A couple of months ago I went on a walk in my neighborhood at the time people put out their bulk waste. I am continuously amazed at what things people throw away. In my own saving-student-budget way I am glad, since I now have pots and pans and books and furniture, etc., all in perfect or good order. On one of these walks I found three big boxes of books on the pavement (where everything for around 12 hours just sits and waits for destruction or reuse). At first I was chuffed, and then I was five books richer.
Yesterday I finished one of these books. It is by Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas and is titled Fuglene, published in Norway 1957 (my copy is Danish and published 1965). The novel is about Mattis who struggles to fit in society but continuously fails. His mind works on overdrive and he often amazes himself with thoughts of rare genius, but when he opens his mouth to utter these pearls of wisdom (sorry for the imagery) his surroundings respond with shrugs, annoyance, sighs and overbearing attitudes. Instead of connecting with people, Mattis has a strong affinity with nature and especially the snipe (incidentally, a bird whose camouflage and zig-zaggy flight makes it hard for hunters to pinpoint and shoot – but none the less a hunted bird). Mattis is ecstatic when he learns that a flight of snipes fly over his house and ascribes this tremendous meaning. He lives with his sister Hege who nudges at him to get work, to join the community, but due to excuses and lack of knowledge he is always out of work. Secluded from everybody except his sister, he becomes (very fittingly) a boatman, but the only encounter he has on the lake is a lumberjack named Jørgen who, as fate will have it, takes up a relationship with his sister. This does not please Mattis, who is strongly attached to his sister, in reality his only link to his own kind. And so he decides to let a ‘of-it’s-own’ kind of fate decide what the outcome of this should be.
The Birds is a child of its time – there is a heavy emphasis on the psychological turmoil of an outsider, and the society that doesn’t include him/her, whether it is intentional or not. Something that set with me was the way in which Vesaas portrays Mattis’ mental constitution and the way his mind worked as opposed to what came out in spoken language. This translates onto the page, as both the dialogue with others and his own thoughts become half phrases and jumbled, cryptic and opaque. As much as Mattis ‘understands’ his own signals, as hard is it for readers and his surroundings to understand him. The tables turn in his universe, where the outsider becomes the insider and the community/the reader becomes the eccentric, ‘not-on-my-level’, misfits. Mattis is a person who talks to birds (not by the use of voice, but a concoction of mental telepathy and signals in nature), he defines himself and his actions by signs he allocates to everything from an expression by a passerby to the way waves form on the lake.
Again as a testament to its time, emphasis is on the tragic note, and in extension fate. There is a sort of implied disconnectedness that is without resolution throughout the novel. And so the outcome, as Mattis says is inevitable. It just is. Whatever happens happens, and for a reason, although he tries his best to postpone and trick fate there is no mercy. When he tells a passerby about the flight of snipes over his house it is this exact cause that effects the death of one of the snipes when the passerby shoots it down. There would or could be no other outcome. The novel is harsh and painful as it drags you through its passages.