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Miss Austen Makes a Refusal

Marianne gave us a sample of Jane Austen writing more or less casually to her sister: see this comment on the Emma post. Here's a somewhat more formal letter, from The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, a book which I bought back in the '70s and which has given me in enjoyment at least 100 times the worth of the original cover price of $1.75. 

From 1811 to 1820 the son of George III ruled as Prince Regent. Jane Austen sent him a copy of Emma, and his secretary replied, on behalf of the prince, that he had very much enjoyed it, and added that Austen might wish to dedicate a future work to the prince, and moreover that "any historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Coburg, would just now be very interesting." It isn't clear (to me anyway) whether that suggestion came from the prince or the secretary. 

Austen replied:

To James Stainier Clarke, 1 April 1816
My dear Sir,

I am honoured by the Prince's thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work.... You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could not more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir,
Your very much obliged and sincere friend,

J. Austen

A minor aspect of the amusement in this, for me at least, is that I regard Austen, as far as I know her, as having provided the prototype for the modern "romance" genre, the word of course having had a very different sense in Austen's time. This is not a criticism of her, but rather evidence that the general outline of that plot (if my limited acquaintance with it can be  validly generalized) has an archetypal sort of appeal: man and woman who initially dislike each other but by a gradual opening of the eyes are drawn together by various desirable qualities in each other (noble in Austen, probably often less so in our day). The preferred end is a wedding. This broad outline is as simple as that of the murder mystery, and seems to be as enduringly popular. 


Jane Austen: Emma

There's a remark somewhere in Swift's writings to the effect that there is no quality that is a virtue in men that is not also a virtue in women. I seem to recall that he specifically mentions courage. And I think I recall, though this may be my own addition, that he says that the virtues may manifest themselves differently. Women, for instance, through most of history have not as often been called upon to show straightforward physical courage as men have. (Though Swift's Stella, the woman to whom he was peculiarly attached in a way that seems to have been not exactly not romantic, once fired a pistol at a would-be housebreaker.) I can't remember whether she hit him or not. But courage in one form or another has been required of them. To tell the truth, I've often been surprised that women are generally eager to marry, considering that sex most likely will lead to pregnancy and childbirth--pretty fearful prospects to me. I don't know whether this is courage or just the triumph of instinct over caution. 

Anyway, I thought of Swift's remark when reading Emma, because among other things it traces the growth of self-knowledge on the part of Emma, and that requires a kind of courage. She's pretty much a spoiled brat, as the opening may be taken to imply:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She believes she has a gift for managing other people's love lives, and when the exercise of that gift results in harm to the people she intended to help, she is obliged either to confront what she has done, and therefore her own failure, or to deny it. She is not culpably malicious or self-deceptive, and so she does confront these errors. In that she is assisted, or perhaps rather directed, by the blunt and commanding Mr. Knightley, a friend of the family--who, confirming my expectation when he first enters the scene, is wealthy, unmarried, and not too old. Knightley cares enough about Emma to want to see her flaws corrected; Emma respects him enough to listen. The denouement is every bit as surprising as that of Pride and Prejudice.

It is a very small world that Austen writes about, and the plot consists of small actions. Yet the essential virtues, vices, and conflicts of human life are fully present. That said, though, while I did very much enjoy reading this novel, it's pretty clear that Austen is not going to be one of my favorite novelists. Her world is just a little too small, the drama too subtle, to grip me in the way that, for instance, The Mill on the Floss does. Many pages consist of elaborate conversations and the aftermath of conversations in which minute shifts in personal relationships transpire and assume great importance. The phrase "novel of manners" is really quite accurately applicable: elaborate manners are the means by which relationships progress, succeeding or failing. As I often did in reading George Eliot recently, I found myself wondering whether anyone ever really talked in such lengthy and carefully artificed sentences. 

Here's a passage I marked, not so much because it illustrates the importance of manners in the novel, though it does, but because the significance of it initially escaped me. I had to re-read it and consider for a minute before the realization came. If you've read the book, you'll remember that Mrs. Elton is the rich, tacky, and somewhat malicious wife of the vicar. Mrs. Elton is talking to a young woman named Jane Fairfax, observed and partly overheard by Emma and a young gentleman, Frank Churchill:

...the voices of the ladies were drowned for a while, till another suspension brought Mrs. Elton's tones again distinctly forward.—Mr. Elton had just joined them, and his wife was exclaiming,

“Oh! you have found us out at last, have you, in our seclusion?—I was this moment telling Jane, I thought you would begin to be impatient for tidings of us.”

