War II, Vesaas is considered one of Norway’s most well-regarded post-war writers. Vesaas is of the generation that, although young, witnessed the deaths of many of Norway’s most enduring cultural elite—writers like Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie, and Amalie Skram, as well as prominent composer, Edvard Grieg. Born in 1897, Vesaas began writing at a young age. His first novels were published in his mid-20s, and he earned his first major prize, the Gyldendal’s Endowment, decades later during the German occupation of Norway in 1943. His work that follows the war, mainly poetry, short stories, and novels, is often identified as his most idiosyncratic.

To contextualize Vesaas is tempting, but to do so binds him too closely with the center of Norwegian culture. Rather, Vesaas existed  at the margins, never straying too far from his home in Vinje, unlike many of Norway’s well-known artists who situated themselves in the city among artistic circles and schools. Vesaas’ nearness to nature and his long-lasting connection to his family’s land accompanied him all his life. This space where he developed in life and as a writer influenced the scope, depth, and imagery of his oeuvre, one that is apparent in his final work, arguably his apogee, The Hills Reply.

Unlike Vesaas’ more well-known novels, The Birds, The Seed, or The Ice Palace, The Hills Reply consists of fragmented vignettes, each one un-reliant on the others. These chapters unfold as meditations, lyrical observations on the world that engulf the narrator. Although lacking familiar novelistic conventions like a prolonged plot or conflict, the vignettes have a “familiar unfamiliarity” to them, much like events in memory, making them readily accessible and readable.

Vesaas hints at the semi-autobiographical nature of the book with the title of the first vignette, “As it Stands in the Memory.” This first section depicts a boy, his father, and their horse clearing snow from a logging road and is told mainly in the first person; however, Vesaas keeps his own authorship at arm’s length, as the boy is written about simply as “the boy”—with Vesaas’ “I” is temporarily removed. This shifting of perspective suggests that Vesaas, while perhaps recalling moments from his own youth, is aware that memory could be failing him, at least enough to abstract the point of view. Rather than writing about memory in a situated state as though looking back from his older age, Vesaas’ prose seems to invoke impulses, particular sensations that may have accompanied him throughout his life. One of the more robust and restless vignettes follows.

“In the Marshes and on the Earth” depicts a boy approaching two dancing cranes. The boy is drawn closer and closer to the cranes until a moment of conflict. There is a strong sense of identifying with nature or longing to do so in the vignette, although with a calm that nevertheless retains the lyrical intensity of the narrator’s inner world.

As for the outer world—walls of stone, the highway, smells of a morning rain, fetching a milk pail—all of these typical depictions of everyday life become a spotlight on existence. It is not difficult to imagine that such depictions of what Vesaas calls “fleeting, precious moments,” are meaningful to him and that they have occupied his thoughts and, indeed, his writing, all his life. A number of the vignettes are short sketches, only a few pages in length, but they, too, are like “fleeting, precious moments,” charged with something revelatory. Despite being short bite-sized chapters, they are extremely rich and meditative. Reading one or two may be enough before putting the book aside to think a while.

Since Vesaas developed his idiosyncratic style later in life, the writing itself cannot be overlooked when reading his final work, The Hills Reply. Stemming initially from a Romantic style, Vesaas’ writing was chiseled to a more succinct and terse hybrid of prose and poetry. The division between poetry and prose is clear in Vesaas’ work, but in The Hills Reply, the space between the two has never felt narrower. It is a fine mixture, a mesh of descriptive yet highly lyrical moments. There are texts in the book that clearly evoke the familiar structure of poetry, but it is the rhythm of the writing that enables him to keep the seamless continuity between prose and poetry.

A question that is asked repeatedly throughout the work is “What is it?” and the reader, too, may find themself staring back at the book asking the same thing. How fitting then, that Vesaas, whose incredibly world-like book, instills that same sense of wonder and bewilderment. Reading The Hills Reply is certainly a way of seeing the world anew.

Vesaas wrote over 40 works, including novels, short stories, collections of poetry, as well as stage and radio plays. Well regarded abroad, he earned the Venice Prize in 1953 for his collection of short stories, The Winds, and in 1963, he was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for his novel, The Ice Palace. The earnings of the latter prize enabled him to initiate the Tarjei Vesaas’ Debutant Prize, an award given annually by a jury for the best debut literary work in Norwegian. Vesaas died in 1970. The Hills Reply was translated by the late Elizabeth Rokkan and was published on Dec. 10, 2019, by Archipelago Books.

This article originally appeared in the January 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.