The Boat in the Evening

Sometimes a writer can exist on the periphery of reading for many years, a series of nods and nudges moving you ever closer to picking up one of their books. So it was with Tarjei Versaas, who I first became aware of over twenty years ago when I saw the 1987 film of The Ice Palace. In the last few years, numerous positive review of that novel and others by those whose opinions I trust have gathered momentum, so when I discovered, while exploring options for Karen and Simon’s 1968 Club, that his final book, The Boat in the Evening, was published that year it seemed that fate had finally decided it was time.

What I didn’t know was that The Boat in the Evening is not a novel, but “a series of semi-autobiographical sketches.” Despite this, it begins strongly with a story of the author and his father. The first few lines give an indication of Vesaas’ style, at least in this translation by Elizabeth Rokkan:

“There he stands in sifting snow. In my thoughts in sifting snow. A father – and his winter-shaggy brown horse, in snow.
His brown horse and his face. His sharp words. His blue eyes and his beard. The beard with a reddish tinge against the white. Sifting snow. Blind, boundless snow.”

The repetition and short sentences are more reminiscent of poetry (Vesaas was also a poet) and, indeed, at times the prose breaks into lines. The chapter (around nineteen pages long) is short on action but develops a powerful sense of the relationship between the young Vesaas and his father. In it he is helping his father clear snow from the logging roads when their horse cuts its leg. The father attempts to urinate on the wound to clean it but cannot (“I’ve been sweating too much today”) so Vesaas (who is generally referred to as “the child” – the story only occasionally drifting into first person) is ordered to do so in his place. His own failure tells of a more general sense of failing and weakness as he sees himself through his father’s eyes:

“The black command that came out of the wall of stone. It cannot be explained. He cannot perform. Not one miserable drop.
A caustic look from the man above him rests on him and paralyses him so that he cannot move either.”

The second chapter, ‘In the Marshes and on the Earth’, tells of an encounter with cranes and was less enthralling. The third, ‘Spring in Winter’, depicted my favourite scene, a young woman slowly covered in snow as she waits for the man she loves. He does not appear and it is the narrator, who is in love with her himself, who must tell her this. Once again, Vesaas is able to convey the nuances of the relationship with great depth and subtlety:

“He unpacked her out of the little snowdrift on her breast. She saw that his fingers were uncertain. And so cold, she thought.
What will he do?
She held her breath, but all he did was go on unpacking her. Bit by bit she turned into an ordinary girl.”

Unfortunately for much of the rest of the book Vesaas loses interest in other people, becoming instead fascinated with landscapes and visions. In ‘Daybreak with Shining Horses’ Vesaas and a friend, Per, witness a strange sight: both an inexplicable light (a “shining aura”) and a naked girl in the distance. No rational explanation or reaction is required as Vesaas assumes we will simply fall under the spell of his incantatory prose:

“We could not help but believe what was approaching had its own sense of power… Our bodies were buoyant… We thought of it as air, but knew it was the glow of something approaching…”

Later we are told “we were alive and more than alive, we were open and ready to be filled with what was coming.” Clearly Vesaas is recalling an important moment, but by retelling it without context the visionary element becomes detached and meaningless. This method persists for much of the remainder of the book, with Vesaas attempting to instil meaning into ordinary events through insistently poeticising them. Often he will take a metaphor (such as “mirror” in ‘The Drifter and the Mirrors’) and repeat it page after page until it is completely severed from whatever it originally described. Or he will attack the reader with a series of questions in an imitation of profundity:

“Was that answer good enough? Why did that answer come? Does it perhaps not matter so much anymore?
What does good enough mean?
What does matter mean?”

This is not to say that the book is not full of wonderful lines – many of the sections (much shortened!) would, I’m sure, make excellent poems. Where there is an element of narrative, there is enough to suggest that Vesaas is, indeed, a novelist worth reading. The Boat in the Evening, however, is a wishy washy mishmash of prose and poetry, the prose thickening the beauty of the poetry, the poetry thinning the sense of the prose, until there is very little of anything appealing left on the page.

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11 Responses to “The Boat in the Evening”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    This does sound somewhat different to his other books – well, certainly the three I’ve read which were all novels. His prose is quite spare and simple. As you say, there is something rather poetic about it – a quality that seems heightened in this book in particular.

    Just to continue our Twitter conversation from last night…I’ve had two hits (The Ice Palace and The Birds) and one miss (Spring Night) with this author, which does suggest an element of variability in his work. If you’d like to give him another shot at some point, I would urge you to try The Birds. It has a strong narrative drive and the characterisation is excellent too. I think you’d find it interesting.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I think I will give him another chance. There were parts of this I really liked but, in the end, not that many. I’ve an idea what he was trying to do – Neil Gunn’s last book, The Atom of Delight, is a similar type of autobiography (though much better). Gunn and Vesaas make for an interesting comparison – both finding spirituality in nature, both born and writing around the same time (though Gunn stop writing first, even though he died later).

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Thank you for your early entry! 🙂 A new author to me and I’m intrigued enough that I’ll definitely look out for him!

  3. buriedinprint Says:

    This sounds like an interesting reading experience, given that you’re already familiar with the rest of the author’s works. I had a similar experience, being lulled into reading the last of one of my favourites (Canadian, Ethel Wilson) a few years ago, also for an online reading event. Although the reading experience wasn’t like the one you’ve described. In that sense, it reminds me of reading some of Frenc-Canadian Gabrielle Roy’s later works, which were more sketches and autobiographical snippets, not even proper short stories, but prose poems perhaps, and a lot of nature-soaked medtitations, probably also best enjoyed by someone who already knew and loved her other literary works. Still, there is something to be said for feeling one has read everything an author put out on offer for their readers!

  4. Simon T Says:

    Well, it sounds like fate, but it turned out a bit ill-fated! Thanks for joining in with such an interesting choice nonetheless 🙂

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Oof. I’m familiar with, but haven’t read, The Ice Palace. This though sounds utterly missable. Was it originally intended to be published as a single collection or is it just a mix of oddments and pieces that didn’t fit anywhere else?

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s a good question but I think it was intended as a form of autobiography. I wouldn’t let it put you off his other work as I think it’s atypical.

  6. #1968Club – Stuck in a Book Says:

    […] Boat in the Evening by Tarjei Versaas 1st Reading Winstonsdad’s […]

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