“Jane!”—repeated Frank Churchill, with a look of surprize and displeasure.—“That is easy—but Miss Fairfax does not disapprove it, I suppose.”

“How do you like Mrs. Elton?” said Emma in a whisper.

“Not at all.”

You may have been quicker than I to realize that Mrs. Elton's offense here is that she has taken a very questionable liberty in  using "Jane" instead of "Miss Fairfax." 


The Cross: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part 3

I had not gotten very far in this re-reading of Kristin before I was willing to pronounce it to be one of the world's great novels. Nothing that came after weakened that view, but rather strengthened it. This final volume of the trilogy brings Kristin's story to an end in a way that, for the sake of those who haven't read it, I'll leave undescribed, but which I found to be very powerful.

I had almost entirely forgotten the ending since my first reading thirty-plus years ago, so it was as if I was reading it for the first time. I mean, I wasn't just vague about the details, I had forgotten almost everything and retained only a vague impression. It will not be much of a spoiler if I say that the hard blows which have fallen throughout the novel, sometimes from fate and sometimes as a consequence of Kristin or Erlend's own behavior, continue here. I was surprised, almost shocked, by the intensity of it.  Nor will it surprise any reader that the end brings forth in Kristin the heroism that has always been an element even in her bad behavior.

A great novel should be a good story, and usually is, but it must be more than that to earn the "great." It must also have something profound to say, or to show, something that makes us feel that we are receiving an important truth about what it means to be human. It doesn't have to be explicit, much less abstract, as when Dostoevsky's characters philosophize--in fact as a rule it shouldn't be--but it has to be there,  

The important truth here has to do with our relationship to God, and so I was a little surprised to learn that Undset had not yet been received into the Catholic Church when she wrote Kristin. Obviously she had a very deep understanding of Christian faith--no, that's not the right way to put it: a deep understanding of the Christian way of viewing the world. And perhaps her biography would shed light on the timing of her conversion. I don't know much about her life other than what's given in various introductions to her work, but she had a presumably intense and undoubtedly difficult love affair and marriage which may have been an obstacle to her formally entering the Church--I mean a psychological and emotional as well as, perhaps, a canonical obstacle. Naturally one assumes that this relationship bears some similarities to that of Kristin and Erlend, and that therefore there is some significant amount of Undset in Kristin.

Is Kristin Lavransdatter a tragedy? It certainly follows the classical pattern in some fundamental ways: a noble character with some grave faults, especially those of pride and general self-will, leading to self-induced disaster. But it's too diffuse to have the single penetrating impact of true tragedy. And, more importantly, it contains too much hope. (Well, you could also say that it contains too much disaster; I guess a proper tragedy does not have a series of them.) It ends with too much hope, though a dull reader, a typical modern reader, may not see that. (From what I see a lot of typical modern readers don't see much beyond the very earthly love-and-marriage story.) And it's not the mere resolution that typical ends a tragedy, in which a sort of peace or at least equilibrium obtains when the principal characters are dead, because it points toward a greater restoration. 

We read--or at least I read--this novel thinking that we have some sense of what medieval life was like. Do we really? It's impossible to know, but the testimony of historians and archaeologists is that Undset was as accurate as it is possible to be in her facts.  But the book is modern in its technique, in its intimacy with the inner lives of the people involved, and of necessity Undset had to invent much if not all of that. Did people like these really think as Undset imagines them to have done? I'm sure she had ample grounds for thinking so, but I wonder.

I also wonder about the relationship between medieval and modern Scandinavia. For some reason "Norwegian" in the American context summons a stereotype of nice, quiet, rather bland and dull people. Political progressives point to Scandinavia as a place where reason and a nice secular liberal order prevail. How does one reconcile this image with the Vikings? Their age is a couple of centuries in the past at the time of Kristin, but violence is still part of the normal fabric of life. That was the case throughout Europe, of course, but the Norsemen had always been particularly ferocious. I wonder if the emergence of death metal music, originally in Norway, nakedly anti-Christian, anti-modern, and violent, is a sign of what might emerge in those lands once Christianity has been extinct for a few generations. 

KristinLavransdatter-TheCross

But back to the book: I can't let go of the translation question. I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation, either. According to the introduction to this volume, by Sherrill Harbison, a scholar of Scandinavian literature who surely knows what she's talking about, Undset

...struggled to find ways to give her text a tone of the past while still keeping the sound of natural speech. After much experimenting, she found the effect she wanted by limiting her vocabulary to words based on Old Norse roots, and by retaining Old Norse syntax--the order of subject and verb, arrangement of adjectives, and use of coordinating conjunctions.....[S]he creates a readable, natural-sounding prose with subtle reminiscences of Old Norse, more like a musical undertone than an imitation. 

