Tag Archives: novels

I revisit my fellow pilgrim.

Kristin Nunnally wifeIt’s been ten years since I posted this review. Since then I have revisited the story itself, and it seemed good to publish again. It’s well worth sharing at least that often.

A big part of the plot is how Kristin’s husband, whom she chose in youthful rebellion, gets involved in an insurrection. That, and his recklessness on the moral level, combine to cause the loss of a heritage that had taken generations to build.

The first time I came to the end of Kristin Lavransdatter I resolved to read it again very soon. The friend of a friend reads the trilogy once a year, and certainly it could stand up to that degree of intimacy; Kristin’s world of Norway in the 14th Century is vast with well-developed characters, complicated politics, and a daily life where the pervasiveness of the church and Christian faith often shows cracks revealing the old pagan traditions as an under layer.

My own initial discovery, in the translation from Norwegian into English by Charles Archer, seemed to provide a mere introduction, partly because I was reading too fast, eager to see how the heroine’s life turned out. There were so many people involved, as I noticed midway, I started taking notes on how they were related to the protagonists, knowing that it would help me understand their significance. My plan was to take even more extensive notes from the outset on my next reading.

That was more than ten years ago, and by the time I got to my second reading this year I was willing to try the new translation by Tiina Nunnally, touted by pretty much everyone as a better one, in that it does not involve the unnecessary–and, to some people, stilted and cumbersome–older English words and syntax. I had rather appreciated the language, as a reminder that Kristin’s world was not much like my own, no matter how similar some of her womanly and just plain human concerns resembled those of people everywhere down through the ages.

This time, I was reading in bed, lying down before sleep, or at the gym on the treadmill, so my smart plan to take notes wasn’t feasible. I had to make my second tour through the novel as I’ve been admonished to travel through a foreign country, fully expecting and planning that it won’t be the last time I visit. They say that is the only way to make yourself relax enough to enjoy and retain what you do manage to see and encounter.

And I did see new and different things this time through. There are many books I truly want to read more than once, but not many novels have I actually gone back to again, so this kind of rereading was not a familiar exercise. As I came to remembered parts of the Kristin tale I was surprised to see that they didn’t take up as many pages as I thought they would need. Many sub-plots and attributes of Kristin’s family and friends were as good as new to me; evidently I missed them completely before.

As infused with a sacramental faith as the medieval world of these books is, I’m sure they influenced me on my path to Orthodoxy. Now that my own perceptions and beliefs are being forged into something more like the tradition that was Kristin’s foundation, I think I am better able to appreciate some parts of the story. The deathbed scenes were striking, for the way the Christian reverence for the body, and the repentant hearts of the Christians, were displayed. I’d like to write more on how they compare with descriptions of similar scenes in the Islamic culture of The Cairo Trilogy.

For a few pages near the end of this recent reading I found myself thinking that I was getting boreSigrid Undsetd with medieval Norway, or at least, that I didn’t want to spend time on a third reading when there are so many other books still to be known. That feeling didn’t last long, because by the time I came to the last pages I knew that I still have a lot to gain from acquaintance with the themes in this amazing epic by Sigrid Undset. It’s a glory to God that one human mind can create a complex and rich world like that of Kristin, peopled with characters whose drama reflects our own struggles to love God and repent of our besetting sins. Image Journal included the novel in its list of 100 best books of the 20th century that “manifest a genuine engagement with the Judeo-Christian heritage of faith.”

The Nunnally translation has extensive notes on the history and politics of that era in Norway, and some real historical characters come into play in the fictionalized account. Wikipedia’s entry on the novel lists many of the characters; I think I’ll print it out and use it for an outline on which to build my notes, those notes that I am still hoping to make on one of my revisits. I’m eager to return again and again to a place where my faith and thankfulness are encouraged as I make friends with fellow pilgrims.

They were melting under the influence.

“A thread of sweet sound was spun into the night.” Rose and Richard Quin attend a party at which he charms the hostess in many ways, not least by playing his flute in the summer-house.

“Above us the sweet hollow voice rose and fell, doubled back on itself and glided forward, ubiquitous, tracing a pattern among the stars and another within us, behind our breast-bones,” and Rose finds herself thinking about the boy standing next to her, that if he wished she would marry him, though she had planned up to this point never to marry. “There was no need for an exceptional destiny.”

“My brother’s music was proclaiming that there would be a huge vacuum in the universe, a hole that would swallow all, if we did not fill it with something that the notes defined with a clarity forbidden to words.”

