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

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 Nordic modernist narrative. Instead, we can begin to understand the Ice Palace as an early example of international metaphysical detective fiction, which includes well-known works like Paul Auster's New York trilogy (1985-1986), Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979), and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).

The Ice Palace features no formal detective, no dead body that is recovered and analyzed, no motivation for a crime, no affirmed eyewitness, and no clear resolution to a mystery that nevertheless seems haunted by sinister and stark allusions. Nor has the novel previously been read as part of a crime genre [End Page 306] before. The novel does, however, feature key components of metaphysical detective fiction: a missing person, a doppelgänger motif that provokes a doubling between characters, and multiple locked rooms, labyrinths, and mazes. The Ice Palace also makes persistent references to what appears to be a mysterious but vanished trace, specifically to something that can no longer be seen on the body of one of the protagonists. Set in the height of winter in a small isolated town in the Norwegian province Telemarken, the novel focuses on the puzzling relationship between two eleven-year-old girls, Unn and Siss. During a brief meeting in her locked attic-room one evening, Unn tries revealing a secret to her new friend Siss, yet Siss balks at the confidence and abruptly runs home through the cold, dark forest. The morning following the girls' first and only encounter in private, Unn disappears into a labyrinthine mass of ice that has accumulated at a nearby waterfall (the "ice palace" of the novel's title). Siss becomes increasingly distraught by her friend's disappearance and tormented by the possible implications of the secret she never got to hear. She begins searching for clues and traces of Unn both in her own mind and in the landscape.

The Ice Palace never unequivocally states that a crime has been committed, yet its sophisticated play with narrative perspective and location creates a complex web of allusions and suppressed references that suggest that criminal transgressions have occurred, but can never be uncovered. These effects are part of what metaphysical crime fiction seeks to attain. The novel uses several of the genre's well-established strategies also to suggest a doubling between characters and a spatialization of the mind, which, as John T. Irwin shows, are core strategies of metaphysical detective fiction. Notably, The Ice Palace plays with ambiguous narrative perspectives that move between the two girls, a third-person narrator, and an unsettling multi-perspectivalism that includes also a "you" and a "we." In terms of location, the novel draws self-reflexively on settings integral to the genre of metaphysical detective fiction, which include locked and closed rooms, labyrinths, and mazes, whether imagined or real. The Ice Palace, true to the genre, spatializes narratological constructs.

There are generally two distinct but complementary ways of thinking about spatiality in crime fiction—realist setting and narrative construction. The traditional locked room mystery combines the two, and provides a base-line reference for metaphysical detective fiction like The Ice Palace. Edgar Allen Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) provides the paradigmatic model for the locked-room mystery, which makes clear that locked rooms are not hermeneutically sealed, but that narrative tricks unlock them. The locked room, as S.E. Sweeney argues, is a device that "embodies the very essence of detective fiction" (1). In Poe's story, the armchair detective Monsieur Dupin performs a stunning feat of analytical ratiocination by drawing on architectural features and spatial clues that reveal how two gruesome murders were committed by a most unlikely perpetrator—an Orang-Outang from the East Indian islands. [End Page 307] By analyzing modes of entry and exit into the victims' apartment on a quiet back street in Paris, Dupin's analysis also affirms how a geographical context of colonialism, transnational travel, and multilingualism is part of nineteenth-century European modernity. In addition, a thematic emphasis on geography illuminates the function of the genre's essential narrative device of the locked room. Crime fiction's dependence on realistic settings did not diminish during the twentieth century, as Poe's locked-room paradigm spawned the Golden Age manor mysteries and continued as a formative device for both the hardboiled crime novel and the police procedural. In fact, most crime fiction depends on a realistic but "implied space in the contemporary world" (Scaggs 50), which combines verisimilitude in terms of setting with allusions to a metaphorical space of locked-in clues—a space frequently portrayed as buried in the detective's own mind (Rzepka 37-43).

