Tuesday, January 04, 2011
Portrait of an Artist as a Courageous Woman
I have just finished reading a remarkable book, Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. The book was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 and deservedly so. The story is set in Medieval Norway and charts the course of a woman's life and takes us closely into her heart. Kristin is a woman who desperately wants to live a holy life but is constantly failing at the task she sets herself. Her spirit may be willing but, as we all know, the flesh is weak. The book runs a full 1124 pages, without the introduction at the beginning or the notes at the end.
I'm not sure how the book found its way into my hands but I'm glad it did. I found myself entranced and read the book in less than two weeks. It's not an easy read, there are, after all, a lot of words. But I felt much rewarded by what I experienced in getting to know Kristin and her husband Erland. I came away having really experienced her life, she lived vividly in my mind. I felt sorrow to let her go as I closed the cover of the book.
The reason I'm bringing this book to you is because I was incredibly impressed by the ethic of the writer, Undset. Years ago, when Joe and I could drink gallons of beer and debate literature and the arts, all by ourselves in a pub full of noise and distractions, we had a debate. I took the position that an artist is obliged to present the world as it is. Great works of huge scope that excise certain segments of the very society it proposes to inhabit, to me, are fraudulent. Books wherein homosexuality does not exist or where disabled people have no place, annoy and anger me. They need not to be the center of attention, but they need to be there, even in the shadows, even hidden away in attics or basements. They exist. We exist. And existence matters. Artists know that, or at least they should.
Kristin Lavransdattar manages a remarkable feat. It is a book about a community set in a time much different than our own times. But people will be, relentlessly, people. And slyly, incredibly, the community here in this book is fleshed out. A character, a man, is suspected of 'unholy practices' and the idea of him frightens Kristin and terrifies the others. The disability myths of 'changeling children' show themselves here. Characters with physical imperfections and differences live in the shadows of society. These passages make up probably less than three or four pages of the book. But the fact that they exist matters.
It matters because the author, who was charged with 'immorality' in her writing - though her books could not be more spiritual - dared to reflect the time that she wrote about. It matters that she held on to her convictions and told the whole of the story, not just the part that people wish to read about. She presented the prejudice of the time and dares the reader to confront the prejudices or our time.
It matters too because it gives us a yardstick by which we can measure progress. Much of what is said about gay people and disabled people in the book still exists, now, today, centuries later, a world away. There are those who hold those views. But there is change and growth and understanding. It is helpful to remind ourselves from whence we've come. It is easy to fall into despair in considering the journey yet to come, but taking time to visit again the cities we lived in, the hearts that once thumped in human breasts, the prayers that believers once prayed ... we get a sense of the progress of this great human experiment.
Those up to an epic read could do much worse than tackling this epic. Those who have ever felt torn between the person they long to be and the person that they, unmistakably, are might find a visit with Kristin a welcome one.