I thought The Wife, Book 2 of Sigrid Undset's Nobel Prize-winning Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, ended at page 571 of my omnibus edition. But then I got to page 571 and realized it ended at page 701 . . . aw hell. So as it stands, I still have about 40 pages left. I'm at the part where Ereland's just been arrested for high treason. I will read the rest this December, along with The Cross, but I feel like I've covered quite enough for now.
So to start off, I bring you several passages from a modern work of historical fiction, Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus, as a point/counterpoint to Kristin Lavransdatter. Like KL, it is the story of an aristocratic woman who behaves illicitly and eventually becomes a nun.
What I do know, though, is that as I pulled up my gown and helped him find his way inside me he opened his eyes for the first time and for that brief instant we looked at each other, no longer able to pretend that what was happening was not happening. And there was in that look such intensity that I thought however wrong it might be it was not evil, and that while man might not be able to forgive us, it was surely possible that God might. And I still believe that, just as I believe that Erila was right that innocence was sometimes as dangerous as knowledge, though there are many who would say such thoughts simply prove the depth of my damnation.She's married to a gay man; he's a poor unknown painter.
My Dear Alessandra,Her brother Tomaso was tortured on the strappado by Savonarola's thugs for his sexuality. Her husband was his lover.
By the time you read this we will be gone. And you, God willing, will be delivered of a healthy child. Tomaso is in need of me. The damage done to him is terrible, and with his beauty gone and his body broken, his need is even greater. I cannot rid myself of the accusation that my lust in some way created him, and so it is my duty to tend to the pain I have caused. My duty. And yes, still my desire. If you and I stayed together, I would feel that pain for the rest of my life and would be an embittered companion for you and the child.
I have heard that some men like the idea of taking nuns. Of course, it is the grossest of crimes because it is adultery against God. I suppose for that reason alone one can see how those who live for sensation would find it most potent, which is why they usually have to be mad on war or drink before they can do it. But he was neither. He was mad on tenderness.She's now a nun and is about to have great sex with the aforementioned painter. And will never feel guilty about it.
Before the manuscript left my hands I studied those crowded circles of [Dante's] hell. Suicide is indeed a grave sin, in some ways the gravest. But I find it almost comforting how Dante portrays it. The appropriate punishment for the appropriate sin: for those who would choose to leave the world before their appointed moment, hell has them bound back into it together. . . I have memorized the geography of Dante's hell well. The wood of the suicides is near to the burning ground of the sodomites. Sometimes they rush in, beating down the flames that ignite constantly all over their scarred bodies, and, as Dante would have it, on occasion there is time for them to stop and converse a little with other damned souls about art and literature and the sins for which we have all been condemned. I would like that.For my October post, covering the first book of KL, I wrote about what I called the "anachronistic feminist": a female protagonist in historical fiction who displays remarkably modern attitudes towards sex, gender, race, social justice, and so forth. On the one hand, you can't really take them seriously as women living in a distant time and place - they feel more like the author imagining herself in a given historical epoch and describing what she, as a twenty- or twenty-first-century woman, would have thought and done. It's as though we can't take people from the past seriously as products of their own eras. If only they had stretched their minds a bit, they could have been as enlightened and liberated as we are!
And yet, the anachronistic feminist also reflects the author's genuine attempt to create a heroine the reader can sympathize with. The past is an alien place. But how far should the author go?
Much as I loved The Birth of Venus, I think it's a great example of this "anachronistic feminist" concept. Alessandra is a great character, but the way she deals with sex and religion feels way off for her time period. But because she does feel so modern, I liked her so much better than guilt-ridden, self-flagellating Kristin who cries herself into religious visions and faints after a conversation with a priest on sin and redemption. But Kristin (who is still no saint) probably represents her era much better than Alessandra represents hers.
It's the paradox of historical fiction.
Kristin feels very embedded in her time, I think, with all of Sigrid Undset's detailed descriptions of physical setting and her extensive knowledge of fourteenth-century Norwegian politics. Maybe Undset intended Kristin to be a role model and/or an author surrogate, but I found myself thinking about something I read once (in one of Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware books), about how culture influences how madness is expressed but does not create it. I'm not saying Kristin is mentally ill, but I do get the impression that most of her overwrought religiousity is the cultural wrappings of a genuine problem with narcissism or something to that effect. (Although if Undset did intend to create a character we should all look up to - FAIL.) And it's what makes her more believable than Alessandra, the liberated woman centuries ahead of her time. Undset is very precise in setting the scene and recreating the customs and thought processes of fourteenth-century Norway. And Kristin does not rise above. She's intimately tied to it all.
Yeah, she's annoying. Yes, she does go on and on about her horrible, horrible sin of consensual, monogamous heterosexual sex before marriage. But . . . she's real, and real people usually are flawed or messed up in some form or another. So far, the volumes of Kristin Lavransdatter aren't proving to be the best books I've ever read, but something has to be said for Undset's ability to create a character who actually lives in her own time period without overly romanticizing it or trying to change it. You know, I kinda like these books!
Other posts by Kristin Lavransdatter read-along participants:
Amy at New Century Reading
Claire at kiss a cloud
Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books
Emily at Evening All Afternoon
Frances at Nonsuch Book
Gavin at Page247
Jill at Rhapsody in Books
justabookreader at Just Reading Book Blog (Part 1)
Lena at Save Ophelia
Lu at Regular Rumination
Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos
Softdrink at Fizzy Thoughts
Tuulenhaiven at What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate
Tuesday at Tuesday in Silhouette
Valerie at Life is a Patchwork Quilt
Wendy at caribousmom
According to Richard, after slogging through "the entertainment no man's land" of Kristin Lavransdatter, "a novel about fucking genocide of all things has provided quite the welcome distraction." (*sigh* Was it really that bad?) As for me, I LOVE Gothic/symphonic metal. But every once in a while, I have to shake things up. I usually do not listen to black metal, but Opera IX used to have a kickass female singer and I have to respect her as a female performer in a highly male-dominated genre. And I actually do like a couple of their songs. Unfortunately, she's not in this particular tune, but it's all about the destruction of Europe's goddess-centered pagan religions by the guilt, fear, and piety of medieval Christianity. In short: another counterpoint to Krisitin Lavransdatter! Try to enjoy! (Lyrics)