In The Ice Palace, the trope of the locked room is both concretely spatial and abstractly symbolical: it is, I argue, a literary construct inextricably linking architecture, landscape depiction, and shifting narrative perspectives. The novel's complex narrative strategy moves explicitly between a symbolical realm and a realist, rational realm of conventional crime fiction. This movement is related to specific locations. The setting includes realistically described references to life in a small Norwegian town in the 1950s (Fredwall 223), while the landscape surrounding the town appears coded as part of a symbolic landscape of Northern fairy- and folk-tales: it features a forbiddingly dark forest, a frozen lake with a "terrifying drop" (43), and the mysterious ice palace. Locked rooms—bedrooms in particular—and the labyrinth of the ice palace in which Unn gets lost and from which she cannot escape, are privileged locations in the novel. It is during these episodes, set in confined locations, that we find suggestive allusions to possible pre-narrative crimes. Yet, the novel never affirms that any such crimes actually occurred. Instead, by drawing on the novelistic strategies of the locked-room convention in crime fiction and emphasizing a realistic setting, these allusions become formulated as clues.

A Locked Attic Room

The novel's description of Unn's and Siss's first meeting exploits the implications of realist setting and the narrative construct of the locked-room formula. Having been invited to visit Unn at her home, Siss walks through the cold, dark night from her family's warm house to that of a relative stranger. When Unn locks the door to her room from the inside to prevent her well-intended but nosy aunt from entering, "Siss started at the sound" (20). Ambivalent at first, Siss relishes the moment of privacy with Unn, and the two girls begin comparing themselves—they are both eleven years old and they look very much alike. The third person narrator affirms that they are "attuned to one another" (20). The episode in Unn's locked room makes manifest on a plot level the strong and special bond between the girls, while also [End Page 308] introducing the recurrent mirroring and reflection process that is constitutive of the narrative. During this meeting, the two adolescent girls look in a mirror. This seemingly mundane event is turned into a charged and symbolical act, however, which indicates how the novel will manipulate narrative focalization to increase uncertainty and mystery. The two girls are described by the third person narrator as looking at their own faces in a mirror and recognizing their similarities: "Four eyes full of gleams and radiance" (23). The narration then quickly shifts to an unidentified first-person voice: "I don't know: gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone—into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation" (23, emphasis added). The "I" in this passage is not known—it could be told from the perspective of Siss or Unn or both; the use of this "I" in fact formulates a multi-perspectivalism that increases the sense of mystery, as it cannot formulate an answer to what "this" is. This passage illustrates the dominant pattern of changing narrative perspectives in the first half of the novel; it also illustrates that the architectural construct of the locked room permits a transmutation of narrative perspective.

The pattern of changing perspectives first established in the passage set in Unn's locked attic room alludes to a mystery that keeps on expanding. Seemingly innocent markers of a budding friendship and a sense of identification, such as they "shone towards each other, were one with each other" (23), acquire connotations that are more sinister. In the privacy of Unn's locked room, the girls undress for "fun" (23). They watch each other for "the briefest of strange moments" before Siss notices Unn's "quick glances," how "still" and how "tense" she has become (24). Once they are dressed again, an awkward silence ensues: Siss "realized that there was something that had not come out after all"; Unn "did not look happy any more" (25). For a few moments, the girls return to seemingly safe territory by looking at a photo album. The photos, though, reveal problems of the past—Unn's mother has recently died and her father only exists as a faded image of "an ordinary youth" (26). There is only one photograph of him and Unn has never met him; as an illegitimate child, Unn's family lineage can only be brought up within the privacy of her own room. In fact, by locating this reference to the missing father within the context of the locked-room narrative and architectural construct, it becomes ominous. I will return to the significance of Unn's missing father at the end of this article.

The novel's central mystery is first alluded to in Unn's locked attic room. It is framed as being located on Unn's young, naked body—"Did you see anything on me just now?" she asks Siss. But there is nothing there to see, at least as described to a reader. The novel does not indicate whether a mark of some sort has vanished, or whether it is there, or whether Siss is unable or unwilling to see it. There is no physical proof of a mark; instead, the novel suggests that there may have been a trace of something, but that it has now vanished. Thus, access to the central mystery is barred for both reader and [End Page 309] Siss. Unn's reactions, reported in direct speech, allude most definitely to a trauma, but also to the possibility of a crime: "I have never said it to anyone," Unn continues, "I can't, so there!" (27). Allusions to sexual abuse, possibly incestuous, are strengthened by Unn's emphasis on keeping silent, indeed on being unable to talk about "it." The third-person narrator intercedes in an oblique nod definitive of crime fiction to assert that "the silence was not to be trusted" (27). Unn, moreover, reformulates her possible allusions to sexual abuse in a manner that is difficult for Siss to engage with. Unn says: "I'm not sure that I'll go to heaven" (28). Faced with seemingly unfathomable depths of dark experiences, Siss can only respond: "What?" She abruptly leaves. In a strategy typical of metaphysical detective fiction, Siss takes on the characteristics of Unn so that character reactions are doubled and repeated. Now, it is Siss who cannot talk, save to utter a one-syllable question, "What?" and flee. Like Unn, she is silenced.

