Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Club: Themes, Thoughts, Questions

Many of you have told me you're interested in reading Kristin Lavransdatter this summer. Our goal for finishing Part I of the book is June 1, so I hope you can find a copy and start reading soon if you haven't already!

I thought it might be helpful to lay out a few themes, thoughts, and questions regarding Part I--purely from my own encounter with the text. (I will probably glance at and share some thoughts from others' commentaries on the text once I read the whole thing, but honestly, I don't want to read them yet and spoil the plot!) I'll try not to give anything "major" away, so these points will be very general, and filled out more on June 1. I admit up front that I don't think I can approach this book in the "detached" way that I did books in my lit classes for high school and college, discussing it purely for the sake of literary criticism. There's just too much here that begs to be related to our own humanity and our own experience of faith, life, family, tradition, etc.

A few things to keep in mind/think about as you read:
  • The dynamic of sin: There is so much here... how the sin of individuals can affect not only those persons but also relationships, families, communities. Notice the comparisons/contrasts with our own culture. The same sins persist, but in a cultural milieu that claims that the actions of individuals can be conducted in a realm that is merely "private" and without relevance to the outside community.
  • Honor: What is honor, for the characters in this book? Is it meaningful, or is it simply an imposition of the culture?
  • Filial/spousal/fraternal/friendship/fuedal relationships: I don't want to say too much here for fear of giving too much away. I just want to note the excellent depth with which Undset treats these relationships and ask what, if anything, stood out to you about them.
  • Natural world: Notice how frequently the natural world is not simply an intert backdrop for the story-- life is dependent on and affected by the natural world, not only because many of the characters are farmers, but also because in this historial period there is little technology to separate one from the realities of nature. At the same, the natural world also seems to both highlight and echo the characters' experiences/feelings.
  • Historical/cultural elements: What stands out most to you about life in 14th century Norway? A few questions: what do you think of the "Catholicism" of the culture? What does it mean for life to be dated not by numerals but by feasts and fasts, holy days and saint's days? Here's one particular moment that stood out to me:
    "Directly opposite her, on the south wall of the nave, stood a picture that glowed as if it had been made from nothing but glittering gemstones. The multicolored specks of light on the wall came from rays emanating from the picture itself; she and the monk were standing in the midst of its radiance. Her hands were red, as if she had dipped them in wine; the monks face seemed to be completely gilded, and from his dark cowl, the colors of the picture were dimly was like standing at a great distance and looking into heaven." (p. 32 in my copy)

Kristin, as a child, wonders at the beauty and mystery of stained glass in her first encounter with it on a trip to a faraway city with her father. This was a singular experience for her; the cathedral was probably the largest building she had ever entered, and other than in the natural world, she had probably never experienced such beauty. What a constrast with our own experience--we have entered countless large structures with purposes far from glorifying God, and colors, sounds, and images are constantly flickering past our eyes in all sorts of media and modes. The church is no longer a world set apart in this way; the mere entry into a church building is not an entry into a new more wonderous or more beautiful world that reflects heaven. In fact, the art, imagery, and music encountered within a church can sometimes seem to be struggling to reach the excellence of that which we have experienced outside.

Certainly, I can think of many exceptions. Personally, when I think of beautiful (non-natural) places, my mind turns to a short list of cathedrals, churches, and chapels that I hold dear. I think what I am reflecting on is that in our cynical, technological, post-Enlightenment age, it is difficult to count on a spontaneous experience of wonder as a companion to our entry in a church structure; in the environment in which we live today, I think the ability to wonder must be both protected and cultivated because it seems important with regard to the desire for God, and that which is not "of this world," but that's another post for another time. I'd love to hear what you all think on this topic.

Happy reading!

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