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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 21-39

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Capability and Language in the Novels of Tarjei Vesaas

Catherine Wilson


THOUGH RELATIVELY UNKNOWN to English-speaking readers, Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) is recognized as one of the great Scandinavian novelists and literary innovators of the last century. His oeuvre is substantial, extending to thirty-four volumes published between 1923 and 1966, many of them translated into English and European languages. He was one of four nominees for the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, and he received a number of other awards and citations in the course of his life. At the same time, his work has failed almost entirely to generate a secondary literature going beyond plot summary, stylistics, and moral approval, and even that literature remains strongly regionalized. 1 Vesaas wrote in nynorsk or "New Norwegian," the minority language of the country created from south-central dialects and distinct from the official, bureaucratic bokmal. He settled permanently on a farm in the remote Telemark district of Norway and assumed no role in European culture as critic or essayist, refusing to discuss his own work in literary or philosophical terms. As a result, analytic and comparative studies have proved difficult to launch.

The present essay is intended to provide one such analytical study, addressed specifically to the philosophical themes of ethical resignation, the precariousness of communication, and inwardness. These are familiar themes in twentieth-century literature. In his study of the "literary conquest of the void," R. M. Adams shows how Moravia, Musil, and Beckett amongst others make use of devices of paralysis, immobility, exhaustion, and incomprehension that have their origins in the romantic literature of the nineteenth century, notably in Baudelaire [End Page 21] and Gogol. 2 Literary modernism rejected certain nineteenth-century conventions of plot and character, but did not abandon the fascination of the preceding century with nihilistic themes. Vesaas's work demands to be read in this literary context. The novels, at once semirealistic and highly stylized, deal almost exclusively with rural people and their struggles against the elemental forces of nature. The main characters are often children and adolescents who suffer some degree of helplessness. Simple contrasts are posed: warmth and cold; loss and retrieval, childbirth and death. Agricultural cycle motifs abound. The choice of protagonists and the dominance of vitalistic and biological themes pose the threat of sentimentality and preciousness, but it is avoided by the ubiquity of devastation and destruction in the moral landscape. According to Randi Brox's note in the Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature, the early novels in particular "advocate as the highest goal in life an accepting, contented attitude toward the human condition." 3

This judgment reflects what might be termed a judicial-theological picture of fiction. On this view, a novel constitutes a testing ground for discovering what sort of world we live in and what pursuits are possible and worthwhile. Various alternatives are set up as hypotheses, and novels prove and disprove them through narrative demonstrations of the causal effects of adopting them. False theories of the human world and untenable values are subject to refutation. This template is surprisingly useful, not only with respect to the nineteenth-century novel, with its apparent tendency to confident judgment, but even to modern fiction. Moravia, for example, can be seen to be awarding divergent roles to characters and allowing the qualities they represent to struggle for supremacy. 4

Yet poststructuralist and postmodernist criticism have cast doubt on the notion that, to the extent that they are important, such contests can ever be decided, and it is increasingly clear that the greatest nineteenth-century novelists, Hardy and Eliot, did not regard the hierarchy of values as settled and demonstrable. Persons, we are coming to understand, are more plausibly seen as sites of conflict; thus fictional representations of persons are repositories of opposing values. Vesaas's novels reflect such an understanding of persons and values, and so the judicial-theological template is inapplicable.

The critical view that Vesaas's novels are essentially instructions in adaptation is untenable, because the goal of...


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