Kristin Lavransdatter: Reflections

Winter is here once again, and I’m struggling to remember the days when I had hours to devote to reading. But it seems like I appreciate books more in the times where I’ve not had proper sleep for weeks because of assignments, and what not. Is it kind of perverse that I manage to find most tranquility in the midst of the storm? Perhaps a little.

Anyway, now that I’m out of hibernation (yes, I see the irony) I’ve decided to finish of Kristin Lavransdatter! God knows why I want to make myself read the rest of it, but I feel like I’m obligated to, since I committed myself to the readalong. Although I only posted vague thoughts on the first part of the trilogy – The Wreath, I think it was? – I did keep reading over the summer! My bookmark tells me I’m in the middle of Chapter 6 of The Cross. It’s not so bad now that I’m gritting my teeth and pushing myself through it. Sometimes, I think I need more discipline as a reader – I need to learn to grit myself and read things I don’t love instead of being overly selective about my reading choices.

The last thing I wrote about Kristin Lavransdatter wasn’t entirely negative. I wrote:-

The deeper I fall into this book, the more I realize that Kristin Lavransdatter is a homage to beautiful golden-haired maidens; to majestic stain-glass windowed cathedrals, and tolling bells, and homely villages snuggled deep in the Norwegian mountains; to great storytelling; to humanity – its beauty and blemishes both. To Romance.

In hindsight, I think that’s what I wanted the book to be, and so that’s what it became. Forgive me for digressing once again (I always seem to reflect more on my own reading habits more than the books I’m reading) but really, if you think about it, books are meaningless without readers. Because no matter how wonderful and surreal and innovative stories are, they are – in the end – descriptions. Creative expressions of the world around us. And we, as readers, are the ones who give meaning to books through ourinterpretations/readings of them. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that:

(1) reading is subjective (2) every reader reads books through their own worldview/lens (3) one book can mean different things to every person who reads it.

Not the most lucid of posts, I know, but bear with me. To an extent, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to see books. Am I saying this because I’m hoping my final reflections on Kristin Lavransdatter won’t fall under the ‘wrong’ category? Perhaps. I sense a lot of defensiveness and justification in my thoughts towards Undset’s novel. At first, I was so excited at reading it, that I refused to be disappointed. When I’d made my way halfway through the book I convinced myself that I was forcing myself to see the book as something it was not (i.e. progressive, modern, . . . dare I say it? Interesting?). But I did like it for the reasons I stated previously. Despite its shortcomings it really does have its quiet, poignant moments.

And though I think many will disagree, in the end, Kristin Lavransdatter is a classic example of what Orwell referred to as a ‘good bad’ book. ‘One can be amused or excited or even moved’, writes Orwell, ‘by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously’. Good bad books ‘form pleasant patches in one’s memory where the mind can browse at odd hours, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life’.

Emily writes in her review of The Cross –

After making my way through the 1100+ pages of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, not only am I puzzled about the decision to award this author the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, but I am also completely mystified about what seems to be its enduring popular appeal.

Well, Kristin Lavransdatter reminds me a whole lot of another good bad book I’ve been reading recently (in an attempt to catch up with another readalong): Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Beats me how Mitchell ever won the Pulitzer Prize with Gone With the Wind; there are so many cringeworthy things about it. And yet for many readers, that book remains a timeless classic. Though I’m enjoying the ride immensely, I find Mitchell’s writing, with all its descriptions of Scarlett’s ruthless beauty and Rhett McMasculine Butler’s ‘rippling muscles’ laughable. Don’t even get me started on that ripped-bodice cover. Of course, it’s a bit of an unfair parallel, because Mitchell at least had the decency to provide us with fascinating protagonists. Kristin and Erlend are pale, weedy, feeble lovers in comparison to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Buttler. But it goes with the general jist of what I’m saying.

Rhapsody in Books makes a good point about love and war, which also fits in nicely with my Gone with the Windparallel.

Passion in love and war are always appealing, even if vicariously. It makes us feel more alive. This roller coaster ride of extreme emotional states gives both a piquancy and a poignancy to the evanescence of life, so much more so than the quotidian concerns of daily chores and little errands. With passion, there is a difference to one’s life, there is engagement, there is full immersion.

Full immersion.

Judging from the tone of many of your posts, there may be objections to the idea of reading Kristin Lavransdatter as escape fiction, (because what kind of book constitutes as escape fiction, when the escape is worse than reality?) but it also answers a lot of questions. Both Mitchell and Undset appeal to the nostalgic, romantics in us. They beckon at us with glimpses of long-gone worlds, and heartwrenching stories, and beautiful lands, and beautiful people.


4 thoughts on “Kristin Lavransdatter: Reflections

  1. hmmm. I have both books on my someday TBR. But I am a nostalgic, romantic type. So I’m hoping that something about them appeal to me too! I’ve read plenty of negatives about KL, though. It unfortunately got pushed down my list a bit after that readathon…

    1. Oh dear. Hahaha poor Kristin! It’s not so bad! I think a lot of us were just disappointed because we’d had such high expectations. Nobel winner, glittering reviews, (exquisite cover) and all that.

  2. Tuesday, I love your insights on it being a good bad book. I too questioned Undset’s worthiness for the Nobel. Gone with the Wind is another questionable for the Pulitzer, given the type of book it is. But, thinking back, both evoked their time and place so well. I guess, with Mitchell, the story was very amusing that I didn’t spend much effort thinking about her writing, it was just so entertaining. But with Kristin L, I was extremely bothered by Undset’s immature writing that I failed to see so much of the beauty in the rest of the novel. It’s weird, given that I disliked it, it has lingered, and not with extremely bad memories, as the whole readalong experience was too funny and fun. The thing is, Undset was able to give us a picture of Norway in those times, and I guess that was what mattered in the end. If only she wrote better (less annoyingly, I meant), the journey could’ve been potentially great.

    1. Wow, can’t believe I’m only seeing this comment now, after over two years… Just goes to show how much I’ve fallen out with this whole blogging thing. It’s funny, in hindsight, I agree with what you say about immature writing ruining (?) a reading experience. Well, not ruining, but detracting from. I always feel like that with Ghosh’s writing. I love the scope, and the premise, and his characters and settings and all, but his need for constant pomp and grandeur (and chunks of inserted research) always get to me. Plus, worst dialogue ever. It’s like a cheesy script for some daytime soap!

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