viernes, 27 de noviembre de 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife

Kristin Lavransdatter Readalong, Part Two

"Suddenly Kristin was overcome by violent sobs; she hardly knew what she was crying about."  (Kristin Lavransdatter, II: The Wife, p. 562)

While I'm mostly over feeling guilty about inviting so many trusting people to read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy along with Emily and me (my bad), the shame and the embarrassment definitely linger on as this singularly uninvolving work continues to take shape as an 1,100 page Norwegian print version of a Lifetime channel drama or something. For whatever Undset's storytelling goals in The Wife, she's clearly her own worst enemy as a narrator--constantly undermining the flow of the narrative with the title character's endless crying jags, jealous whining about family members, and non-stop brooding.   To make matters worse, the flair for landscape scenes that I found at least partially appealing in The Wreath has now been replaced with completely superfluous descriptions about people's appearance at every turn.  Right after one of the occasions in which Erlend has struck Kristin, for example, we get the following odd insight into Erlend's state of mind: "Oh, his wife's quiet and dignified bearing was as lovely as the willowy grace of the young maiden had been; she was wider in the bosom and hips, but she was also taller.  She held herself erect, and her neck bore the small, round head as proudly and beautifully as ever.  Her pale, remote face with the dark-gray eyes stirred and excited him as much as her round, rosy child's face had stirred and excited his restless soul with its wondrous calm" (610).  While it would be nice to think that Undset's actually getting at something here--some truth about the husband and wife dynamic, some hint about gender relations in 14th-century Norway--I sincerely doubt there's any method to her madness: The Wife is filled with similarly empty, sometimes outright laughable descriptions about people from all walks of life, and no amount of "authentic medieval" references to the licking of festering eye wounds or of an adult giving hickeys to the twelve year old sister of an ex-fiancée of his can mask Undset's undeniably conformist tendencies as a narrator.  And with the novel's two most interesting characters, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, now dead, the only suspense left in part three for me will be seeing how schmaltzy things get as Undset prepares for the big sentimental finale with that lack of subtlety that she has so clearly established as her calling card.  To borrow a quip from an old punk rock fanzine friend of mine, "g-e-n-e-r-i-c gets easier and easier to spell every day"!  (

Sigrid Undset and her dog Erlend

Other readalong posts on The Wife:

14 comentarios:

  1. Oh dear, I have to say this series has never really floated my book boat and I dont think its one I will contend reading. I have laughed at your thoughts though, so your pain has made for entertaining reading for us all. Can't wait for the report on part three!!

  2. As I'm sure you know from my review of The Wife, I agree with you entirely. I had forgotten about the licking of eye wounds - I must say that part sort of grossed me out!

    Where I don't agree with you however is that you did a bad thing by choosing it for a readalong. It says a lot about the times that it won a Pulitzer and I think that's worth some reflection.

  3. Well, if anyone should be embarrassed it should be me! But neither of us claimed to have read it before, you know? I don't think we should be embarrassed or guilty. I mean, if we should learn anything from Undset it's how ANNOYING guilty people are. :-D

    I agree about the tedium of the crying, whining, and jealousy. Although, to play the devil's advocate, I do actually think the passage you quoted and other physical descriptions have a purpose; this one illustrates Erlend's inability to stop lusting after his wife even when she is being a total asshole. Which then pisses him off, understandably. A few other physical descriptions reminded me of actual medieval Norwegian lit more than anything else in Undset - there are always details about how staunch and manly the knights and kings are in those epics (or at least in Icelandic epics), and of what they're wearing and how strong their battle horses are, etc.

    ANYway, I guess we should have gone with one of those, instead.

  4. Again, I say don't feel guilty. We are all in this together! You didn't push us to read it, we WANTED to! :D

    Anyway, yes, I agree with everything you said, although I didn't dislike it as much as you. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either. I guess the subject matter and the time and place really appeals to me. It's just the writing I have issues with. Yes: generic and conformist, truly. I'll have my post up in a bit.

  5. You don't have to apologize. It's okay, really! I kinda like it!

    I'm almost done with part 2, but my reading and writing has been kind of a mess lately.

