Reviewed by David Smith
Decades after his passing, the prominence of Tarjei Vesaas in Norwegian letters is difficult to overstate. As Dag Solstad puts it, “There are few readers who do not count at least one book by Tarjei Vesaas as one of their truly great reading experiences.”[i] In the English-speaking world, however, Vesaas has never received the same attention as Norway’s other literary giants—Ibsen, Undset, Hamsun, and (in recent years) Knausgaard. Archipelago’s recent edition of The Birds (1957), one of Vesaas’s masterpieces, is an excellent opportunity for English readers to become acquainted with his work.
According to Vesaas, the origin of Mattis the Simpleton—the protagonist and one of the most memorable characters in all Norwegian literature—lay in an offhand comment the author overheard twenty-four years before writing The Birds: “There are many things that give rise to thoughts, even a stunted spruce in a bog.”[ii] In Norwegian, the decisive word here is tustegran, a compound word from tuste (stunted) and gran (spruce). The first part, tuste, is related to the word tust, or simpleton.
The character that emerged as Mattis encompasses both aspects of the comment. On the one hand, he is the town “simpleton”—although, as we find out, it remains an open question just how widespread the nickname is —seemingly unfit for any type of work. Thirty-seven years old and living with his older sister, Hege, he has never held a steady job, and the sister must provide for both by knitting sweaters. We accompany him on one of his abortive attempts at working, this time weeding a turnip field: “His fingers wouldn’t do as they were told, they misunderstood his thoughts, and now and then they held up the work completely.” He ends up taking a nap while others (“the clever ones,” Mattis thinks) finish his rows (64).
On the other hand, the offhand comment reflects Mattis’s poetic sensibility, which I would compare to a line from Whitman: “The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections, they scorn the best I can do to relate them.” Whitman’s press of the foot is Vesaas’s stunted spruce: seemingly insignificant in themselves, they both give rise to a chain of associations that are difficult to put into words. Mattis, for his part, is obsessed with finding the hidden meanings in nature. To him, a flight of woodcocks over his house is a momentous event, a good omen of some kind that he struggles to explain to others—and a terrifying omen when a hunter shoots one of the birds.
Tarjei Vesaas called Mattis “a self-portrait, with certain reservations.”[iii] Vesaas identified with his character’s fascination with language, the tendency towards sudden flashes of thought, strange formulations he wishes others were around to hear. To his sister, one day, Mattis blurts out: “‘You’re like lightning!’” Hege, used to her brother’s eccentricities, goes on knitting, while Mattis ruminates: “It was using the word lightning that Mattis found so tempting. Strange lines seemed to form inside his head when he used it, and he felt himself drawn toward it” (9-10).
While we may admire Mattis for his unique sensibility, as readers we share Mattis’s overarching question about his life: “‘Why are things the way they are?’” (78) A dominant (and incorrect) interpretation of Mattis has tended to view his condition in terms of cognitive impairment, similar to Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Not only was this notion explicitly refuted by the author (“It is wrong to call the Simpleton mentally disabled, as people have sometimes done”), but also the text itself (Vesaas, 1985).
Mattis’s sense that he will never be one of “the clever ones,” I suggest, has less to do with his inherent intellectual abilities and more to do with his early family history. “As far back as he could remember there’d been trouble every time he’d tried to do any work. His father had given up. His mother had gazed at him as though she would never stop hoping for a change” (131). The description of his mother’s gaze is particularly telling; instead of recognizing her child’s natural curiosity, she coldly returns the gaze to him, shutting him out of the grown-up world his parents inhabit. Hence, the mystery of how little boys become men—capable husbands and fathers—is one that is never resolved for Mattis, and he becomes permanently arrested in this state when both parents die young.
Mattis’s unresolved curiosity comes out in the way he regards Hege, who is plainly the substitute mother/wife that he desperately clings to: “Wonder what it’s like inside her, he thought” (83). His questions find no answer when his sister finds an actual lover, a lumberjack named Jørgen who becomes a lodger at the siblings’ house. Turned out of the primary place in his sister’s life, and faced with the collapse of the only world he has ever known, Mattis hatches a plan that leads the novel to an ambiguous, but on the whole tragic, end.
The issue of translating Vesaas takes on extra significance due to the unique status of the Norwegian he wrote. Vesaas wrote in a variant of nynorsk, one of the two official written forms of modern Norwegian, which mirrors the rural dialect spoken in his hometown, Vinje. As such, his prose has a more rustic—and oftentimes more lyrical—feel than the Danish-influenced bokmål used in Oslo and Norway’s other big cities. To a Norwegian, Vesaas’s eminence as a writer is inseparable from his masterful deployment of the possibilities of the Norwegian language. His prose thus presents special challenges to the translator, more so than writers like Knausgaard who write a more “standard” Norwegian.
The first thing to know about Michael Barnes and Torbjørn Støverud’s translation is that it is not entirely new. First published in 1968, the translation has now undergone significant revisions by the editors at Archipelago. Regrettably, there is no mention of this anywhere in the present edition, so the overarching principle for the emendations is somewhat hard to detect. The revisers seem to have a clear grasp of the Norwegian, as the text is now often closer to Vesaas’s original. Thus, for example, Mattis’s plaintive question to Hege in the 1968 translation, “‘Why don’t you talk to me as you would to anyone else?’”, is correctly changed to a petty command: “‘Talk to me like you talk to other people’” (11).
In other places, however, the revisions are less easy to explain. One of the strange thoughts that flashes through Mattis’s mind, Du mitt nebb imot stein, is rendered as “You my beak against rock” in the 1968 version. In 2016, this has been changed to, “You’re my beak against rock” (15). The subtle shift from “you” to “you’re” gives the half-formed thought, which registers as a blip in Mattis’s consciousness, a declarative completeness that is absent in the original.
On the whole, Barnes and Støverud bring something of a scholar’s precision to both the 1968 and 2016 translations, emphasizing lexical accuracy over the homespun feel of Vesaas’s text. While this tends to flatten the dialogue, producing stilted, literal-sounding speech, the pacing and tone of the original are nicely preserved, Again, this is where an introduction would have been welcome, not only to explain the emendations, but to justify an updated translation instead of an entirely new one altogether. If revising the translation is an assertion of the continued impact of the work, to do so silently feels like a missed opportunity, to some degree.
None of this, however, is to deny the incredible gift that the translators and Archipelago have rendered to English readers by reissuing this masterpiece. Whether or not this translation will stand the test of time, The Birds certainly will.
Vesaas, Tarjei. The Birds. Tr. Michael Barnes and Torbjørn Støverud. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2016.
[i] Dag Solstad. Artikler om litteratur 1966-1981. Oslo: Oktober, 2000. 160, my translation.
[ii] Tarjei Vesaas. “Om Romanen ‘Fuglane’ og Mattis Tust.” In Thorbjørn Egners lesebøker. 16: Dikting og diktarar: for niande skoleåret, edited by Thorbjørn Egner, Cappelen, 1977. 299, my translation.
[iii] Tarjei Vesaas. “Om Tusten.” In Tarjei Vesaas om seg sjølv, edited by Olav Vesaas, Den norske bokklubben, 1985. 158, my translation.