Today I finally settled down with my copy of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. First Sunday in a while where I could just read. So I have a few more essays breathing down my back, and maybe a few exams coming up too, but hey – what are Sunday afternoons for, if not relaxing?
Am I being unorthodox by posting notes as I go? Richard and Emily said towards the end of the month, but now that I’ve got a separate place to put these sorts of longer-term reading projects, I think I’d like to record things as they happen. Of course, I’ll tidy it all up and put everything into perspective after I’ve read the entire novel, but it’ll be interesting to see what sort of thought-trail I’ve left behind while I’m reading. If that makes any sense at all, let me know. These days I’m finding it increasingly hard to articulate myself.
Onto the novel itself. A lot of readers have been referring to it as ‘modernist’ fiction, and I had my doubts – but now that I’ve begun to read it myself, I think I can say for certain that I disagree. In my opinion (and purely my opinion, mind), not every novel that was composed in the early 1900s can be classified as ‘modernist’, just as not every piece of literature written in recent times is ‘postmodern’. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that these sorts of labels that we give to books aren’t about the time period that they were written in; rather, they reflect the style, form, intent and thematic concerns of the writer. Probably, in the very near future, I will have to eat my own words. Because I Leithauser mentioning in the Introduction something about Kristin’s character being a vessel for Undset’s own standing on certain issues of her time (i.e. the 1920s). Will try to be open-minded as I read, but thus far, Kristin Lavransdatter is not what I would call ‘modernist’. Feel free to argue with me on this one.
Also, writers – and books – have a way of shattering assumptions. We often build up expectations only to find that we’ve been entirely wrong. For instance, earlier this year when I read Anna Karenina, I assumed – from the title and from everything and nothing I’d ever heard about the book – that it was going to be a portrait of Anna’s life. And in many ways it was. Yet clearly Tolstoy, at the same time, paints us a picture of nineteenth century Russian society in that book. It’s one that is intricate and goes far beyond Anna’s life and death. Here, the opposite occurred. I sort of dived into this readalong without really knowing anything about Sigrid Undset, except that she won the Nobel Prize almost a century ago; and without knowing a thing about Kristin Lavransdatter, except it was a historical fiction set in medieval Norway. So I’d expected to be reading a grand epic, on the scale perhaps of a Leo Tolstoy. I was therefore surprised to find that from what I’ve read so far, Kristin Lavransdatter is neither an intimate portrait of a woman’s life, nor a grand tapestry of characters – but an ode to the beauty of Norway. I suppose later the focus will shift to Kristin, but I think Undset’s writing shines most dazzlingly when she writes about the land itself.