The vigorousness of this style does not translate easily to English.... Translators must strike a balance between the falsely archaic and the falsely modern, while still trying to respect Undset's careful usage. Whereas it is easy to make the English sound too quaintly antique, it is also easy to "correct" Undset's evocative syntax, to flatten her rhythms and make language too modern and ungraceful.

I'm afraid that's exactly what happened. Not, I mean, that Nunnally intended to "correct" Undset, and of course I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us.

I have an English translation of an earlier Undset novel, Gunnar's Daughter, in which the translator is not named. But unless the book has been translated more than once, it must be by Arthur Chater, whose name is on the currently available translation. The one I have has, as I recall, something like the qualities that Sherrill Harbison attributes to Undset's prose. It was Chater's translation of The Master of Hestviken that I read, and it has weight without the obtrusive archaisms of Archer. But, like Archer's, Chater's translation was made in the 1920s and '30s. 

Here's a comparison of a passage chosen at random. This is from the second volume, The Wife; Kristin is telling a story to a boy. Archer:

Kristin leaned back in her chair, grasping in her thin hands the carven beasts' heads at the arm-ends.

"That monk I named but now, he had been in England, too. And he used to tell that there is a place there where grow thornbushes that bloom with white blossoms each Christmas night. St. Joseph of Arimathea came to land in that country-side, when he fled before the heathen, and there he thrust his staff into the earth, and it took root and blossomed--he was the first that brought the Christian faith to Bretland. Glastonborg that place is called--I mind me now. Brother Edvin had seen those bushes himself.... 'Twas there in Glastonborg that he was buried, along with his Queen, that King Arthur that you will have heard tell of--he that was one of the Seven Champions of Christendom."

Nunnally:

Kristin leaned back in her chair and wrapped her thin hands around the animal heads on the armrests.

"That monk I mentioned—he had also been to England. And he said there is a region where wild rosebushes grow that bloom with white blossoms on Christmas night. Saint Joseph of Arimathea put ashore in that area when he was fleeing from the heathens, and there he stuck his staff into the ground and it took root and flowered. He was the first to bring the Christian faith to Bretland. The name of the region is Glastonbury—now I remember. Brother Edvin had seen the bushes himself. King Arthur, whom you’ve no doubt heard stories of, was buried there in Glastonbury with his queen. He was one of the seven most noble defenders of Christendom."

And in the comments on my post on that volume Marianne also gave us a comparison, which you can read here. In both cases I prefer Archer. Still, I might recommend the Nunnally translation, depending partly on who was asking. It is easier to read, and more importantly it has those missing pages from Kristin's penitential visit to the shrine of St. Olav.

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.

Also by the way: in a post on one of the earlier volumes (or was it in the comments?) I mentioned that I wondered about the significance of Fru Aashild, Erlend's worldly-wise aunt. I can't remember now where I read this, but one critic or reviewer suggests that she is the real-life or earthly counterpart, perhaps in a sense the embodiment, of the elf-maiden who appears to Kristin as a child, offering her the matrimonial crown. That makes a lot of sense. 


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. 


If You're Interested in Philip Roth...

...you 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. 


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.


The Wreath: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part One

As I approached the end of The Mill on the Floss I was, naturally, thinking about what to read next (what novel, I mean). I think I mentioned in a comment that I was trying to decide between two re-reads, Dostoevsky's Demons and Kristin Lavransdatter. (Interesting that I name the author of the former but not the latter. I think that's because Demons seems to me a not entirely distinctive title; it would not surprise me to learn that there are quite a few other books with the same title. And also because the name of the book was established in my mind long ago as The Possessed.) 

KristinLavransdatter-TheWreathThis is the cover of the edition I'm reading.

When I read Kristin back in the 1980s, the only available translation was the Archer one made in the 1920s. (Archer and Scott for the first volume; I do not know anything about either of the men.) A new one, by Tina Nunnally, appeared around 2000 (as best I can tell), and seems to be generally considered a great improvement over the old. But as a casual reader I don't find this to be obviously or entirely so.

The most significant charge against the old translation is that it is written in a deliberately archaic style which is not Undset's and which presents an obstacle to the contemporary reader. Well, the second of those is certainly true, and I will have to take the word of those who can read the original that the first is also. But one doesn't have to read Norwegian to know that Archer's English is not that of Kristin's 14th century, which was what we now call Middle English. It's closer to that of the 16th and early 17th centuries: much use of now-obsolete words and phrases--"I trow" and "I wot" and "'twere" and all that sort of thing. So it seems questionable on that ground, and I would like to know Archer's justification for his practice. And in general his prose leans strongly toward sentence construction which is at the very least old-fashioned to us. Here's one simple and straightforward sentence, chosen more or less at random from the opening pages of the book:

When the child Kristin was seven years old, it so fell out one time that she got leave to go with her father up to their mountain sæter.

