Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace (1963)

Norwegian National Ballet

A young, white forehead boring through the darkness. An eleven-year-old girl. Siss.

How does a child experience the world? The Ice Palace shows us one way an eleven-year-old girl, right on the brink of puberty without much in the way of experience or emotional vocabulary, might navigate her way through love, grief, and the unknown.

Yes, of course this is another of the works covered in the “Fiction of Relationship” mooc taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University through Coursera (alas, the course no longer appears on the Coursera schedule). He’s something of an evangelist about this book, “finding a way to include it in virtually every course that I teach” as he explains in Morning, Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books (he also covers it in his book on Scandinavian literature; nothing like free access to a class taught by the guy who literally wrote the book). I can see several reasons it would fit into this particular course: the nuclear interaction between the two girls, of course; the relationship between each of them, separately and together, and Nature; and also, says none less than Doris Lessing in her Guardian book review, the relationship of the community:

The sense of mutual responsibility is so strong it is like another character in the story, as if, at any time you liked, you could appeal to some invisible council of collective decency. There are few things in literature more touching, more admirable, than the way this community of adults and children care for Siss…

~~ Doris Lessing, The Guardian book review, 4/17/93

Siss and Unn – they sound like beatbox syllables, don’t they; what struck me right off the bat was how opposite the names are. The girls are opposites, too: Siss is a known quantity, a leader in her class, outgoing, whereas Unn is the new girl, an orphan who just moved to town to live with her Auntie. She’s a bit shy and standoffish, not really interested in meshing into the social fabric of her class at school: “She had no parents, and it put her in a different light, an aura they could not quite explain….They looked at her critically and accepted her at once. There didn’t seem to be anything the matter with her. An attractive girl. Likeable. But she stayed where she was.” She refuses Siss’ overtures to join the group, with no explanation other than “I can’t.”

Norwegian National BalletHow interesting that the group accepts this. In my school, you were in trouble if you wore the wrong skirt. Maybe kids in Norway in the 60s were more accepting of different strokes. Siss: “Unn was strong in her lonely position in the schoolyard, not lost and pathetic.” Alone by choice; aloneness as independence.

Siss isn’t quite as sanguine about it, not at first; she realizes Unn has a kind of power in her solitude, and that’s what the kids respect and honor, and to her it feels like “two combatants, but it was a silent struggle….It was not even hinted at.” But this quickly gives way to a different feeling:

After a while Siss began to feel Unn’s eyes on her in class. Unn sat a couple of desks behind her, so she had plenty of opportunity. Siss felt it as a peculiar tingling in her body. She liked it so much she scarcely bothered to hide it. She pretended not to notice but felt herself to be enmeshed in something strange and pleasant. These were not searching or envious eyes; there was desire in them – when she was quick enough to meet them. There was expectancy. Unn pretended indifference as soon as they were out of doors and made no approach. But from time to time Siss would notice the sweet tingling in her body: Unn is sitting looking at me.
She saw to it that she almost never met those eyes. She did not yet dare to do so – only in a few swift snatches when she forgot.
But what does Unn want?
Some day she’ll tell me.

Now, don’t get your hopes up: this isn’t pornography, and it isn’t about a couple of eleven-year-old lesbians. Today we’d call it a girl-crush, a mixture of curiosity, admiration, and random eroticism focused on Unn. Siss wouldn’t have had that vocabulary, though. She just knew that she and Unn must meet. I’ve been trying to figure out some particle physics on this (I’d love some expert, or even just educated, input here) – it seems a collision between a proton and an electron can have different results, depending on the “energy.” One explanation of one possibility reads “The electron wave function (cloud) and the proton wave function overlap. That is, they both become fairly intense in the same spatial regions.” And this is exactly what happens when they do meet, and together look into a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves! We can do nothing about it, it’s as if it comes from another world. The picture begins to waver, flows out to the edges, collects itself, no it doesn’t. It’s a mouth smiling. A mouth from another world. No it isn’t a mouth, it isn’t a smile, nobody knows what it is – it’s only eyelashes open wide above gleams and radiance.