But then she begins to listen to Richard Quin, “with the special knowledge that came of being his sister, and I was astonished by the simplicity of the strangers. They were melting under the influence of a tenderness which they believed to be in his performance, but was not there. They were inventing it because they needed it. The music promised sweetness which was for himself alone. He ached with a desire to be in another place than this, where he would find that sweetness. If he felt concern whether they found this same delight for themselves, it left no trace in the sounds he made. And he felt no such concern; from this and that, over the years, I knew he did not.

“There was this excuse for his indifference, he had already discharged whatever debt he owed to them. He could speak of what they desired and they could not. Without him they would have been voiceless. With him their need pierced the night like the reply to the ray of a star.

“Yet surely that was not quite right, surely one never discharges one’s full debt to other people. But again that cannot be true, if the payment one makes is large enough. I could not work it out.”

-Rebecca West, This Real Night

What makes Mrs. Quin happy.

gl-1-10-p1060501When Mrs. Quin was a wisp of a girl, the house called China Court was her favorite place to be, though she was only grudgingly allowed to cross the threshold, and that by the back stairs. She grows up and by strange twists and turns becomes the main character, an old lady who dies in her sleep in the first sentence of Rumer Godden’s novel China Court.

“Shouldn’ us pull the blinds down?” asked Mrs. Abel.

“She wouldn’t like it,” said Cecily. “She always says, ‘Don’t shut out the garden.'”

Soon begin flashes back to a younger  and younger Mrs. Quin at various stages of her life. We get to know her through the memories that play in the mind and heart of her in-laws and other people who held powerful positions in the family over the generations. Bits and pieces of stories of a score of relations, their suitors and servants are gradually revealed to the reader in a very realistic way. Haven’t we all had the experience of knowing someone personally for many years before we learn a surprising or even shocking fact about them?

In the case of this novel, we are taken back to the building of this granite house in the mid-19th century, and the first parents who birthed nine children there. Some of that first “Brood” marry unhappily, and some behave very badly, but by the end of the book you see them all, and the following generations peopled with similarly bumbling humans, with varying degrees of understanding. I think this is because of the example of Mrs. Quin, who has the ability to accept happiness when it comes to her, and to keep humble in the awareness of how little can be known, even of the ones we love and communicate with.

Homes must know a certain loneliness because all humans are lonely, shut away from one another, even in the act of talking, of loving. Adza cannot follow Eustace in his business deals and preoccupations….Mr. King Lee, kissing Damaris, has no inkling of the desolation he has brought her….Jared hides himself from Lady Patrick, and John Henry and Ripsie, in their long years together, are always separated by Borowis. The children especially are secret….It is better not to ask questions…. “Even if they told you,” says Mrs. Quin, “you would never really know.”

This kindness and compassion for her characters is one way in which Rumer Godden reminds me of author Elizabeth Goudge. Also, as with Goudge, there is the feeling that things will work out in the end, that in kairos, or God’s time, He will gather all the loose ends and broken parts together and even we will see the sense of them. For me, reading China Court was a chance to see a century’s worth of this household’s loves and sorrows with a fraction of that heavenly perspective.

Mrs. Quin had many years’ experience with being treated cruelly, and not getting what she so much wanted. But she early on seemed to learn the wisdom of seeing that she was quite content at present, so why make a fuss about all this water under the bridge? One of the things that always gave our protagonist great satisfaction and rest for her soul was the garden, so I can relate to that major aspect of her character.

A fact of history that didn’t seem to be fair, Mrs. Quin discusses with her daughter-in-law:

“I think that’s sad,” says Barbara.

“Sad and glad,” says Mrs. Quin.

How can something be sad and glad at the same time? For most of the Quin women, it has been like that. “All unhappiness,” says Mrs. Quin, “as you live with it, becomes shot through with happiness; it cannot help it; and all happiness, I suppose, is shot through with unhappiness. But I was usually happy….”

I enjoyed the descriptions of the girls’ Victorian party dresses, and of the old furniture that Mrs. Quin never bothered to re-upholster, and of the teatime ritual: “Two teapots stood ready and warmed; the cups had to be warmed too for, ‘If the tea touches anything cold it loses the aroma.’ Mrs. Quin impresses Tracy with that. ‘Only vandals,’ says Mrs. Quin, ‘put the milk in first.'” Towards the end of the book the serving of tea even brings a brief respite from squabbling among some relations whom Mrs. Quin would likely have relegated to the category of Vandals.

