Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace

There’s a common misconception that Eskimos have an inflated number of words for snow. Probably because there’s various Eskimo tribes, all speaking their own languages. I have no idea how many words there are in Norwegian – or Nynorsk, to be more precise – but I reckon there’s a good number of them, otherwise Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace (1963) would be a repetitive novel.

And how, then, without being repetitive, would it translate to English, if we only have one word for snow? That word being, well, snow. Thankfully, the English language has a large enough vocabulary to describe frozen water in all manner of ways – ice, icicle, frost, slush, etc. – all equally evocative, and its a mercy indeed for without them The Ice Palace would not be the evocative beauty it is.

Siss and Unn are two very different young girls. The former is popular in their rural school; the latter, recently arrived in the area, is very much alone. But something attracts them to one another, and one winter evening Siss heads over to Unn’s and their getting to know other – secrets shared, and promised to never tell, aside – is an awkward affair. So awkward, in fact, that Unn skips school the following day to visit the ice palace, a structure built from the errant streams and spray of a waterfall, and is never heard from again.

And as the search for Unn begins amongst the villagers the snow begins to fall. In fact, the snow falls all winter, each successive layer covering up the earth and any tracks Unn may have left. But it’s not quite so simple as that, for the snow is both physical and metaphorical, a representation of the way in which Siss becomes snowed in, emotionally isolated in her need to preserve the memory of her friend:

They’re not thinking about Unn any more.”

“Who isn’t?”

“Nobody is!” said Siss, even though she had not meant to. It had gone dark, and then she had said it.

Her mother answered calmly: “How do you know, my girl?”

Siss said nothing.

“And then nobody knew Unn. It’s unreasonable, but it makes it seem different. People have a lot to think about, you see.” Mother looked at Siss and added: “You’re the person who can think about Unn all the time.”

As if Siss had been given a great gift.

This “gift” leads Siss to embody Unn, to become the loner at school. To keep the air of mystery alive – for that reason she’ll never tell another soul Unn’s secret. But as the winter leads into spring, Siss learns to accept that Unn is never coming back and in such situations one can be relieved of a promise’s obligation. And so, with the new season warming the land, Siss is able to take one step closer to adulthood and all the inner turmoil she has been suffering melts away, the metaphorical ice palace going the same way as the physical one:

It was just as alarmingly tall and strange from whichever angle you looked at it. Polished and sparkling, free of snow, and with a ring of cold around it in the middle ofthe mild March air in which it stood. The river, black and deep, moved out from under the ice, gathering speed on its way downward and taking with it everything that could be torn way.

Aside from the rather amazing story of The Ice Palace, with its layers of symbols and possible interpretations, what really captures the imagination is the prose: chilly, sad, and haunting; yet not without colour. It’s poetry, and what makes it even more special is that it’s a translation. Just how beautiful must the original be?

The Ice Palace really deserves more widespread attention. It’s a subtle gem, extremely unassuming, and, while it will no doubt mean different things to different people, they will all agree that it means something to them. Frankly, it’s nothing short of a work of art and I’ll be looking forward to reading more of Vesaas in the near future. As an introduction to his work, what a way to break the ice!

November 9, 2007

10 responses to Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace

  1. John Self said:

    You mean… “WATER way to break the ice!” I thank you.

  2. Stewart said:

    Get out! Any more bad puns like that and I’ll ban you. :D

  3. Kirsty said:

    Lovely review, Stewart. I really like the look of this.

    Onto the wishlist with you, Vesaas!

  4. Stewart I was almost tempted to learn Norwegian just to find out how brilliant the original must be (almost but not quite!) because this one may sneak into my top ten reads of the year when I look back soon.

  5. Stewart said:

    Yes, it’s in my top ten reads of the year already. It’s an easy choice on two counts: one, I’ve had a slim reading year; and two, it’s simply magic.

  6. antonia said:

    i entirely agree, it is such a wonderful book, so very visual – or better sensual, one can really feel the cold and the mystery and it is somehow completely plausible why Unn goes into the icepalace even though it is rationally an unreasonable thing to do and this time she spends there belongs to my favourite passages of the book. I also wondered for ages what the secret might be – and another thing i noticed, kids where not treaten as kids that ahve to be sort of ‘ruled’ but rather with respect and as own little beings, there is astonishingly little authoritarian treatment of kids in the book. It’s also psychologically very well written, sometimes reminded me of Th. Hardy.

  7. jem said:

    For some reason my computer will not tell me when you have updated your site – so when I remember to come back I find I’ve missed loads of reviews.

    Which is a shame – especially when you review things like this which I must get. I like ‘cold’ books and I’m in a bit of a ‘missing children’ novels run at the moment!

  8. steffee said:

    Can a computer know when you’ve updated your site? Is that what those bloggy button things are for? I’m clueless, really.

    Bill Bryson says there are umpteen words for snow. I forget which book, Mother Tongue, I suspect, but it’s definitely him.

    Oh, I want to learn Norwegian too.

  9. Stewart said:

    You can use a feed aggregator and that should keep track of however many blogs you want to bring together into one place.

  10. steffee said:

    Um, that’s a joke right? :-?

    Hehe.

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