  6. I'm closer in response to Claire - didn't love or hate it - more on my reaction later. Your post made me laugh - some more! And I agree with everyone else - don't feel guilty! I for one am GLAD that I'm reading this book. Its an...erm...interesting experience that I would have been sorry to miss. I pretty much agree that this section blows, but I'm willing to flounder through the rest!

    Oh and Emily, if you keep bringing up these (better) Icelandic tomes, I'm going to have to talk you into hosting another read-along. :)

  7. *Simon: If my entertainment pain has brought you entertainment pleasure, it has all been worth it. LOL. Suffice it to say that I'll be taking a brief break before jousting with part three, though, that's for sure!

    *Jill: I liked how that eye thing grossed out Erlend, too--a rare funny moment for me! And you make a good point about it being worthwhile to consider why Undset won the Nobel (the "my bad" thing had more to do with what I see as the lackluster nature of the trilogy so far rather than its value as a readalong item per se).

    *Emily: That guilt, shame and embarrassment comment of mine was mostly tongue-in-cheek, but I deleted a reference to the character KL that would have connected the ANNOYING dots in a way much more similar to yours. Too funny! In terms of the physical description thing that Undset does so often, sure, there are prob. occasional reasons for it. But even conceding your point here about Erlend's ability to simultaneously lust after and be mad at Kristin, I'd ask: so what? Undset tells us as much throughout the first two parts multiple times, but I find it neither entertaining nor illuminating but just distracting. Whether the other zillions of hollow descriptions have to do with mimicking medieval literature's penchant for the same is another matter (I've actually wondered about this possibility quite a bit myself), but it doesn't work for me at least given Undset's uneasy blend of "realism" and "romance." Thanks so much for playing devil's advocate with me on these two points, though, because these are precisely the sorts of things we should be discussing in any readalong that's worth its salt!

    *Claire: Thanks (again) for reassuring me, but I was mostly joking about the guilt thing this time. No worries on that front! And as much as I've disliked Undset's storytelling style so far, I'm glad I've had the chance to read her so I could judge her abilities without mediation on anybody else's part.

    *E.L. Fay: As I've said before, I'm glad you "kinda like" Kristin Lavransdatter. Especially since I seem to dislike it enough for the whole group! Way looking forward to what you, Claire and Sarah will have to say about part two whenever you get around to it.

    *Sarah: Glad you, like Simon, got a chuckle outta my misery! And I too would like to get my mitts on some of those Scandinavian sagas that Emily has alluded to--especially since every time Undset mentions one in KL, I feel like she's a hack TV writer namedropping Shakespeare in an afterschool special!

  8. You know how people use the word interesting when they don't want to to say anything bad? Well, it's been interesting. ;-)

    I actually am glad that I read gave me a glimpse into a world I previously knew nothing about. It's just unfortunate that the characters were so whiny. And that it was so long. Most of book 2 was pretty much unnecessary.

  9. I was overcome by violent sobs too. Don't get me wrong. I can enjoy moments of well-deserved self-loathing in a book. Can relish them. Just still trying to figure out someone who appears to shun forgiveness in order to weep over past misdeeds - minor ones. No one was having premarital sex in medieval times? Grrr. I hate this book. Still trying to write something. Not your fault. Not Emily's. Quite the experience.

  10. Uh-oh. Frances's post should be very interesting. I mean in a good way!

  11. *Softdrink: Interesting comment. No, really! And you know the characters are too whiny when you almost start rooting for the bubonic plague to come to town...

    *Frances: "I hate this book." Ah, the voice of reason at last! And while the appearing to shun forgiveness gripe of yours is totally understandable, I'm also bothered by the over the top interior monologues which leave little to the imagination. "Grr," indeed (alas)!

    *E.L. Fay: You're quite the funny one tonight! I, too, am looking forward to Frances' post with great excitement, though! Cheers!

  12. Richard, thank you for making me laugh through this. I have to say I will be glad when it is over!

  13. I didn't join in the readalong but your reaction makes me laugh! I guess it's good to know that Nobel Prize writers aren't everyone's favorites.

  14. *Gavin: Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, but I'm afraid that laughter is not only the best--but the only--medicine against this scourge known as Kristin Lavransdatter. I keep waiting for the trilogy to "get better," but it just doesn't, you know? Cheers!

    *Rebecca: There are Nobel winners I like, but Sigrid Undset isn't one of them. Too bad I didn't know that 900 pages ago, I guess!