I’ve been reading The Boat in the Evening by Tarjei Vesaas for just over three years now, and I can’t think of a book I’ve felt more divided about. But first, what kind of thing is it? It’s not a novel, nor is it really a collection of short stories. It’s more a collection of poetic images, some of which – it’s true – occasionally coalesce into what might be considered a story. The first few of these poetic images I found remarkably beautiful; I was impressed and even felt this was something new – something the like of which I’d never read before (but that may well just be my ill education: I’ve read so few books). At times, it’s true, they were difficult to understand, obscure: you felt you were only just grasping their meaning and had to concentrate. It was a book to read in the quiet of the night, but only when you didn’t feel too tired.
But then I came to a few stories where Vesaas started getting, I found, just a little too abstract. Page after page I’d read, and yet I could get no grip whatsoever not merely on what he was meaning, but just what it is he was trying to describe at all. And so where before my reading slowed down because I’d become afraid of the book’s beauty, now I found myself reluctant to read on because my eyes would be scanning the page but my brain would have long since revolted and switched off. That is to say, it would be a chore and my time would be better spent elsewhere.
For months now I’ve been intending to finish the last two stories off – one was 30 pages, the other 2. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to face 30 pages of abstract ideas, describing something unclear and ever beyond my grasp. I could force myself sometime, for the sake of finishing it and marking it off – just not tonight. But then the other day, I did force myself, and the 30 page story was actually one of the more beautiful and intelligible ones again, there were characters, and human feelings I could recognise.
Anyway, I’ve got a few of his novels too – so I may give one a go quite soon. It’s not as easy to get away with endless abstraction in novels – not if you want anyone to read them.