Thursday, May 05, 2011

Kristin Lavransdatter and A Novel Bookstore

As I mentioned a few months ago, I have been making a special effort to read more translations. I recently finished two, A Novel Bookstore (which is French) and Kristin Lavransdatter (which is Norwegian). Both, coincidentally, came to me by way of my grandmother, who has good taste.

Kristin Lavransdatter takes place in Norway at the end of the thirteenth century, and follows the rather checkered life of Kristin Daughter-of-Lavrans. I can't be much more specific because it covers her entire lifetime and the plot is a bit diffuse. It is remarkable in many ways, of which I shall pick three and sum up:

1. It is the most lifelike account of life that I've ever read. There are no ridiculous coincidences, laughable plot twists, or miraculous saves. It meanders along just like life does, and sometimes things happen and sometimes they don't. The characters are consistent even as they evolve, and their behavior is utterly believable.

2. It is the most historically accurate book I've ever read. Or so I strongly believe; I am not an expert in medieval Norway so I can't swear to it, but it seems awfully well-researched. I was also extremely impressed by Undset's representation of the medieval mind. The difference between Sigrid Undset and other historical fiction writers like, oh, I don't know, let's say Dorothy Dunnett, is that Undset's characters definitely have never heard of Freud, and Dunnett's have. Obviously they make no overt reference to him, but their awareness of their own psychology is, I think, very modern. It is very difficult to put yourself in a historical mind, and Undset did it without ever faltering.

3. It won Sigrid Undset a Nobel Prize, in spite of the fact that she is a woman and it is entirely about a woman. These days, if you write fiction about a woman, and she has a family, it is called "domestic" and you can expect very little attention even if you are very good -- if you're a woman yourself. When men do it, it's "insightful." So I was pleased that in 1928, the Nobel Committee was wise enough to recognize that it is not just a technical masterpiece, but an important story. I would have said the odds of that happening were very long. But that is what an accomplishment it is.

The other book is A Novel Bookstore which could not be more different. It is a much lighter and shorter read, with a more focused plot. It's about a group of people who love good novels so much they decide to open a bookstore that only stocks books they deem to be "good." There is a vicious backlash from a surprisingly large number of people who find this to be unacceptable snobbery, including publishers, other booksellers, newspapers, and writers whose books were not chosen to be in the store. Basically, this book agrees with everything I have ever thought about the book-publishing and book-selling business, so I 100% loved it. Also, it was very satisfying to be in a world where good books are a life-or-death issue.

The best parts of the book are about the logistics of setting up the bookstore. That may sound boring, but it was like being in on the thought process during the creation of the best bookstore that could ever be imagined. Needless to say, I was enthralled. My favorite part is one character's manifesto about the importance of good books:

"We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please.

"We have no time for those sloppy, hurried books of the 'Go on, I need it for July, and in September we'll give you a proper launch and sell one hundred thousand copies, it's in the bag' variety.

"We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise.

"We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer's block, the author's panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure he has taken.

"We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels."

We also want more translations.

1 comment:

Mum said...

"We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. Priceless!