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  • The Mind and Nature of Locked Rooms:Tarjei Vesaas's Novel The Ice Palace and Metaphysical Crime Fiction
  • Anna Westerståhl Stenport

Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesaas's The Ice Palace (Is-Slottet 1963; English translation 1966) is a foundational text in modern Norwegian literature. As a novelist, Vesaas (1897-1970) has been characterized as one of the "foremost innovators in Norwegian literary modernism," sometimes compared to Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett (Wærp 321-22). The Ice Palace is one of Vesaas's better-known novels outside of Norway, as it won the prestigious Nordic Council literary prize in 1964, was quickly translated into English and remains in print. Doris Lessing, for example, endorsed the novel in 1993 as a remarkable and unique piece of literature, calling it "subtle," and "strong" (qtd. in Granaas, "The Body" 315), while Arnold Weinstein has recently affirmed its qualities as a masterpiece. These accolades reflect Vesaas's canonical legacy as one of very few authors "writing in Nyorsk to achieve international notoriety" (Wærp 333) and gives credibility to rumors asserting that the author at one time was being considered for the Nobel Prize in literature.1 Telling the story of a thwarted and complicated friendship between two adolescent girls, The Ice Palace is a short and dense novel full of mysterious suggestions and allusions. It is in some ways a classical piece of high-modernist narrative, characterized by psychological complexity, sophisticated schemes of shifting narrative focalization, and lyrical and poetic nature passages. The novel has most often been interpreted along these lines (e.g., Chapman 146-53; Steen 127-29), while more recent thematic interpretations center on questions of budding sexual attraction, tensions between community and individual, constructions of novelistic subjectivity and embodied practices (Granaas), and art and aesthetic representation (Kittang). [End Page 305]

I seek in this article to shift the contextual field in which The Ice Palace has been ensconced for decades and show that part of this novel's significance—and its continuing appeal to audiences around the world—lies in its sophisticated manipulation of the postmodern crime genre and its reconstruction of detective fiction as a significant subset of literary modernism. By proposing such a context for what is customarily understood as one of the most canonical novels of Norwegian modernism, I wish to situate Vesaas as part of a larger collective of international writers who elaborate on established conventions of popular fiction to craft novels of stunning complexity. This means addressing The Ice Palace's allusions and veiled references to possible pre-narrative crimes, including ambiguous and ambivalent suggestions of sexual transgressions. Reading the novel in this light repositions this work in several critical ways. It situates it as part of postmodernist world literature as an early and significant counterpart to the successful international exports of Scandinavian crime fiction during the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century as a reworking of fairy-tale tropes that link landscape depiction with trauma suppression and as an implicit comment on the social reconstruction of Norway's collective response to the German invasion of their country during the Second World War.

To resituate The Ice Palace in a different literary and historical context, I draw on the term "metaphysical detective fiction," which, as Merivale and Sweeney make clear, is an established term for what other scholars also call "postmodern" (Dettmar) or "anti-detective" (Tani) crime fiction. The term metaphysical detective fiction is particularly useful for analyzing The Ice Palace as it incorporates self-reflexive experimental narrative techniques that signal ambiguity and ambivalence. The metaphysical detective story shares "a kinship to modernist and postmodernist fiction," Sweeny and Merivale argue, while characterized by "the profound questions it raises about narrative, interpretation, subjectivity, the nature of reality, and the limits of knowledge" (1). As in earlier metaphysical detective fiction by authors such as Borges (e.g., "Death and the Compass" [1942]) or Nabokov (e.g., The Eye [1930]), it is unclear whether an explicit crime has been committed in The Ice Palace. Reading this novel as part of a postmodern interest in the crime genre's complexity allows us to rethink Vesaas's established status as a remarkable but isolated genius of...


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pp. 305-320
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