Like her attic room, Unn's body remains closed to interpretation, while Siss's reactions suggest her mind to be a locked room. Coded as a well-adjusted, easily frightened, and innocuous young girl, Siss's shock is expressed as a need to escape both the location and any further thoughts. Thereby she also escapes a mental space shared with Unn. "She must not stay here. Unn might make up her mind to say more…'I must go home now.'…'I must get home now'…'I must go home, so there.'…she had to get out of this. She simply had to run away" (28). The locked room seems to prompt attempts at expressing a mystery, yet this same narrative conceit bars the mystery from being understood by Siss. As Siss flees, the passage's shifts in perspective between Unn and Siss are again emphasized as part of a locked-room paradigm. The characters' minds are like locked rooms, where access to information is just outside, but, as Vesaas writes, "Of course it was something, it had not gone, they were only trying to push it away" (23). According to Weinstein, these possible allusions to sexual abuse are not part of what the novel is about; instead, he argues, "we are obliged to rethink our questions, obliged to understand that the true sexual secret has already been shown: it is the mutual infatuation that links the two girls.…The tale turns on a mystery, but the mystery is in plain view, and it is the mystery of fusion, of human connection" (282). The girls, though, are trapped in two different locked rooms—one which is architectural, and from which Siss escapes, another that is psychological, which neither can transcend. Weinstein's "fusion," his understanding of "human connection" is only symbolical. The locked rooms of the narrative emphasize its construction, and the two girls are never to meet again after this first encounter.

Although never explicitly acknowledged as being a crime of sexual abuse or incest, The Ice Palace alludes to a mystery, which, in the vein of metaphysical detective fiction, is structurally present in its absence. The possible pre-narrative crime comes into existence as a rhetorical strategy not only in Unn's allusions and in Siss's reactions. The mystery is also compounded by the [End Page 310] repetition of formulations that oscillate between the third- and first-person and which emphasize the linguistic parallels between Unn and Siss, as they repeat utterances verbatim (e.g., "so there!"). These parallels open up the possibility that the characters mirror each other in more ways than one; Siss recognizes Unn's trauma also as her own, as locked away ("What"?) and silenced. Moreover, the characters are symbolically figured as locked rooms. Siss's flight from Unn's locked attic room mirrors Unn's vanishing into the enormous labyrinthic ice formation the next day. By combining the narrative clues, it seems that Unn tries to reveal to Siss that something actually has happened to her, something that is not imagined or symbolical; and that Unn also appears to be trying to convey this information to herself. The narrative strategy, which bars access to unequivocal information, is like a crime committed by an adult toward a child in a locked room, from which the child cannot escape and into which a witness is barred from entering.

Locked Rooms of a Labyrinth

The mystery of Unn's disappearance into the labyrinth of ice seems to echo and repeat the ambiguity concerning the possibly vanished trace on Unn's body. On her way to school the morning after her meeting with Siss, Unn instead takes the winding path through the forest to the mass of ice by the river. Walking toward the ice, she resolves "not to think about the other today" (37); "Mustn't think about the other now" (39); "she would not think about the other. She would be free of it today!" (45), quite explicitly fending off all recollections of a trauma that she had tried to verbalize to Siss. As Unn enters the ice-structure of seven connecting rooms, she finds herself in an enchanting space of unexpected, ever-increasing beauty. However, the mass of ice figures both as a mythical castle with seven rooms and as a labyrinth with no way out. It is also a metaphor for the mind. Unn makes her way through a succession of rooms, and the fifth room, close to the waterfall, "was a room of tears" (53). The physical progression through the labyrinthine ice mass parallels the gradually increasing access to suppressed memories. Unn feels warm in the fifth room and undresses, like she had done the previous evening to show Siss her body. She leaves her winter-coat behind (its bulkiness prevents her from getting through an opening in the ice), while thinking that "it had been herself crying so hard in there…it had been herself, plunged in her own tears" (54). As she progresses through the structure of ice into the sixth room she finds "a miracle, it seemed to her" (54). Foraying simultaneously through an architectural structure and symbolically into the past, she cries out and "thought about her mother, and about Siss, and about the other—she managed it for a very brief moment. The call [her crying out loud] had made an opening; now it slammed shut again" (54). Unn moves on to the final, seventh room, but sits down, rests, and, as the first part of the novel ends, "she wanted to sleep; she was languid and limp and ready" (60). Lost in the labyrinth of ice, having for a brief moment confronted her trauma, Unn dies. [End Page 311]

The Ice Palace forces a series of uncomfortable questions to the surface. A particularly important one concerns the narratological choice of focalizing the young girl as only being able to confront the locked room of a trauma when in a state of near-death (then it "slammed shut again"). It is only when Unn is absolutely unable to confront the one she calls "the other," who, given the many narrative clues, appears to be a perpetrator, because she is locked in a labyrinth of ice, that the novel can make its veiled allusions to a crime more concrete. Because Unn disappears on the day before a snowstorm, no clues are left to be traced in the landscape; all physical traces are buried by the snow. The landscape may be a witness, but it gives no clues.

Similarly, Siss is assumed to be a witness. The adults in the village ask Siss repeatedly for clues to Unn's disappearance, and the search team insists that she tells them what Unn said to her during their meeting in Unn's room, but Siss refuses to serve as a principal witness. In fact, Siss takes on Unn's silence as the narrative moves between different focalizations: "No! She thought"; "She started. 'No!'"; "[Unn] didn't say anything"; "Nothing"; "'it wasn't like that, she didn't say it!" (77-78). Siss repeats verbatim some of Unn's utterances from the previous evening (26-28). This doubling between the characters reflects Unn's getting lost in the maze of ice; access to unequivocal information gets more and more difficult to attain.

Unn's disappearance affects the remaining two parts of the novel. Siss is represented as being so affected by it that she also retreats into a closed room, both metaphorically and literally. Not only has the possibility of a mark on Unn's body, a clue to a possible pre-narrative crime, disappeared even before the narrative starts; the novel's interest in a vanishing referent corresponds also to the characters' suppressed utterances—it locks them up. Neither Unn nor Siss can address a threat to the social order as strong as that evoked by Unn's implicit allusions to sexual abuse. Letting the door slam shut on what Unn had tried to express, succumbing first to fevers and then to a near-catatonic state of depression, Siss remains in solitude in her sickbed for months. The Ice Palace thus on the one hand reconfigures the crime novel's insistence upon rational detection and logical progression within a realistic setting, while simultaneously playing with the metaphysical crime genre's tradition of construing the mind as a locked room. None of the characters in the novel know what has happened to Unn, but the reader is told how she freezes to death, buried in the ice. This creates a stark opposition of knowledge access and signals how The Ice Palace employs sophisticated strategies common to metaphysical detective fiction, in which knowledge is barred from those who appear to seek it most—Siss, as well as the villagers shocked by Unn's inexplicable disappearance. Their search for knowledge is as labyrinthine as Unn's experiences in the ice palace.

During Siss's absence from the social world of the village, she is described as entering into a close relationship with the memory of Unn. This relationship, however, is formulated as curiously eroticized, at least partly because of the [End Page 312] shifting narrative focalization that moves from third- to first-person, sometimes without deictic or linguistic markers. The following passage is quite typical: 'Promise at night. I feel you are so close that I could touch you, but I daren't. I feel you looking at me when I lie here in the dark.…There is no one else.…No one, no one else. You must believe me when I tell you so, Unn. Renewal of the promise from Siss to Unn: There is no one else.…This came about in Siss's…bedroom" (97-98). Siss's emerging sexuality has most often been disregarded (e.g., by Granaas, "The body" 314-15) as unfitting of the highly symbolic conceptualization of the novel in a highly literary and aestheticized representation. Yet the possibility of an emergent erotic attraction is not really the issue here. Rather, the erotic implications of The Ice Palace emerge as a result of the shifting narrative focalization. These shifting focalizations indicate how metaphysical detective fiction bars access to unequivocal knowledge about events: we do not know if a crime has been committed, but we do have pieces of a puzzle that the novel asks us to put together. Subsuming the slight traces of sexual abuse into a story of budding erotic attraction, titillatingly construed as the unacknowledged and innocuous bond between two girls about eleven years old, leads to stark results: death and momentary madness.

