The Norwegian Ice
The Kingdom of Norway, occupying the western half of the Scandinavian peninsula up in northern Europe, without a doubt, has gifted the world with some of its most celebrated writers. In the contemporary, the works of Jo Nesbø, Jostein Gaarder, Karl Ove Knausgård, Jon Fosse, and Maja Lunde, among others, have become ubiquitous, opening up the Scandinavian nation to many an international reader. But Norway has always had a proud literary tradition of producing a vast genre of literary works, from novels to poetry collections to even dramas and plays. Three Norwegian writers – Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903), Knut Hamsun (1920), and Sigrid Undset (1928) – would even be recognized by the Swedish Academy and awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, long-considered the most prestigious literary prize out there.
Among the many Norwegian writers who elevated their nation’s literature to global acclaim was Tarjei Vesaas. The oldest son born into a family of farmers, Tarjei defied his parent’s wishes of taking over the family farm. At a young age, he knew what he wanted: he wanted to be a writer. Earlier rejections in his career have not dampened his spirits. These rejections turned into fodder feeders that would propel him to a literary career that spanned nearly half a century. His prolific career produced an oeuvre that featured works from different genres, including poems, short stories, novels, and even a play. These works earned him accolades both in his native Norway and on the global stage, including the Gyldendal’s Endowment in 1943 and Dobloug Prize in 1957. His excellence as a writer was further underlined by the 57 nominations he earned for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In Norway, Vesaas is renowned for reinventing Norwegian prose. His works, often set in the Norwegian countryside, made him one of Norway’s most provincial writers; his works captured the landscape of rural Norway and the plights of its denizens. By the time of his demise, Vesaas built a formidable career and oeuvre that would be the envy of many. His legacy earned him the recognition of being one of the greatest Norwegian writers of the twentieth century. One of the most globally recognized of his works was The Ice Palace. Like his other works, it was originally written in Nynorsk, one o the two written standards of the Norwegian language, and was published in 1963 as Is-slottet, making it one of his more recent works. It was translated into English three years after its initial release.
“They themselves have lent it life; light and life to the dead block of ice, and to the silent time that follows midnight. Before they came the waterfall had been roaring, despondent and unconcerned, and the colossus of ice had been merely death, completed and mute. They did not know what they had brought with them before they were ensnared by the play between what has been and what is to come.”~ Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace
At the heart of The Ice Palace were two girls whose individual strands converged. Siss, who was eleven years old when the story commenced, grew up in a rural community in the Norwegian countryside. She was an only child, vivacious and outgoing. A natural social leader, her peers looked up to her, and easily the popular girl at school. She was also the one who leads all the games in the playground. The natural harmony at Siss’ school was slightly disrupted by the arrival of a new girl, eleven-year-old Unn. Unlike Siss, Unn kept to herself. She was introverted and was still navigating her way through the community and its denizens. Despite the encouragement of her fellow student, Unn politely declined their offers to take part in any of their activities. This naturally made everyone curious about the new girl in town.
Siss found the situation perplexing but, at the same, drawn into the shroud of mystery surrounding Unn. When Siss got invited over to Unn’s aunt’s house, Siss was baffled but accepted nonetheless. Their highly anticipated first meeting happened one darkening autumn evening. They were both excited but, at the same time, nervous about how their first meeting was going to develop. In this initial get-together, Unn revealed the reason why she moved to the countryside. Six months ago, Unn’s mother passed away due to an illness. She also had no iota about her father’s identity. This prompted her Aunt to take her to the countryside and live with her. The icy facade that was palpable at the start of their acquaintanceship started to thaw as Unn was opening up more about herself, sharing parts of herself she never talked about with anyone else.
For her part, Siss started to feel a sense of connection with Unn. Sure, she was the most popular girl at school. However, at the end of the day, Siss, like Unn, felt a sense of loneliness. Unn’s arrival in the community, and consequently, to her life, was a sleight of hand by destiny. But it was this very same fate that would intercede between the two girls. Just before Unn and Siss’ friendship was given the chance to flourish, it ended prematurely, and almost immediately after their first conversation. Embarrassed by the events of her first get-together with Siss, Unn decided to skip school and explore the nearby ice castle: “It was an enchanted palace, She must try to find a way in! It was bound to be full of curious passages and doorways – and she must get in. It looked so extraordinary that Unn forgot everything else as she stood in front of it. She was aware of nothing but her desire to enter.“
The titular “ice castle” pertains to a natural phenomenon that happens during winter. When temperatures drop to subzero, waterfalls freeze over and create these majestic structures, one of which Unn decided to explore. In the tranquility of the ice palace, she found peace and she also found a space to grapple with her personal issues. It was in this exploration and rumination on solitude and grief that The Ice Palace found its power. It captured two lives built marred by loneliness and longing that were not easily captured by the naked eye. We see two young girls trying to get a grip on their lives and get to the bottom of their personal issues. They find it a challenge to express their own concerns, particularly Siss who was overwhelmed by the surge of emotions as Unn made her confessions.
“It was this the palace and the river had been waiting for. She had known it all along. Now it would crash. They would stand out on top, she had drawn them all with her into this horror. Gaping cracks would open beneath their feet, the palace would totter and fall forward under the pressure of the water with all of them on top of it, down into the seething channel, and that would be the end. She had known it all along, ever since the moment the men stood there with their sombre song of sorrow.”~ Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace
Under Vesaas’ dexterous writing, the ice palace is no mere physical presence. It was a physical and enchanting character, beguiling and also shrouded in enigma. As the story moved forward, the ice palace transformed into an allegory. For Unn, it was a sanctuary that offered her the peace she yearned for. It allowed her to be herself, something she cannot be in front of other people. It was her safe haven, a place for both healing and reflection. However, the ice palace represented the opposite for Siss. The ice palace was a physical manifestation of the boundaries that Siss created around her. It loomed above her and kept her from creating emotional connections with other people. She locked herself up in her own ice palace – out of reach of everyone.
Siss’ ice palace has always been there but she was not aware of it. It was only made apparent by Unn’s brief and unexpected presence in her life. Her ice palace would further be fortified by the gaping hole left by Unn’s eventual departure. Siss’ personal ice palace is something that many of us can relate to. Following a traumatic experience, building a wall around us is a natural reaction. Our guards are up. Within these boundaries, we try to find our own healing. It did not help her that there were several things left unsaid between Siss and Unn. The inability to express feelings was vividly captured in Siss’ daily interactions, whether it was with her friends or her parents. For most of us, this tendency to leave things unsaid is carried on until our adulthood. This often leaves us with what-ifs and the what-could-have-been which would often haunt us later on in our lives.
While the novel was about coming to terms with grief and solitude, it also explored change, love, and the different relationships we forge with the people around us. Identity and even sexuality were also grappled with in the story. The Ice Palace was, at its heart, a coming-of-age story. The undertone of sexual awakening gave the story a different complexion. This was a subject that was beyond the main characters’ grasp but it was inevitably present. This, in turn, gives the ice palace a metaphor distinct from what it represented to the main characters individually. The ice palace represents the preservation of innocence. Elsewhere, the novel explored the preservation of memory and being loyal to it. In a way, it was another metaphor for the ice palace.
The novel was deceptively thin but the subjects it tackled were deep and complex. This complexity gave the main characters and the story their own distinct personality. Vesaas did a stellar job of tackling these complex subjects with great sensitivity and elan. The subtle power of his writing captured the often tumultuous transition from childhood to adolescence. It was provocative, at times, even careening toward the disturbing, albeit the good type of disturbing. The novel also drew power from Vesaas’ lyrical writing. The beauty of his writing made the sentences flow. This reeled in the readers. It also makes the reader adopt a slower pace in order to breathe in every word and description. The well of symbols prompts the readers to slow down and examine each piece that makes up the characters and the story as a whole.
“The water that had frozen was only the brittle silver ornamentation that forms among the grass roots on frosty April nights – the water did not seem to have paused, it left its trace on everything. It filled all existence, cascading in all the rivulets – its singing never so clear as on a holiday morning, whatever the reason. The big lake was brimful after the thaw, with a haze above it, large and small ice floss floating in it, nd its shores black. Beyond it all, unheard at such a distance, flowed the great river, thundering with giant power.”~ Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace
One of the novel’s triumphs was its painting of the Norwegian countryside. This is an attribute that Vesaas’ prose was renowned for. Vesaas made the snow-clad countryside come alive with his vivid descriptions: “The pine needles stretch their tongues and sing an unfamiliar nocturnal song. Each tongue is so small that it cannot be heard; together the sound is so deep and powerful that it could level the hills if it wished.” The wintry landscape offered an evocative, albeit chilly backdrop for the story. The glacial scenery was a constant and even trailed after the characters at every turn. It was enchanting but, at the same time, distressful because of its lack of life.
