By Daniel Kushner
The Birds is a deeply sad but beautiful Norwegian novel by Tarjei Vesaas, once a leading contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, about a lonely man living in a town where nobody can understand him. But it is not just the main character who struggles to be heard; for decades, the novel itself has struggled to find the international audience it deserves.
Vesaas managed to develop his global reputation despite writing in Norwegian Nynorsk, or New Norwegian, the less well-known language of his country of 10 million. In the 60 years since this book was originally published, and the 50 years since it was first translated into English, Vesaas’s masterpiece is still virtually unknown within the English-reading literary community.
That may be starting to change. Archipelago Books re-released The Birds this spring in a beautiful new printing — in hardcover, paperback, and kindle editions — with cover art by the abstract painter Simon Hantai. Along with this stamp of approval from a highly regarded publisher of international literature in translation, some influential endorsers have begun to appear: Karl Ove Knausgard mentioned Vesaas in his book My Struggle (Volume II: A Man In Love) as a writer he admires—and he singled out The Birds as Vesaas’s best book.
This is also an auspicious era for The Birds to be rediscovered. Translated novels have always faced challenges in the United States: Chad Post, who started the translation blog Three Percent and runs the Best Translated Book Awards, estimates that less than one percent of the literary fiction and poetry published in the United States is translated. But there is more awareness today of this translation crisis, and more openness to an outstanding international novel that may have previously fallen through the cracks. And at a time when voters in Europe and North America are struggling to determine how we relate to each other, and many appear inclined to re-think old relationships from the European Union to NATO, a work of translation from deep in Norway has, perhaps, a renewed salience.
The Birds is itself about the difficulty of understanding one another. Its protagonist, 40-year-old Mattis, is referred to as Simple Simon by his sister, who lives with and cares for him, and by his neighbors. They think he has trouble communicating because he has difficulty thinking. His awkward interactions, which often include mildly insulting comments from those he encounters, make him avoid them, giving the interactions that do occur undue weight in his mind. Mattis's efforts to convey the many thoughts he has are hurried and he struggles to find anyone with the patience to listen.
It is perhaps the long stretches between real encounters that give such weight to a few incidents: a woodcock suddenly beginning to fly directly over the house he shares with his sister, seeming to represent a new start to life; a woman who not only sits alongside him on a flat stone, but also brushes his cheek. These moments have an enormous impact on Mattis that he struggles to convey to anyone else. Even when he is making one of his rare connections, he has trouble communicating: he tells two women he interacts with that his name is not Mattis but Per, the name of another character in Vesaas’ oeuvre.
Though The Birds nominally concerns someone dealing with an intellectual disability, it seems notable that in an interview, the author described Mattis as the character with whom he most identified. In the latest translation by Michael Barnes and Torbjorn Stoverud, the prose is spare yet powerful, often reminiscent of a fairy tale, simultaneously dealing with an individual of unique characteristics, but also representative of something larger.
We are presented the world strictly from Mattis’s perspective, and typically from his often inaccurate perceptions. He struggles to understand what others are thinking, and by extension their identities. “How different people are, he thought in a bewildered way when he got outside,” Vesaas writes.
Much of the plot, though, is physical, and even there, Mattis struggles to connect. His most enjoyable, if worst paying, job is as a ferryman. He rows a damaged boat, searching for clients to travel from an island to the shore. But the only people who want to travel this route already have their own, much faster, boats, and little interest in being transported by Mattis.
His better-paying option is to work on a farm as a day-laborer, but he is so curious about how the two young sweethearts with whom he works interact and occasionally even lightly touch each other, that he makes mistake after mistake in his farm work. His sister’s fiancé tries to teach him how to be a lumberjack, but he fails to understand the basics of how to chop down a tree.
And so Mattis is left, without profession or abilities that are respected, and unable to be heard — by the women he fantasizes about, the men he interacts with, or even the sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law with whom he shares his house. It’s a terribly lonely world in which he lives, if one filled with a beauty that only he sees, from the lake he lingers on, to the birds flying over his house, which only he bothers to look at and appreciate, despite his very best efforts to tell others about them.
Perhaps this fate is exactly what motivated Archipelago to reissue The Birds. It is always a fine thing when an under-appreciated work of genius is given another chance to be discovered by a wider audience. It is particularly satisfying when, as in this case, that work is about the struggle to connect and be understood.