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Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970)

 

Norwegian novelist, short story writer, and poet, who gained fame in his homeland and other European countries before and after World War II. Tarjei Vesaas wrote his works in New Norwegian (nynorsk), formerly known as landsmål, "rural language." He published several books before his first significant success, Det store spelet (1934, The Great Cycle), in which the protagonist Per Bufast refuses to accept his ordained destiny. Vesaas spent most of his life in the province of Telemark. His wife Halldis Vesaas also was a writer.

"Talk about what home is - 
snow and spruce forest
is home.

From the very start
it is ours.
Before anyone has told us
that it is snow and spruce forest,
it has its place in us
-
and then it is there
the whole, whole time."
(from 'Snow and Spruce Forest,' in The Sources, 1946, translated by Roger Greenwald, 2000) 

Tarjei Vesaas was born in Vinje, Telemark, an isolated place a good six hundred meters above sea level. He was the oldest son of the family, expected to take over farm, where the family had lived for 300 hundred years in the same house, passed down from father to son through the centuries. Vesaas was educated at a folk high school (1917-18). In the 1920s he travelled abroad, mostly in Germany, with the help of a travel grant. From 1927 he lived in his birth-region.

Vesaas began his literary career in the early 1920s, when he published his first books, Menneskebonn (1923), Sendemann Huskuld (1924), and Guds bustader (1925). These were closely tied to the traditional nynorsk literature. In the 1930s he wrote several realistic novels, among them The Great Cycle, which depicted traditional life in the countryside, and Kvinnor ropar heim (1935), partly based on his own marriage to the poet Halldis Moren Vesaas.  Fars reise (1930), Sigrid Stallbrokk (1931), and Dei ukjende mennene (1932) formed the so-called Klas Dyregodt tetralogy.

Halldis's influence was crucial for the author, especially in helping him to win depression and suicidal thoughts about drowning, which was seen in some of his novels form the 1930s. Also the atmosphere in her books was often in the 1930s oppressive, foreboding a catastrophe. In the 1940s Vesaas's works became more symbolical and allegorical.

The central themes in Vesaas's works were loneliness, guilt, psychological isolation, and death. Like in typical Scandinavian films, people do not say what they think but the silence is full of meanings. Many of Vesaas's characters seem to be driven by unchained inner forces. The solution offered to their problems is the process of growing up, of learning, as in The Great Cycle. The protagonist of the novel is Per Bufast, the oldest son of a farm family. He rebels against his destiny to take over the farm when his father dies. Per dreams of the many possibilities in the wide world, but finally he realizes that he will spent on the farm the rest of his life.

In the play Ultimatum (1934) Vesaas expressed his fear of the approaching international conflict. Through five young people waiting to see whether their country will go to war, Vesaas advocated his pacifist view. Kimen (1940, The Seed), set on a peaceful island, explored the violence and irrationality in the human soul, as Norway had just was drawn into World War II. A mentally disturbed man has killed a girl and a lynching party in a peaceful island community starts to hunt him. Vesaas underlined, that violence must be countered by rational reflection - otherwise primitive hatred takes power over the people.

During the German occupation, Vesaas buried manuscipts in the earth until liberation came. He wrote Huset i mørkret (1945, The House in the Dark), and allegorical story of the nature of the evil and Norway's struggle against invasion. The occupied Norway is symbolized by a large house, where the "Arrow people" terrorize the other inhabitants.

After Halldis Moren gave him a volume of selected poems by Edith Södergran, Vesaas tried writing poem, too. "But nothing came out it, no really serious poems came," Vesaas later said, "no more now than before. They lay gestating somewhere for fourteen years. Then they sprang out again for some unknown reason and became the first attempts at poems in Kjeldene [The Springs]." (Vesaas in Through Naked Branches, tr. by Roger Greenwald, 2000) From the late 1940s Vesaas began to publish poetry regularly. His early poems were written in more or less traditional vein, but later he approached modernism and as in his novels, Vesaas's writing became more intense and restrained. During his lifetime, Vesaas published five collections of poetry. In 2000 appeared Roger Greenwald's selection of the author's poetry, entitled Through Naked Branches. It won the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize.

