THE BIRDS BY TARJEI VESAAS

The other day I was talking to a man who, impolitely, one might call ‘slow,’ and I felt myself getting annoyed and losing patience. He was easily confused; often repeated himself; and stuttered terribly. ‘I’ve had three strokes,’ he said, and I nodded, thinking this was merely an example of the strange compulsion people have to inform others of their problems or ailments. But then, a moment or two later, I realised that he was offering me this information as an excuse, as an explanation. He had obviously picked up on my irritation, and I felt ashamed, as, I suspected, he did too, but for different reasons. There are, of course, a lot of horrible things that can happen to a human being, but it strikes me that the loss of mental agility, and being aware of this loss, at least some of the time, must be a particularly potent kind of misery.

In The Birds, acclaimed Norwegian author, and one time Nobel candidate, Tarjei Vesaas tells the story of Mattis and his long-suffering sister Hege. While Mattis is an adult [he is thirty-seven], he appears to have the mental age, and physical capacity, of someone much younger. Certainly, Hege treats him like a child, looking after him, telling him what to do, and often humouring him in his strange preoccupations and mental flights of fancy. As far as the locals are concerned Mattis is ‘simple’ [his nickname is Simple Simon], and yet that strikes me as short-sighted. Mattis is not simple at all; he has a complex inner life, it just isn’t like most other people’s. For example, he says to Hege that she is ‘like lightning,’ referring to her flashing knitting needles, an association that is unusual, but imaginative, countering accusations of idiocy. Likewise, his experience with the woodcock, which plays such a central role in the early stages of the book, is full of intense, sophisticated and conflicting emotions.

John-James-Audubon-Woodcock

Crucially, and movingly, as with the man I mentioned in my introduction, Mattis does have self-awareness. He knows that people think him stupid and incapable; moreover, he regards himself that way too. This leads to him feeling frustrated, uncomfortable, and worthless. Indeed, there are two subjects that are particularly painful, which are ‘thinking’ and ‘work,’ two things at which he considers himself a failure. Yet, in spite of these ‘failures’ there are aspects of his character that I found admirable, and that, in fact, I could relate to myself. First of all, Mattis’ cosmic sense of wonder, his relationship with the woodcock, with which he attempts to communicate by leaving it messages, is really quite beautiful. Secondly, his honesty, his inability to be diplomatic, is refreshing. I dislike lying, even so-called kind lies; I am, in fact, incapable of them; I lack tact, frequently upsetting people by not telling them what they want to hear. Mattis does this too, for example, when he points out that Hege, who is three years his senior, is going grey.

It is probably clear by now that Mattis dominates the novel. The Birds is not written in the first person, but it is largely concerned with one man’s thoughts and feelings, his fears and desires, with Vesaas making use of a free indirect style. However, Hege, of course, still plays an important role, although one only really sees her through her brother’s eyes. For Mattis, Hege is wise and strong. Yet one must not lose sight, and to be fair to Mattis he doesn’t, of how hard life is for her. Not only is there a certain stigma attached to having a ‘simple’ brother, but he also cannot work, and so earns no money. He is no real company for her either, because she finds it impossible to communicate with him in any meaningful way, what with his peculiar concerns. To be in her situation must, at times, be like trying to interact with an alien species; it must be, and is, a lonely state of affairs. This is why she gets so upset about the grey hairs. Hege feels, understandably, as though life is passing her by, that, specifically, she has no life, that, as she says herself, she ‘gets nothing out of it.’

As I, or more specifically my parents, get older I have begun to think increasingly about old age, mental health, and our responsibilities towards our loved ones. My mother has been seriously ill recently, and so I have had to ask myself ‘If it came to it, would I be prepared to be her carer?’ Am I selfless enough to make the necessary sacrifices? One of the cruel things about life is that it forces you to confront these uncomfortable questions; you cannot lie to yourself, you have to be honest. What kind of person am I? The truth is, I’d rather not know. I am not saying that this is always the case, but there is a real sense in the book that Hege has spent much of her time in bondage to Mattis, that she has missed out on her youth, or her best years, in order to keep him. Mattis himself acknowledges that without her he would die; she is all that he has, their mother and father having passed away.

“This gave him another opportunity to use one of those words that hung before him, shining and alluring. Far away in the distance there were more of them, dangerously sharp.”

Before concluding I want to return to something I have briefly touched upon earlier in this review, which is communication, because this is, for me, one of the novel’s major themes. Throughout, Mattis fails to make himself understood to people, including his sister. The importance of the woodcock is a fine example of this. Numerous times he tries to articulate what the bird means to him, but he never manages it. This inability to express himself clearly, and Hege’s reluctance to engage her brother – perhaps due to weariness or fear – ultimately has tragic consequences. As the novel moves towards its climax, Mattis worries that he is losing Hege. To prevent the crisis that envelops the siblings all Hege need do is treat Mattis like an adult, or even a mature child, one who deserves a frank and in-depth discussion relating to the future; Mattis, on the other hand, ought to explain his concerns, but simply cannot bring himself to say what is on his mind, and so acts out instead. This is the saddest thing of all: that two people can love and care for one another so much, and yet be so blind to the needs of the other.

I want to finish with some discussion as to Vesaas’ skill as a writer. He was, I believe, a poet as well as a novelist, and, well, it shows. I don’t like to throw the word poetic around when discussing prose, because I think that often it is used to denote flowery, overcooked sentences, but I find it apt here. The Birds is tight, evocative, beautiful. Vesaas displays wonderful control; his style is one of economy, whereby each word seems to matter. Moreover, there are at least three scenes – the fate of the woodcock, Anna and Inger, and the mushroom – that will stay with me for a very long time. If I had to compare the Norwegian’s work to that of another author, I would say that it is like a less curmudgeonly Patrick White, and that is a big compliment, because that pissy old goat could write like a motherfucker.

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4 comments

  1. I was just reading about this book and wondering about it (like I need to bring home another book these days). Thank you for this sensitive reflection. I worked for many years with adult survivors of brain injury. Depending on the nature of the injury, highly educated intelligent people can be rendered with such physical and communicative challenges that they are suddenly discounted in the world even if they still functioning at a high cognitive level. By the same token, the most severe injuries I saw (the 10 second memory variety) often leave people appearing with no obvious signs of injury, therefore far more high functioning than they are.

    1. Thanks RG. I tend to find my own reviews irritating, but I’m relatively happy with this one. Yeah, as I said, I think the awareness of the loss to yourself must be very difficult to cope with. I don’t know where you are from, but certainly in the UK we are dreadful in terms of dealing with people who have mental health problems. Anyway, bearing in mind your experiences, I think you’d get a lot out of the book. Even without any personal connection in that way it is worth reading. Vessas was a great writer. There’s another of his, called The Ice Palace, that I like even more than this one.

      1. It just dawned on me where I was reading about The Birds. I downloaded a galley from Archipelago Books, seems like they are releasing it early next year. Oddly the Peter Owen edition is available here (Canada) but maybe they lost the North American rights. Guess I will be reading it after all.

      2. Are they the ones who release square-ish books with paintings on the cover? Not a fan of those, aesthetically. I say go with Pete Owen. Really nice cover, and it’s available now.

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