Book of the month: Tarjei Vesaas

Another recommendation from blog visitors provided September’s book of the month. Back in 2017, CJ Fearnley left a comment alerting me to Norwegian poet and novelist Tarjei Vesaas’s 1963 classic The Ice Palace and sharing a link to an essay he had written about it. A year later, Ragnhild nudged me about it again in response to my review of the work of another Nynorsk writer, Carl Frode Tiller.

Impressed that two visitors should have been moved to recommend the work of a novelist writing half a century ago in a language form that is the official written system for only around twelve per cent of Norway’s population, I resolved to check out Vesaas’s most famous work.

Charting the effect of a young girl’s disappearance on a rural community, The Ice Palace is, on the surface, a very simple book. It is told largely from the perspective of eleven-year-old Siss, who begins to befriend the oddly self-sufficient Unn after she moves in with her aunt and begins to attend Siss’s school. But when Unn ventures off to visit the palace of the title – a fantastical natural construction that forms around a nearby waterfall each winter – and fails to return, questions about her whereabouts and the conversation she had with Siss the evening before she disappeared start to show up cracks in the smooth surface of village life.

At first, the book’s simplicity can make it seem a little underwhelming. Opening with Siss’s first visit to Unn’s aunt’s house, the novel consists for some pages of little more than awkward conversations and false starts as the two girls struggle to navigate the strange affinity that they feel – so much so that Siss is sometimes ‘forced to talk nonsense in her perplexity’. Although the dynamics are beautifully judged, there is an oddly aimless feel to the narrative, as though the story is drifting along in spite of itself.

However, just as the lake water gathers pace as it is sucked towards the waterfall, so the story gains momentum as the book advances. As soon as Unn wanders off and discovers the dazzling and treacherous ice palace, Vesaas has us firmly in his thrall. The writing here, as the little girl ventures further into the labyrinth and begins to succumb to hypothermia and its attendant hallucinations is extraordinary. Readers will find elements of nightmarish dream sequences, fables and their own fears refracted through the glittering walls – Bluebeard meets Alice in Wonderland amid the weird manoeuvres of the subconscious. Through it all, the terrible allure of self-destruction shimmers, making the impossible contradictions that lie at the heart of human existence plain.

Much like the story, the novel’s language is deceptively simple. Although the writing is often spare, it frequently stretches words in surprising ways in an effort to contain its subject matter. Credit must go here to translator Elizabeth Rokkan for the work she has done to produce a text that is compelling and urgent even as it veers between tenses and perspectives, and sometimes flouts rules for good writing.

Whereas many writers strive to avoid tautology, repetition and double negatives, Vesaas and Rokkan use them as tools, often to communicate characters’ mental tics or patterns of thinking. This sentence from the section where Unn wanders off is a good example:

‘Her words seemed like fences alongside the road to school; it was difficult to climb over them, and they led straight to school.’

Here, the repetition of ‘school’ deftly conveys the way that Unn’s thoughts are dragged back and back to place she is avoiding.

It is a neat, microcosmic example of currents that run throughout the book, drawing all the elements of the opening chapters to tumble and churn in the plunge pool of the trauma at the novel’s heart before passing into the relative tranquility of the river beyond. A masterpiece.

The Ice Palace (Is-slottet) by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from the Nynorsk by Elizabeth Rokkan (Penguin, 2018)

Picture: ‘DSCF5384‘ by subflux on flickr.com

Postcard from my bookshelf #11

A final spin of the random-number generator brought me to this comment from Meghan:

I love this project! I have always said that if I could, I would love to spend quality time in every culture in the world. This is a great way to see into those different cultures and know that we are all the same, no matter where we ended up being born. I have eclectic taste: poetry, sci-fi, apocalyptic..I especially love reading books that show the day to day lives of other cultures so you feel yourself immersed in that culture. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

Two things stood out for me from this: Meghan’s enjoyment of sci-fi and apocalyptic literature, and her desire to feel immersed in the day-to-day lives of other cultures.

This second point is a common theme among literary explorers. Indeed, when people hear about my project to read a book from every country in 2012, they often assume that I read a book set in every country.

I can see why. For many bibliophiles, part of the appeal of reading internationally is the idea that it will enable them to travel in the mind, using books as a telescope to look at far-away places that they might never visit in person.

There’s nothing wrong with this as an ambition – and there are many wonderfully immersive books bristling with local detail that will give readers the impression of being transplanted into the everyday lives of people thousands of miles away.

However, when I set out on my quest five years ago, I knew this wasn’t my goal. Apart from anything else, I was sure that it would take many more than one book from each place to get an accurate, rounded picture of what life in each nation was like.

Instead, what interested me was mindsets, voices and perspectives. I wanted to explore how writers in different places looked at life, seeing what individual viewpoints I could access, rather than trying to look for general truths.

This meant that setting was not a primary concern. It seemed to me that a novel about another country or an imaginary place could tell me as much about the world-view of the author as a lavish evocation of the region in which they lived. So, although many of the stories I read took place in the nations I chose them to represent, some didn’t – my Eritrean read being an example. Meanwhile, like many of the best English-language novels, a number of them featured international journeys.

With this in mind, I decided to crash together Meghan’s two points and selected an-otherworldly book that nevertheless reveals telling things about the culture in which it was written. My choice is the daring 1977 dystopian novel Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes by Norwegian writer Gerd Brantenberg, translated by Louis Mackay.

It’s a novel I’ve discovered since I finished my original quest and have returned to several times. Indeed, I wrote an entry about it for the beautifully illustrated Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, which Hachette published last year. (The picture of the rather controversial Norwegian cover featured at the top comes from this.)

Set in a world where patriarchy is turned on its head so that society is ruled by wim, while menwim can only aspire to be ‘housebounds’ who must stay at home, look pretty and bring up the children, the novel explores gender dynamics through the lens of second-wave Scandinavian feminism. As British writer Naomi Alderman’s The Power would do decades later, it uses this startling reversal of the status quo to reveal the injustices and cruelties that lurk beneath the surface of many of our assumptions about how life works.

Like the best books, it is as at once specifically of its time and place, and universal – packed with insights that are relevant to people reading in a different language at forty years’ remove.

Meghan, I hope you enjoy it.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The final recipient will be announced on December 15.

 

Book of the month: Carl Frode Tiller

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If you think of Norwegian literature, two kinds of writing will probably come to mind. The first is the crime fiction that has taken the world by storm in recent years, spearheaded by the phenomenal success of Jo Nesbø. The second comprises lengthy collections of linked literary novels – from Karl Ove Knausgård’s acclaimed six-book My Struggle to the outstanding Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset (the only translation I ever wrote about on ayearofreadingwomen.wordpress.com, the blog I had before I decided to expand my horizons and read the world).

What you may not think of in connection with Norway is Nynorsk literature. There’s a good reason for that: despite being an official language, in comparison to Bokmål (the most widely used Norwegian language), Nynorsk (‘new Norwegian’ as its name is commonly translated) is not much published. Books in it are rare. Which means English translations of Nynorsk literature are like hen’s teeth.

In fact, if the subject of this post isn’t the only translation currently available in the world’s most published language, I’d be very surprised (do put a comment below if you know otherwise).

However, though it was written in a different language, Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling does share some traits with other Norwegian books translated into English. Like Undset and Knausgård’s novels – and indeed much of Nesbø’s work – the book is part of a series. It’s the first in a trilogy, also called Encircling, that Sort Of Books proposes to bring into English in the next few years.

This opening instalment centres around the enigmatic character of David, who, we are told, has lost his memory, giving rise to a newspaper appeal for people who know him to make contact and share stories about his life that might help re-establish his sense of identity. Three people respond: two close friends from his teenage years in the small town of Namsos and his now-estranged stepfather. The narrative consists of their letters to David, interspersed with interior monologues and commentary on their present-day lives.

One of Tiller’s many strengths is his ability to capture people’s emotional states in small details. Through looks, gestures and – strikingly often – desperate or furious grins, he manages to convey the guilt, tensions and frustrations that underpin the familial, platonic and romantic relationships in the novel. He has an eye for ‘the unwritten rules’ that govern long-standing associations and a keen sense of the way emotions can gust up and throw us off-balance, forcing us to do ridiculous or perverse things.

This can give rise to moments of humour, as when the former friends recall some of their teenage posturing and attempts at sophistication. But it can also tilt over into pathos too, as we watch characters sabotaging themselves often in full knowledge of what they are doing but without the ability break the patterns that hem them in.

