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May 2021

A Question for Jane Austen Fans

I've only read Pride and Prejudice. Which book should I read next? Sense and Sensibility is a bit ahead of others in the contest because I happen to have a copy of it, but not so far ahead that another couldn't overtake it.

In passing: I was surprised to discover that S&S was actually written before P&P. For some reason I'd always assumed that S&S came later, and that the title was a deliberate attempt to cash in, so to speak, on the success of P&P--never mind that I didn't and don't even know that either was a success. 

Neko Case: "Deep Red Bells"

Blacklisted, the album from which this song is taken, is on a CD full of miscellaneous MP3 files (117 of them, to be exact) that's been in my car player for a week or so. I'd forgotten how good it is. To tell you the truth, I'd pretty much forgotten about it, period, though I wrote about it here, almost exactly fifteen years ago. "Deep Red Bells" is the opening track, and one of my favorites.

I just learned, to my mild horror, that it's about a woman murdered by the Green River serial killer.

If You're Interested in Philip Roth... may have heard that what is supposed to be a very important more-or-less-official biography of him was withdrawn at the moment of publication recently. The reason for this drastic action was that the biographer, Blake Bailey, has been accused of sexual abuse (and of course he must be guilty, or he wouldn't have been accused).

This news did not make much of an impression on me, since I've read very little of Roth--only an excerpt from Portnoy's Complaint at the time it was published in the late '60s. But shortly afterward the April issue of The New Criterion arrived, and it includes a very lengthy review of the biography, based, obviously, on an advance copy of the book. So here, if you're interested, is a look at what's in it. I thought this might be all the world would see, at least for some time, but I read today that a new publisher is taking it on. 

Dylan is 80 Today

And in the course of reading various tributes to him I've been reminded that I may be the only person in the world, or at least the only Dylan fan in the world, who doesn't think Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece, possibly the best of his many albums. Not that I don't think it's good, just not that good. 

Also, I seem to be one of the few who are skeptical about that Nobel prize. Perhaps a bit more skeptical because I've been reading Kristin Lavransdatter, a truly great work of literature. 

Anne Tyler: Redhead By the Side of the Road

My wife and I listened to the Audible recording of this a couple of weeks ago when we made the five-and-a-half-hour drive up to north Alabama for a wedding. We generally listen to a book on these trips, and my preference is for mysteries and other books that are strong on plot and not overly demanding, so I was not particularly enthusiastic about this choice. But she already had it as part of her Audible subscription, and we didn't have anything else in mind, and I thought it would be okay, at worst, and anyway it's only four-and-something hours long. 

Also, I had read Tyler's The Accidental Tourist quite a few years ago, back in the '80s I guess, and very much enjoyed it. If memory serves (which it often doesn't), that book was the story of a man who has very low expectations of life and keeps its vagaries at bay by following strict routines and most definitely avoiding anything that might be seen as an adventure. He's found a niche as a travel writer for people who hate to travel but are obligated to do it (hence the title). He meets a lively and somewhat eccentric woman who brings him out of his shell. That may be a poor summary, but as I say it's what I recall, and I mention it only because this book follows a broadly similar outline.

Micah Mortimer is a forty-something man who lives alone, has never been married though he has a girlfriend and has had others in the past, and makes a very modest living with two part-time jobs. After a promising start in college and with a tech company that he helped to found but which failed, he's now a caretaker/handyman at an apartment complex, and has a one-man computer support business as the Tech Hermit. The opening scene shows him affixing a magnetic sign bearing that name to the roof of his Kia as he goes out on a call, and the term is obviously all too appropriate for him. He follows a rigid daily and weekly routine. The girlfriend--"woman friend," as he says, because she's too old to be called a girl--does not seem to be very important to him.

I read somewhere that Jordan Peterson sums up male-female differences as "Women are interested in people, men are interested in things." Well, Micah certainly serves as an example of this. He is good at the repair work he does at the apartment complex, good at his computer work, but laughably--or pathetically, depending on your mood--obtuse about human relationships. He drives away his woman-friend in a conversation in which even I, a male, can see that she is desperately asking and hoping for him to respond in a certain very obvious way. But her plea sails right past him, and her reaction leaves him perfectly baffled.  

Micah has four sisters, and a scene in which he attends a family get-together is one of the best in the book. The sisters have zero interest in technology, but are intensely interested in his "relationship." And of course they see aspects of him to which he is quite blind. These sisters are an instance of the gift I was talking about a few posts ago, in relation to Sigrid Undset: the uncanny ability of some writers to give life to characters. This is only one scene, and the sisters are not even described, physically or psychologically, in any detail. And yet they seemed real. 

What jostles Micah off his narrow track is not, at least initially, a woman, but a young man who appears at his apartment one day because he has come to believe that Micah is his father. And I'll leave my sketch of the story at that.

This is not a great novel; it doesn't plumb the psychological or philosophical depths of what it means to be human (as does, for instance, Kristin Lavransdatter). It is in fact rather slight. But I thoroughly enjoyed it: it's warm, gentle, and compassionate without being sentimental, acutely sensitive, and very quietly humorous. And the Audible version is enhanced by the reader, MacLeod Andrews, who has, among other things, an ability to render female voices in a way that seems feminine but does not seem to be an attempt to sound like a woman. 

Judging by the one other Anne Tyler novel I've read, it seems to revisit some of her familiar themes. It's not very long, and I see among the reviews at Amazon a number of complaints that it's too short and could or should have been further developed. Readers unhappy that you didn't write more are surely the best sort of unhappy readers a writer could have. Anne Tyler will be eighty this year, and has written twenty-three novels, many of which are both popular and very highly regarded by critics. So it wouldn't be surprising if the stream is beginning to run dry. If she wants or needs a rest, she has certainly earned it. I don't read much contemporary fiction at all, but I'm pretty sure I'll read more of Tyler's work. 

Redhead By the Side of the Road

Read the book to learn the significance of the title.

The Wife: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part 2

Years ago when I worked for a software company, I overheard my boss and another manager discussing a programmer who was not making much progress on a large and important project.  "He just can't handle large amounts of information," one of them said.

I flinched a little at that, because I knew it was true of me, too. And reading Kristin has given me occasion to remember it. What a complex book it is! Sigrid Undset apparently didn't have the problem that my old co-worker and I do. Or maybe she just made copious notes and consulted them regularly. Relatively minor characters may be introduced briefly and left behind, then reappear two hundred pages later in a context in which one needs to know, at minimum, who they are--whose kin they are, who they're married to, and so forth . Places may be referred to in more than one way: the estate, or manor, of a character, usually but not always an important one, may be known by its name or by the name of a region where it's located. I believe Undset exceeds the Russians in this sort of complexity, and I don't know how she ever kept it straight in her head. But I have a feeling that if you had asked her about Helga Saksesdatter, a fairly minor character, she would have been able to tell you in detail about her and her connection to various other families without consulting her notes.

One of these relatively minor characters who seem to me significant is Fru Aashild, an aunt of Erlend's. I emphasize relatively because although she does not appear very often, and is absent after some point in this volume, her influence is important. It is she who first suggests to Kristin that Erlend might be just the man for her. And she is a dodgy character, at least. She's suspected of witchcraft, which may or may not be a result of her being skilled with herbs and other forms of healing. And she is very strongly suspected of having had a hand in the death of her first husband. Yet she is appealing in many ways, seems to have genuine ability in medicine, is generous to Kristin and her family. But whether or not the more serious accusations about her are true (and I think she more or less admits that the one about the death of her husband is true), she is at minimum a very worldly person. If I'm not mistaken, it's through her that Erlend is connected to the royal family. And it seems to me that she embodies something of what Kristin is tempted to: an embrace of the sensual, self-seeking, wealth-and-pleasure-seeking life, not too much inconvenienced by scruples. She comes to a bad end, which is mentioned only briefly and of which I would like to know more.

As I've mentioned, I didn't remember many details at all from my first reading, and retained only a very broad idea of the course of the story, but one thing that did remain quite firmly was that what I think of as Kristin's grudge-holding toward Erlend plays a significant role in the story. Well, that certainly proved to be true. Much of this volume is concerned with Erlend's downfall--the loss of his lands and near-loss of his life--due to the discovery of his participation in a plot against the king. This is, obviously, a major event in Kristin's life as well. And it is set in motion by Kristin lashing out at Erlend over things done and said early in their relationship.

"Jesus! Have you been brooding about this for fifteen years?" says Erlend. And then follows a bitter quarrel, and Erlend's leaving her for a while, during which time he commits acts of massive irresponsibility. Kristin can't be entirely blamed for that, of course. But she can't be entirely absolved of blame, either.

Twenty or so years ago I read or heard an observation about marriage that went something like this: "A woman marries a man thinking that he'll change, and he doesn't. A man marries a woman thinking that she won't change, and she does." There's a great deal of truth in that, and the success or failure of the marriage may depend on the adjustments that each makes. It's very applicable to Kristin and Erlend.

The changing or not changing often has to do with the birth of children: Erlend remarks at one point that he expected life with Kristin, once he had managed to marry her in the face of great obstacles, to be one long feast (or words to that effect), but that it seemed instead a perpetual Lent, in part because she keeps getting pregnant. Swift wrote, in a letter to a young woman about to be married, "I hope you do not still dream of Charms and Raptures; which Marriage ever did, and ever will put a sudden End to." The advice is applicable to men as well.

