Obnoxiously (the manner in which I do most things), I read Tarjei Vesaas’ The Birds because Karl Ove Knausgaard refers to it in a volume of My Struggle.* Knausgaard praises Vesaas, a fellow Norwegian who wrote in the middle of the 20th century, and singles out The Birds as his most worthy work. I’d never heard of or read about Vesaas before, and I’ve seen him mentioned nowhere else since. I think this is quite a shame, because The Birds is a masterful, haunting novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
The novel is about a pair of siblings in their late 30s. Mattis, the younger brother, suffers from learning disabilities and finds it very difficult to interact with people, thus his sister, Hege, must look after him and provide everything he needs. On reaching her fortieth birthday, she has a major crisis of identity, realising that her entire life has been spent caring for her brother and that she has missed out on love, marriage and having children. This is implicit, but not stated, for the narrative voice is rooted in the mind of Mattis and thus not fully perceptive of the emotions of others.
Vesaas, decades before it was fashionable, wrote an autistic protagonist, and he did so sympathetically and maturely. It seems almost surprising that this novel, first published in 1957, can be so liberal and also so tense. The reader sees the world that Mattis sees, but is able to interpret it with more sophistication. This means that there are several moments where we are able to understand the motivations and the actions of the people around Mattis when he is not. The narrator is close to him, but not him. The most simple illustration of this gap is in a scene about halfway through the novel. Hege has started a love affair, and one evening her lover sends Mattis out of the house on a pointless task, clearly so that they can have sex. Mattis does not see this, instead he is flattered to be given the instruction and the attention. To a reader, though, it’s obvious what’s happening, and this is an important narrative device throughout.
The presentation of Mattis’ personality seems, from my limited experience, to be accurate as far as autistic behaviour goes. He becomes frustrated very easily, he struggles to express himself, he has strange obsessions (about birds) and finds it very difficult to understand why other people do not share his interests. On a personal level, he is lonely, and both scared of approaching people and over-confident when he does. He is physically weak, he is anxious, he is unhappy and he is scared of his sister abandoning him for her lover, even though (again, to a reader) it is clear that she understands Mattis’ welfare is a lifelong commitment.
The Birds captures the frustration of an unfulfilled life, as well as the joy found when pleasure arrives unexpected. We see Hege’s transformation, though, through the prism of her brother, who is resentful of her happiness and her interest in a man other than him. There are intimations of incestuous feeling, there are several tense moments when Mattis is sexually attracted to other women, and there are moments when his frustration seems moments away from erupting into violence. He fears being bullied and mocked by the local villagers, but most people he meets are kind to him despite his inability to work or make conversation.
There are many beautiful passages of description – of animals, of the forest and the lake the characters live beside, and there is a gripping scene where Mattis eats a mildly hallucinogenic mushroom and finds himself close to murder. The book is subtle and gentle – it is rural, there are not many characters, nothing “big” happens – but it is a moving portrait of an unhappy soul trapped within a body that denies it the ability to fully integrate with society. Hege is able to make a deep, human connection, and Vesaas is able to convey her happiness despite Mattis beside the narrator. The Birds is moving, sometimes a little scary, but frequently incredibly beautiful.
I’d highly recommend it. Another great Norwegian text!
* I just looked this up and it was in A Man In Love, which means this is book I’ve been intending to read for almost two years… Whoops.