Heartwood 4:4 – ‘The Birds’ by Tarjei Vesaas

The Birds is the story of Mattis, a man with learning disabilities in his late 30s, and his sister Hege who takes care of him. They live near the shore of a lake somewhere in rural Norway. Hege knits sweaters almost constantly to bring in the little money that supports the two of them. Due to his general ineptitude, Mattis is unable to secure much in the way of work – he’s even worn out his welcome as a day laborer, though his neighbors could always use the help at harvest time.

Mattis is afraid of thunderstorms, is spellbound by the habitual flight-path of a woodcock, and sees omens in the two dead aspen that everyone refers to as Hege and Mattis. The story is told from Mattis’s point of view and we quickly discover his enthusiasms and desires as well as his worries and fears. We also come to understand with great intimacy the complex personality that lies beneath his “simple,” slow, and clumsy behavior. Every detail is significant in Mattis’s life and the natural world is especially filled with meanings, both awe-inspiring and frightening.

In one of my favorite scenes, a couple of bikini-clad girls rescue Mattis and his sinking rowboat from an island in the lake. He manages to take charge of the situation, rowing the girls in their boat and towing his empty boat behind as the girls indulge his vanity and chat with him along the way. This success helps convince him that he should offer a ferry service to take people across the lake. But everything changes for Mattis when he brings a lumberjack across who then takes lodging at the house with him and his sister.

I don’t know if I would have ever heard about this tremendous book if I hadn’t been reading My Struggle, the remarkable, multi-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard that’s been getting all kinds of coverage in the literary world in recent months. There is quite a bit in Knausgaard about art and music and literature, and somewhere in Book Two he complains about Norwegian fiction of the past fifty years, contentiously claiming The Birds (from 1957) is one of that country’s last successful novels. I love to follow leads like this, what Alan Jacobs calls reading upstream – that is, finding out who has influenced the writers you admire and then reading the books they have read or enjoyed. Since reading so often shapes a writer, it’s frequently worth taking the bait when an author you like starts dropping names. It definitely worked for me in this case. So, who influenced Tarjei Vesaas? I don’t know yet, but after reading The Birds I’m beginning to think I should find out.

Be sure to visit A Reading Life for more reviews and news of all things happening at the Everett Public Library.

More in Life

This beefy ex-cop has a delicate hobby: intricate paper-cut art

You can see Tom Sacco’s creations at the upcoming Everett Art Walk.

Kamiak student Aidan Norris (center) drags Matthew Ninh into a scene as Mitchell Beard (left) reads his lines. (Ian Terry / The Herald)
Joy, disappointment at Kamiak High’s ‘Spamalot’ auditions

More than 80 students try out for 45 roles in the outrageous Monty Python musical comedy.

Arlington eagle fest wants your nature-themed artwork, haiku

Local residents of an artistic bent are invited to submit… Continue reading

What’s new for 2018 for travelers in Scandinavia

Sweden, Norway and Finland have embarked on many urban, cultural and transit projects.

Dolores O’Riordan was lead singer of Irish band The Cranberries

The police force said the death was being treated as “unexplained.”

Kia Rio subcompact takes a classy step up in 2018

A new design, roomier cabin, and better fuel economy are among the improvements on the 2018 Kia Rio.

‘Trump saying something racist isn’t exactly news anymore:’ ‘SNL’

The week’s news was dominated by reports that Trump disparaged Haiti, El Salvador and all of Africa.

Bald eagle no longer listed as ‘sensitive species’ in the state

A recent study found that eagle numbers are strong throughout Washington.

Living the suite life: A story of luck, love and legends

Jennifer Bardsley got a much better deal than she bargained for when booking a hotel room.

Most Read