Of course the reason the novel can speak to us as it does is that these human situations are timeless. But there are also many things in it that have become foreign to us. One that struck me first time around, and still does, is a remark by Lavrans about the sacrifices of becoming a priest: the first one he names is the bearing of arms. I doubt that more than a very few even of our second-amendment zealots, who are themselves a minority of men, would consider not carrying a pistol more of a sacrifice than celibacy.

The interplay between Christianity and the old Norse paganism comes up now and then in the narrative, often with great significance, as those who have read the novel know. One notable feature of this is that the Christian view is not "We used to believe in those things that weren't true, and now we don't," but rather "We have been freed by Christ, who loves us, from those old powerful but treacherous gods who often did us harm." Kristin's people believe the powers of the old religion are real, and still powerful and dangerous. This strongly evident in the pathetic story of Audhild the Fair, a young Christian maiden who "soon after Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...was lured into the mountain," and who, though she had to spend her days in whatever strange life that was, nevertheless clung to as much of her faith as she could. (Interestingly, the Icelandic TV series The Cliff includes references to fear of supernatural beings who dwell "in the mountain.")

In poking around on the web for information about the Kirstin translations, I've found that it tends to be taken for granted that the new one (Nunnally) is not just superior to the old one (Archer) but has definitively replaced it, liberating a great novel from a terrible translation. Not so fast, I say. There are many reasons to be grateful for Nunnally's, most especially the restoration of some significant passages mysteriously (as far as I know) omitted from Archer's. But I have reason to think that Nunnally's is also some distance from ideal. I will have more to say about this when I've finished the last volume, but consider the bit I just quoted: "Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...." That sounded off to me. I of course have no idea what Undset actually wrote, but I'm pretty sure that medieval Christians in Norway and everywhere else did not use a term like "Christianity." So I looked at Archer, and found that he says that Saint Olav "christened" the valley. Much truer, I'm sure, to the medieval mind.

I'm a little less than halfway through the third book now. The whole novel is even greater than I thought on my first reading thirty-five or so years ago. One reason for that is that I've now lived through stages of life that are described in the book, that were part of Kristin's life, but not yet then in mine. 

I Want This On My Tombstone

However, I did try.
 --St. Katherine Drexel

I've taken it out of context--the sentence doesn't actually end there. And I'm not 100% certain that it was St K.D. It was in one of the daily meditations in a fairly recent Magnificat, maybe in March. I'm pretty sure I wrote it down, with attribution, somewhere, and now I can't find it. But in any case it sure fits.

Two Smart People Discuss the Disintegration of Culture

I'm trying very hard, and so far successfully, to stifle my impulse to talk about the political crisis of the United States. The crisis is far from abating. It's quieter now that the frenzy surrounding Trump has ceased, but the basic situation hasn't changed, and I'm trying not to spend too much time fretting about the likely outcomes, which seem to me to range from not good to very bad. (All right, I'll go this far: I think the most likely is a continued decline toward a situation like that which has often existed in Latin American countries: a corrupt pseudo-republican government, a small class of very wealthy and powerful people, and a great many poor and almost-poor people.)

The civilizational crisis that underlies the political crisis, though, still engages my attention and still seems worth commenting on as part of my effort to grasp it. A British novelist named Paul Kingsnorth has emerged as an articulate and perceptive voice on that subject. This video is an hour of his conversation with a Canadian artist/thinker name Jonathan Pageau, previously unknown to me. It's very much worth watching as a sort of overview. The most interesting part to me begins a little less than halfway through; the first 25 minutes or so are introductory. I don't entirely agree with him about the importance of climate change, but that's relatively unimportant--I certainly agree that our culture's relationship to the created order is pretty sick. 

Rod Dreher has quoted and written about Kingsnorth frequently, and today is another instance. I have not yet read the First Things and other links in that piece, but as this post has been sitting half-finished for over a week and I'm ready to be done with it, I'm going to go ahead and say that they're most likely very much worth reading. 

About Endlessness

That's in italics because it's the name of the movie. I read this very intriguing review this morning, and may even go so far as to check local theaters to see if it shows here, which is probably unlikely.

In 75 concise minutes (as long as any movie needs to be), About Endlessness is completely provocative and satisfying. Each sketch dramatizes a random incident in a Scandinavian city. These scenes, stylizing the real and the imaginary, are light as air — capriccios that go to the heart of human experience.

It's by a Swedish director, Roy Andersson, whose name I don't recall having seen before, but based on the review I think I might like his other work in addition to this one. Of course it helps that the reviewer invokes the near-sacred name of Ingmar Bergman.

