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Tarjei Vesaas: Store spelet (The Great Cycle)

This was Vesaas’ first successful novel and an interesting one it is too. The great cycle referred to in the title is both the great cycle of life and death and changing seasons but also the cycle of the farm – Bufast – where most of the action takes place. We follow the life of Per, the oldest Bufast son. He lives on the farm with his parents, his two younger brothers and his aunt Anne. Per’s father, Eilev, is a stern man who loves the soil and loves the farm and devotes himself to it. Per, however, is eager to leave the farm and make something of himself, though he is not sure what. However, most of the novel revolves around the life on the farm. It is interesting to compare Vesaas’ approach with another (almost) Scandinavian, Willa Cather.

We follow Per’s life from that of a young boy to early adulthood. Vesaas gradually shows us how Per changes and evolves, from being a young boy, partially afraid of his father, eager to move on, keen to establish friends outside the farm, to becoming the young man his father (now dead) had hoped he would become – a farmer attached to his farm. Vesaas’ story is not simple but he shows us a complex picture of a complex person. From the first key moment in Per’s life – watching his young brother, Botolv, die – to his father’s injury, gradual decline and death, Vesaas shows us how the boy becomes a man. Death is a key part. There are not only the deaths of his brother and father but the animals on the farm, whose death has such an impact on him. Unlike most of his fellow farmers, Eilev does his own killing and Per watches, at first surreptitiously and then openly and, finally, has to take over the duties himself, which he accepts. The animals themselves, particularly the horses, also clearly feel the death, both their own impending ones but also the death of the other animals.

But death is closely linked to life, as the title shows. Not only are there the births of the animals (which Per welcomes as fresh calf milk means fresh pancakes) but his aunt Anne marries and has children. Childbirth is not always considered positive, particularly when the girl he secretly loves (but won’t admit to loving) marries his best friend and has a child. This, of course, is also part of the great cycle – men and women. He first meets Åsne Bakken when they are very young and their relationship is up and down for most of the book. At times, he is clearly interested in her; at others, he clearly prefers the company of his friend Olav Bringa (though they, too, have an up-and-down relationship). It is clear whom Per is going to marry (despite his on/off relationship with Åsne), as he clearly despises Signe Moen from the beginning and they continue to deliberately ignore one another. But, of course, the book ends when he proposes to her. This is indeed one more stage completed in the great cycle.

Of course, as Vesaas shows, the great cycle will win. The farm will have him as part of itself, to take over from his father, to struggle against a generally compliant but sometimes difficult nature, to make a living, to make a life. And Vesaas tells us the story so well, with Per, his friends and relatives coming through as real characters, pulled and pulling by forces generally beyond them.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by O. Norlis
First published in English in 1967 by University of Wisconsin Press
Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan