Monday, March 15, 2021

The Great Cycle by Tarjei Vesaas

Coming of age in rural Norway
In the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin Press published its Nordic Translation Series, which introduced lesser-known works of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Icelandic literature to English-language audiences. Eleven of the books from that series are now available to read online for free at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries website. One of these volumes is The Great Cycle by Tarjei Vesaas, originally published in Norway in 1934. Vesaas is widely considered one of Norway’s most important authors of the twentieth century. While critics often classify Vesaas as one of his nation’s groundbreaking modernists, The Great Cycle is pretty traditional stylistically and reads like a naturalistic depiction of Norwegian rural life in a bygone era.

Per Bufast, the protagonist, is six years old when the novel begins. He lives on an isolated farm in the Norwegian countryside with his mother, father, aunt, and little brother Botolv. As the eldest son in the family, Per is expected to take over the family farm when his father retires. At a very young age, Per overhears his father say that Per will live the rest of his days at Bufast. Once heard, this statement hangs over Per’s head like a death sentence. He rebels against this restriction of his personal freedom, though in a rather mild way. He decides that if he excels at his studies, his parents will have no choice but to send him to the seminary to train him for the priesthood, which he sees as his ticket off the farm.

The title of The Great Cycle can be interpreted in two ways. The first is the natural cycle of the seasons, as viewed through the age-old operations of a farm. The second is the cycle of human life consisting of, to put it bluntly, birth, school, work, and death, with each generation successively following upon the footsteps of the last. This same cycle (minus the school) also applies to the livestock on the Bufast farm as Per watches them live out the usefulness of their lives. The novel only covers Per’s life from ages six to twenty-six, but over the course of the book he learns much about death through family and friends. He also comes to an awareness of love and sex, though acquiring such knowledge is difficult when the sheer remoteness of his existence limits his prospective mates to the handful of farm girls his own age with whom he comes into contact. Per’s relationship with his only male friend is strained by the fact that both are attracted to the same girl. Apparently, the outward expression of emotion does not come naturally to the Nordic soul, creating distances between Per and those he loves that prove difficult to bridge. While the Norwegian setting is made intimately real for the reader, the life events and feelings they engender are universally human.

Though Per experiences his share of tragedy and anxiety, this is a quiet and introspective novel, without much overt turmoil. It reads like a kinder, gentler variation on Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil. Both books romanticize a turning away from civilized society to the primitivism of nature, but Vesaas’s nature is not as harsh and brutal as Hamsun’s. In fact, the Bufast farm is often so comforting it becomes an enticing trap that deceptively stifles lives. Appropriately, the language with which Vesaas tells the story often feels as confined and reticent as the setting and characters. His prose consists of stark imagery and curt phrasing that nonetheless evoke great natural beauty and psychological depth, each and every word carefully chosen with the skill of a master poet. Though understated and modest on the surface, this excellent novel delivers a deep and powerful reading experience. The Great Cycle has a sequel, published in 1835, entitled Women Call Home (Kvinnor ropar heim), though I don’t think it’s ever been translated into English. If not, it’s a shame, because reading The Great Cycle will leave you wanting to follow Per into the next stage of his life.
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