The Hills Reply

Tarjei Vesaas

translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan
Archipelago Books 2019 [1968]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020
The sixteen "chapters" of The Hills Reply are loosely linked short stories, or perhaps more accurately prose poems, about the life of a youth growing up in rural Norway. The human element in these is quite limited: most of the stories involve single individuals and the natural world, with just a few brief interactions with other people. The opening vignette has the protagonist and his father and a horse clearing snow from a logging road, and the final story foregrounds the protagonist's mother, but those are the exceptions. The landscape is not just context and background but feels like a major participant.
"AND BEFORE one is prepared for this rare sight, it happens.
The crane is dancing.
The marsh has acquired a new content, a hidden magnitude brought by the crane. The marsh has been lying here, knowing about it all winter. The crane is dancing now."

There are a few explicit poems embedded in Vesaas' stories, but the formatting and language make the whole work read like poetry. The "stories" are broken down into sections — stanzas? — ranging from a few lines to a couple of pages in length and clearly marked with capitalised opening phrases. And the language is evocative and allusive.

"THE DRIFTER SAILS with his motley retinue through the landscape. It is his own countryside and at the same time one that is completely unknown to him. They are his shore and his birds, his face in the wall, his cry in the call.
His own riddles wall him in, as he himself was a riddle on the paths on land.
His own sorrow is there too. Sorrow that neither he nor anyone else can explain."

I enjoyed reading The Hills Reply, a chapter at a time over several months, but it would have been too much for me if it had been any longer or I had read it any faster. It is not going to be to everyone's taste, in any event, and I would recommend sampling it first.

Note: The work was originally published in Norwegian in 1968, as B├ąten om kvelden. The Hills Reply is a reprint of a translation published by Peter Owen in 1971, as The Boat in the Evening.

February 2020

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%T The Hills Reply
%A Vesaas, Tarjei
%M Norwegian
%F Rokkan, Elizabeth
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2019 [1968]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781939810380
%P 275pp