Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

I first came across Tarjei Vesaas when a wine friend recommended him to me. He’s a Norwegian writer, probably best known for The Ice Place (1963) and The Birds (1957), both of which I can wholeheartedly recommend. The latter was namechecked by Karl Ove Knausgaard as one of the best Norwegian novels ever – but don’t let that put you off, it really is an excellent read. Spring Night (1954) is the third Vesaas I’ve read, and it’s easily my least favourite of the three. Nevertheless, it does contain some interesting elements, particularly in the set-up.

Fourteen-year-old Olaf and his older sister, Sissel, have been left home alone for the day and night while their parents travel to a nearby town to attend their uncle’s funeral. As the book opens, the afternoon is drawing to a close; it is a broiling hot day in late spring, and the atmosphere lies heavy with heat and humidity. It is clear from the start that Olaf is looking forward to the experience. The house though old and familiar feels different in some way, released from the presence and weight of his parents. There is a sense of freedom in his demeanour as he wanders among the nearby glade, exploring the lush and heady plants that grow there in wild abundance. Furthermore, he is fascinated by his sister, Sissel, and her boyfriend Tore, spying on them from a short distance as they engage in a lover’s tiff.

She straightened up. Olaf was ready to run, but she did not move, and he grew quiet again, spellbound by this game that he knew would some day also be his own game. (p.8)

Once the scene has been set, the story gets underway in earnest as the evening descends and preparations for supper begin. Olaf and Sissel are alone in the house, Tore having left some time earlier. All of a sudden there is a sharp knock at the door, urgent and persistent in tone. Olaf runs to the door and opens it, only to be confronted by the following situation.

It hit him hard, and nailed him fast at first – prepared as he was for something unpleasant by that threatening knocking. He saw a small group of people. Four of them. They had come up to the porch. Two men were supporting or carrying a young woman, and a young girl stumbled down the steps; it must have been she who had pounded so heavily and demandingly on the door. Now she was down with the others again and hid in back of them.

One of the men turned the burden over to the other alone, lurched over to the post on the porch and pounded at it, meaninglessly and in confusion. He was a small tousled man with excited eyes and arms he could not hold still. What sort of people were they? The man waved his arms wildly in front of Olaf and shouted:

‘Is there someone here who can help us? Who are you, anyway?’ (pp. 27-28)

A family of five has just descended upon the house in the hope of gaining some help and shelter following the breakdown of their car. The group is notionally headed by Hjalmar, a rather nervous, fidgety man who spends most of his time fluttering around and chattering incessantly. Then there is Hjalmer’s son, Karl, a brusque man whose primary concern is getting urgent medical assistance for his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, who appears to be in the early stages of labour. Accompanying them is Karl’s younger sister, Gudrun, a girl who bears a striking resemblance to an imaginary friend of Olaf’s – she even shares the same name as his make-believe confidante. Last but not least, the group is completed by Kristine – Hjalmer’s second wife – who at first appears to be unable to walk or talk, although later this turns out to be far from the case.

In essence, these deeply flawed, dysfunctional individuals bring all their psychological baggage and troubles into the house, inflicting their problems on Olaf and Sissel in the process. What follows is a series of oblique conversations undercut with family tensions, rash words and brooding silences. Here’s a short excerpt from a typical scene.

Olaf had to look at the two beside the radio again. They sat there as if they were playing some sort of mute game no one else knew. The man flitted around, chattered, picked things up and put them down again. The woman sat motionless in the chair. Olaf was on her side and said:

‘But I guess he wasn’t so awfully nice in the car.’

Gudrun looked at him quickly:

‘What do you know about that?’

‘Just heard about it. That’s the way it was, isn’t it?’

‘No one was nice in the car,’ Gudrun replied curtly. (pp. 48-49)

As Olaf tries to make sense of it all, several questions are raised in his (and the reader’s) mind. Why is Kristine pretending to be mute when she can clearly talk? Why does she appeal to Olaf for help and protection against her husband? Why does Karl remain so agitated, even once a midwife arrives to support Grete? And what exactly went on in the car before it arrived at Olaf and Sissel’s house?