The story of Siss and Unn was no mere exploration of friendship. With Vesaas’ masterful storytelling, he built a story about navigating the complexities and importance of communication in establishing relationships. The novel was also about love and grief, isolation and sexual awakening. It is about coming to grips with one’s feelings, an important facet of the transition from childhood to adolescence. The story also underlined the importance of accepting the looming presence of emptiness and loss as an integral part of living. The convergence of prose and poetry, The Ice Palace was an immense commercial and critical success. It won the prestigious Nordic Council Literature Prize (Nordisk Raads Litteraturpris) in 1964, making Vesaas the first Norwegian writer to win the award. It is no wonder that The Ice Palace is considered a classic of modern Norwegian literature.
“She was ready for sleep; she was even warm as well. It was not cold in here at any rate. The pattern in the ice wall danced in the room, the light shone more strongly. Everything that should have been upright was upside-down — everything was piercingly bright. Not once did she think this was strange; it was just as it should be. She wanted to sleep; she was languid and limp and ready.”~ Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace
Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
Apart from Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, I can’t recall reading any novel by a Norwegian writer. I was hoping to redress this by reading Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace. I obtained a copy of the book way back in early 2020, a couple of months prior to the pandemic. I didn’t have any iota about who Tarjei Vesaas was nor have I encountered any of his works previously. As always, my inner cat (yes, from the ubiquitous saying “curiosity killed the cat”) got the better of me. I bought the book along with Aleksandar Tišma’s The Use of Man. Both books would form part of my foray into European literature in 2022. Prior to starting the book, I learned that Vesaas is considered a literary titan in his native Norway. He was quite the accomplished writer, making me look forward to reading his novel more. The fact that The Ice Palace is considered a classic of modern Norwegian literature went in its favor. Sure enough, I found myself drawn into the story of the two young girls. There were some challenging parts but overall, the story had my interest from the onset. I can relate to the concerns of the two characters. This profoundness of its message makes it resonate with a larger audience. The exploration of loss reminded me a bit of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. But what really stood out for me was the novel’s poetic language. I am hoping to snatch more of his books.
Author: Tarjei Vesaas
Translator (from Norwegian): Elizabeth Rokkan
Publisher: Peter Owen Publications
Publishing Date: 2013
Number of Pages: 176
Genre: Literary, Coming-of-age
Introverted eleven-year-old Unn is a recent arrival in a rural community where she lives with her aunt. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with a boisterous schoolmate, Siss, and an unusual bond develops between them. When Siss visits Unn they declare their intense feelings for each other, but Siss feels threatened and leaves. Unn, who has been wanting to share a secret, cannot face Siss the next day. Learning of a forthcoming school outing to the ‘ice palace’ – a giant structure formed by a frozen waterfall – she sets off alone to visit it, never to return.
Siss’s struggle with her fidelity to the memory of her friend, the strange, terrifyingly beautiful frozen chambers of the waterfall and Unn’s fatal exploration of the ice palace are described in prose of a lyrical economy that ranks among the most memorable achievements of modern literature.
About the Author
Tarjei Vesaas was born on August 20, 1897, in Vinje, Telemark, Norway. He was the oldest of three sons born to a farmer of a father and a teacher of a mother. At a young age, Vesaas was mentored by his family to become the successor of the family farm. Vesaas, however, had different ideas. Despite his relative youth, he was determined to pursue what he was passionate about: writing.
At the age of 23, Vesaas started writing poems and articles for a newspaper. A year later, one of his poems won a prize, prompting him to send some of his works to a publisher. He got rejected but this did not stop him from writing. In 1922, he won a contest for short stories, opening new windows of opportunities for the Norwegian writer. A year later, his first novel, Menneskebonn (The Children of Humans). It would be followed by eight more novels before he achieved his biggest local breakthrough in 1934 when Det store spelet (The Great Cycle) was published. His other works include Kvinnor ropar heim (Women Call Home, 1935), Kimen (The Seed, 1940), and Huset i mørkret (The House in the Dark, 1945). Is-slottet (The Ice Palace, 1963) is widely regarded as a classic of modern Norwegian literature. Vesaas also published collections of poetry and short stories.
For his works, Vesaas won a slew of literary awards, both within and outside his native Norway. He won the Gyldendals legat (Gyldendal’s Endowment) in 1943, the Melsom-prisen (Melsom Prize) in 1946, and the Doblougprisen (Dobloug Prize) in 1957. e was awarded the Nordisk råds litteraturpris (Nordic Council’s Literature Prize) in 1963 for The Ice Palace, making him the first Norwegian writer to win the Prize. In 1953m he won the Venice Prize for The Winds (Vindane), a collection of short stories. He was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on 57 occasions.
Vesaas passed away on March 15, 1970.