Lolitas of the Arctic Circle
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by Tarjei Vesaas
(Sun & Moon Classics) $11.95
Written in 1963 and first translated to English in 1966, this amazing novel isn't dated at all; instead, like a cicada wing preserved in time's snowy strata, its details and function are completely intact. In the simplest language possible, it describes two girls, Siss and Unn, both age 11, at the start of their friendship. At their first meeting, both stare at themselves in a mirror, amazed at their likenesses and the "gleams" that shoot from their eyes. They briefly take off their clothes. Something "happens": the incandescence of discovering another person.
The novel's distilled language, full of cold air, ice, and water, stanches and frames this experience beautifully. The intercourse here is not sexual; rather, it's more of an intercourse of eyes and the first time you see, really see, another person.
Lots of books have explored this type of first intimacy, often in the setting of schools (with their muted erotics and cool distance from the workaday struggles of families). But Vesaas, one of the greats of Norwegian letters, is strong enough to bring his narrative beyond mere fantasy. After their first meeting, Unn, shy about facing Siss, skips school and treads a frozen lake and waterfall, entering a remote and elaborate series of frozen rooms called the ice palace, where she dies.
Like a window pane caught in winter's cold sun, this slim paperback is full of glinting linguistic quirks: Syntax often mixes past and present in a single sentence, and uses the passive voice very freely (such usage is considered quite normal in the language it is translated from--Norwegian). The result is gauzy and haunting, just like the ice palace itself and all language, a structure that obscures what it reveals: "She thought about Unn: splendid, beautiful, lonely Unn. What's the matter with Unn? She started once more. Something gave warning behind her back. We are at the sides of a road. Run!"
Vesaas' poetic Ice Palace will make you reel with its astute appreciation of human connection.