Friday, March 14, 2008



As a person of Norwegian descent, I knew of the "Kristin Lavransdattir" trilogy by Sigrid Undset, but had never read it. I certainly had seen it featured in North Dakota bookstores, at the Norsk Hostfest and at Sons of Norway meetings, but had never felt the urge to pick up a copy. This past November, I rented Liv Ullmann's movie version of "Kristin," and I was hooked. The movie covers only Part I, so I was eager to continue following Kristin's saga. For most of a whole month, I was immersed in the lives and times of 14th Century Norway. (Volume I is "The Wreath," Volume II is "The Wife" and Volume III is "The Cross".)

I understand why "Kristin Lavransdattir" was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. It is truly epic in scope, while also telling the tale of a single person. It shows us a woman in all three stages of life - from maiden to mother to crone - set against a backdrop of political intrigue, Catholic religion mixed with pagan beliefs, Scandinavian traditions and customs, family and ancestral obligations, societal mores, and the landscape of the Northern World. I had never been exposed to a novel in which a person's spiritual life was so much more important than the secular life (a commonly-held view in Medieval times). What a contrast to my life and that of my contemporaries.

Kristen's struggle with God is always at the forefront of her story. By constantly dwelling on her sins and on her husband, Erlend's, failures, she never truly enjoys the moments of her life as they are happening. At one point, another character chastises Kristin because she keeps harping on her sins, never believing herself to have been truly forgiven. "Exactly!" I thought, "you tell her. " To use very modern vernacular, I kept thinking as I read, "Kristen, get over it and get on with it."

Yes, Kristin Lavransdattir is a flawed character, but she is also an intriguing mix of the spiritual and the carnal, of defiance and compliance, love and hatred. She is, at various times, careworn and carefree, devoted to her family or indifferent and selfish, a woman who can't live with Erland, but also can't live without him.

Whether standing tall and proud, or brought low, whether the queen of the manor or the shoved-aside mother-in-law, whether a spirited child or an overburdened mother, Kristin Lavransdattir is "of whole cloth", and that's what makes this 1200-plus page trilogy so compelling.


If I had to limit myself to choosing just one book to read for a month, I'd choose "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert. I ordered it thinking it was going to be a pleasant travelogue. And it is. Gilbert is a superb writer. She could pen fascinating essays from Siberia, the Sahara or even the Antarctic. It is truly a "couldn't put it down" book. But "Eat, Pray, Love" is so much more.

After a devastating, long-drawn-out divorce, an on-the-rebound failed love affair and subsequent depression, Gilbert decides to take a year to travel to Italy, India and Indonesia (specifically Bali). She planned to explore pleasure (through food) in Italy, devotion (by living at an ashram in Indian) and a combination of worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence in Bali. As I read it, I found myself earmarking the book, something I don't even do while reading my book club books.

Little did I know that while Gilbert was exploring her spirituality, I was exploring mine. For me, it was literally a self-help book (and I never buy self-help books because they do nothing for me.) In her pages I found peace, serenity, contentment, release from pain, succor, call it what you will, for a difficult situation I'm enduring right now.

I'm going to print some passages from the book here, because they are ones that spoke to me. But I think everyone who reads it will find something to meditate upon. (I will leave the passage about soul friends for another post.) I HIGHLY recommend this book.

Page 120: "I honor the divinity that resides inside me." (Me: God is in me. God is love, therefore I must love myself. I AM good, I have worth, I am someone, I am not to be taken lightly. I may have overstepped the Yogi's concept a bit, but isn't the purpose of any text to take your thoughts to the next step?)

Page 178-179. "I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore.....A harbor of course is a place of refuge, a port of entry. I pictured the harbor of my mind - a little beat-up, perhaps, a little storm-worn, but well situated and with a nice depth. The harbor of my mind is an open bay, the only access to the island of my Self (which is a young and volcanic island, yes, but fertile and promising). The island has been through some wars, it is true, but now committed to peace, under a new leader (me) who has instituted new policies to protect the place....You may not come here any more with your hard and abusive thoughts, with your plague ships of thoughts, with your slave ships of thoughts, with your warships of thoughts--all these will be turned away....This is a peaceful harbor, the entryway to a fine and proud island this is only now beginning to cultivate tranquillity...."

