Monday, December 08, 2014

Kristin Lavransdatter

David Warren has an essay about Kristin Lavrensdatter, the novel of being a woman in medieval Norway and one of my favorite books.

Although he pans the Nunnally translation, if you are easily put off by formal prose, I would read it first, because the book is long and this translation is easier to read.

but like him, I prefer the older version, since I read that one first.

He brings up the fact that, unlike more modern novels, it stresses motherhood and marriage, not making the women into the feminist type we see in so many novels, who are really pseudomen in their thinking and rarely have children they worry about.

But I enjoyed the novel because Kristin is NOT a modern woman: too often, historical novels have women thinking and acting like a 20th century elite American  or European woman, with a good education, who was independent and wealthy, and who rarely worries about getting pregnant every year and facing death in Jane Austin women in modern novels, whose lives depend on finding the right man to be happy.

Well, having lived in many countries, I know from experience that people simply don't think or act the same. And the past is another country. Modern American fiction often has lost it's moral and intellectual vocabulary to even realize this, despite all the talk of "multiculturalism" (which is usually a keyword to push nihilism and to deny that right and wrong exist).

Kristin doesn't act like a modern woman, not because the author was not a modern woman and a feminist,(she was) but because she was well aware of medieval culture. So people eat porridge, sleep in cupboards, draw up baths, face hunger when the crops go bad, and get sick: the medical aspects are explained in detail, from childbirth to fevers to the black plague. Kristin is taught herbs by Erland's aunt, who is in exile for the suspected murder of her husband but wasn't executed because she was of high rank...and she is a good herbalist, who teaches this to Kristin, including a lot of things that were frowned upon by the church.

And like her, Kristin is not above using witchcraft to cure when ordinary herbs won't do. At the end of the book, Kristin saves a child from being sacrificed to stop the plague because she recognized what an overheard comment about Hel meant...

People in those days died of infected wounds, accidents, scarlet fever, childbirth, etc. and these illnesses/accidents are part of the plot.  Indeed, the long labor of Kristin's first child was used in a medical book for students to understand how to think about the societal aspects of illness.

One more thing: Don't see the movie. The movie is boring and the cinematography is ugly, but the main problem is that Kristin and others are made out to be full of sexual hangups (she isn't: she later felt guilt for losing her honor, shaming her family, and helping to kill her husband's paramour in order to marry the one she loved).

And the casting is bad: The sexy, charming and clintonesque Erland is played by a plain looking and nerdy guy, where the loving, faithful but fat country bumpkin suitor that Kristin rejects is played by a handsome young man. Her father is shown to be a troll, not a man beloved by everyone for his hard work and bravery, and Erland's Aunt, who is described as still lovely as an old lady, is played by a plain looking woman.

I'd love to see someone make a miniseries of the book, or a movie trilogy that is faithful to the non modern point of views and the characters.

finally, for those interested in how daily life was lived in those days, this could be an eyeopener. As Warren points out:

Undset was a formidable mediaevalist. Her father was a reputable archaeologist, and both her parents historically learned. From childhood she had heard this peculiar aesthetic call, and succumbed to the true historian’s fascination with what lies under things. In that field and from her eventual home of Bjerkeb├Žk at Lillehammer — living surrounded by the landscape in which Kristin Lavransdatter is set, described with such a crisp poetical exactness — she was entirely on her own turf. Scholars to this day acknowledge her as genuinely expert: there are details in her XIVth-century reconstructions that were speculative, at the time she was writing, but have since borne out. She knew, as it were, where the old, pre-Reformation Norway was buried. For this alone, the trilogy — and the tetralogy that followed it, called The Master of Hestviken — is a pleasurable education.

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