Vesaas's works from the 1950s include Fuglane (1957, The Birds), which tells the moving story of a mentally retarded man, Mattis, who has an innate feel for poetry. Mattis is thirty'seven, an outsider doomed to loneliness. He lives with his sister, Hege, who is slightly older and who takes care of him. When she falls in love with a lumberman, Jørgen, Mattis realizes how Hege's life is full of frustrations. Eventually Mattis's confused actions lead to his destruction. One of the central symbols of the story is a woodcock, which brings a message from unexplained realms of life:

Mattis bent down and read what was written. Looked at the graceful dancing footprints. That's how fine and graceful the bird is, he thought. That's how gracefully my bird walks over the marshy ground when he's tired of the air.
You are you, that was what was written.
What a greeting to receive.

In Vårnatt (1954, Spring Night) Vesaas brought the story to realistic level. The events take place in one spring night and the morning after and deal with basic questions of life - birth and death, family relationship and feeling of rejection. All everyday events are seen from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old boy, behind whose observations the reader can anticipate deeper, transcendental meanings. "In the open patches between the trees grew patches of angelica and it was these large flowers more than anything else that had drawn Olaf to this spot so often throughout his boyhood. He would not have been able to explain what there was between him and them, but for him they were wonderful plants as they stood bristling grotesquely with their bursting wheels of blossom."

Vindane (1952), a collection of stories, won the Venice Prize and Is-slottet (1963, The Ice Palace), a captivating novel open to many interpretations, received the Nordic Literary Prize. Peter Owen, its British publisher, described it as "the best novel I ever published". The story focuses on two eleven-year-old girls, Siss and Unn, who became friends. Although there is a strong bond between them, their personalities are complete different or reflect different aspects of the same personality - Siss is a leader, Unn is shy and introverted. Unn discovers the 'Ice Palace,' a formation of ice created by a waterfall. "Unn looked down into 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." At the very beginning of their friendship they are separated by the death of Unn in the strange world of ice. Siss is left alone to come to terms with her loss. But she is also attracted by the Ice Palace. "We all are pied pipers, tempted to gather here by irresistible things," Siss thinks before she is destroyed by the temptation.

Vesaas's late work Båten om kvelden (1968, The Boat in the Evening), a collection of semi-autobiographical sketches, which reviewed themes that had fascinated him throughout his life, mysterious threats and the spiritual condition of the individual. Vesaas portrays his own psychological development from his early realization of human isolation to his acceptance of death. These thoughts also marked his last volume of poetry, Liv ved straumen (1970). Except periods of travel in Scandinavia and on the European continent, Vesaas spent his whole life in the farm community of Vinje, where he died on March 15, 1970.

Vesaas's books have been translated into all Scandinavian languages and in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Latvian, Czechoslovakian etc. He was repeatedly named as a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature; in 1964 he was one of four nominees for the prize. Elizabeth Rokkan has translated several of Vesaas's novels into English, and his last work, The Boat in the Evening (1967).

For further reading: 'Short Fiction as Enstrangement: From Franz Kafka to Tarjei Vesaas and Kjell Askildsen' by Jakob Lothe, in  European and Nordic Modernisms, edited by Mats Jansson, Jakob Lothe and Hannu Riikonen (2004); 'Introduction' by Roger Greenwald, in Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Child of the Earth: Tarjei Vesaas and Scadinavian Primitivism  by Frode Hermundsgård (1989); A History of Scandinavian Literature 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Five Norwegian Poets, edited by Robin Fulton (1976); Tarjei Vesaas: Eine ästhetische Biographie by W. Baumgartner (1976); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); Tarjei Vesaas by Kenneth Chapman (1970) - Other Norwegian novelists who bebuted in the 1920s and 1930s: Aksel Sandemose, Cora Sandel, Inge Krokann, Nini Roll Anker, Magnhild Haalke, Sigurd Christiansen, Johan Borgen. Suom.: Tarjei Vesaasin puoliso Halldis Vesaas on myös kirjailija, joka on kääntänyt norjaksi mm. Eeva-Liisa Mannerin näytelmän Poltettu oranssi. - Muita käännöksiä: Kaksikymmentä yksi vuotta suom. Helvi Erjakka, 1949, Suojailma, suom. Viljo Kajava, 1955, Sininen nappi, suom. Viljo Kajava, 1956

Selected works:

