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Petra Whiteley
A Trip to the Ice Palace with Tarjei Vesaas

 

Scandinavian literature and art that emerged in last century especially has a minimalistic touch and yet it can create vision in which even silence is so pregnant with meaning that the art is not just only the axe to break the frozen sea within us as Kafka wrote, but the rapturous explosion within to open us inside and out.

"Nature is not only that which is visible to the eye--it also presents the inner pictures of the soul--the pictures on the reverse side of the eye” - Edvard Munch, On the Frieze (1918).

Munch’s observation could be applied in particular to Tarjei Vesaas (1897 – 1970) - one of the most original modern writers, poets and playwrights of Norway.

Vesaas was born and spent most of his life in the province of Telemark, he wrote in the New Norwegian (Nynorsk), formerly known as landsmål, "rural language” and had been translated into many other languages. He gained recognition in his native country before WWII as well as abroad after it, and had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature three times. Although he was first inspired by realism and several influences could be traced in his early work, after his first books he became undeniably original, with only few indirect influences.

During mid 1920’s to mid ‘30’s he travelled extensively through Central Europe, especially his deep appreciation of German expressionist theatre and the expressionist movement made a lasting impact on his work. The expressionist theatre transformed the play in ways that instead of portraying reality, it subverted it to express the inner conception and reflection on reality and/or dream world. The characters didn’t represent as much as say anxious person, but the actor embodied anxiety itself, or on another level social position itself rather than a person in a determined social role. The abstraction didn’t only affect the characters, but also the staging (minimalistic) and the dialogs. The struggle between human beings and the world they live in is replaced by the inner drama of the being/soul. Monologue also gains more importance in this gender of theatre.

The production of Talhoff’s Totenmal which takes on war as its subject, together with the boldness and experimental nature, the symbolic light directions of the play, and even music deeply impressed Vesaas. The play’s distinguishing and unifying features and that of other expressionist art had a liberating effect on him. He was always open for new ideas and new thoughts.

Vesaas and the expressionists shared a vision with the other modernists – to abolish what was considered as factual representation of reality, guided by positivism, by replacing the "objective" neutral bonds between human activities, with more intensified ones, to constitute the world as an inner representation in their quest to obtain the transcendent form of actuality: “exactitude is not truth” as Matisse wrote.

The philosophy of the movement was further resonant to Vesaas with its approach to angst, anxiety, apprehension, loneliness, alienation, guilt, death etc. What further interested him was the thought that examined the existence of a man no longer bound by traditions faced with turbulent world. The French expressionism differed from the German branch in that it proclaimed expression as the balance and the serenity inside the painting, the vision that represents the actuality, whilst for the German expressionists the artist begun with the passion which attaches to the animation of the inorganic. Although Vesaas was predominantly influenced by the vision of the German trend, Matisse’s theory regarding artistic intuition enriched and distinguished his work also.

During his grant sponsored travels through Europe the young author, gathering impressions and literary experiences encountered such intellectually, philosophically and artistically complicated works by Proust (In search of Lost Time), James Joyce (Ulysses), Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain), Kafka (The Trial and The Castle) and Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

On his return home, his work makes the cut with external realism, and begins to change, linguistically Vesaas develops the style that sets his voice as unique and original with its lyrical, condensed and unorthodox imagery, he fragments linguistic units to maximise their expressiveness in the most minimalistic way possible.

His first success came with The Great Cycle (1934) where his protagonist rebels against his given role, a given fate. It is situated against the backdrop of the rural life and contains partially autobiographical elements in depiction of his marriage. He married a writer, Halldis Moren Vesaas who had not only helped him through depression and in overcoming his suicidal death wish (via drowning), but also influenced him by her work. It was thanks to her that his work also became deeply symbolical and allegorical with layered atmosphere of foreboding.

His play Ultimatum (1934), which anticipates WWII, advocates his pacifistic view via his five young protagonists, who are anxiously waiting to see if their country will enter war or not. His experimental and modernistic approach was so brand new and ‘strange’ to the audience in his country, yet it left a strong impression. In 1940 as Norway entered the World War II, he wrote The Seed, where he inquired about the violence and irrationality through depicting murder of a young girl by a mentally disturbed man and a lynching party from an otherwise peaceful community of an island that sets out to hunt him. Vesaas argued that irrationality can only be dealt with by rational reflection less a primitive hatred begins to dominate people. During the occupation by the Nazi Germany he buried most of his work till the liberation, yet he still wrote an allegorical story, The House in the Dark, where he studied nature of evil and struggle against it.

