Landscape is everything in The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas. Two years before his death in 1970, the beloved Norwegian author published this final novel, resurrecting the lush bucolic backdrops of his formative years. In this new English edition from Archipelago Books, translator Elizabeth Rokkan calls to life Vesaas’ primal scenery once again. She affords audiences reading in English the opportunity to become fully immersed in the stunning worlds of Vesaas’ final literary moment.
The text is a masterful subversion of nostalgia, and a unification of place, person, and past. Divided into episodes, each section is a meditation on the existential symbiosis between consciousness and its surroundings. The individualities of characters bleed into external elements, compelling readers to view the human experience as a single part of a greater narrative ecosystem. It’s a timely sentiment. Rokkan communicates Vesaas’ ability to find profound meaning in any space, and to train one’s mind to find paradises in quiet isolation. The Hills Reply is a valuable companion in troubling times. Its mindful tone is centering, and there is an almost palliative, calming effect in digesting the prose. Even the smallest details invigorate the reader’s senses, and the joys of being immersed in a single setting carry beyond the pages, into the tangible world.
Rokken’s translation is transportive and full of nuance. Vesaas’ settings are Norwegian, but Rokken makes them feel familiar. Her authority in bridging Norwegian literature and the English language is reflected by her large body of work and was celebrated with Norway’s St. Olav Medal. She has translated a number of Vesaas’ books and expertly provides clear points of access to the author’s unique literary sentiments.
These sentiments are presented in varied scenes, with each taking place in a different arena of rural glory. A boy helps his father tend to a wounded horse in a winter flurry. A narrator watches cranes while undetected in a marsh. A girl waits for a boy in the chilly air as the falling snow obscures her. A young man ascends a mountain and considers the distance between the peak and the people down below. By instilling the setting with as much poignancy as the characters, the landscape is almost anthropomorphized. In the Marshes and On the Earth, the narrator’s physical self is blended with the marshlands. The narrator describes the cranes through the gaze of the marsh itself as it incorporates everything into itself, stitching the fabric of an experience in completion. Like Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, where structures, people, and the unknowable ether above join to form a single unit, The Hills Reply intimates a concerted artistic whole through philosophical and aesthetic connectivity.
The book connects with the reader through stunning visual language, as well as crucial moments when the prose holds back. Rokken’s translation contains the potency of Vesaas’ relationship to silence and emptiness. These elements appeal to the senses as much as the instances of stimuli. But they also give space for one to fill in one’s own associations. The places and characters belong to Vesaas, but he rarely claims them with names and identifying specifics. We are never asked to share his affection for rural Norway, only to immerse ourselves into it, and leave with what we will. The result is immersive and uncanny, with the reader sensing the flakes of their youth mixed into the Norwegian snow.
Although, one does feel affection for the farmlands of Vesaas’ youth and the way they depict universal human struggles. Places are presented as starting points, edens of sorts, from which humans are invariably expelled. One may only return to them by becoming them. In the episode The Heart Lies Naked Beside the Highway in the Dark, settings bleed together as the narrator describes his heart lying in both an old house and the open road beside it. We identify with the yearning for other places and fall in love with the warmth of original sanctuary. “A thudding against the wall” occurs, and, despite the fact that the narrator knows that there is only a garden outside, the image he describes is a boat beating against a quay. The boat makes the heart feel uncomfortably enclosed, intimating the pressure of an endless ocean. If the quiet highway, the mere existence of an exit from the hearth is not enough to compel it to leave, then the heart will be pushed out by another means of egress, violently beating against the house like a knell. This episode presents contrasting settings at war, fighting to preserve the natural movement of a life moving beyond its origin. Rokken’s language choices communicate anxiety over a poignant foundation of nostalgic friction. She preserves the increasing tempo of inevitable loss.
The Drifter and the Mirrors follows a man who is drawn into a body of water by his own reflection. These pages suggest the perils of identifying oneself as an independent thing, separate from the environment. Entranced by his own image, he falls in and drifts through the water, lost and helpless, followed at all times by the “mirrors” in the water. He learns to cope with the ebb and flow of being immersed in the thing that depicts his identity, until he is lifted out by a man into a gunwale like a child. This episode demonstrates existential floundering while facing the dangers of entering the lonely realm of individuality. It is perhaps Vesaas’ own relationship with the state of separateness that he is attempting to rectify here. In this section, the titular phrase is written. When the man calls out, there is an echo. “The hills reply.”
For Vesaas, it seems that conversations with his primary landscapes reunified him with the paradises from which he was expelled in youth. It is poignant that in the final years of his life, he called back into his past and recorded the echoes in this book. Rokken took care to showcase the heightened effect of the text’s emotional and philosophical density. Reading it too quickly runs the risk of developing a sense of redundancy, with poetry overpowering prose. It’s best enjoyed slowly, with breaks to call back into one’s own past before reentering the quiet and still space of a life completed and preserved with memories and echoes.
John Kazanjian is a writer and member of The National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK Magazine, The Heavy Feather Review, and JMWW. He is an MFA candidate at The New School in Manhattan. Find him on twitter: @johnkazanjian.