I wouldn't agree that 75 minutes is enough for any movie, but it strikes me as a reasonable target for most.

Here's the trailer:


Whole Lotta Kristin Goin' On

I am for the time being a little obsessed with this novel. A few notes as I make my way through the second book, The Wife:

Here's an excellent commentary on the novel from David Warren, a Canadian Catholic writer whose name I've seen here and there in publications like Touchstone (I think). I came across it because I was looking for information on the two translations. He defends the old one, and says that Undset worked with the translators. I would certainly like to know more about that. I am not 100% opposed to the archaisms, but am not 100% sold on them, either.

Tina Nunnally says that there are some significant omissions from the original in the Archer translation. I've now encountered one of those, and can vouch for the fact that it's very significant indeed. It has to do with Kristin's repentance for the events of The Wreath, and while it does not change the fact of that repentance, which is clear enough in Archer, it adds a great deal of force and passion. Why was it omitted? I can't think of any good reason why a translator would have taken such a liberty. I know nothing about Archer but it seems unlikely in the extreme that even a militant atheist would have done so, especially as the book is drenched in Christian doctrine and sensibility throughout. So presumably it was an aesthetic choice, and if so was it Archer's or Undset's? She must have approved it, at least, if Warren is right about her participation. Perhaps she thought she had laid it on a bit thick? That's possible, as it's not just a paragraph--it's a couple of pages. But if so I disagree. I found the passage very moving and would put a plus in Nunnally's column for it if I were tallying the merits of the two translations.


I suspect that Nunnally does not have a good feel for the Christian aspect of the novel. In keeping with my general practice of not reading introductions to novels until after the novel itself, I skipped Nunnally's introduction to The Wreath. I've now read it. She says that although Kristin is "well versed in the strictures of the Church...[s]he listens to her heart rather than to those around her." That's a very inadequate description of the moral, never mind spiritual, dimension of the novel.  (Also, I roll my eyes whenever anyone talks about following one's heart.) And:

Kristin's act of rebellion might be viewed as foolhardy or courageous...

How about wrong? And "strictures" suggests the usual modern misunderstanding of Christianity and especially of Catholicism: that it's all about rules invented and imposed by a (white male) power structure. Not that the Church hasn't made it easy for people to see it that way, but one would like a translator of Sigrid Undset's work to have a richer understanding of its spiritual world. In any case Kristin isn't merely "well versed in the strictures"--she is a believing Christian, which is another matter entirely. And then:

...but in either case she has to suffer the consequences of her actions. She must learn to take responsibility for her own fate.

Well, that's not false, but it's not very insightful, either. Only in the next paragraph does Nunnally mention sin, but even then there's an implication that the novel's conception of sin is a feature of its medieval culture rather than a conception of human life that is at the very least very much alive and relevant to our own time. 


But Nunnally's comments are profound when considered beside something I saw on a site where people comment on books--it wasn't Goodreads, but something like it, and I don't remember where now. 

Life was difficult for women in medieval Norway, but Kristin's would have been easier if she had made better choices.

The same could be said of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.


That fashionable "choices" and "decisions" terminology has bothered me for  a long time. It suggests a certain calm, reasonable process of evaluating possible courses of action and rationally picking one as promising the best "outcome," another word much favored today. I once heard it applied, laughably, to the "decision" of a group of drunken college girls to take a golf cart for a midnight spin which ended with the golf cart on its side and a few relatively minor injuries to the girls. I've seen it applied in contexts like this: "He was in prison because of decisions he made when he was young." And the final (pre-prison) one of those "decisions" was to rob a convenience store and shoot the clerk. Sure, it was a "decision" in some strict sense, but the language makes it sound like he calmly deliberated about the choice of armed robbery as a career. More likely it was not much better than an impulse, possibly one of a series of impulses likely to lead to bad "outcomes." At best it was an extremely inadequate risk analysis. We aren't operating rationally when we "decide" to act on an impulse, or, as Kristin did, on an overwhelming passion. Of course life involves a constant choice between right and wrong, but the tone of this kind of talk is often suggestive of just the opposite: that it's a merely utilitarian calculation of likely practical result.


Apparently there is a thriving tourism business in Norway built around Kristin Lavransdatter and other Undset works. I very much want to see those places, as Undset's descriptions make the landscape sound wondrous. At minimum, I would like to see a good many photographs of them. There should be an illustrated companion to Undset's medieval works, though I have not been able to find one. And for the human environment of the novel, there is an attempt at constructing Jørundgard, the estate of Kristin's family. It was built for the 1995 movie of The Wreath, directed by Liv Ullman. I saw it at the time and thought it was interesting in itself but not especially good as an adaptation of Undset. I'd like to see it again, if only for the visuals.