Pandemic Reading: Kristin Lavransdatter

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“An older woman sitting by me on the subway, or waiting beside me in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or having lunch at a nearby table, would cross the boundary separating strangers in order to volunteer that she, too, had once read Kristin Lavransdatter – a remark accompanied by that special glow which comes at the recollection of a distant but enduring pleasure.”  – Brad Leithauser, from the Introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter.

 

“He was well, but had cast himself into a wild life, just as many young people, out of despair, had done. They said that whoever was afraid would be sure to die, and so they blunted their fear with carousing and drinking, playing cards, dancing, and carrying on with women.” – Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

 

Historical fiction is what I’ve been immersed in lately, what with watching the Outlander series and reading the remarkable 14th century Norwegian trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter.  I first read The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross by Sigrid Undset when I was in my twenties, thanks to my college roommate, Kathy, (of Norwegian descent) who highly recommended it. I vowed to read it again someday from the perspective of a good portion of life lived. A few weeks ago I ordered it; the time was right, I thought, especially because the Black Plague has a part to play in Kristin’s story and we’re living through our own time’s pandemic.

The story centers around the life of Kristin from childhood to elderhood, and her sexual, emotional, familial and spiritual pilgrimage across the span of life. I see many similarities between Kristin and Claire Fraser, the protagonist of Outlander.

Published in 1920, 1921, and 1922, Kristin Lavransdatter was a worldwide literary sensation. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928.

Here is something about Sigrid’s singular protagonist from the Introduction to the edition I’m reading:

IMG_2179“In the annals of literary ‘fallen women,’ Kristin Lavransdatter, the twentieth-century/fourteenth-century literary figure, occupies a curious and fascinating place. After they fell, a number of Kristin’s nineteenth-century counterparts were whisked offstage, often to meet a premature end. In the latter part of the twentieth century, many of Kristin’s successors were sexual adventuresses whose exploits were pure and liberated triumphs. Writing in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Undset chose a middle path for her heroine. Kristin never doubts that she has covertly sinned, and the pain of her deceptions remains a lifelong affliction. Even so, her unshakable guilt in no way paralyzes her and she carries on with her life. Throughout the trilogy, Kristin is an indomitable presence in every role she undertakes….”

At age seven Kristin gazes at the view from her home:

“There were forest-clad mountain slopes below her in all directions; her valley was no more than a hollow between the enormous mountains, and the neighboring valleys were even smaller hollows; there were many of them, and yet there were fewer valleys than there were mountains. On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds. But to the northeast, close by – just beyond the pasture woods – stood a cluster of magnificent stone-blue mountains with streaks of new snow on their slopes…

She knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls and goblins and elves, and she was suddenly afraid, for no one knew how many there were, but there were certainly many more of them than of Christian people.”  

Kristian Lavransdatter seemed to fall out of favor for a time, but it is having something of a resurgence. My son and his girlfriend are waiting eagerly in line to read it once I’m finished. (My son lives in the heart of the US Covid outbreak in Brooklyn, and we were glad when he was able to stay temporarily near to us. Yesterday was a fine, warm day, and he and his girlfriend came for a socially distanced visit. They brought a blanket and sat on the grass while I picked weeds. We talked about the books we’re reading.)

 

 

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At over 1100 pages, the trilogy I have is the beautifully produced, deckle edged Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, with smooth, cream-colored paper, translated by Tiina Nunnally. Helpful footnotes – not too many – explain aspects of medieval Norwegian life.

 

This line in particular, which refers to the time of the Black Death, spoke to me as something that could be said about our current pandemic:

“Now it almost seemed as if all people were equally close and distant to each other at this time of great need.”

Kristin was skilled in herbal and healing remedies:

“They now had to do the milking and chores in the cowshed themselves; they cooked their own food, and they brought back juniper and fresh evergreen branches for the cleansing smoke. Everyone did whatever task needed doing. They nursed the sick as best they could and handed out healing remedies: their supplies of theriac and calamus root were gone, but they doled out ginger, pepper, saffron, and vinegar against the sickness, along with milk and food. When the bread ran out, they baked at night; when the spices were gone, people had to chew on juniper berries and pine needles against the sickness.” 

 

 

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One of the murals in Älekulla Church, Sweden, where my great, great, great grandfather lived. Christian morality and the medieval church have central roles in the life of Kristin Lavransdatter. Reading it, I’ve been reminded of the rural churches I visited last spring in the Swedish towns where my grandparents lived.

 

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In a distant century, my ancestor donated this Bible to his church in Älekulla. (In his handwritten dedication, he calls the Bible “his greatest treasure.”) I’d hoped to return to Sweden to do more family research this summer, but I won’t be getting on a plane anytime soon.

