Maybe I’m just Baader-Meinhofing, but I’ve seen numerous complaints of a lack of criticism of older work. It’s easy enough to find recommendations for contemporary books, even if they’re not huge bestsellers, but what if one is curious about an old used paperback?
Case in point: my copy of The Master of Hestviken (of which The Snake Pit is the second book of four) by Sigrid Undset. The spine is ragged, the colors are faded, and the back cover copy is vague. Its Wikipedia entry doesn’t even have a plot summary.
Undset, though, is far from an unknown. She’s a Nobel laureate, she has a crater on Venus named after her, and her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter is well-known; it was given a new English translation as recently as 2005.
The lack of love for The Master of Hestviken, then, is a mystery. It’s most recent translation appears to be from 1994. Maybe it’s the length of the book? It’s a tetralogy, compose of The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger. Confusingly, they have been printed separately, in pairs, or as a single book.
Or maybe the historical context makes the book seem daunting. It’s set in 13th-century Norway during a time of civil war, and while it’s not about the war, the flurry of faction names, rulers, and family connections can be difficult to keep track of.
But I’m here to dispel that worry. The Master of Hestviken, specifically The Snake Pit, is a human novel about failures, secrets, and the inability of speech to bridge the gap between intention and impact.
The book begins with Olav Audunsson’s assumption of the titular position as master of Hestviken, his ancestral estate. His wife, Ingunn Steinfinssdatter, soon joins him, and they set about turning the decaying estate into a family home.
However, both have secret serpents eating at their hearts. Ingunn had a son out of wedlock. The boy is the product of violent rape, but Ingunn is too ashamed to reveal that fact, not even to Olav. And Olav killed the man—in his mind, a seducer but nothing more—and bears the guilt of not confessing or reporting the murder, not even to Ingunn.
The process of learning to live together, then, becomes a slow, strange dance in which the married couple keep each other at an estranged distance buffered by secrets and lies. Events that loom huge in their minds, that inform everything they do, remain unknown outside of their heads, making their actions seem puzzling at best and incomprehensible at worst. And Olav and Ingunn both suffer.
Ingunn’s suffering is most obvious—she is literally wasting away. She and Olav try over and over to conceive a child, and each is stillborn or dies young. Ingunn feels bits of herself drift away with each failure, blaming herself and her body. She has weeping and fainting spells, she can’t concentrate, and she’s frequently sick. A reader might call it PTSD, but we have the benefit of modern medicine, and we know what Ingunn has been through. To the other characters in the book, though, not privy to the violence enacted by rapist Teit Hallsson, Ingunn is a weak and fay creature who can’t do what a wife is expected to do: bear children and keep house.
Olav’s suffering leads to social ills. The men he turns to—surrogate fathers from the church, his adopted family, and neighboring houses—all die or leave or misunderstand his needs as he tries to confess what he views as a damning sin. And so Olav closes up, too afraid of judgment to reveal what would most likely viewed as a blameless act on his part. His neighbors and extended family begin to view him as a dour and severe man, which only causes him to draw back even more.
This chorus of gloom and doom, the constant and naturalistic grinding away of the characters’ selves, is punctuated by selfless acts of love. They range from small concessions to life-changing ones—Ingunn’s continued attempts to cook, Olav’s adoption of Eirik (Ingunn’s daughter by Teit). But it’s difficult to know if these acts are enough—enough to show affection in spite of looming secrets, enough to balance out the misunderstandings of a tight-knit, newly Christian society?
The entire book is a push and pull between the consequences of speech (which is almost guaranteed to be misunderstood or tinged with anger and sadness due to the characters’ histories) and the consequences of silence.
For instance, upon returning home from a time at sea, Olav kills a lynx on their land. What follows is an exchange between Olav and Ingunn regarding how Olav treats Eirik:
“If you gave Eirik the fairest colt ever bred—with saddle of silver and bridle of gold—what would that serve, Olav, if you cannot alter your feelings—can never look at the boy without a grudge?”
