Review: The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through Edelweiss.  This was published in the original Norwegian in 1957 and this English version has been translated by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes.

My Review:
The BirdsThis book was an unexpected surprise that pulled at my heart strings.  Mattis and his sister Hege live in the Norwegian countryside in a simple cottage by a lake.  Mattis is mentally challenged and he is constantly attempting to navigate a world that he doesn’t understand and that doesn’t understand him.  He has the mind of a child; he becomes excited at the simplest things like the woodcock which flies over their cottage.  He has a deep fear of abandonment and is afraid that his sister, who is his only caretaker, can be snatched from him at any moment.  And when he cannot make others understand him he becomes bewildered and frustrated.  I became completely absorbed in Mattis’ simple and constricted world.

The hardest parts of the story to read were those in which Mattis goes out into the surrounding countryside to look for work.  His sister supports them both by knitting sweaters so money is always tight and they live very simply.  Even though Mattis has a hard time doing the simplest tasks, like thinning turnips and stacking hay, his sister still insists on sending him into town to find a way to make some income.  His mind cannot coordinate with his hands and he becomes easily confused and frustrated.  Whenever he goes to beg for work he is humiliated because everyone in town knows who he is and they call him “Simple Simon.”  The people in town, however, are never cruel to him; they came up with what is supposed to be a harmless nickname for Mattis who is a well-known figure in town.  But every time someone calls him Simple Simon he is embarrassed and frustrated because he hates being defined by this phrase which he can never escape.  There is a deeper lesson in this book about being careful with our names or labels for others even when we are not intentionally being hurtful.

One day at the suggestion of Mattis’ sister, he decides that he will use his old, worn out boat to ferry people across the lake.  Rowing is something that he is good at and he loves spending time on the water.  On his first day of work, Mattis is lucky enough to come upon one customer, a lumberjack who has arrived in town looking for work.  Jørgen is the first and only person to take a ride on Mattis’ ferry service.  That fateful ferry ride brings Mattis’ sister Hege joy and companionship while it brings Mattis frustration and loneliness.

Although the story is mostly told from Mattis’ point of view, we do get a glimpse of what Hege’s life has been like trying to take care of Mattis.  Hege is forty years-old, has never married or had a family of her own and she doesn’t seem to have any friends either.    She has pretty much devoted her whole existence to taking care of her brother.  Hege becomes easily agitated with Mattis’ constant questions and emotional neediness. When Hege has the chance to find love and companionship with Jørgen, she begins to act differently towards Mattis because her time and attention are no longer completely devoted to him alone.  One the one hand Hege has the right to her own life and her own happiness, but on the other hand she still has an obligation to care for and protect her brother.

This is a quiet novel that deserves much more attention.  As a teacher I am confronted with students who have a vast array of mental, emotional and physical disabilities.  But seeing the world through the eyes of Mattis has made me even more sensitive and acutely award of what it is like to be labeled as “different” by the rest of the world.

About the Author:
T VessassTarjei Vesaas was a Norwegian poet and novelist. Written in Nynorsk, 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 according to critics are described with immense psychological insight. Commonly dealing with themes such as death, guilt, angst, and other deep and intractable human emotions, the Norwegian natural landscape is a prevalent feature in his works. His debut was in 1923 with Children of Humans (Menneskebonn), but he had his breakthrough in 1934 with The Great Cycle (Det store spelet). His mastery of the nynorsk language, landsmål (see Norwegian language), has contributed to its acceptance as a medium of world class literature.

10 Comments

Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

10 responses to “Review: The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

  1. This sounds wonderful. I enjoy your reviews of books/authors in translation not well known to American readers.

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  2. I am so pleased to read your review of this one, Melissa. It’s a great novel, a very simple story but one that had a profound impact on me when I read it a few years ago. Tarjei Vesaas is a terrific writer who deserves to be much better known than he is at the moment. (Well, I guess I’m talking about the English-speaking world of today as I suspect his profile is much higher in his native land Norway.) I’m pretty sure Karl Ove Knausgaard namechecks The Birds as one of the best Norwegian books in the canon – his first choice being Hunger by Knut Hamsun. If you haven’t read it, I would also recommend Vesaas’ novel, The Ice Palace, a mysterious and haunting tale of two young girls – another Norwegian classic.

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    • Thanks so much for the recommendation! I was wondering if Vesaas had another more of his books translated into English.

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      • You’re very welcome. The Ice Palace is great, highly recommended – it’s available over here from Peter Owen Modern Classics. Plus, I have another Vesaas in my TBR – Spring Night, also published by Peter Owen. I got into Vesaas following a recommendation from a trusted friend, someone I work with in the the wine industry who also happens to be a big reader of classic literature. He’s been trying to get his hands on as many of Vesaas’ books as possible (well, everything available in translation).

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  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Melissa. This sounds like a subtle but effective study, and I imagine as a reader you’re torn between sympathies for both brother and sister.

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  4. I’d echo Jacqui’s recommendation of The Ice Palace, though that’s the only one of his novels I’ve read (surprised that Jacqui didn’t recommend the film as well as she has a certain amount of expertise in that area too!) Peter Owen publish 5 of his books, including The Birds (in the same translation).

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  5. This one sounds wonderful. Thanks for the review!

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  6. I have this but I’m so far behind reading and writing for my blog. I wondered why Archipelago released this unless Peter Owen lost the rights. It’s now available here from both, plus a number of his other titles.
    Great review. I do hope to get to it some time.

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    • I saw that Peter Owen has three more of his titles so I am tempted to get those as well. It really is a great book and I think you will enjoy it. It is also a fairly quick read.

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