In a new translation of Norwegian author Vesaas’ (1897-1970) final novel, the landscape transforms into a source of awe and menace.
Vesaas’ book (which was first published in English in 1971 as The Boat in the Evening) opens with a pair of prefaces told in verse, and at times the prose with which this novel is told transforms into poetry before shifting into a more structured register. Peer closely enough into this book and a narrative begins to emerge, about a family and a young man’s coming-of-age—but even here, Vesaas focuses more on the landscape and the natural world than on what the characters within it are doing. Even when there are scenes with dialogue, Vesaas largely leaves these characters unnamed. It’s of a piece with the sense that the landscape is largely alien to the people living within it, which reaches its apex with a description of the bodies of five soldiers lying in a grove. In one chapter, “The Dream of Stone,” there’s a mention of the rock itself “singing sonorously the song of sorrow about man’s brief span.” Vesaas writes beautifully about the natural world, but he presents it as a frequently harsh and brutal place. Early in the book, one character encounters a crane, and a sublime passage about the grace with which birds move gives way to something much more visceral. “The bird starts on being seized by the leg, and shrieks a reply to my shriek before it has died away—a horrible sound. Like lightning it strikes at me with its giant beak, slashing a strip of fire down my face in its haste.” There’s beauty to be found outdoors, but it’s not without its horrors.
The conflicted role of humans in nature is a familiar theme, but few narratives hum with the surreal power of this one.