There are few things in this world so mysterious as a Vesaas novel. Though he published both fiction and poetry, in the novels his poetic gifts surface in mood and bold imagry rather than labored and ornate language. In this story of a moderately mentally-handicapped man, Vesaas explores the human mind's primitist impulses - our need to discover significance (indeed, omens) in the mundane and our need to barter with blind, deaf fate.
Set in the Norwegian countryside over the course of one summer, The Birds tells the story of forty-year-old Mattis, who has mental disabilities and lives in a small house near a lake with his sister Hege, who ekes out a modest living knitting sweaters. From time to time Hege encourages her brother to find work to ease their financial burdens, but Mattis's attempts to work at the surrounding farms always end in failure and disgrace. Mattis is keenly aware of the distance between himself and the world around him, which often feels hostile; the villagers call him Simple Simon.
Profoundly sensitive to his surroundings, Mattis spends much of his time in the forest, reading its signs and symbols: A woodcock begins a daily flight over their house, a beautiful bird is waiting for him on the path one day when he returns from the store, and one afternoon lighting strikes one of the two withered aspen trees outside the house -- trees known in the village as "Mattis-and-Hege."
When Mattis decides to employ himself as a ferryman, the only passenger he manages to bring across the lake is a lumberjack, Jørgen. When Jørgen and Hege become lovers, Mattis finds he cannot adjust to this new situation. Wholly reliant on Hege and terrified of losing her, he clings to the familiar and does everything in his power to make Jørgen leave. Simultaneously, he struggles to find a place for himself in a world that does not seem to want him.
With spare simplicity, Vesaas's straightforward prose subtly reveals Mattis's perspective and readers will find themselves shifting irrevocably from observers of his experience to participants in it. Written by one of Norway's most celebrated and beloved authors, The Birds is a deeply nuanced examination of identity and responsibility, with abundant narrative suspense and hauntingly beautiful writing besides.
About the Author
TARJEI VESAAS (1897-1970), author of twenty-five novels, and several volumes of poetry, short stories, and plays, is widely regarded as one of Norway's greatest writers of the twentieth century. His writing touches on a variety of difficult themes such as mortality, guilt, and angst, while often chronicling the deep intractable human emotions of his characters. Vesaas won a number of awards, including the the prestigious Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1963 for his novel, The Ice Palace, and The Venice Prize in 1953 for The Winds. He was considered for the Nobel Prize three times.
About the translators: TORBJØRN STØVERUD is the author of Milestones of Norwegian Literature, Modern Norwegian Literature, and, together with George Popperwell, Anthology of Norwegian Literature, Volume 1-6. Together with Hal Sutcliff he is the translator of The Story of Edvard Munch by Ketil Bjornstad and Insect Summer by Knut Faldbakken. MICHAEL BARNES is Emeritus Professor of Scandinavian Studies at University College London. He is the author of The Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of Britain, An Introduction to Scandinavian Phonetics, and The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland, among others.
"Tarjei Vesaas has written the best Norwegian novel ever, “The Birds” — it is absolutely wonderful, the prose is so simple and so subtle, and the story is so moving that it would have been counted amongst the great classics from the last century if it had been written in one of the major languages." — Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle, in the New York Times Book Review
"[The Birds] has a freshness that can only be due to its timeless subject matter... From the first page, this novel grips us with an acutely sensitive rendition of a mentally handicapped man's inner world." -- Kirkus Reviews
"Mattis, the protagonist of ... The Birds, surely deserves a place among the cadre of unforgettable characters in modern literature... Vesaas’s prose, spare and straightforward, soars with a poignancy of feeling... Mattis’s disability is the pivot upon which the novel unfolds and also serves to amplify the ways that “normal” people, too, are “handicapped." Vesaas allows us see that without Mattis’s sensitivity, perceptivity, and honesty, we, too, are impaired, limited from living a full life." — Lori Feathers, World Literature Today
"Masterful... profound." — Rain Taxi Review of Books
"...an under-appreciated work of genius." — The National Book Review
"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." — Reading in Translation
"True visionary power." -- Sunday Telegraph
"A spare, icily humane story... The character of Mattis, absurd and boastful, but also sweet, pathetic and even funny, is shown with great insight. The translation conveys successfully a concetration of style and feeling that seems to be Vesaas' characteristic mark as a novelist." -- Sunday Times
"Beautiful and subtle"-- Scotsman
"The Birds is a true literary masterpiece - most likely one of the most beautifully haunting novels you will ever read." -- Nordic Bookblog
"The inexplicable thoughts that recur to Mattis will do so to readers as well, long after the book has ended." -- Hannah Sheldon-Dean, Bookslut