As a narrative interested in exploring the boundaries of crime fiction, The Ice Palace has no official detective, although Siss could arguably be understood as a metaphysical or "post-modernist," in either case unwilling, detective figure who searches for Unn in her own mind. Eventually, she ventures back to the ice palace to seek also for the missing body. In metaphysical detective fiction, such doubling of characters is a recognized trope. Siss thereby suggestively occupies the position of both the anti-detective and the anti-witness; she is unable to search (as a detective figure would) or to help in the search (as a traditional witness would). Within the novel, Siss is disassociated spatially from Unn, whereas the possibilities of erotic attraction between the girls also inscribe, through the vehicle of Siss's represented thoughts, The Ice Palace within a "form so committed to the restoration of the status quo that it can only be seen as being in a thrall to the existing social order" (Horsley 10, drawing on Moretti). Covering up the possibility of a now invisible trace or mark on Unn's body, and diffusing its implications, is one of the ways in which the novel illustrates the generic characteristics of metaphysical detective fiction. These strategies also correlate with crime fiction's interest in exploring criminal activity as a way to express an "unsettling manipulation of point of view," heightened by "the unstable position of the protagonist" (Horsley 116). As a focalized child, the character of Siss is construed as providing an unreliable point of view. She has indeed been both sick and down, as Auntie tells her (140), yet without knowing it herself; it "was a complete surprise" (140; see also Granaas, "Barnet"). The unreliability of this point of view is important, since it connects Siss to a possible pre-narrative crime and to the missing body itself. [End Page 313]

As Horsley argues, "the violated body of the victim has also come to act as a symbolic focus for the crime narrative" (117), which connects crime fiction's corpses to the social and cultural "fascination with the spectacle of the traumatized body" (117; see also Knight 200, and for alternate readings Plain). In The Ice Palace, Unn's body disappears not only symbolically from view, but also from the level of realist narration. Once Siss recovers from her illness and leaves her room and, thus, her intimate, nightly dream-conversations with Unn, the novel momentarily returns to a realistically depicted fictional space where children play games, walk home from school in pairs, and plan an excursion to the remnants of the ice mass by the river falls. During a trip to the ice palace, the various locked-room formulas of the novel are juxtaposed with one another and the connections between them revealed. Playing with her classmates, Siss climbs down a hollow in the "transparent, solid ice" (124). She then screams, just like Unn had called out while trapped within the structure, and for a moment recognizes what has happened: "there was Unn! Straight in front of her, looking out through the ice wall" (124). In this moment, Siss occupies the role of an unwilling detective in metaphysical detective fiction; she also serves as a double for the character of Unn. In a realistically represented setting (the minutely described mass of ice), Siss stumbles upon the dead body of the missing person. The narratological structure bars her from recognizing the import of the discovery and internalizes the stimuli so that it comes to remain within Siss's own symbolically locked room: her mind.

Siss's focalized assertion in free indirect discourse—"there was Unn!" (the exclamation is not linguistically marked as uttered)—is supplanted in the next sentence by the third-person narrator's shift in tone and mode: "she thought she saw Unn, deep in the ice" (124, emphasis added). The third-person narration grows progressively more definitive in a subsequent sentence: "She realized she was seeing a vision" (124). The fundamental ambiguity of what has happened not only to the possible trace of sexual abuse on Unn's body but also to the very body itself is thus increasingly reaffirmed on the narratological plane of the novel, which uses shifting points of view to establish Siss's focalized perspective as unreliable. This development is concurrent with Siss's reinsertion into the community. Suppressing the sight of Unn's dead body, and the recollection that she in fact has seen it trapped in ice, Siss rejects the thought with a "No" (126). This is one of many such "no"s that she has expressed in the novel so far, and here it marks Siss's definitive denial both of Unn's missing body and the possibility that she saw something on it.

Locked Up Landscapes

Allusions to the possible sexual abuse of Unn can also be uncovered in the novel's descriptions of the natural landscape. Unn's body, for one, is never found; it is negated, just as Unn was unable to speak to Siss about her body. The body has disappeared, as if the allusions were too much to engage with on [End Page 314] a realistic level. When the search party arrives at the mass of ice by the river at midnight, it refuses to open up. The men of the search party are described as "thunderstruck" and "bewitched" by it (82). They find the mass of ice closed, dark, silent, and only barely opening up, even at the use of violence. Only the smallest "could force their way in," until barred by a "fissure smaller than a hand's breath and with water gurgling at the edges" (83). As Granaas argues, the sexual connotations cannot be mistaken; the ice palace figures as a threatening unknown, akin to the female adolescent body ("The Body" 327). Strikingly, there is never any mentioning of summoning the police. To the villagers, no crime has been committed and the young girl has simply disappeared. There is a strong cultural connotation to the villagers' ready acceptance of a locked-up landscape seemingly having swallowed up Unn's body, as Unn's disappearance into nature illustrates the Scandinavian folk belief of bergtagning ("mountain abduction"). The term, literally translated as "taken to the mountain," serves to explain the disappearances of children from the community as captures made by fairies, trolls, or other supernatural forces: such children disappear into untamable nature without a trace.