A thread that connects all the parts of the story, shown to us in Mrs. Quin’s bedroom in the first chapter and on the introductory page to each chapter after that, is a medieval Book of Hours. Other old and rare books and an old maid of the Brood who collects them come to play a crucial part in helping Mrs. Quin, in her death, to right many wrongly drifting tendencies in the family and to bring a very satisfying ending.

gl-1-10-p1060502

A feast of a book.

From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.

This paragraph from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr conveys the tone of the whole book, which I am only halfway through. Too soon, certainly, to be writing a review, but I can’t help myself, I have to share the joy. My copy was a Christmas gift from Kate and Tom; Kate said it was the best book she’d read all year.

I got into it right away, but it isn’t the kind of book you want to rush through. In that way it reminds me of The Red Horse by Eugenio Corti. They are both set during World War II with all its horrors, but even they can’t blot out the love that glows in these novels. Reading them is like being in the company of the best sort of humans, illuminated by a wise and able storyteller, someone who seemingly effortlessly paints lush pictures in your mind of the landscape of humanity and even of the dark places in individual souls, but who somehow leaves you with hope. You don’t want to leave, and while you are at this feast you want to linger over every bite, every description and metaphor that wants to pull you into another aspect of life and reality.

One of the protagonists is a young blind girl, Marie-Laure. Doerr’s descriptions of  her imagination make me wonder if he spent a lot of time under a blindfold, learning what sensory riches are available to those who can’t depend on their eyesight. Telling the story from her point of view enlarges the world that we get to live in as we read. One such moment is when she is accompanying the housekeeper on errands, often to give food to the needy:

…[Madame] burgeons, shoots off stalks, wakes early, works late, concocts  bisques without a drop of cream, loaves with less than a cup of flour. They clomp together through narrow streets, Marie-Laure’s hand on the back of Madame’s apron, following the odors of her stews and cakes; in such moments Madame seems like a great moving wall of rosebushes, thorny and fragrant and crackling with bees.

The other protagonist is an orphan boy, to whose orphanage a Nazi officer pays a visit, in a moment that hints at the impending gloom:

The lance corporal looks around the room — the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children — with equal measures of condescension and hostility. His handgun is black; it seems to draw all the light in the room toward it.

I have read very little 20th, and less 21st-century fiction,  but I can identify two elements of this novel’s style as those that I am more likely to encounter in newer books: Present-tense narration, and alternating chapters set in different time periods and about different characters whose lives, we predict, will merge in the end.

More than once in the past I’ve laid aside a book because one or more of these devices was annoying or contrived, but in this case the suspense is only heightened by getting glimpses of what the future will hold for for these young people. The plot was already deliciously thickened by the second chapter, because of these tiny bits of foreknowledge.

So many books I have gobbled up too fast, trying to get to the main point, to find out What Happened, promising myself that I will go back and read the story again so I can pay closer attention and do justice to the other facets of the creation the author has made. Doerr makes it so that I have no compulsion to rush. Everyone is in a process, we all have time. Take time to notice the feel of the air and the way the seasons are changing, the story progressing. Though the war is hanging over them (and the reader) and using them and hurting them, it is not everything. There is a bigger world, a whole universe, of which this one crazy man and his evil system is but a very small room.

Marie-Laure has felt trapped in her house near the sea for months — her father doesn’t think it safe for her to go out exploring the way they used to do back in Paris, now that they are occupied by the Germans. But Madame takes matters into her own hands and walks the girl down to the beach for the first time in her life. As they get close to the shore, Briny, weedy, pewter-colored air slips down her collar.

And then her feet touch the sand: ...wet, unwrinkled sand. She bends and spreads her fingers. It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. Tiny slips of wrack.

Her world that was dreamily expansive when she was younger and raised by her doting father, and then became overshadowed and dirtied by the privations and separations of wartime, begins to open up again.

The German orphan boy Werner also has a rich childhood, because of kind people and in his exploration of the abundance of wonders in the physical world. He holds within himself a knowledge of the good even through years when he is victimized into participating in the wickedness.

The depictions of the heroes of this book, children growing up, ring true to me. I don’t think it is easy to get that right, and it’s not surprising. No accomplished author is that close to the experience of being a child, and no one can have had the experience of every child. It seems to me a very great gift to be able to “create” young people especially, and to reveal them so deeply and keep them real.

Maybe this will only be Part One of my review, but just in case, I will end with my own reflection of one theme that emanates from this novel: You are never ultimately trapped in a dark place. Light fills this universe of which the darkest moments are only specks, and light is in you.