  • Menneskebonn, 1923
  • Sendemann Huskuld, 1924
  • Guds bustader, 1925 (play)
  • Grindegard: Morgonen, 1925
  • Grinde-kveld; eller, Den gode engelen, 1926
  • Dei svarte hestane, 1928
    - film: Dei svarte hestane, 1951, dir. by
    Sigval Maartmann-Moe, Hans Jacob Nilsen, starring Hans Jacob Nilsen, Eva Sletto, Olav Strandli
  • Klokka i haugen, 1929
  • Fars reise, 1930
  • Sigrid Stallbrokk, 1931
  • Dei ukjende mennene, 1932
  • Sandeltreet, 1933
  • Ultimatum, 1934 (play)
  • Det store spelet, 1934
    - The Great Cycle (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1967)
  • Kvinnor ropar heim, 1935 [Women Call Home]
  • Leiret og hjulet, 1936
  • Hjarta høyrer sine heimlandstonar, 1938
  • Kimen, 1940
    - The Seed (translated by Kenneth G. Chapman, 1964)
    - film: Kimen, 1974, dir. by Erik Solbakken, starring Kjell Stormoen, Svein Sturla Hungnes, Ragnhild Michelsen, Helle Ottesen
  • Huset i mørkret, 1945
    - House in the Dark (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1976)
  • Bleikeplassen, 1946
    - The Bleaching Yard (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1981)
  • Kjeldene, 1946 [Sources]
  • Leiken og lynet, 1947 [Game and the Lightning]
  • Morgonvinden, 1947 (play)
  • Tårnet, 1948
  • Lykka for ferdesmenn, 1949 [The Wanderer's Reward]
  • Signalet, 1950
  • Vindane, 1952 (The Winds)
  • Løynde eldars land, 1953 [Land of Hidden Fires]
    - Land of Hidden Fires (translated by Fritz König and Jerry Crisp, 1973)
  • Avskil med treet, 1953 (play)
  • Bleikeplassen, 1953 (play)
    - The Bleaching Yard (tr. in Modern Nordic Plays: Norway, 1974)
  • 21 år, 1953
  • Vårnatt, 1954
    - Spring Night (translated by Kenneth G. Chapman, 1972)
    - Kevätyö (suom. Katri Ingman, 1954)
    - film: Vårnatt, 1976, dir. by Erik Solbakken, starring Espen Skjønberg, Astrid Folstad, Svein Scharffenberg
  • Ver ny, vår draum, 1956 [Be New, Dream of Ours]
  • Fuglane, 1957
    - The Birds (translated by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes, 1968)
    - Lehtokurppa (suom. Katri Ingman-Palola)
    - film: Zywot Mateusza, 1967, dir. by Witold Leszczynski, starring Franciszek Pieczka, Anna Milewska, Wirgiliusz Gryn
  • Ein vakker dag, 1959
  • Brannen, 1961
    - Palo (suom. Katri Ingman-Palola, 1962)
    - film: Brannen, 1973, dir. by Haakon Sandøy, starring Jan Grønli, Bonne Gauguin, Unn Vibeke Hol
  • Is-slottet, 1963
    - The Ice Palace (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1966) / The Palace of Ice (U.S. title)
    - Jäälinna (suom. Katri Ingman-Palola, 1964)
    - film: Is-slottet, 1987, dir. by Per Blom, starring Line Storesund, Hilde Nyeggen Martinsen, Jan Hoel
  • Bruene, 1966
    - The Bridges (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1969)
  • Båten om kvelden, 1968
    - The Boat in the Evening (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1971)
  • Dikt i samling, 1969
  • Liv ved straumen, 1970 [Life at the Stream]
  • Huset og fuglen: tekster og bilete1919-1969, 1971 (edited by Walter Baumgartner)
  • 30 Poems, 1971 (selected and translated by Kenneth G. Chapman)
  • Noveller i samling, 1973
  • Dikt i samling, 1977
  • Noveller i samling, 1977
  • Selected Poems: 100 Poems, 1988 (translated by Anthony Barnett, with 8 poems in the original nynorsk)
  • Tarjei i tale: taler, helsingar og prologar av Tarjei Vesaas, 1997 (selected by Olav Vesaas)
  • Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas, 2000 (translated and edited by Roger Greenwald)
  • Beyond the Moments, 2001 (rev. translation by Anthony Barnett, et al.)
  • Liv og dikt i lag: dikt og prosa, 2003 (edited by Olav Vesaas)
  • Vesaas' beste, 2007  


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