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.


Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Wow. It's so neat that you've found this book. This was my mother's favorite book, ever. She read it as a girl (in the '40s), and she never tired of telling me about it. I suppose I should read it someday myself. It just always seemed like "hers," but now that I see it described on a blog, it feels more like "ours."

Natasha said...

Sounds like a brilliant book, and books that leave you mourning to part with the character when you close the covers are truly some of the best. My only fear is the length, but it's now on my list. Hmm... I think I need to cash in some vacation time just to read.

Kristin said...

I was taken by this review for two reasons. The hero of the book shares my first name with me. Second, I've been on a bit of a spiritual journey myself and wondering who I am and how I relate to spirituality. I'm going to take a chance and read the book. Thanks for setting me on a new path this year.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

Thanks for the book recommendation. I have been casting about looking for something absorbing to read.

I agree with you about the presence of marginalized people in fiction - even if the story is not focused on someone who is marginalized, it does need to recognize their existence, their humanity. I wonder if this is in a sense similar to building a history of marginalized people - establishing their presence (even if in a work of fiction) would be a first step.


Brenda said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Dave. I'm always looking for something good to read, and I find I seem to enjoy the book more when it comes to me through the heartfelt recommendation of someone who truly loved it. In fact, since we seem to share similar tastes in quite a few things, I'd love it if you'd throw in a few more book reviews when you have the time. Looking forward to acquiring and reading this one!

theknapper said...

Ifound copies of it on abebooks.

Lene Andersen said...

damn. Not available on audio. Will put it on my list for the future - it sounds wonderful.

Andrea S. said...

I agree -- the more characters a book or movie has, and the longer the publication, the more it bugs me if there are no characters with any type of disabilities. The Harry Potter series, for example, is more than 4,000 pages long across the 7 books, but there seem to be no students with disabilities at Hogwarts that I can see. And that really irks me.

HP does have werewolves, which JK apparently says is supposed to sort of represent people with disabilities (and I can see the parallels in that Lupin did need certain accommodations in order to safely attend Hogwarts as a student and, later, teach as a professor there). And Neville Longbottom's parents can be said to have psychosocial disabilities, though I didn't really like much how that was handled in the series. I might, possibly, be blanking on some minor character with a minor limp or something, but that's about all I can think of from the entire series, in which probably hundreds of characters have some role, however brief it might be. Seems to me there are a few dozen disabled characters missing here. A passing reference to a deaf student using a British Sign Language interpreter in class or using a spell to magically induce an ongoing live transcript of class discussion to appear in the air would have been a nice touch somewhere. Maybe one day Harry could have happened to find himself sitting in the Gryffindor sitting room near a blind student operating some magical device that reads books out loud to him or her. The castle is very clearly not at all wheelchair accessible -- but surely a student with mobility impairments could receive a magical chair that could float up and down stairs and get around that way. I'm disappointed in JK Rowling that she didn't think to put in little things like these here and there, just so we see them somewhere in the background of Harry's life.