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Tarjei Vesaas. Photographer and year unknown. The photo is from Gyldendal’s historical portraits archives. Photo: National Library of Norway at Flickr.com (No known copyright restrictions/ public domain).
Tarjei Vesaas. Photographer and year unknown. The photo is from Gyldendal’s historical portraits archives. Photo: National Library of Norway at Flickr.com (No known copyright restrictions/ public domain).

Tarjei Vesaas (English)

Tarjei Vesaas was one of the most important authors in Scandinavia in the 20th century. He wrote both narrative prose, poetry and drama and has been translated into many languages. Also outside Scandinavia he is regarded as a great writer. 

Norwegian version 

Tarjei Vesaas was born in Vinje in Telemark on 20 August 1897 and died in Oslo on 15 March 1970. His parents were Olav and Signe Vesaas. The only formal education Vesaas  received over and above elementary school was a winter at Voss «folk high school”, a boarding school without formal exams. Vesaas became acquainted with literature at home – both his parents and his two younger brothers were avid readers. He also became skilled in all manner of practical work at home on the farm. Vesaas married author Halldis Moren in 1934, and they moved to the farm at Midtbø in Vinje, which he had purchased a few years earlier.

Midtbø, home to Tarjei and Halldis Moren Vesaas in Vinje municipality. Photo: Audhild Gregoriusdotter Rotevatn/Allkunne – Norwegian Encyclopedia.

Midtbø, home to Tarjei and Halldis Moren Vesaas in Vinje municipality. Photo: Audhild Gregoriusdotter Rotevatn/Allkunne – Norwegian Encyclopedia.

His authorship comprised 38 books, 23 novels, 4 collections of short stories, 5 plays and 6 anthologies of poetry. First and foremost it is his novels that are most important, for example Det store spelet (1934), Kimen (1940), Huset i mørkret (1945), Fuglane (1957), Brannen (1961), Is-slottet (1963), but also the short story collections Vindane (1952) and Ein vakker dag (1959) and the anthologies Lykka for ferdesmenn (1949) and Liv ved straumen (1970) deserve mention. 

The newly-established Venezia Prize, which has been awarded only once, was given to Vesaas for Vindane, in 1953, and in 1964 he became the first Norwegian writer to be awarded Nordisk Råds litteraturpris, for Is-slottet.