During the later 1940’s Vesaas started writing poetry, which has been collected in Through Naked Branches. Unlike the trend of using visual devices, Vesaas put emphasis on sound, on the ability or lack of hearing it; the nature of silence and he is thus set apart as unique within the field of poetry as well as prose. Through his poetry especially we see how he transforms desperation into an act of creation, which results in balance. His alignment with sound supplies some of the pivotal imagery and their narration, the punctuation, line breaks and build of stanzas produces pauses which in turn suggest listening process of rhythm and yields the knowledge the poet wants to impart. One of the main marks of modernity is not to represent the visible but to make it visible. Vesaas does this with the sound – the listening doesn’t discern meaning or its echoing void, as much as it brings the listener to the dynamic tension to what he listens to. The acts of hearing bring with them bodily impressions, and inner sight corresponds to inner hearing.

The Spring Night’s (1954) narrative came closer to realism again, yet the story still carries much of the symbolism. The hill that the young protagonist Olaf visits stands for exploring the fertile imagination with the strange and growing things it contains. As Olaf and his older sister are left alone for one night at home, Vesaas tackles the difficulties of communication between teenagers, their uncomfortable confrontations with new situations and feelings and their changing relationships. In the progress of evening a group of strangers arrives and requires help from the young sister and brother; through this happening Vesaas explores subjects like birth and death and the difficult familial ties and bonds. Another issue that he takes on is reality versus imagination.

In 1957 he wrote The Birds, a story of a thirty seven year old Mattis, who has mental disabilities, and is taken care of by his sister Hege. His doom to loneliness and isolation is alleviated by his intrinsic feel for poetry and an intuitive bond to birds; especially the woodcock that appears at the beginning of the novel assumes a symbolical meaning as the bird is shot down by a local youth for nothing but pleasure of the kill. Another symbolical meaning is brought by two spruce trees, which are named by the villagers after the siblings. What they symbolise to Mattis is the fate of them, especially as one of the trees is stricken down by the storm of which he is always petrified, but also they are a symbol of mean spiritedness and damaging effect of gossiping and ostracising of those who appear to be different.

One of the major ways of Mattis’s humiliation are his constant failures to work on the surrounding farms until Hege suggests to him to appoint himself as the ferryman to overcome his feeling of uselessness and inadequacy. During one of Mattis’s journeys his boat is shipwrecked and he is rescued by two young girls who do not judge him, which has a tremendous and nearly transcendental effect on him. His other eventful journey on the lake comes with a lumberjack, Jørgen, the only passenger that employs him. Jørgen also becomes a lodger at their house and Hege falls in love with him. As the love between them deepens, Mattis realises the way Hege was confined by her frustrations by living and taking care of him. His confusion leads him to throw himself into the hands of fate and he drowns in the lake as a result. The story is deceptively simply narrated through the eyes, understanding and impressions of Mattis, it creates a complex picture, and many scenes jump out at the reader as if from Van Gogh’s paintings.

He was nominated the Nordic Literary Prize for the Ice Palace (1963), a masterpiece of a novel. It’s open to many interpretations and written with perfect precision and fusion of all his expressive and minimalistic, lyrical style with which he builds an intense and intricate novel that his British publisher, Peter Owen, proclaimed as the best book he had ever published. It tells a story of an orphaned, shy newcomer Unn and Siss, two young girls who become fascinated by one another and build a strong bond regardless of their very different personalities; Vesaas sets it in a remote village during Norwegian winter. Whereas Siss is extroverted and relishes being a leader in a group of her school friends, which she gives up in her all consuming friendship with Unn, who is introverted and shy. The symbolism is layered deeply and there are many ways to perceive the story as it unfolds. Whereas some see Unn and Siss as different aspects of personality, we will concentrate on another aspect of socio- psychological and on spiritual aspect.

Siss is an abbreviation for Sissel, which is translated as "without sight", and Vesaas used that as an abbreviation for Sister as well, and Unn is translated as "the one who is loved" yet it can be read as the prefix un-loved as in abandoned (be it by death of her parents or her outsider role, out of society of peers and villagers). As Unn was first deprived from the maternal bond she had, she is now living inside a socially mundane world; that is to say under conventions.

On her first visit to Unn’s aunt’s house, Siss shows Unn her father in a photo album she brings along. The album and photos are treated with such reverence as if it were the Holy Bible that reminds them the presence of the father. Inexplicably afterwards they decide to get naked. Whilst this can be a symbolism about the story of Adam and Eve, subverted of course, but the main point is that inside this very mundane world, a feeling of similarity and of bond is developed, that very house is their Eden, manufactured by workers. It can also stand for shedding secrets, appearing to each other as they are, not as they were supposed to be by the society that assigns each a role to play and be.

Soon after, Unn decides to go alone to the Ice Palace where they were supposed to go together on a school trip. The palace is a formation of ice created by a waterfall, which is described by Vesaas as "...an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and curved tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone." The palace is yet another symbolism of Eden, now nature has become a living being as the palace is described as a wholesome organism and also as God (the thinking of Spinoza probably is underlying here), a very cold but idolized place to be. The ice palace represents her mother too. Unn enters it in order to explore it, this can be seen as the will to return to the womb of her mother, a cold womb for she is dead; and thus her visit can be seen as a need to re-establish a new bond with the beloved presence that is out of reach. At the 7th level, (which has a Christian symbolism of the inevitable), she finds out that she cannot return. Thus she dies with a realisation that the only possible bond she could have developed was the realistic ones - with Siss and her aunt.

The another interpretation comes out from the possibility of a connection between the budding sexuality where the girls strip to each other in the beginning of their friendship with Unn subsequently embarking on her dangerous trip as if in fear of banishment or punishment for her arising sexuality. This guilt resolved by separation and search for redemption by isolating and seeking danger ends with dire consequences and the possibility of human beings judging each other is again suggested as not only absurd, but also harmless and destructive.

Siss, who becomes overwhelmed by the loss, makes the promise not to forget Unn that is not to forget that a human bond is possible within this world; that it can be realised. She makes this connection during the symbolical trip that she and her old school friends endeavour on to commemorate Unn when all the hope of ever finding her is lost.

In the ending Siss is standing alone in the middle of the schoolyard, another very mundane place, alone and silent, as a carrier of a trauma, a trauma similar to the Original Sin, yet with a gained knowledge that this trauma can be resolved, not in metaphysical and abstract terms, but within this world which is never perfect.

The Boat in the Evening (1971) is a collection of his vividly poetic semi-autobiographical sketches, where Vesaas revisits themes that fascinated him throughout his life – the mysterious aspects of existence and the sense of foreboding and the spiritual condition of a human being in unstable and violent world. Through them he also traces his own psychological development, be it his realisation of human isolation and the search for its solution to his acceptance of death.

The series of stories contain also poetry and are cinematic (which points at his admiration of Ingmar Bergman’s work) and evocative; we are taken on a journey, witnessing a colony of cranes performing their mating ritual dance and its effect of mystery of nature upon a human being, a struggle of a boy and his father through pitiless snowstorm, bridging their differences and wounds. Vesaas often displays very deep fascination with water, which he explores in The Drifter and The Mirrors, a story of drowning man floating down the river, which yet again points at the solution of man’s despair in resolution of alienation into acceptance epitomised by the man’s rescue and which also reflects Vesaas’ struggle with his suicidal thoughts. As Heraclitus said; “For souls it is death to become water.”
"I like the modern form. Anyone who absolutely has to understand everything he sees misses a lot. It's not always true that "obscure words come from obscure thoughts."

Tarjei Vesaas’ maxim is indeed a key for his impressive oeuvre. He was a master possessing tremendous power of evocation through amalgamation of linguistic simplicity with lyricism, of inventiveness expressing complex problems and quandaries of human existence with an uncanny sensitivity and deeply humanistic understanding. His language and vision have an intrinsic ability to bring the reader to participate fully in his creations by enchanting and probing imagination and inner senses, by involving his readers to think deeply about their existence and the world within which they live it. Above all Vesaas’ vision of resolution of conflicts via reason, understanding, openness and flexibility, the ability to ‘grow up’ give his many dark shades an optimistic, positive edge.

 

 

 

 

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