The Birds (original title: Fuglane) by Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas is a true literary masterpiece – most likely one of the most beautifully haunting novels you will ever read. It is perhaps less known than The Ice Palace, by the same author, but in my opinion it is an even more remarkable and penetrating novel.
Set in Norway, The Birds tells the extraordinary story of Mattis, a young man with severe learning difficulties, and his doomed attempts to make sense of the world. Mattis lives with his older sister, Hege, who loves him deeply and has devoted her life to taking care of him.
The Birds is a marvelous and extremely sensitive exploration of the boundaries between madness and “normality”, at times just splendid and utterly delightful. Written in a clear and concise manner, with simple and powerful prose, yet very lyrical, it conveys the tale of Mattis and shows us a young man’s sacrifice on the altar of common sense and social unwritten rules. It asks “How much reality can we stand before losing our mind?”
Mattis is a wonderful character. He is known as “Simple Simon” throughout the village, yet his inner-imagery-life is as complex as any inner-life can be. He can’t hold a job, and overall he can’t do much. He has a hard time communicating his thoughts and experiences. He can sit for hours a day throwing pebbles into the lake.
But Mattis has some kind of contact with nature. He understands it. He feels it. He can understand the swans and the woodcocks. And he has his own, at times delightful logic. I particularly enjoy his delightful conclusion regarding rocks: “Flat rocks are to sit on”. For Mattis, the world is alive and meaningful; and through Mattis, Vesaas makes strong use of repetitive symbols, which lends the book a dreamscape.
Vesaas’ writing style is very hard to describe, as it simply is quite extraordinary. It is sure and steady, and lyrical to the extreme. It is stark yet rich. It is simple with clear, beautiful sentences, yet at the same time very complex – the simple sentences play against other simple sentences in a way that is both evocative and thought-provoking. And his descriptions – both of nature and of Mattis’s simple but intriguing mind-set is both beautiful in its clarity and brevity, at the same time as the underlying images and ideas are completely captivating.
There is a spaciousness, a delicate calm, in Tarjei Vesaas’ writing that sets him apart. A kind of almost mesmeric quality. Reading him, you come alive within his tale. It’s a book that softly works its way into you. A book to love, to read and re-read, and then some time later read again. The Birds is a literary gem.
Praise for The Birds:
“A spare, icily humane story – The character of Mattis, absurd and boastful, also sweet, pathetic, even funny, is shown with great insight.” – Sunday Times.
“[This] novel…gave me particular pleasure.” – Doris Lessing