 

My dear friend Kathy of Blueberry Hills Art first introduced me to Kristin Lavransdatter. Please follow the link and check out her gorgeous website, which just made its debut. She’s on Instagram, too. Here is one of her woodcut prints, which reminds me of the nature that infuses Kristin’s world:

 

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Fritsla Church, Sweden

 

Kristin Lavransdatter is wonderful reading, especially if you’re spending hours at home. Have you read it? What are you reading these days? I have some special books to share with you in my next post; they are making my pandemic days richer.

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

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“For all its occasional monotony, driving a dogsled never let my mind wander. It was an overwhelmingly physical experience: the cold, the shifting runners, the wandering trail. It made my mind shallower. There was the brushing sound of snow under the sled. There were the dogs, the beautiful dogs, running, and I could spend hours watching the changing, hypnotic rhythms of their back legs punching up and down. Occasionally I talked to them, and then I’d drift off in midsentence and recall the rest of my thoughts minutes later. Or else I’d run up a hill, or fix a tangle, or scooter my feet to keep warm. It didn’t matter. I was still just driving dogs.”

Blair Braverman sent me an advance copy of her just-published memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North.

I’m so glad she did, and not just because it was great reading in the middle of a hot July. This is an exquisitely written coming of age story about Blair’s love affair with the North, focusing especially on her stays in Norway, where she set up a small museum, learned to drive sled dogs, and befriended a town; and her stint as a tour guide on a glacier in Alaska.

I loved reading about Blair’s adventures, and her depictions of nature and the wild are so well done. But for me the heart of the story was her relationship with the folks in a northern Norwegian town, Mortenhals, especially a sixties-something shopkeeper, Arild, who becomes a beloved friend and Blair’s Norwegian “father.”

There is a dark theme that motivates Blair to make her way in the North that is just as strong as her love of the harsh and beautiful land, but this is not really a memoir about trauma: there is so much more light than shadow.

Raised in California, Blair had a clear calling for the North, but one of her first stays in Norway had an unfortunate twist. As a 16-year-old exchange student, she didn’t feel safe around the strange, sexually threatening father of the family she was placed with. Her subsequent journeys North become, in part, a way for Blair to prove to herself she could be tough and strong in a world where women are often vulnerable to physically threatening men.

If you are a fan of autobiographical writing, you’ll appreciate the quiet, intimate scenes of small town life just as much, if not more, as Blair’s adventures out in the elements. I marveled at the skill with which Blair rendered scene after scene, and found myself deconstructing long passages so I could capture some of her magic in my writing.

Blair is now a dogsledder in northern Wisconsin and training to race the Iditerod in 2019. She’ll have lots more to write about, which is great for us readers who love top-notch memoirs and nature writing.

Here’s a 9-minute look at what it’s like to run a 100-mile dogsled race.

 

A Woman in the Polar Night

Polar Night“Meanwhile the world out of doors falls into deepest night. The mountains are no more than white shadows, the sea no more than a black shadow – until that too dissolves away. And then everything is dead.

In this pitch darkness we cannot move far from the hut. I make the smallest possible turns around the hut – all that is left of my walks. When it is not snowing we spend hours outside the hut chopping and sawing wood by the light of the hurricane lamp….

The wind that, rising and falling, lasts for days, is in fact our last link with the reality of the world…”  Christiane Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night is an astounding memoir by Austrian artist Christiane Ritter who, in 1933, joined her scientist and hunter-trapper husband, Hermann, on the remote island of Spitsbergen 400 miles off the coast of Norway.

If you love memoirs of travel, adventure and, especially, nature, I highly recommend A Woman in the Polar Night. This is an extraordinary book written in poetic, painterly prose by a woman with a fearless spirit who was profoundly moved and changed by her year in the Arctic.

Christiane writes brilliantly about the beauty of Spitsbergen and also its terror. She thrived on Spitsbergen, but during both the darkest and the brightest stretches of her polar immersion she approached the edges of madness. As anyone might.

She writes of a terrifying two weeks spent alone in a fierce snowstorm. The hut was buried completely except for the stovepipe attached to the roof. Christiane’s husband and their companion, Karl, had gone on a hunting trip, and she was left alone with the darkness, snow, and raging wind.

She survived the storm and isolation. But when a full moon finally broke the long darkness, Christiane became moonstruck:

“It is full moon. No European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight…. One’s entire consciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself…..

Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am moonlight myself.”

Fearing Christiane had rar, a strangeness that befalls some who winter in polar regions, Hermann and Karl kept Christiane in the hut, so she wouldn’t succumb to ishavet kaller – meaning “the Arctic calls” – which can drive a person to throw herself into the sea.