“That is not true,” said Olav hotly. “You are heavy too, you sow of Satan”—he had got the lynx on his spear and hoisted it over his shoulder.
It’s a shocking moment where, for only a second, a reader has to wonder whether Olav is calling Ingunn a heavy sow. It replicates what Ingunn must feel, and even after she and the reader realize Olav is talking about the lynx, the wound of the perceived insult would linger.
Undset’s prose is terse and minimalist, drawing from the Norwegian and Icelandic sagas. Using such straightforward prose to explore the emotional depths of her protagonists leads to a formal echoing of the tensions between those protagonists. It’s like Virginia Woolf, if Virginia Woolf wrote about the consequences of late Medieval revenge slayings.
Undset’s place in the canon—of literary writers, of saga-style writers, of Norwegian authors—was more than secure on the basis of Kristin Lavransdatter. The Master of Hestviken cements that place even further, and it has me hungry for her other works. It also makes me curious about that entire strata of authors who are less-than-household names in America but have earned a measure of success and recognition abroad. How much am I missing out on?
Readers, who are your favorite authors that don’t get the recognition they deserve? And what are their lesser-known works that we should be reading?
Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you love books. Heck, I might even go as far as to say you’ll probably agree with me that independent bookstores are an essential resource for said books. If all of the above is true, then take note: Saturday, April 30th is Independent Bookstore Day (IBD). It’s a nationwide day, and the Twin Cities is celebrating for you locals, too.
Since this will be my first Independent Bookstore Day as a participant, I sat down with Robert Martin from Midwest Booksellers. He is a big local supporter, and helped with the passport for this year’s Twin Cities edition of Indie Bookstore Day (more on that passport later). He gave me some background context on this relatively new national day.
“It’s based on record store day,” Martin told me. “One day per year event, bookstores make limited edition items available and you can only buy it that day at participating stores.”
It started in northern California, and did so well that the campaign went national last year. The Twin Cities participated then, too, and activities have increased this year.
The limited edition items available on IBD are pretty enticing to a literary nerd like myself. You can find the full list on the Indie Bookstore page (scroll down on the home page), but a few highlights: Neil Gaiman Coloring Book, Anthony Bourdain’s Perfect Burger Print, an exclusive numbered signed version of Kate DiCamillo’s newest book Raymie Nightingale…and the list goes on. Locally, there will be a few extra limited editions treats available, such as a letterpress broadside from Coffee House Press. These are things you can only purchase in person, at these bookstores, on this one specific day.
“I think of it as a way to reward people who already shop at independent bookstore, people who love books, people who love specific authors, and like getting into the collecting side of things,” said Martin.
But more than the prizes, each participating bookstore will be having their own little party to celebrate. Martin told me that “The items are the main draw, but really it’s just a day, if you like books if you like having bookstores in your town, then go to a bookstore that day […] it lets them know you support them. The more people show up to these things, the more fun it is.”
Why in Minneapolis? It’s the “first time stores have really worked together to showcase how huge bookselling is in our cities, and it’s a huge part of our cultural identity that I hope a lot of people recognize,” said Martin.
Ok, so now you know how awesome this day will be; but what about the logistics of the thing? It’s easy: you can find participating bookstores in your city here. If you’re in the Twin Cities, go to one of the participating bookstores, and you’ll get a couple Minnesota-specific items: a IBD passport (produced by the participating bookstores), and a Twin Cities indie bookstore map (produced by Moon Palace Books). The passport images are by artist Kevin Cannon, and make the passport itself something to treasure. With those items in hand, you can plan your route. If you go to all 10 participating stores and get your passport stamped at each, you’ll get gift cards to each and every store. PRETTY AMAZING, right?
For Twin Citians, participating bookstores are: Birchbark Books, Common Good Books, Daybreak Global Press Bookshop, DreamHaven, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, Moon Palace Books, Paperback Exchange, Red Balloon Bookshop, Subtext Books, and Wild Rumpus.
