None other than Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norway’s greatest literary export since Ibsen, has provided the endorsement quote on the reissued English edition of The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, stating that it is ‘the best Norwegian novel ever.’ Vesaas (1897-1970) is still considered one of the country’s most important writers, and is now deservedly being published in English as part of Penguin Modern Classics. (PS never mind the hipster on the cover. I’m certain this is not how Vesaas envisioned Mattis).
We meet Mattis, who is 38 years old and enjoys a quiet and predictable existence with his older sister Hege in the rural inlands of eastern Norway. Hopeless when it comes to practical work like chopping wood or ploughing fields, Mattis is more preoccupied with the signs he find in nature; patterns in the soil become messages from the birds, and lightning-struck treetops are clear omens of death to Mattis.
These signs speak more clearly to him than any of the people he encounters in the fields or on his way to the local shop. Mattis is different – words, phrases and images flicker through his head and leaves a lingering impression. There is not an unkind bone in his body, but his childlike logic, his struggles with everyday life, and his enervating dependency on his sister Hege seems to slowly lead him towards destruction.
Mattis is deemed ‘simple’ by those who encounter him, and he himself is painfully aware of his difficulties with conversation and of how he is not ‘clever’ (or ‘sharp’ as Vesaas writes in the original.) This struggle sometimes takes on a universal significance: ‘Why are things the way they are?’ he asks a woman who kindly invites him in for coffee after yet another failed day of work in the fields. She can provide him no good answer, and poor Mattis stares down ‘into an abyss of riddles.’
Vesaas paints a caring portrait of a rather helpless man, and carefully unpacks Mattis’s whims and oddities in a way that makes them strangely recognisable. When a woodcock starts flying across their home every night, Mattis interprets this as a symbol of great change: ‘In the morning he thought, full of emotion: Today it’s me and the woodcock. (…) Today was a new day with the bird.’ If Mattis appears simple, his inner life is all the richer.
This Penguin Modern Classics edition is a reissuing of a 1968 translation by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes, and although their version is an adequate retelling of the original, it would have been interesting to see what a new translator would have made of Vesaas’s rich vernacular. The charm and flavour of the original, written in an archaic, local version of New-Norwegian, Norway’s second written language, seem impossible to preserve in translation.
One alternative could perhaps have been for the translator(s) to attempt a similar-sounding, rural English dialect, but there is of course no one-to-one relationship between regional dialects in different languages. However, this standard English translation robs the book of some of its enchanting ambiguity, particularly in how Mattis’s many whims are spelt out clearly and with little room for interpretation. Despite this, the Penguin Modern Classics edition is worth reading simply to get a taste of Vesaas’s compassionate genius, which makes turns ‘Simple Simon’ into a suffering everyman.
The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas is translated by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes and published by Penguin Modern Classics, 192 pages.
If you enjoy The Birds, how about trying Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad.