Monday, November 30, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter Meets Feminists and Black Metal

Oh, no. The Devil was probably not so convinced that he was going to lose his soul. But when she lay here before, crushed with sorrow over her sins, over the hardness of her heart, her impure life, and the blindness of her soul . . . then she had felt the saintly king take her in under his protective cloak. She had gripped his strong, warm hand; he had pointed out to her the light that is the source of all strength and holiness. Saint Olav turned her eyes toward Christ on the cross - see, Kristin: God's love.

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,

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.
Her brother Tomaso was tortured on the strappado by Savonarola's thugs for his sexuality. Her husband was his lover.
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)


Unknown said...

Heh. Love the cover of this book, but I just thought to myself, "Self, I bet given the time that that was written that it'll make you want to pull your eyes out and play ping pong with them. Even though you don't play ping pong." So I didn't join the read-along, although I'd like to join one at some point. Maybe a Proust binge or something of that nature. Hmmm ...

Eileen said...

Caitlin: I think someone did do a Proust readalong, but I missed it, which is disappointing. One of my professors said that Proust literally changed her life and I've been wanting to read him ever since.

Softdrink: Don't worry! The video is just the album cover!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Certainly one can get from both of these books that religion has really screwed up (so to speak) sex for a very long time!

But I think Kristin's reaction goes way beyond even the puritanical Christianity of her time, for whatever reason.

JoAnn said...

Excellent post, once again! The contrast with The Birth of Venus beautifully illustrates your point. I'm wondering if I could just pick up the third book and read it - all the posts on the first two have refreshed my memory (at least enough to get by, I hope).

Anonymous said...

Wow, when you put it that way...! Providing this contrast of characters really proves your point, and I find myself appreciating what Undset did more than I was three minutes ago. Thanks for that. Kristin is obviously still a trial, but I always feel better about disliking a character if I understand them. Slowly getting closer to that.

Richard said...

Giving Undset all that credit for creating a "real" character is very kind of you, E.L. Fay, but admitting that Kristin's flawed doesn't make me agree that she's anywhere near as interesting or complex as she'd need to be for me to want to spend 1,100 pages with her (I mean, c'mon, there are plenty of real characters on Cops, too!). For me, the more important question is why would I choose to read Kristin Lavransdatter if I could read a true medieval "romance" (i.e. one written by a person who actually lived in the period) or a good history about the era instead? Knowing what I know about the trilogy now, Undset would lose every time. P.S. The Dunant quotes and Opera IX clip were quite funny, though I'm not sure they were meant to be. Thanks for the laughs anyway! :D

Emily said...

Really thoughtful post, as usual! I get a vibe of mental illness from Kristin too, actually - part of what I was trying to get at with my comparison to Stephen Dedalus in my own post.

And touché to your comment on Sarah's blog of me entertaining the notion that KL is anti-woman, despite previously feeling anti-feminist for not liking it. I guess I felt like the first book was all about buying into certain Romantic stereotypes that I think of as "chick lit," whereas the second book felt like instead it was flogging the old "shrewish wife" idea for all it was worth. Hmm. Apparently I'm all over the map. But anyway - thanks for providing a great perspective.

Eileen said...

Rhapsody: Maybe, but she's seen as very pious by most of the other characters. So I dunno, maybe her "puritanical" (Puritanism is a form of English Protestantism that developed in the 17th century) nature is seen as something to strive for?

JoAnn: Please do! The more the merrier!

Tuulenhaiven: Glad I could be of help!

Richard: Really? So are you going to be joining us for the third round? Not even for the lulz?

Emily: Hmmm . . . if Undset was trying to create an idealized character, that mental illness vibe is serious epic fail. I also get the impression that Kristin was very spoiled and sheltered and just got used to getting her way. So that probably contributed quite a bit to her current personality.

Emily said...

I feel like however you cut it, Undset is bizarre on the idealized-character front. I mean, on the one hand there's all that "she's so beautiful" stuff on the part of the narrator and the other characters every few pages. Definitely Mary Sue-ish. But then there's the extreme weepiness and the mental illness vibe, which seriously undermines the idealization.

Re: the spoiled-brat quality, I think even Kristin recognizes this - like in that scene where Undset talks about how she feels it makes sense for her to have a bunch of sons, since she was always sheltered by her father & the other men in her early life.

You are so funny with your background-manipulation shenanigans! :-)

Eileen said...

Emily: Regarding all the Sue-ish talk about how beautiful Kristin is - I just remembered something. According to the Universal Mary Sue Test, one of the characteristics of a Mary Sue is the ability to be highly attractive in conditions wherein one's attractiveness should be severely diminished (i.e. going into battle, getting tortured, not bathing for days). Now Kristin undergoes 7 difficult births, one right after the other, in extremely primitive medical conditions and she's STILL really youthful and beautiful???

Yeah right!

Valerie said...

I actually do know women who still look good after having several children (and no plastic surgery)....but I think it would have been a lot harder to do so back in the day when there was so much physical work for women to do (and no moisturizer).

Maybe Undset was trying to make a point that because Kristin was still attractive, and a "good mother" (although we don't really see too many specific examples of that), then Erlend shouldn't have strayed? Or this is why Simon still seems to carry a torch for Kristin?

I wonder how Kristin will age in Part III!

Gavin said...

Great post, as usual, and I definitely have to check out the Universal Mary Sue Test. I do wonder about Undset's presentation of Kristen, one moment radiant and lovely, the next pale, weeping and miserable. I can't wait to finish the third part.

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