Lost Paradises: The Haunting Novels of Tarjei Vesaas

vesaasThere are a lot of great writers out there, but it’s a rare writer who manages to create an entire universe through their books. Franz Kafka is one of them. Someone (I unfortunately forget who…maybe Jorge Luis Borges?) once said Kafka’s books “take place in infinity,” and I’ve never heard a more perfect description of the surreal worlds his stories take place in. For instance, when you read The Castle, it’s easy to believe there’s nothing beyond the wintry village that K. finds himself in.

But I’m not here to take about Kafka. Rather, I want to tell you about another writer whose books evoke a haunting, fairy tale-esque world that feels both realistic and strangely timeless. That writer is Tarjei Vesaas of Norway.

Having read four of his novels, I feel confident saying there is a fundamental formula to all his plots, which is this – a stranger enters a community and all hell breaks loose. That might sound simplistic, but The Seed, The Bridges, The Ice Palace, and The Birds all follow that formula more or less, and that’s part of what makes them all so powerful. Vesaas’ worlds feel isolated and innocent, unblemished Edens that are ruined when a force intrudes from the outside. That force might come in the form of a monster or a child, but nevertheless, paradise always descends into pandemonium.

The Seed offers the most stark example of this formula. In this story, a deranged stranger comes to an island community and commits a terrible act that leads to the formation of a savage mob and…well, savage mobs are really only good at committing savage acts. The Bridges is another great example, where a dark, seemingly disturbed woman arrives in a town and, by committing a terrible act, threatens to change the lives of two friends forever. In The Ice Palace, a little girl comes to a town and a terrible tragedy throws the whole town into chaos…starting to see a pattern?

Before getting to The Birds, I want to note that the power of these novels comes not from the terrible or tragic events themselves (although they are certainly powerful and described in beautiful prose). Instead, their power comes from the eerie way Vesaas’ novels are simultaneously dreamlike and harshly realistic. In both The Seed and The Bridges, the intruding stranger is never portrayed a simple villain. In fact, Vesaas does a great job making us pity them. And yet, while the strangers often feel out of reach, obscure, and distant, more shadows than people, the effects of their actions are nothing if not painfully real. To give just one example, The Seed does a better job portraying the collective madness of a mob and the later collective shame of every individual who made up that mob, than any novel I have ever read. Incidentally, there are rarely more than a handful of main characters in any of these novels, so Vesaas is able to spend an enormous amount of time giving us insight into each and every one of them.

The Birds is the most unique of the four novels I’ve mentioned because we see everything through the extremely unique perspective of the main character, Matthew. Matthew is clearly damaged psychologically in some way, though his specific condition is never mentioned. But whatever it is, it renders him helpless and childlike, unable to understand the complexities of the world, let alone people. We spend two-thirds of the novel mostly focused on Matthew and his sister, who takes care of him. Then, the story dramatically shifts because – you guessed it – a stranger enters their formally uneventful lives and changes things forever. In this case, the change is arguably great, although it still manages to precipitate disaster.

I strongly recommend Vesaas’ novels if only because, like Kafka, he demonstrates novels can do more than just describe the world – they can create worlds, which may mirror our own, feel deeply unfamiliar, or lie somewhere on the border between the known and the vastly greater unknown beyond.

So go read one of those four novels. Now.

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