One day when the child Kristin was seven years old, she was going to accompany her father up to their mountain pastures.

I don't think I need to tell you which is which. 

As in this example, Nunnally's prose is certainly simpler and more clear, but it's also without character. I don't recall encountering anything in this volume which would be out of place in an ordinary magazine or newspaper story of our time. But neither do I recall lingering over any sentence for its elegance or flavor. I won't say it's clumsy, but I won't say it's graceful, either. Maybe I would think the same of the original; maybe Undset wrote a straightforward and not particularly rich prose. 

Nunnally's simplicity certainly makes for an easier read. Archer's prose can be something of a struggle, but I breeze right through Nunnally's without conscious effort. Whether anything is being lost I really can't say with any authority, but as the two sentences above indicate, there are often differences of nuance: "got leave to go" and "was going to accompany" are not interchangeable. And "sæter" does indeed mean "mountain pasture," but with implications not present in the latter term; see this in Wikipedia. I have found myself sometimes opening the Archer translation to read his version of a paragraph, just to see if there is something I may be missing. And if it so falls out that I read the trilogy a third time it may be Archer's version again. 

The Nunnally translation is said to restore some passages that were omitted in Archer's, including some with more explicit depictions of sex. If there were any of the latter in The Wreath, I didn't notice them, and one would think, considering the events narrated, that these would appear here if anywhere in the trilogy. I think I also read somewhere that Undset's style had at least sometimes a more modernist bent, but I see no trace of that, either. 

In one respect I prefer Nunnally's translation without reservation: it is issued in three separate volumes. This makes the simple physical act of holding the book and reading it much more comfortable. It also has the psychological effect, for me at least, of making the trilogy seem less daunting: yes, I confess that I am daunted by a very long book, and tend to view it as a task to be completed rather than a pleasure to be anticipated. This is at least partly, I guess, the effect of my desire to read every worthwhile book ever written, which makes me just very faintly resentful when one book demands considerably more time than others, though all that disappears if the book is engaging enough.

The three volumes also make it convenient for me to absorb each separately, as Undset presumably intended (and to write about each in a separate blog post).

In any case, Kristin is more than worth it. Pros and cons of the translation argument aside, I am at least as impressed with the work now as I was on first reading. I had forgotten most of the details of the story; all I had left was the general outline. I recalled it as moving from one disaster to another, and my memory was accurate. The Wreath takes it up to the marriage of Kristin and Erlend. And reading it as a separate novel from the rest makes the impact of certain events, especially those happening right at the end, more concentrated and accordingly more affecting and memorable; you don't just turn a few pages and press on immediately.

There must be thousands of novels that could be broadly described like this one, apart from the medieval setting. "Sprawling family saga" is the typical blurb language; "one woman's story of love and loss." Etc. And no doubt some of them are good stories. Some stories can keep our attention almost independent of the telling: Crime and Punishment would be an unusual  and interesting story in anyone's telling, as would The Lord of the Rings, and many an adventure story of no particular literary merit. But when the story is the more or less ordinary events of more or less ordinary lives, what makes a novel great?

One huge element--the biggest, I think--is the almost magical ability of a very few writers to make their characters live. I say it's almost magical because there doesn't seem to be any particular thing that creates the effect. It isn't a matter of detailed description of scene or action, or of extensive forays into the  inner life of the character. It can be done with comparatively few strokes of that sort. If I were to examine the first few chapters of The Wreath carefully, I doubt I could say "I see--it's this, that, and this other thing" that make Kristin come alive. But she very much is by that point. And it's not only that characters created by this gift come alive; they engage us, even fascinate us, and we come to care about them.

As I mentioned, I didn't remember many details from my first reading, and had entirely forgotten a number of relatively minor characters. But I've remembered Kristin and Erlend, and Lavrans and Rangfrid, very vividly for somewhere close to forty years. 

I'm now a hundred pages or so into the next volume, The Wife. Already I can see Kristin storing up the resentments, the far from unjustified resentments, which will be the source of so much trouble. The back-and-forth of wounding and being wounded between Kristin and Erlend is, I remember now, one of the saddest aspects of a very sad story--sad, and, to resort to the language of blurbs, unforgettable.