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Tarjei Vesaas: Fuglane (The Birds)

Mattis is around forty years of age but he is simple-minded, child-like, able only to focus on what is immediate and what is important to him now. Vesaas paints an extraordinarily sympathetic portrait of this man who, ultimately, cannot live in the world of”normal” people. He lives with his sister Hege on their small farm (their parents are dead). Hege makes money by knitting sweaters while Mattis tries to earn money by doing occasional farm work. Unfortunately, as we see when he assists one farmer with his turnip thinning, he cannot deal with even such simple demands, unable to cope with the task he faces. A key event occurs when a woodcock changes its flight path and flies over their house, backwards and forwards. Mattis is amazed and full of wonderment. He cannot understand why Hege and others don’t share his wonderment.

After his failure at turnip thinning, he tries his hand at ferrying. Mattis and Hege live on a lake and he has a small boat in not very good condition and he decides that, if he patches it up, he might make money as a ferryman. Unfortunately, no-one wants his services, with one exception. The exception is Jørgen, a lumberjack, who comes late at night, stays at their house for the night and then never leaves. Jørgen has found work nearby and has also found a mate in Hege, which, of course, devastates Mattis. Jørgen tries to get Mattis involved in his work but Mattis is not cut out for lumberjacking and soon abandons it to return to his non-paying ferryman job.

Two events, besides Jørgen’s arrival, have a key effect on him. The first is when a local lad shoots the woodcock in front of Mattis who is devastated and refuses to let the lad have the bird, hiding it under a stone. The second is when he is out on the lake and starts to sink (he cannot swim) and just makes it to an island in the lake in time. There he is rescued by two girls who are out rowing and he is ever so proud when he rows them back to the mainland and is seen by some of the locals. Indeed, it is this event that inspires him to become a ferryman.

But Mattis is smart enough to realise that he cannot fit in if Jørgen and Hege are to make a life together. She is no longer his sister but, rather, Jørgen’s lover. He does the only thing he thinks that is right. Vesaas tells a wonderful, poignant story about an innocent who does not fit in with the rest of the world, who is attached to nature and innocent pleasure, with no sense of responsibility and duty and who, ultimately, cannot survive this world of ours.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Gylendal
First published in English in 1968 by Peter Owen
Translated by Torbjorn Stoverud and Michael Barnes