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Tarjei Vesaas: Huset i mørkret (The House in the Dark)

This was book was written in secret during the German occupation of Norway during World War II and then buried till after the War. It’s not difficult to see why. The book is a straightforward allegory. Allegory has not worked well in the twentieth century, seeming old-fashioned and stilted. The Roman de la Rose and The Pilgrim’s Progress, while enjoyable in their own way (particularly the former), seem dated, though that, of course, is part of their charm. When used in the twentieth century, allegory has often been tongue-in-cheek, humorous. This book is deadly serious – as it had to be – and, while Vesaas’ reason for writing it are stunningly clear, for me it does not fully work.

The setting is an old house, perennially in the dark, with a storm raging. The inhabitants can hear it cracking. It clearly represents Norway under the German occupation. There are a variety of stock characters. Martin is an expert in philately and wants nothing better than to be left alone to study his stamps. He will not join in the struggle. Stig is the Resistance leader, aided by Peter and John, his designated successor. We meet a clergyman, who is supportive of the Resistance, and a prisoner who has been tortured and dying. In particular, we meet the arrow-polisher, a collaborator, and his two children, Freda and Frank, who are ashamed of their father.

The house is structured around a centre – the German stronghold – and arrows point to this centre. These are the arrows that the arrow-polisher has to polish. Despite his children’s opposition, he feels he has to continue and rationalises his decision by saying he needs to keep his children in comfort, despite the fact that they are shunned at school and want him to quit. Of course, the inevitable happens. Stig is captured, tortured and killed. The arrow-polisher, though, in fact, innocent, is blamed and killed by Peter. And the house continues to crack. A most worthy attempt and very well written but it somehow doesn’t gel for me.

Publishing history

First published 1945 by Gylendal
First published in English in 1976 by Peter Owen
Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan