Wednesday 10 August 2022

The Birds, Tarjei Vesaas

A book you finish and immediately want to start again is rare. The Birds, by Tarjei Vesaas, is one such. A story from inside Mattis, who lives with his sister Hege beside a lake in Norway, and asks questions. What am I? Why are things the way they are? Why don't you understand what's important, like the flight of the woodcock over the house, the storm that's coming, which tree has been struck by lightning? But can you understand it Hege? 

Hege carries on with her knitting, her lightning fingers working the eight-petalled rose. Her knitting kept them, Kept him. Mattis knew. Mattis and work did not go together. Mattis and Hege, went together. A pair of aspens by a lake. Then Hege and Jørgen. They were the strong and clever ones.

A woodcock flying over the house means change. Mattis knew that. He read their beak marks in the mud. He wrote back. He knew what lightning was, and thunder. The privy was the safe place. Maybe he couldn't thin turnips but he knew where to hide from storms, and he could row straight. 

Mattis becomes a ferryman. A regular job at last. Hege makes him sandwiches. He rows his leaky boat to and fro across the lake. Without passengers.  The boat is so rotten it could hardly take a passenger, but he waits, as Hege instructed, a ferryman must wait.

The only passenger Mattis finds is Jørgen, a lumberjack looking for work. Soon Hege and Jørgen, two of the strong, clever ones, are sweethearts, and Mattis has to look for a solution. The woodcock is dead under a stone, killed by a cocky young hunter. One of the two dead aspen trees in front of the cottage, called Mattis-and-Hege by the locals, is struck by lightning. The question is, which one is Mattis and which one is Hege? Jørgen tries to teach Mattis lumberjacking. Mattis has a dose of amanita mushrooms, so he's flying. The lake is threatened by thunderstorms. The lake, the leaky boat, an unfinished pair of oars, the farther shore, the depths of the lake, a fresh storm, are the answer.

I like reading writers who have stayed put. Tarjei Vesaas spent almost all his life in the same village, in Telemark, southern Norway,  For the cover of The Birds he's pictured with a tabby on his shoulder, and then, for the cover of The Boat in the Evening, which I read next, up at the pond in our next heatwave, he's in low-light profile, with his wife. The Boat in the Evening, the last book Tarjei Vesaas published, has all the understanding he gives Mattis, all the depth and focus, the world stripped down to these and those things, lake, trees, stillness, storms. He needed a simple creature, a simple Simon, to carry a man who is absorbed in his landscape and cannot understand anything beyond it.

All those who now seek to be in the moment, read on. 

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