Of ice and light, then nothing

Biletet byrjar å svive, flyt ut i kantane, samlar seg, nei samlar seg ikkje. Det er ein munn som smiler. Ein munn fra ei anna verd. Nei det er ingen munn, det er ikkje noko smil, det er noko ingen veit – det er berre oppspana augevipper over glimt og strålar.,,

The picture begins to water, flows out to the edge, collects itself, no it doesn’t. It’s a mouth smiling. A mouth from another world. No, it isn’t a mouth, it isn’t a smile, nobody knows what it is  — it’s only eyelashes open wide above gleams and radiance.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970). Translation by R J Dent. Peter Owen Modern Classic.

Few books have left me with a greater sense of awe and a greater sense of devastation than The Ice Palace. It is like a story you know well, a movie that you’ve seen many times, and yet the story and the movie still unhinge you each and every time you revisit them. The awe for me stems from how Vesaas writes. Harper Lee did the same to me. Still does. I think that many people have had this feeling, this experience, that I’ve described in relation to writers and filmmakers because, after all the analysis, the story is that good. The Ice Palace is like that.

Read the block quote again. Please. The extended quote, if given, would begin with “Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes,” and ends with the image of a seeing eye, “open wide,” with a series of propositions followed by a series of negations. Each erasure returns the reader to “gleams and radiance.” The four eyes belong to two girls, Siss and Unn. Two eleven-year old schoolgirls who live in a rural Norwegian village are drawn inexplicably and irresistibly together; and in the scene above, they are together alone in Unn’s bedroom when they decide to compare their bodies. The pivotal question Unn asks Siss is, “Did you see anything on me just now?” The ‘what’ is never answered or identified. The scene has an “edge” to it, but it is not erotic (for that, see Duras’s The Lover and the ‘relationship’ between the young girl and Hélène Lagonelle) because Vesaas’s writing conveys the sense that the connection between these two girls is spiritual, complementary opposites, civilized and anarchic. The list of possibilities of what it was is endless. Still is.

What happens after the bedroom scene is the devastating event of the novel. The prose is simple, direct and unadorned. Quietly and patiently we read and feel the dread that envelops Unn. She has let us know that her one fear is that she will not enter heaven. We know that she does not belong. We don’t know why.

Unn will enter the ice palace, which is described with the same admiration and fear as the topiary animals in The Shining. In the wake of the inevitable loss, Siss tries to reclaim her own emotions, make sense of what has happened between her and Unn, mourn, and find her place in the village, after she is put through some questioning. Siss is shattered. She does find her way back into the community, but nothing is the same again. You, as the reader, will watch her in grieving process, her becoming ice, but what has happened and all the unanswered questions will remain beyond your ability to articulate it. That fleeting sensation, the mimetic shock of what happened and how it continues to be shocking each time you reread The Ice Palace, is Vesaas’s accomplishment as a writer.

The novel is short, about two hundred pages. It was written in Nynorsk, a nineteenth-century effort in Norway to wrest the language from the influence of the Danish language. Denmark had ruled Norway for four-hundred years. As an aside, Ibsen’s language is what was known as Dano-Norwegian. Everyone in Norway must pass an exam in both official languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk, in order to graduate from high school. Is-slottet, published in 1963, is compulsory reading for high-school students in Norway. In 1987, a film version of the novel was made. You can watch it here. Unfortunately, there are no English subtitles. It has never yet been released on DVD. Sorry. I do think that you can watch the movie without the benefit of subtitles because the story is that visual.

So what makes the story haunting? I don’t know the complete answer. The novel is so many things and yet it is not. It is a coming-of-age story, a novel of formation, and yet it is not. Is it a coming-out story? I don’t think that it is. The novel is about ice, the cold, the events in life that freeze us or keep us frozen. Is it that the prose and the mystery of what is not seen but felt are elliptical? I think so. There is coldness in what remains beyond language. Siss can’t explain it; nor can we as we read the story. Vesaas has that gift to make readers remember childhood and all the tumult, the oscillations between exultation and despair, keeping secret from the adults around you what was yours, knowing that there are boundaries without understanding them. He recreates the fearlessness of youth, good ignorance, and that finite time before there is Knowledge, intimacy of desire, surrender, and annihilation. In the poetic descriptions of the ice palace alone, Vesaas shows the cracks of light, the scratch of ice, and then nothing.

The Ice Palace is out of print, but it can be found used. I will be bold and repeat what one reviewer has said in a terse review: “You are not literate before you have read this book.”

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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