During this same meeting, Unn tells Siss she has a secret, but she never reveals what that secret is. I haven’t a clue what it might be, even whether it’s a routine kind of secret (she was angry at her mother the day she died, for instance, and feels responsible for her death) or something more supernatural (maybe she hears voices; there’s something about Unn that reads off, whether it be an emerging psychosis or a belief in a spirit world). Writer Shani Bianjiu (I loved her TNY short story, “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” from a year ago) describes, in an NPR article, how she was particularly impressed by this aspect of the book when she read it as a child: “This book expanded my childish understanding of what a book can be and do. It showed me that not every secret needs to be revealed. Not every seed of a connection blossoms. Not every child grows up, or is freed of her demons. Not every loss or pain has a purpose, or can be put in exact words….Reading it did not make reality less fragmented and random, but it made it seem worthy, inexplicable as it may be.”

The story takes a turn here.

Norwegian National BalletThe next day, in the next chapter, Unn becomes the third-person point-of-view character and for the first (and last) time we see what’s in her head. We discover she’s as affected by Siss as Siss is by her. She skips school the next day – some combination of embarrassment and a desire to savor what’s happened – and heads to the Ice Palace, a frozen waterfall. I won’t even try to capture the scene; it’s exquisite reading as she travels from one “room” to the next, each with a different experience: the sound of roaring water, a hostile petrified forest, a sad room of tears, a green room, a small dripping room. And the cold… until it isn’t cold any more.

End Part One. Because it’s not a novel of addition, about two girls; it’s a novel about subtraction: one girl minus one girl.

What’s it like to lose someone at the very start, the incandescent start, of a relationship? What’s it like to have promised to keep a secret – not even a secret, really, just a secret that there is a secret? What’s it like to not know, to know you may never know? Now – what’s it like for an eleven-year-old to deal with all of this?

Readers of this book experience this state of uncertainty. We don’t really know what’s going on much of the time. I wasn’t sure until the very end – and I’m still not sure, in fact – if there was a supernatural or magical reality element, or if it was all the metaphor and emotion of the eleven-year-old psychic landscape.

Siss seems to “become” Unn in some ways – she becomes more standoffish at school, and another girl takes over as leader. Unn’s desk is left vacant in the classroom; when a new student joins the class, Siss defends the desk when the teacher tries to reassign it: “‘And if her place isn’t there, she’ll never come back!’ exclaimed Siss – and at that moment her wild assertion did not seem absurd. A quiver passed through them all.” I understand that. I was in a therapy group once, and after a suicide (that happens sometimes in therapy groups), the chair was left vacant until the group moved to another room. I can see how an eleven-year-old, whose friend went missing months ago, might well feel that way. In fact, I’m a little baffled that the teacher even considered giving the desk away, but that may be my own eleven-year-old speaking.

The novel moves on with the story of Siss’ healing. She visits Unn’s Auntie, who’s moving away: “I’m certain now that there’s nothing more to wait for.” Seeing Unn’s room cleaned out, talking with Auntie, who assures her she is released from her promise – these become a turning point of sorts for Siss, who, for the first time since Unn’s disappearance, plans an outing for her class – to the Ice Palace, the very symbol of faith, of love, of Unn, before the thaw brings it down.

Structurally, though certainly not stylistically, I’m reminded how Lena’s pregnancy in Light in August – the inevitable birth present from the very first page – gave that novel its overall structure and forward motion. More directly, I’m reminded of Speak, a truly wonderful contemporary YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson which also uses the rhythm of the seasons – the school year – to trace a girl’s injury, withdrawal, and recovery. It’s quite effective, to link winter with grieving and spring with healing; it also provides a framework that gives the novel an intrinsic momentum.

I’d never heard of this novel or this author; I haven’t read any Norwegian literature besides Sophie’s World, a YA “novel of philosophy” (and don’t pick on me because I read YA novels; I learned a lot from that book, and I’m pretty impressed with what is considered YA fiction in Norway). I’m very glad I encountered it here, and I’m looking forward to the class lectures to discover all the (many many) things I missed.

4 responses to “Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace (1963)

  1. Pingback: Bill Roorbach: Life Among Giants (Algonquin, 2012) | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World (FSG, 1994) | A Just Recompense

  3. I have read this book twice and still don’t understand it. But no matter; the reading of it is immensely pleasurable, like swimming in a lake or skiing downhill. I consider it a physical activity.

    • I agree – sometimes I’m annoyed by stories i don’t understand, but often I sense there’s something there, something I just can’t see yet, so I keep reading them, and working them out. And i find that’s the fun part!

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