Fairy and folk tales in the Scandinavian tradition are often set in landscapes coded as static or primordial, where nature, a harsh climate, and prolonged periods of darkness constitute a menacing symbolic and literal register, while the tales address, as in other traditions, social taboos and traumas. Bruno Bettelheim argues in The Uses of Enchantment that fairy tales express children's anxieties in a fantasy form that eludes the deduction and rationality "that is still beyond [them]" (qtd. in Best 233). But a trauma of abandonment, neglect, or abuse expressed in a childhood fairy tale, Jack Zipes counters, is misguidedly understood as redemptive, since fairy tales "express an adult viewpoint, [not] that of a child"; the trauma expressed in a fairy tale is sublimated into a didactic lesson "because we want to believe that such [a] trauma did not and does not exist" (qtd. in Best 237, emphasis added). The ambivalent movement between fascination and repulsion negotiated by fairy tales often includes a veiled eroticized attraction between children (as critics have argued is the case between Unn and Siss) and by adults for children. This strand is reinscribed in The Ice Palace's description of the relationship between the prepubescent protagonists, Siss and Unn. The icy landscape, are in a fairy tale, both unites and separates the protagonists, while the narrative uses locked-room and labyrinthine formulas alternately and ambivalently to unveil and suggest its references to crime.

The Ice Palace's nods to folklore are not naïve, however. The novel draws on a sophisticated and deliberate transfer of spatial registers, moving between the realistic setting of the small Norwegian community and the threatening natural, unpredictable landscape of supernatural powers outside its boundaries. This spatial representation in fact parallels the narrative's moves between a straightforward third-person narration of the realist (and conventional crime [End Page 315] fiction) tradition to a multi-perspectivalism that selectively focalizes one of two characters in order to address, by way of implication, an interest in exploring the dark recesses of the mind. The locked-room mystery suggested by the setting of Unn's attic room and her subsequent disappearance into the ice palace (both architectural and narrative structures) are mirrored by Siss's withdrawal into her own mind. The unexpressed trauma that the two girls seemingly share is made partly comprehensible by the novel's allusions to a symbolical and fairy tale-like use of landscape. The novel's final negation of Unn is construed through a third-person narrative mode with specific reference to a landscape seemingly out of bounds for observation: "No one can witness the fall of the ice palace. It takes place at night, after all the children are in bed" (175). The word "children" harkens back to a fairy tale paradigm, while "witness" ties the narrative into the realm of a crime fiction paradigm turned around, in which "No one knows" what has happened, nor asks "What is it?" (175). The strategies of detection, logical progression, investigation, and deduction usually associated with the genre are thwarted in The Ice Palace. As such, this novel becomes an intriguing and overlooked example of Scandinavian metaphysical detective fiction that, although obsessively concerned with the mystery of a missing body, resolutely shies away from assigning the roles of culprit, perpetrator, or investigator. There are not only one but two victims in this novel, though. Unn is the concrete victim, of course, but Siss can clearly be construed as a character forced into an ideological paradigm befitting both traditional crime fiction and the fairy tale; yet this paradigm is one that she has possibly attempted to rebel against in a nonverbal manner.

Affirming the Social Order

Siss's return at the end of the novel to a known social setting (school, the excursion, her friends) parallels the arrival of spring, according to a template of inexorable associations between rebirth and renewal that are also part of a fairy tale's return to normalcy after an excursion into the unknown and traumatic. This process is expressed in a series of increasingly lyrical and poetic passages (e.g., 111, 116, 161), which establishes yet another level of mediation between the symbolic and realistic planes. The eroticized connection between Siss and Unn not only masks allusions to the possible mark of sexual abuse, as argued above, but the intense affinity and identification established between Siss and Unn is eventually diffused also on an explicitly ideological plane; this draws The Ice Palace toward the fairly conventional strategies of the crime novel. Siss's reassertion within the social community is clearly codified as dependent upon the genre's dominant paradigms of heteronormative socialization.