While Vesaas doesn’t provide any easy answers to these questions, he does create an interesting set-up in the house. There is the basis for a terrific noir here – the hot and sultry weather; the unsettling atmosphere of the setting; the two innocent teenagers home alone for the night; and the group of unhinged strangers who pitch up unannounced, brimming with unexplained tensions and secrets – but instead Vesaas takes the narrative in a different direction, one that I found somewhat unsatisfying in the end. I think this story is meant to signify the loss of a young boy’s innocence as Olaf comes face to face with the complexities and confusions of the adult world. (He is certainly affected by the dramatic events of the night, and by each and every one of the visitors he encounters.) Nevertheless, I found it much less successful than several other books I’ve read which explore this timeless theme in different ways – novels like Alberto Moravia’s evocative Agostino; Stefan Zweig’s impressive Burning Secret; L. P. Hartley’s classic The Go-Between; and, a recent favourite, Olivia Manning’s wonderful School for Love. In the end, I found Spring Night rather oblique and ambiguous, too evasive for my tastes.

My other quibble relates to the character of Olaf. While it is suggested at the beginning of the novel that he is fourteen, later on it emerges that he is the same age as Gudrun who is thirteen. Either way, Olaf struck me as being much younger in his thought processes and actions, probably closer to eleven, although I’m willing to accept that he may have led a very sheltered life.

On a more positive note, the simplicity of Vesaas’ pared-back prose works well with the novel’s themes and point-of-view. The story is told mainly from Olaf’s perspective, so the style matches his childlike view of the world. Vesaas also does well in conveying the dark and brooding atmosphere of the surrounding landscape, especially in the opening chapters. There is a sense of something dangerous lurking in the nearby glade, an early sign of things to come. If only the bulk of the book had lived up to the promise of those early chapters, perhaps it would have resulted in a more satisfying reading experience for me.

Spring Night is published by Peter Owen; personal copy.

37 thoughts on “Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I got the Ice Palace a while ago on someone’s recommendation (possibly yours, I’m not sure) but I still haven’t got around to reading it. Darn, Norway is not in the #EU27, but I’m sure I can sneak it in somehow.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, of course. I keep forgetting that Norway isn’t part of the EU! The Ice Palace is an excellent book – beautiful, mysterious and very powerful. I think you’ll enjoy it a great deal.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ha! Well, The Birds I would definitely recommend, but this one not so much. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it at the time or expecting something different, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment (especially compared to the other two).

          Reply
  2. bookbii

    This sounds like an interesting set up which doesn’t quite deliver in the end, which is always a shame, though I see the book still has some positive features and perhaps suffers from being of a genre which has been explored more successfully elsewhere. I looked up The Ice Palace and that seems a more interesting read. Great review as always, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, great summary. I could have saved myself a good 500 words there! I think my reaction to this was definitely coloured by all those other books I’ve been reading recently, novels like School for Love, Agostino and The Go-Between. A young boy’s loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature, so it’s difficult to avoid comparisons with other stories of this nature. Ah well…I’ll just have to chalk this one up to experience.

      The Ice Palace is a terrific book, well worth reading. Plus it comes with a stellar endorsement from Doris Lessing – what could be better than that?

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    It’s a shame this didn’t quite work for you, but I’m completely convinced that I need to read this author! I’ll try & get a copy of The Ice Palace. I notice he wrote this first, so maybe he got into his stride more as a writer and that’s why the other two novels you mention are much more satisfying?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really good thought. Maybe he was still finding his way with this one, it’s hard to tell. Either way, I’m glad I’ve convinced you to give him a try as he’s definitely worth discovering. The Ice Palace is an excellent book, both haunting and beautiful at the same. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