Forfattar author
Vesaas was first and foremost a prose writer. The novel Menneskebonn appeared in 1923, and up until 1939 he published twelve novels, two collections of short stories and two plays. The first books hang fast in Neo-Romantic tradition, but from the publication of Dei svarte hestane (1928) his writing began to be characterized by greater realism and contemporary social conscience, in particular in the case of the novel series about Klas Dyregodt (1930–1938). The highlight in the 1930s was the farming novel Det store spelet (1934). Vesaas was also a dramatist, often in alternation with prose versions. Dramas were rewritten as novels, and short stories also appeared as plays in the post-war period. Lyrical and poetic elements are to be found in full measure in his prose works, and for a few years from 1946 he also published poems. His very last work was actually an anthology of poetry.
Out into the world – theatre
Prior to his marriage Vesaas spent eight years mainly in European cities, mostly in Germany. He learnt German and visited theatres frequently. In particular the expressionist theatre held a great appeal for him, and he attempted to write modernist plays himself, with Ultimatum as the most conspicuous result. But there was little interest in expressionist theatre both among publishers and the theatre world in Norway, which perhaps restricted his development as a dramatist.
War and the human condition
Vesaas was a fierce opponent of war propaganda and all forms of armament and warmongering, a conviction that first became apparent in Ultimatum. Starting with the novel Kimen (1940) this became a central theme in his writing. It also led to formal innovation, and an allegorical approach was also the solution he chose in the two novels that appeared at the outbreak and the end of the war, Kimen and Huset i mørkret (1945), especially in the latter, in which the occupied country is represented as a labyrinthine house with all manner of secret passages and dangerous rooms. In several of the works from this period there is a hope that is associated with unborn and newborn life.
Foto frå Gyldendals historiske arkiv, ukjend fotograf. Kjelde: Nasjonalbiblioteket.
The photo is from Gyldendal´s historical archives, unknown photographer. Source: National Library of Norway.
Anxiety and horror play key roles in several works in the immediate aftermath of the war. Vesaas continually adopted new writing techniques, more experimental and modernist, less traditional than earlier. This culminates as central symbols in novels like Tårnet (1948) and Signalet (1950). Existential pressure that results in mental illness, anxiety and death are also dominant themes in Brannen (1961), and in the intense novella «Fall» (Vindane, 1952) and a number of poems.
Lyrical poetry
Vesaas first published a collection of poems with simple traditional forms (Kjeldene, 1946) which showed an allegiance to folk tradition and folksongs. In later anthologies free verse dominated, and often the issues so typical of the 1940s and 1950s concerning armament and weapons were dominant. It had become very clear to Vesaas that the nuclear weapons of the day were not simply more powerful than anything known to us, but that they would make it possible to wipe out life on earth. Poems from Leiken og lynet (1947) were particularly explicit, with compositions like «I ansvars naud», «Regn i Hiroshima» and «Atom-kjernen». In one of Vesaas’ most powerful poems, «Det ror og ror» (Lykka for ferdesmenn, 1949) the anxiety is explicitly «mentioned by name»: «Ingen veit botnane i Angest sjø».
Other poems concern the fundamentals of life, involving eroticism and other inter-human relationships. The images of nature for better or worse are basic. And there is a hope, which is occasionally voiced, as in the book title Ver ny, vår draum (1956).
Magnificent prose
Vesaas is rightly famous for depicting the anger and emotions of children, especially in short stories. Like the little schoolboy in «Vesle-Trask» who sits there full of knowledge, but who is nota ble to say a word when the nervous young teacher asks him questions at the oral exam. Or the two young strangers in «Det rare», who meet on a bus and feel attracted to each other and simply have to get off and get away from her friend so that they can be alone together. This sort of characterization can also involve adults who distinguish themselves mentally in some way or other. Mattis in the superb novel Fuglane (1957) (The Birds) is hardly capable of doing “a day’s work”, but takes his bearings from the migration of the woodcocks over his house and understands bird language, fully in accordance with the central symbol in the title. What makes the strongest impression of all on the readers, however, is perhaps what happens to Siss and Unn in Is-slottet (1963) (The Ice Palace).
This prize-winning novel is about two 11-year-old girls, relating how their close relationship starts to develop. The fragile, orphaned Unn goes missing and is not found. Siss now has to live with the loss and tackle huge stresses and strains. In Is-slottet, Vesaas depicts the thoughts and emotions of two very young girls in pressured situations so intensely and convincingly that it has given the novel a place among the very best ever written in its time.
His authorship nears its end with the prose book Båten om kvelden (1968). Here Vesaas once again demonstrates his talent for experimentation and innovation, shifting between fluent narrative and lyrical prose. The jewel in the crown thereafter is the final anthology, Liv ved straumen (1970), which he did not live to see completed before he died.
English translation Howard Medland.
Kenneth G. Chapman: Hovedlinjer i Tarjei Vesaas’ diktning. Oslo 1969
Steinar Gimnes (ed.): Kunstens fortrolling. Nylesingar av Tarjei Vesaas’ forfattarskap. Oslo 2002
Sarah J. Paulson og Rakel Christina Granaas (ed.): Dobbeltblikk på Vesaas. Trondheim 2009
Ragnvald Skrede: Tarjei Vesaas. Oslo 1947
Olav Vesaas: Løynde land. Ei bok om Tarjei Vesaas. Oslo 1995
Olav Vesaas (ed.): Tarjei i tale. Taler, helsingar og prologar. Oslo 1997
Tarjei Vesaas: Huset og fuglen. Tekster og bilete 1919–1969, edited by Walter Baumgartner. Oslo 1971
Lisbeth P. Wærp: Engasjement og eksperiment. Tarjei Vesaas’ romaner Huset i mørkret, Signalet og Brannen. Oslo 2009 Bente Aamotsbakken: Det utrulege greineverket. Lesninger av Tarjei Vesaas’ lyrikk. Oslo 2002

Først publisert: 22.10.2018
Sist oppdatert: 23.10.2018