Page 251: "The [Balinese] child is taught from the earliest consciousness that she has these four brothers with her in the world wherever she goes, and that they will always look after her. the brothers inhabit the four virtues a person needs in order to be safe and happy in life: Intelligence, friendship, strength and (I love this one) poetry. The brothers can be called upon in any critical situation for rescue and assistance. When you die, your four spirit brothers will collect your soul and bring you to heaven."

Page 260: "...I also keep remembering a simple idea my friend Darcey once told me--that all the sorrow and trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people. Not only the big global Hitler-'n'-Stalin picture, but on the smallest personal level....The search for contentment is therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself, but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people."


I have been on a vacation of sorts for the past few days, even though I haven't set foot outside of Bismarck. I've been devouring Susan Vreeland's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" after Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting of the same name. I have been walking the streets of Monmartre or dining on exquisite dishes on the upper terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Seine near Paris.

Of course, I have seen this painting before, but I will never look at it the same way again. Vreeland's book tells how Renoir came to gather these 14 people together for a series of eight sittings en plein air at La Maison Fournaise on the Isle de Chatou near Paris.

Renoir brings these wonderful people and their setting to vibrant life. In the front with her little dog is Alene, the seamstress from the country who falls in love with Renoir. Also in love with Auguste, as they call him, is Alphonsine Fournaise, the restaurant owners' daughter, leaning on the railing. In the rear, holding her hands to her ears, is Jeanne, whom Renoir is in love with. All are based on real people, Vreeland's notes tell us.
The only mystery figure is the man watching the woman drink wine. Is he Renoir, or is he the famous writer Guy de Maupassant? Renoir frantically searched to find a 14th person to pose. Thirteen would have been very bad juju, and would have insulted the Catholic hierarchy of France, with its reference to "The Last Supper."

You have two men in their singlets and boaters, obviously just finished rowing. But who is the dapper man in the top hat, looking so out of place? Vreeland has rounded out their personalities so well. There is Helen, the actress at the Folies Bergere, who hopes some day to be more than just a mime. We have Auguste's very good friend, Gustave, himself an artist who is trying desperately to hold the French Impressionist movement together. Meanwhile, Auguste is trying desperately to hold his group together and finish the enormous canvas before he loses the light of summer.

I nearly salivated on my book as I read about the fabulous meals they ate and the wines they drank before they got down to posing each Sunday afternoon. (Boeuf Richileau in Madeira sauce, anyone?) Even the Seine, so pastoral in its rural incarnation, is a living, breathing character. Just the description of someone peeling a peach made me want to throw down the book and run to buy one.

Back in the city, Monmartre is cheerful and gay, with its dance halls, restaurants, musicians and pleasure gardens. But there is a hidden dark side as well. There are the demimondaines and their lovers; the pickpockets and thugs who beat up Renoir.
He has many struggles to face before he can complete the painting: He's always scrambling to beg or borrow money to buy paint and canvas and pay models. Somewhat hapless, he has one arm in a cast and then falls off his steam-powered bicycle and scrapes up his face. He has to fire one model and others don't show up. He is rejected by Jeanne and can't make up his mind between Aline and Alphonsine. He has to decide whether to stay with the Impressionists or break away from his dear friends. He rearranges poses, scrapes faces off the canvas, is despondent and hopeless, then finds solutions and is rejuvenated and indeed falls in love with painting again.

It all culminates gloriously in one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. Vreeland describes how Renoir daubs peach on a face here, highlights a white ruffle there, brings in shades of lavender on a white tablecloth to create his masterpiece. But she herself painted a glorious portrait of the bohemian life of Paris in 1881 as she layered on detail after detail. I have read other books by Vreeland in which she imagines the lives of other famous painters. I would say this is HER masterpiece.