For more information on what each Twin Cities bookstore will be doing, visit their Facebook pages or websites; but also, here are two great round-up articles from the Star Tribune here and MPR here (which also talks about participating bookstores in greater Minnesota).
Bottom line: go to your favorite bookstore and see what they’re up to. Chances are, you’ll get to join in a literary love-fest, nab some exclusive items, and support your local indie bookstore community. Twin Cities folks, I’ll see you out there!
I have a confession: this week’s What We’re Reading should really be titled What We’re Rereading. I first read Daniel Tammet’s memoir a few years ago after having seen the documentary Brainman, which emphasizes and celebrates (sometimes problematically, sometimes not) Daniel’s identity as an autistic savant. If you’re not sure what that is, think Rainman (with which the title of Daniel’s documentary is clearly playing), but also, don’t think Rainman. Dustin Hoffman’s character in that film was based on an extraordinary man named Kim Peek who was a savant but was not autistic. Rainman, in many ways, is a cultural touchstone that tries and fails to describe and explain the place of people who are extremely gifted but struggle in other areas. And this is part of why Born on a Blue Day is so important, so necessary for us.
Like many memoirs, Born on a Blue Day is often expansive in scope, detailing Daniel’s life from a very young boy up to a twenty-something man. We learn that he grew up poor, his mother and father constantly striving and fighting to keep his family (Daniel is one of nine children) happy and healthy. In crystal clear prose, Daniel recounts his childhood struggles with epilepsy, the bullying and teasing he experienced in the early years of school, his growing understanding of his own sexuality and desires for love and friendship, his Asperger’s diagnosis, and his deep appreciation for and fascination with languages. The subtitle of the book is Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, and there are ways in which this book is absolutely the chronicling of an extraordinary mind.
Maybe the best example of this is one of the climactic chapters in which Daniel recounts his recitation of the digits of pi up to 22,514, which took him over nine hours and is a world record. Daniel, you see, has a really special relationship with numbers; he sees them with colors and textures and personalities in his mind. Numbers were, for a younger Daniel being bullied and teased at school, friends. At a recent talk in Montreal, I heard Daniel talk about pi as a beautiful poem, and this way of thinking about numbers—as beautiful, as emotional—is at the heart of Daniel’s recitation of pi.
In chapter 10, “A Very Large Slice of Pi,” Daniel starts with a mathematical discussion of pi—its history and place in mathematics, strategies other pi enthusiasts have had for memorizing and remembering digits, etc. But for Daniel, the process of learning the number was much more akin to falling in love with someone and experiencing every aspect of that person as unique, as special, as memorable.
When I look at a sequence of numbers, my head begins to fill with colors, shapes and textures that knit together spontaneously to form a visual landscape. These are always very beautiful to me; as a child I often spent hours at a time exploring numerical landscapes in my mind. To recall each digit, I simply retrace the different shapes and textures in my head and read the numbers out of them.
This is Daniel discussing his relationship with numbers and how remembers them, and this is where the memoir became intensely interesting for me. Yes, the recounting of pi is an incredible feat, and yes this way of thinking about numbers is totally unique, but the mechanism here—losing oneself in a mental landscape, perhaps to escape the world, perhaps to better understand it—is something that I spent most of my own childhood doing, except with made up fantasy worlds and stories instead of numbers. And this, I think, is ultimately the point of Daniel’s memoir; it’s not an account of Exciting and Interesting Otherness. Rather, it’s an account of someone who has struggled with things fundamental to what it means to be human: loneliness, love, family, friends, and self-exploration. In the eighth chapter, “Falling in Love,” Daniel talks about his first love, and his concerns are those everyone has in that situation: will I be loved for myself? Will I be safe? Will I be able to contribute to the relationship?
Much of the writing done about Daniel or other autistic savants has been to emphasize their difference, their extraordinary gifts. But it’s important, crucial, that these stories and retellings emphasize the humanness of these people. This is what Born on a Blue Day does best: it uses the unique and extraordinary specifics of a single man to explore and affirm the universal in each of us.
What works have you been connecting with recently?