Friday, May 31, 2019

A bit of Kristin Lavransdatter - What if she screamed now so that her voice pierced through the song and the deep, droning male voices

Since I am going to Norway for a little vacation and am reading around in the 1920s, I read the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s beloved Kristin Lavransdatter, The Wreath (1920), the story of a young woman who is a Strong Female Character even for 14th century Norway, when the women generally seem pretty strong.

I read the 2005 Tiina Nunnally translation which is obviously superior to the old one, the beloved one.  Undset wrote in a plain style with lyrical interludes, much like so many novels written today, and was sexually frank in a way that is surprisingly not so far from another novel from 1920, Women in Love, and Lawrence had to publish that by private subscription to avoid the obscenity laws that squashed The Rainbow.  The older translation is full of pseudo-medieval “aughts” and “naughts” and “thees” and “thous”; Nunnally cleans out all of that and restores substantial passages that were too sexy for the Americans and English in the 1920s, so this is “the first unabridged English translation,” Nunnally says in her translator’s note.

But it is the older translation that was beloved by a large number of readers.  It is obviously inferior, but maybe I should have read the novel that people really read, the text of the phenomenon.  Do I want the phenomenon or the novel itself?  I guess the novel itself, and I guess the new one is closer.

In the novel itself, remembering that we are in a plausible and well-researched 14th century Norway, Kristin is first a child, then a teen who is promised to one man but falls in love with a bad boy, and finally through cussedness and suffering marries the one she wants.  Those are the three parts of the book.  The ethos is what I would call feminist, a challenge from the 14th century to the 20th, and very feminine.  Kristin makes butter, Kristin cooks, Kristin goes shoe shopping.  I can see why some readers love this book, and why others are bored to tears.

Characters in The Wreath, male and female, regularly burst into tears.  “Then Kristin burst into tears” (III.6).  Kristin Lavransdatter seems to be an exercise in mentalité, an attempt to novelize not just the clothes and customs of an earlier time, but also the psychology, the ways of thinking.  The characters are meant to be a little bit alien.  They are like us, but also definitely not.

But as Dion sang so long ago, "Well, if you want to make me cry, that won't be so hard to do," and The Wreath is about a "Teenager in Love." They are not like us, but then again are.

The long wedding scene that fills roughly the last sixth of the novel is formally the most interestingly scene.  Undset parallels a carefully reconstructed wedding of the time – clothes, language, ritual – with the increasingly chaotic thoughts of the heroine.  It is a bit Expressionist.  “Kristin thought: What if she screamed now so that her voice pierced through the song and the deep, droning male voices and reverberated out over the crowd?” (III.8).  Many motifs of the novel, not necessarily so interesting by themselves, are pulled together in the wedding, at both the “material” and “psychological” levels.

I know, it is not a great recommendation – “the last thirty pages are really good!”  Well, that is one way novels work.

My favorite novelistic detail, easily: “The titmice clung to the timbered walls and hopped around on the sunny side; the pecking of their beaks resounded as they looked for flies asleep in the gaps between the wood” (III.4).  An observation, I suspect, from the 20th century, or the 19th, from Undset’s childhood, another way to link the past and present.

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