The Ice Palace, in contrast to its lyrical passages of high-modernist complexity, in fact returns to a very straightforward and conventional understanding of social ordering. Walking one day to see Unn's aunt, Siss retraces the steps she had taken that one dark night before Unn's disappearance. [End Page 316] In her meeting, Siss finds herself absolved by Auntie from her commitment to Unn; "Freed from my promise?" (142), Siss wonders. Relinquishing Unn means welcoming the acquaintance of an unnamed "half-grown boy" (146). The attraction Siss holds for the anonymous teenager is coded in physical terms. His "sweat steaming off him," physicality makes it so that "something smoothed itself out inside her.…She was full of affection for him" (146-47). The boy also talks differently. In "plain speaking," he affirms that there is "nothing more to be done about it" (147). Siss welcomes what the novel construes as a masculine, rational, and linguistically unequivocal acceptance of Unn's death: "it was good to hear it" (148). Siss's attachment to the boy grows stronger, his presence "had made the palace different" (152) and she "felt a desire to touch him" (153), transferring the trauma of Unn's death and her absent dead body buried in the ice mass onto a sanctioned object of erotic attraction. The socialization process of Siss, realistically enacted as heteronormative regularization, corresponds, however, to the novel's increasingly prevalent and extended use of lyrical nature metaphors.

The Ice Palace's penultimate chapter, called the "Woodwind Players," operates explicitly in two representational registers. The first is coded as a straightforward socialization process, not unlike the one expected at the end of a crime novel in which rational order is restored as the result of a linear process of detection and the final deduction, with the ensuing result that the criminal is apprehended and the detective and reader can finally give a sigh of relief. This is expressed by Siss: "Today I am going back to the others" (161); "I am going back to the others" (168); "I have gone to them now" (173). Siss's last focalized expression is that "the burden fell away" and she returns to her friends (174). The other register of this penultimate chapter, however, is one of increasing metaphorization, abstraction, and non-linearity, particularly in terms of landscape description. The river, the wind, a bird, and the unknown entity of the 'woodwind players' create a jarring discrepancy of anthropomorphized nature, oddly detached from the very specific socialization process Siss is simultaneously undergoing during the excursion to the ice palace, which is realistically described and non-personified. One such poetic passage begins "We are the woodwind players, enchanted by things we cannot resist. Everything is naked and new. A rock stands in running water. It sticks out, motionless, like a lifted axe, parting the moments for us.…We are expected. We are among the white stems of the birch trees before we realize it. The brief time left to us will be spent here" (161). The degree of abstraction here is formidable and quite curious. The narrative perspective suddenly detaches from the first- and third-person intermittently used throughout the narrative. The perspective now includes an abstract, universal second-person-plural, "we," whose referent is not explicit: is this nature, the implied author, and the implied reader all jumbled together? If so, to what effect? The perspective is clearly not Siss's, however, since her focalized thoughts and voice span the paragraphs preceding [End Page 317] and succeeding the passage. It is as if this narrative shift serves to lock up any trace of Unn, to bar the resolution of a mystery. The narrative strategy's refusal to let any allusions to crime be acknowledged only affirms the strength of their implications.

The complexity of formal strategies at the end of The Ice Palace thus spans a significant number of registers. These registers move from realism to symbolism, between different narrative focalizations, and include strategies of the crime novel and paradigms of the fairy tale. The registers also include anthropomorphized nature lyricism and a fairly conventional ideological promotion of social conformity, befitting the stereotypes of an isolated village in the Norwegian mountains of the post-war decades, and so on. On the one hand, the clearly signaled fairy-tale strategies of the text are maintained and carried over into both realist and symbolist realms; the taboos and traumas that need to be hidden, the stark oppositions (locked rooms and labyrinths, light and dark, warmth and cold, etc.), the motif of bergtagning (mountain abduction), the isolated location, the emphasis on community, the aunt as the helper in the transition from childhood to adulthood, the loss of innocence, the heteronormative socialization process, and so on. On the other hand, the potential violations also suggest an implied author who seems to construct a conventional male fantasy of secretly watching two young girls playing naked together. From this perspective, the girls are performing a sexualized ritual for the titillative benefit of adult readers. The narrative strategies of The Ice Palace thereby organize the central mystery in ways that take the narrative out of a fairy or folk tale realm and into one that, in the mid-1960s, was becoming increasingly popular as a medium for social criticism: the crime novel.

