Monday, September 11, 2006

A literary guide to Norway

The writer William T. Vollmann is passionate about the Eddic poems, the medieval source of Old Norse mythology. For a capsule description of what these poems say and their place in the literary history of Norway, click here. And:

For readers who prefer their heroes and characters to be a little more introspective, ambiguous, modern, [Vollmann] cannot wholeheartedly enough recommend the two great novel cycles of Sigrid Undset, "Kristin Lavransdattar" and "The Master of Hestviken." Undset was a devout Roman Catholic who lived in Lillehammer, site of the Norwegian Olympics in 1994. I have visited her home, which will soon be open to the public, and a brief inspection of her bookshelves showed me that her mind was not only Catholic but catholic in the other sense of the word, all-encompassing. If an Eddic protagonist lives out the agony of proud defiance to doom, Undset's characters live out the ever-repeated conflict between the spiritual and the material. One need not be Catholic (I am not) to be utterly caught up in Undset's imagined medieval Norway.

Kristin Lavransdattar's three novels (1920-1922) follow their eponymous heroine from her early childhood to her death from the Black Plague. It is one of the greatest love stories ever written, because it is one of the truest. For the sake of a man, Kristin sacrifices a great deal that she values, including her purity, her honesty and her obedience to her father, who is one of the most lovingly delineated characters in literature. She finally marries her sweetheart, only to learn that he and she cannot make each other happy. But Undset manages to convince us that if happiness will not be hers, perhaps she has won something similar to the treasure of an Eddic heroine: a destiny, a doom, that simultaneously fulfills and befits her. At the end, one feels that she could not have lived her life in any other way, with any other man.

"The Master of Hestviken" (1925-1927) is also a love story of sorts. The hero of this tetralogy is a friendless orphan named Ølav who cleaves only to his foster sister, Ingunn, a weak-willed, sickly girl to whom he was betrothed by his dying father. When the young couple are parted by violent legal difficulties, Ingunn has a fling with an Icelander and gets pregnant. To save her honor, Ølav kills the seducer, marries Ingunn and gives out that the child is his. All his life he longs to confess the manslaughter and do penance for it, but first Ingunn pleads with him not to, and then later, after she has suffered a long and ghastly death, he feels a mixture of duty to Ingunn's memory and revolted pity for the bastard, who adores him; and so the years go by, until this faithful, loving, bravely steadfast man has been utterly eaten up by his unshrived sin. Every time I reread this book I try to find the place where Olav "went wrong," and I cannot. This work reminds me of Sophocles -- or, better yet, of the old Norse sagas, whose heroes are simply "fated" to do what they do. Indeed, Undset's Norway retains its Eddic dwarfs, elf temptresses and mountain dwellers. Even Odin and the death goddess Hel get mentioned. And both Kristin and Olav are Eddic in their uncomplaining bearing of destiny's burden.

William T. Vollmann is the author of You Bright and Risen Angels, Whores for Gloria, Rising Up and Rising Down, and Europe Central, winner of the National Book Award.

Click here to read about Vollmann's ten favorite books.

Other items in Salon's literary guide series include:
A literary guide to Turkey
A literary guide to Japan
A literary guide to Martha's Vineyard
A literary guide to West Texas
A literary guide to Togo
A literary guide to Brooklyn
A literary guide to Miami

--Marshal Zeringue