Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Redeeming the first 100 pages of Kristin

The first time I read Kristin Lavransdatter, I almost put it down. The plot felt so, so slow. My sister said, "Just keep going until she gets to the convent. Then things get interesting." So I held on until the convent, maybe even skipping every other word until I got there. But I was glad I did, and didn't stop reading Sigrid Undset until I'd made it through all three volumes of Kristin, The Master of Hestviken series, Jenny, Gunnar's Daughter, and several history books on Medieval Norway (beating a good thing to a pulp).

It's interesting though, having been through all of that, to revisit these first 100pages. I think I get what Undset is trying to do with all of these childhood scenes. On one hand, the book is an epic, following the span of Kristin's life, from age seven through death. But the scenes Undset chose to reveal in her childhood, set up the big themes of the novel.

First, we know how much she loves and respects her Father, and how much everyone else respects her father. She grows up in this confident manhood that sets up the foil to her prospective husband, but that's sort of the "duh" aspect of these pages.

There's a scene that I've always glossed over, the one where she and Arne and the neighbor kids play priest, and they dress a piglet in a Christening dress. They are in the middle of mocking the young bride (Kristin) for conceiving her piglet during Lent when the actual priest comes along and punishes them (quite harshly in my opinion). For days after that, Kristin is unable to look her friend, Arne, in the eye. Kristin has this childhood piety, now wounded with her first inkling of sexual shame.

It flows so naturally into her first experiences of darkness and evil, when she goes up in the hills with her father, hearing stories about all the wild people that live in the woods, and then she sees the vision of the lady. I've always wondered who the woman was... Fru Aashild? A vision of her future self? A hallucination? Everyone else takes it so seriously.

Then there's the beautiful scene with Brother Edvin, when she begins to understand God's mercy: "There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. But it's because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and the flesh, that we are miserable in life and death....It was because of God's mercy towards us that He saw how our hearts were split, and he came down to live among us, in order to taste, in fleshly form, the temptations of the Devil..."

Brother Edvin seems to sum up Undset's philosophy and the gist of the whole book in those two paragraphs. Kristin has a heart divided, beginning from the age of accountability, and on to her death. But she always loves God.


mrsdarwin said...

Thanks for only writing on the first 100 pages, because that's as far as I've gotten. I'm really enjoying this book, especially the descriptions of the beautiful Norwegian countryside (my Texas-parched eyes are soaking up the lush greenery). And yet, so far I'm not finding it absolutely riveting. In the time I've started reading Kristin Lavransdatter, I've picked up and finished one or two other books, books I really couldn't put down. I don't see anything wrong with that -- I have a fabulously marvelously written book (Patrick Leigh Fermor's diaries of traveling through Europe on foot in the 30s) that I've been reading in small bites for a year now. I feel like I'm taking Kristen at the right pace to absorb some of the themes and chew on the characters and the events.

mrsdarwin said...

I should note that the other books I read so quickly were, though not potboilers at all, plot-driven , easy-read novels. I just wanted to make the point that reading a book slowly wasn't an indicator of boredom with the book.

Otepoti said...

Does anyone else worry about the accuracy of historical details? I went on a long internet excursion to try and find out if a convent would really have glass windows in the 1300's. Outcome uncertain. It's possible but seems unlikely to me at that date.

I too wondered a lot about that apparition. Is Undset saying that sprites and whatnot really exist in the book's universe? If so, do they have real power? Perhaps the whole episode is just a red herring, but I'll be interested to see if anything comes of it.

Patrick Leigh Fermor - that'd be "Between the Woods and the Water", right? A fabulous book. I've been hoping against hope that he'd bring out a second volume, to cover the rest of the trip to Constantinople. Sadly, the chances are diminishing with the passing years!

Melanie B said...

It took me a couple of tries to get past the beginning of Kristin. I didn't have a sister to encourage me to push through so I gave up and put it down. I think I was pregnant and exhausted the first time too, which never helps. But you're right after the convent the pace really picks up and it became a book I couldn't put down. I gobbled my way through the second two volumes in a matter of days.

But I'm finding it slow going again and have put it down for other books a couple of times. So I'm glad to have a reminder about that. Also, I don't know why but it didn't occur to me to turn on that analytical part of my brain to ask why Undset does what she does. You wouldn't think I was an English major and have actually taught lit classes; but for some reason that doesn't click on for me unless I'm faced with a classroom setting. I tend to be a lazy an incurious reader, only reading for the plot unless something kicks me in the seat of the pants. Which is why a book club is so nice.

I like the point about the play Mass scene introducing the theme of sexual shame. I totally missed that though it seems so obvious now that you mention it.

Betty Duffy said...

Otepoti, I too wondered about the historical accuracy, did some snooping on Undset and decided that if she wanted to fudge anything, I wouldn't dither with her. She's more of an historian than I am. Did learn that Christianity was very young in Norway during the time in which the book is set (Cathedral in Hamar is only just being built), so there's a constant tug of war between the old pagan tradition and the new faith. I don't think Undset is saying sprites are a reality in this book, except in the minds of her characters, so I wondered if Kristin really saw someone or if she hallucinated.

Emily J. said...

I chewed on the vision for awhile. Not a lot of clues about its physical reality in the book, but it seems of real import in Kristin's development. I took it as an apparition, although I'm a natural skeptic, and it's a realistic book. But I don't have a copy yet and am relying on my extremely unreliable memory (For instance, I thought I remembered having a copy, but think I read a borrowed edition). Went to order tonight and couldn't decide between sturdy hardcover with archaic translation by Archer or Penguin paperback with Nunnally's more contemporary translation - still no trip in the park, if I remember. I always kind of like the durability of a hardcover when its a book I'll read again - or hope that my kids will read. But will Archer's translation discourage future reading? Anyone with one or the other in hand?

Otepoti said...

Emily, I don't much recommend the Archer translation (1930ish). It's chock full of irritating archaisms, full of 'tissng and 'twassing.

"You think, mayhap, 'tis not seemly?" is a fairly typical example. When I read such, I think what I think whenever I read Thomas Hardy, which is, "No-one ever talked like that."

However, the archaisms are not an insuperable barrier to enjoyment. It is possible to ride over them, mentally translating them into something more natural and colloquial.

Emily J. said...

Thanks, Otepoti, I did order the Nunnally translation. No extra time to decipher tissing and twasing! - and the hardback might smell musty and grow mold quickly in our tropical clime here. But I wonder what the original Norwegian is like - if it is written to sound like "old" Norwegian or if it read like contemporary Norwegian? I used to be in a book club that read Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. Fun story, but hard to
get past Elizabethans talking like school pals. Maybe I've got too many preconditioned notions about Elizabethan language though.