The social criticism brought about by The Ice Palace's emphasis on Siss's socialization into the community, expressed intermittently in the last chapters with an increasingly poetic and abstract language, particularly with respect to spatial representation (see also the last chapter called "The Palace Falls"), has at least one additional layer significant to the kind of noir crime story that became prominent in both European and American crime fiction of the 1960s. Like the films noir set in Europe in the decades following the end of the Second World War, the specter of the Nazi invasions is clearly invoked in this genre. I see it suggested in The Ice Palace as well. One possible avenue to explore in this regard is the emphasis on community and consensus in the novel, which may also allow us to think about it as referring, if obliquely, to traces from the legacy of the Nazi occupation of Norway. Unn is an outsider before her disappearance and she is tainted by social stigma as the child of an unwed mother and an absent father, one who only exists in a faded photograph. Although this is never made explicit in the novel, Unn's mother may have been a tyskertoes, i.e., in a sexual relationship with a German occupier. This is yet one more way that the novel creates its characteristic ambiguity. Similarly, Siss's fascination with but reluctance to learn the exact nature of Unn's secret possibly reflects also on the ambivalent collective dynamics of Norwegian [End Page 318] postwar trauma (see Petrow 342-66). Through her association with Unn, Siss is set off from the community, although the community eventually urges Siss back into the fold. The power of the community to forget, to move on, to sweep over the traces of traumas (in my reading suggestively evoking a connection to the Nazi occupation) is construed as creating a majority memory that is more powerful than Siss's individual experiences of Unn. This social context corresponds to other ways in which the novel plays with suppressed memories and locked minds. Such a social contextualization tendency also correlates with the general tenets of the Scandinavian welfare states, as emphasizing collective consensus over the individual's perspective.

The Ice Palace is, perhaps, a novel of lyrical modernism according to the critical reception, but it is also highly representative of crime fiction's expansive possibilities. Like Borges, Pynchon, Auster, and other better-known novelists interested in critically exploring the possibilities of centering fiction not on the resolution of a crime but on crime as a conceptual tool for narratological experimentation, Vesaas in The Ice Palace operates simultaneously and quite sophisticatedly in several registers. The novel explicitly and self-reflexively challenges the genre boundaries of the locked-room, hard-boiled, urban private eye, or police procedural strategies; there is, as I have shown, no explicit crime committed, no clues, no witness, no detection or deduction process, no perpetrator, no resolution, and the realistic setting so important for crime fiction (whether urban or rural) shifts between concrete and abstract, quotidian and lyrical. The novel similarly refrains from providing a clear moral universe. The natural landscape instead takes over, in a seemingly unrelenting process of ice-breaking, seasons turning, and bodies decomposing.

The novel, moreover, indicates how crime fiction in the 1960s was reconceived in terms of setting. The Ice Palace, as part of a tradition of metaphysical detective fiction, reframes what we may think of a seemingly primordial landscape, frozen in time and genre. This is what makes the novel so intriguing. In contrast to the crime genre's—whether metaphysical or not—emphasis on male protagonists and perspectives, this novel features two girls; it also steadfastly and self-reflexively returns to insisting on the rural landscape of Norway as fit not only for asking questions of moral magnitude befitting a crime novel but also for making formal challenges to the crime novel's genre parameters. The givens of crime fiction had begun to be reworked in the decades preceding The Ice Palace, as Horsley argues (66-164), and Scandinavian crime fiction was no exception. With Vesaas's The Ice Palace included as a critical part of that shifting canon, we can begin to understand from a different perspective not only some of the innovations of later crime writers in the Scandinavian context but also the origins of international postmodern crime fiction genre. [End Page 319]

Anna Westerståhl Stenport
The University of Illinois

Note

1. Norway has two official written languages, Nynorsk and Bokmål, with the large majority of the population writing in Bokmål. This written language is also the most widely used in fiction, media publishing, and in industry and business. See Haugan for more historical and contemporary context.

Works Cited

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Dettmar, Kevin J.H. "From Interpretation to 'Intrepidation': Joyce's 'The Sisters' as a Precursor of the Postmodern Mystery." The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory. Ed. Ronald G. Walker and June M. Frazer. Macomb, IL: Yeast, 1990. 149-65.
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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1512
Print ISSN
0039-3827
Pages
305-320
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-30
Open Access
No
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