      Reply
  4. Cathy746books

    What a fantastic premise – as you say, incredibly noir. It’s a shame it didn’t live up to initial expectations. Vesaas sounds like an interesting writer though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the set-up’s great. In the hands of another writer, it could have been an excellent noir. That’s not Vesaas’ bag though; he’s much more interested in the transition from childhood to adolescence (and beyond), particularly the emotional tensions this entails. Even so, it’s interesting to consider what a crime writer might have done with this premise, someone like Simenon for example…

      Reply
  5. A Life in Books

    I love that ‘but don’t let that put you off’! Your quibble about age would be annoying enough if it was simply a slip but given the premise you’ve described it seems crucial to have got that right to make credible.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’m well aware that Knausgaard divides opinion, hence the ‘don’t let that put you off’ comment! Interestingly, the other Norwegian novel he highlighted was Hunger by Knut Hamsun, a book that’s widely regarded as a stone cold classic. I think he put The Birds at number 2 in the pecking order (behind Hunger), but even so that’s very impressive.

      Maybe I’m being a bit picky about the protagonist’s age. After all, this was rural Norway in the early 1950s, a time when life must have been very simple and sheltered compared to today. Even so, he did seem rather naive and childish for a boy of thirteen…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, that’s true. He did seem very childlike, especially when viewed against today’s youngsters.

          Your comments on Knausgaard certainly don’t surprise me – I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea!

          Reply
  6. realthog

    Despite your reservations, this sounds like one I might enjoy. I’ve read nothing by Vesaas, so really ought to give at least one of the three you mention a try. Many thanks for another splendid piece!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. He’s well worth exploring, especially if you fancy trying something a bit different. In fact I’m pretty sure The Ice Palace was turned into a film at some point, so that might make it a particularly interesting one for you to try…

      Reply
  7. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    I love atmospheric novels. As you describe it this one sounds very atmospheric in a very good way.

    I do not think that I have ever read Norwegian fiction. This sounds like a good place to start.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. The opening chapters were very atmospheric, almost Nordic noir by today’s standards.

      I don’t think I’ve read very much Norwegian fiction either. In fact it’s probably just this author and maybe one or two of the novellas from the Peirene stable (they have a strong track record when it comes to Scandinavian fiction – well, European works in general).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved the sound of the noirish set-up in this one. It was one of the things that attracted me to the novel. Still, given my knowledge of this author’s other books, I should have known that he wouldn’t necessarily take the story in this direction.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    Well, given I’ve not read The Ice Palace I doubt I’ll be prioritising this. Adolescent narrators can be very hard to pull off. I remember as a 14-year-old disliking the Adrian Mole books because they read like an adult’s idea of a 14-year old rather than anything remotely similar to what anyone I knew felt.

    It can be forgivable when the child/adolescent characters aren’t central. The child characters in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore are incredibly unconvincing and far too sophisticated for their ages, but one forgives because the rest of the novel works and because they’re not so central as to unbalance the book (plus they do have a sort of Greek Chorus-esque role). Here I think it would be an issue for me though as it was to an extent for you.

    Loved the Knausgaard line.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad you enjoyed the Knausgaard line. I was hoping it would bring a smile to someone’s face!

      Yes, these adolescent characters can be very difficult to pull off successfully. In this instance, I just found Olaf incredibly annoying and frustrating, especially in the scenes with the individual members of the group (which unfortunately make up the bulk of the book). An unusual response for me as I’m usually fairly sympathetic towards these kids struggling with the confusion of emotions that accompanies adolescence.

      I love those girls in Offshore, even though I agree they’re very self-aware for their respective ages. Funnily enough, there’s an equally precocious child in her Beginning of Spring, another young girl who seems wise beyond her years. One wonders where the inspiration for these characters came from…

      Reply
  9. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I think I’ll be skipping this one, since child narrators often don’t work well for me. I’m sorry that you didn’t fully enjoy this one. On a positive note, I’ll be looking for The Ice Palace now. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A wise decision, I think. The Ice Palace is well worth considering, but it does focus on kids again. I think it must have been one of his favourite themes/topics – the exploration of feelings that accompany this particular time in our lives.

      Reply
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