Another joy is Tiller’s (and translator Barbara J. Haveland’s) skill in presenting the distinctive voices of the three narrators. I particularly enjoyed free-spirit-turned-disillusioned-academic Silje’s occasional exclamations at the beauty of her own writing – a witty key to her character that might have taken pages of description to render another way.

The writing is so enjoyable that many of the passages feel as though they could stand alone as short stories. Yet all the while, the turbo engine of the narrative drives on, navigating deftly from one episode to the next, keeping up the momentum. Tiller takes full advantage of the shifting perspectives to drop in numerous contradictions and revelations along the way, building up a rich, problematic and fractured picture of David and the lives of those around him. The denouement is clever and, unlike the endings of many other trilogy openers, feels satisfying in its own right.

Occasionally, the structure presents problems. Now and then it’s tricky to remember who some of the wider circle of characters are. In addition, the decision to lump long passages of dialogue together into single paragraphs in the latter sections can give the text a (probably intentionally) breathless feel. And while the repetition of certain constructions, such as Silje’s frequent assertion that she doesn’t know why she’s saying what she’s saying, can give a powerful impression of the way the characters are entrenched in toxic mindsets, the overuse of some words and phrases grates occasionally.

Overall, though, this is a great read. It’s certainly the best Nynorsk literature I’ve ever read. And though that’s not saying much for now, there’s no doubt that Tiller can hold his own alongside Norway’s other literary big hitters. I’m very much looking forward to the next instalment.

Encircling (Innsirkling) by Carl Frode Tiller, translated from the Nynorsk by Barbara J. Haveland (Sort of Books, 2015)

Picture: the waterfront in Namsos, Norway, by Grete Rasmussen

Norway: reality bites

Before Coetzee’s Youth and Orwell’s Aspidistra; before Amis’s Jim got lucky and the artist revealed himself as a young man; even before Somerset Maugham wrote Of Human Bondage, there was Knut Hamsun ‘s Hunger. Published in Norway in 1890 and only translated into English 30 years later, this slight novel might have long sunk into the eternal slush pile, were it not for its extraordinary power and the fact that it contains the essential ingredients of many of the great 20th century bildungsromans to come – at times surpassing them all.

The story is simple enough: an unnamed and destitute writer wanders around the nation’s capital, railing against the cruel circumstances that make him unable to earn enough to eat. Half-mad with hunger, he goads himself into fruitless attempts at scribbling and doomed schemes to raise a penny or two, struggling along the edge of existence and endurance until he is at last forced to find some escape.

Chief among the problems that writing such coming-of-age novels throws up (as I discovered to my cost when I had a bash at one a few years ago) are the issues of making such a self-obsessed protagonist likeable and dealing with the fact that his (it usually is a he) main problem is often that he doesn’t have enough going on. Humour is the common get-out-of-jail-free card for writers such as Coetzee, Amis, Salinger and even Orwell, but Hamsun jumps another way.

Delving into the wounded psyche of his anti-hero he uses the likeability problem as an opportunity for generating poignancy, holding his character hostage to a self-imposed chivalry code that sees him unable to accept help and unable to walk past someone in need. The result of these repeated bungled encounters is a maddening, perverse and yet pitiable figure, for whom we can’t help feeling sympathy, even as he blunders on into the territory of the deranged, far beyond what most of the later greats dare to try – at one stage even toying with autocannibilism.

The endings are often another problem in such novels. Necessarily involving some sort of rebellion, transformation or shift in relation to all that has gone before, they can often have the wriggling, impatient feeling of a child scrawling ‘The End’ and scampering off to the next thing, bored now he has said all he had to say.

Does Hamsun get past this with his final solution? I’m not sure. I think he and Coetzee could have had a rewarding chat about the options here.

But, of course, Coetzee wasn’t even a glint on his grandfather’s ink stand when Hamsun was writing this and wouldn’t be for another 50 years. None of the great, modernist stream-of-consciousness works and bildungsromans of the 20th century had been realised when Hamsun created the paranoid interior monologue he spins out so skilfully in his first translated book.

I wonder how many of them would have existed in their present forms if Hamsun hadn’t picked up his pen.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (translated from the Bokmål by George Egerton). Publisher (this edition): Dover (2003)