“Surrounded by this boundless deadness and rigidity of everything physical, one’s living senses begin slowly to go their own way. More frequently and more brightly as the winter is prolonged, a strange light spreads before the inner eye, a remote and yet familiar vision. It is as though here, in this apartness, we develop a particularly sharp awareness of the mighty laws of the spirit, of the unfathomable gulf between human magnitudes and eternal truth. Outside of time, everything is annihilated. The imprisoned senses circle in the past, in a scene without spatial dimensions, a play in which time stands still.

Often I see the flowers and trees of the distant sun world, but I do not see them as I used to see them. They are glowing with color and piercingly beautiful. Their most secret meaning lives in their growth and their color.”

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Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen. By Abraham Storck – Stichting Rijksmuseum het Zuiderzeemuseum. 022296, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5040261

Christiane writes of bear-hunting with Hermann and Karl in a “gigantic wilderness of ice”:

“We are in the middle of the bear kingdom. All my fear of bears has vanished. As in a dream I go on through the splendid strange world.

How quiet it is here. The sun shines on a soundless scene. The magical hues of the soft shadows glow deeply. Everything belongs together here, even the bear tracks in the deep snow, which show with what peace of mind the animals have gone on their way. Everything breathes the same serenity. It is as though a current of the most holy and perfect peace were streaming through all the landscape.

I feel that I am close to the essence of all nature. I can see its paths interlacing and still running alongside each other in accordance with eternal laws. I divine the ultimate salvation before which all human reasoning dissolves into nothing.”

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Ptarmigan was part of Christiane’s Spitsbergen diet. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The memoir’s conclusion is triumphant and sad. Christiane must finally leave the island, forever changed and knowing she will never return. She doesn’t reveal she has an infant daughter at home in Austria until nearly the end of her memoir, a startling bit of information that for me highlighted what an unusual couple the Ritters were.

I was curious about what it was like for Christiane to return to civilization and wished for an epilogue (there is none), but on the other hand I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. On top of having to re-integrate into society, Christiane returned to Austria as Europe neared the onset of World War II.

I found a 1954 edition of Christiane’s memoir at the local library, illustrated with line drawings by the author. You may want to look for the University of Alaska Press edition, published in 2010, which includes a preface with biographical information about the Ritters. It may satisfy some of the inevitable curiosity you’ll have about how the lives of this remarkable couple played out.

Christiane wrote, “You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness.”

It seems to me her memoir is a remarkable example of someone whose extreme adventure pushed her into completely letting go of her ego and recognizing that we don’t have dominion over nature; we are instead part of nature itself. I think the world would be a much better place if we could all come to know this.

What We're Fighting for NowSo it was especially sad to read the excellent book I picked up next, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice by Wen Stephenson, which makes clear that humanity hasn’t learned what Christiane Ritter learned. This book is depressing but empowering at the same time.

Stephenson reports that many climate scientists now believe climate catastrophe is inevitable.

He explains the term “climate justice” and how it is different from climate activism and environmentalism. Many have come to realize that climate change is the moral and spiritual issue of our time, inseparable from social justice and equality. The poor and disadvantaged will suffer the most from climate disruptions, as we’ve already seen in places like New Orleans and in countries around the world.

Stephenson lives near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and he looks at climate justice through the lens of Henry David Thoreau‘s principles of civil disobedience. He likens climate justice to the social justice struggles of abolitionism and civil rights.

Stephenson writes about how he came to leave his career in mainstream journalism to immerse in climate justice, and it’s fascinating to read his interviews with others devoted to the cause as they explain the spiritual and other motives that drive them.

Most are young, some got their start in the Occupy movement, others are evangelicals, Quakers, atheists, community organizers, and grandparents. Many of them have come to believe that the way to survive climate change is to build strong, local communities where people trust and look after each other.

I couldn’t get out of my mind a young woman Stephenson interviewed, Grace Ann Cagle, who said she’d much rather be on a farm having babies than on the front lines of climate justice. Grace took part in the Texas Tar Sands blockade. 

“She’d been up in the trees for about a week, in late September, 2012….Sure enough, TransCanada’s machines came up from the south.

‘They came over the creek….They had a feller buncher – it grabs the trees, cuts them, and throws them. And as they cross the creek, they’re coming like ten feet, twenty feet away from me, practically at the base of my tree – and I thought they were going to kill me….Why would they care about me? And so I jumped onto this traverse rope, and I’m dangling there, wearing all black with a mask on my face, screaming, Go away! Get out of here! They stopped their machines…..I spent like six hours dangling there, in a harness, because I could protect two trees at once….'” 

How sad that, since Christiane Ritter’s time, we’ve come to this.

Read A Woman in the Polar Night to be transported and to understand what we’re losing. Then, if you want to consider what your role might be in the greatest battle of our time, you could follow the memoir with What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice.

 

 

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