projects and readalongs

a blog child of 'tuesday in silhouette'

Moving Back!

Hello all

I’ve decided that maintaining two blogs for essentially the same thing is too much trouble, and so I’ve moved this blog over to my main one over at tuesday in silhouette!

Hope to see you all there :)

p.s. for those of you who came over from The Classics Club, the sign up post for Russian Reading Month can be found here (or here)


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 our interpretations/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 Wind parallel.

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.


Making my way steadily through The Wreath. Up until now, I haven’t been casting my ‘critical eye’ over this book, because I’ve been reading it to relax. Of course, there’s something perverse in my reading something like Kristin Lavransdatter to relax, but it really has been pleasant to let my mind rest – and sometimes wander – as I read. For too long I’ve read books with ulterior motives, trying to pry out the ‘deeper meanings’ (where often, none exist) and trying to dissect or take apart the stories that novelists work so hard to construct together.

Edit: Steph’s words, not mine, but it’s what I actually meant to say –

This is simply a book that I’ve been having fun reading and just haven’t felt the need to rush through. I’m enjoying the time I spend with the book, and as easy as it is to flip the pages, I feel I’m not doing so mindlessly but am instead really reveling in the time spent. I feel like I am reading for the sake of reading, rather than for the sake of finishing the book.

Okay, whatever. My point is that I’m enjoying Kristin Lavransdatter because it’s so traditional. Clear, unadorned prose (Undset, or Nunally at least, is very frank and straightforward, but still poetic), linear narrative, well-drawn characters, an almost mystical setting. Everything is interwoven so masterfully, and with such confidence, that I’m very easily drawn into Kristin’s medieval Norway.

As for the ‘Modernist v Not’ question that I brought up in my last post, I’ve made up my mind: this  book is certainly not Modernist. Sigrid Undset might have been a ‘modern’ woman, striving to understand the changes wrought in society by the approach of moderneity. Yeah, yeah. A lot of that will probably be reflected in her work later on. From what I’ve read about the book, plot-wise, I can even begin to see themes that correlate with those of other novels from the 1920s. But is this book a product of modernity? No. Completely wrong box to put it in. 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.

Sunday Salon: Impressions

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.


Tomorrow we begin our journey into Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter! Over the past few days, I’ve been reading Brad Leithauser’s Introduction in an attempt to acquaint myself with the book, and now my head is full of thoughts before I’ve even begun Part I: The Wreath.

First, a note on translations. Tiina Nunnally writes that in Norwegian,

Sigrid Undset writes in a straightforward, almost plain style, yet she can be quite lyrical, especially in her descriptions of nature. The beauty of the mountainous Norwegian landscape is lovingly revealed in Undset’s lucid prose.

She also comments on the Charles Archer translation, rather ungracefully, in my opinion. What a testament it is to the power of Undset’s novel, says Nunnally, that in spite of  “a severely flawed early translation”, Kristin Lavransdatter has been so beloved by generations of readers. I disagree – not ‘in spite of’, but mostly ‘because’. Translating might seem an unglamorous job, but really, aren’t translators artists too? I don’t think it would be possible to translate a novel – no matter how linguistically talented you are – if you didn’t have some sort of passion, or vision. I don’t care what Nunnally says; I think Charles Archer’s vision and dedication had something to do with Kristin Lavransdatter’s ascension to ‘cult classic’ status. After all, no matter how archaic or inaccurate it is, no matter how many scenes deemed ‘socially inappropriate’ were omitted, Archer was still the one who made Undset’s work accessible to English readers. That’s a powerful gift, and one that should be appreciated.

Of course I’m grateful for the Nunnally translation, and I don’t think it’s right for translators to be too interpretive with the books they’re handling, but it was the 1920s. There were far larger ethical issues to be dealt with than inaccurate translations back in those days. Basic concepts of human rights and international law, which we so take for granted, had yet to be properly defined, for heaven’s sake.

As for the Introduction, if you’ve got the Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, or if – like me – you are unfamiliar with Sigrid Unset’s work, then I’d encourage you to read it! It includes a brief biography, lays a contextual foundation for the reading of the novel (i.e. the historical, cultural background in which Undset wrote) and ends on a nice personal note. I feel, time and time again, that reading is such a subjective thing – and one of the things I’m looking forward to most about this readalong is that I’ll be able to compare thoughts with other readers; it’s an opportunity for me to not only enrich my understanding of Kristin Lavransdatter, but also to see books from perspectives other than my own.

p.s. how mesmerizing are Undset’s eyes?