Reading during a COVID-19 summer
This summer has been memorable in several ways, not only because it is the first (and perhaps not the last) summer of living with COVID-19.
For one, this is the first time I’ve ever read two 1000-page novels at the same time—and I finished them over a period of about six weeks. How did I get into this? It’s not as though I had tons of spare time—my editing work has continued during the pandemic.
No; it’s just that during a Skype call with my brothers, I mentioned I was looking for some new book ideas. One brother mailed me Kristin Lavransdatter, a three-book classic. The books, centred on their fourteenth-century heroine, were written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset in the 1920s. This translation by Tiina Nunnally brings them together in one volume. My other brother got me intrigued with his description of Lucy Ellmann’s stream-of-consciousness novel Ducks, Newburyport, which I found at my local bookstore.
Both books are worthy of devouring. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and won many awards and accolades. Though this Norwegian classic and the audacious, creative, and eminently modern Ducks could scarcely be less alike, I urge you to read them both!
Kristin Lavransdatter follows the life of its heroine from the time she is seven until her death ( I didn’t appreciate the spoiler about this in the Introduction). Kristin and the other main characters in the trilogy are members of the well-off landowner class. In fourteenth-century Norway many of these men were involved in the politics of the country and sometimes served the King by fighting Norway’s wars or in other ways.
The political parts of the novel are sometimes difficult to follow, but the main story is timeless because it is about the powerful sexual bond between Kristin Lavransdatter and the man who becomes her husband, Erlend Nikulaussøn. Their union leads to the birth of seven sons in rapid succession. However, despite their enduring passion, happiness eludes the couple because of their stubborn incompatibilities.
Erlend is a deeply flawed man. At the time he meets Kristin he has already been involved in several scandals, including living with a woman who is married to someone else and having two children by her. Erlend is not patient or organized or good at the administrative work of running his estate. Yet he is physically brave, intelligent, and beloved by the men he leads in battles.
The attraction between Erlend and Kristin is so intense that she allows him to seduce her very soon after they meet. Premarital sex, in Christian Norway, was considered a grave sin, and if pregnancy occurred (as happened easily and often) that meant disgrace for the young woman and her family. Despite knowing the risk she is taking, Kristin doesn’t hold back, and she believes Erlend’s promise that he will love and be with no other woman but her forever.
The catch is that Kristin is already engaged to another man. When she gets pregnant, her her fiancé frees her from her promise, but her father is deeply hurt and disappointed. He agrees to let Kristin and Erlend get married, but he knows Erlend’s shortcomings. The couple’s transgression can’t be hidden as a child is born only a few months after the marriage.
One of the striking impressions this book made on me was the way people at that time believed in God and Heaven and Hell. It’s hard to explain, but the book made me feel that at that time, God, his rules, and the consequences for breaking them were unquestionably real. The characters’ beliefs created that reality. What else did they have to explain the world and cope with its cruelty? They had no scientific understanding, no cure for most diseases (like the Black Death that was soon to arrive), and nothing to help women with the pain of childbirth or prevent them from dying from it.
Kristin proves to be a wonderful mother to her seven sons, and a most competent administrator of Erlend’s estate. Yet their powerful bond of love and sex can’t make them compatible or help them get along. Kristin’s life-changing flaw is her guilt; her inability to ever forgive either Erlend or herself for their youthful mistake. She often treats Erlend badly and speaks to him with cruelty, not giving weight to the fact that despite his faults, his love for her never wavers.
The two end up living apart. At one point, when they are almost old by the standards of their day—in their forties—Kristin visits Erlend at the crude, filthy dwelling where he has become a hermit. Again, passion overwhelms all else. They are happy together for a couple of weeks, but both are stubborn; Erlend won’t return to the estate, and Kristin is bound to return to their children. The only result is another baby, which is sickly and dies without Erlend ever having seen it.
A third main character, the man who was betrothed to Kristin, Simon Darre, adds more heartbreak and complexity to the novel but I will not write more about that here.
What does that title tell a reader? Not much, other than to prepare you for a book that is unlike any other.
We are in the mind of the narrator and reading every thought, every word passing through her mind. And what a mind it is! Tormented, creative, expert at word-association and wordplay, filled with sadness, anger, self-doubt, and love. And our narrator’s mental meandering provokes belly laughs on almost every page.
It’s hard to explain this book—you just have to read it. Its flavour can’t be conveyed by telling you that the narrator is a woman in her forties, married, with four children, who bakes hundreds of pies and cakes a week to supplement her husband’s income as a university professor. She lives in a small town near Columbus, Ohio, and her recurring themes are gun violence, destruction of the environment, and how much she misses “Mommy.” The narrator’s mother’s long illness and death, occurring when the narrator was only a teenager, have left her “broken,” as she repeats over and over again.
How does Ellmann fill 988 pages with this? (The book also includes twenty-five pages of acronyms, one page with a map, four pages of quotes, four pages of laudatory blurbs, and two pages of thanks.)
Well, at first I thought Ducks was perhaps ten times too long. I found it peculiarly addictive, yet unsatisfying. I realized this was because there was no chronological narrative, and I was missing that “sense of story.”
There is, however, one conventionally-told narrative within the book, but it makes up a scant 2% of the text. It is the story of a rare Eastern Cougar mother (“the lioness”). She has three cubs who get “rescued” from a poorly-hidden den while their mother is out hunting. The cubs are taken to a nearby zoo. The lioness, relying on her instinct, goes on a long journey to find her cubs. Her story is told in sections of two or three pages separated by long sections of the main “stream-of-consciousness” text.
I looked forward to these short sections of the book eagerly, but after reading about three hundred pages of Ducks I was so frustrated that I abandoned it and went back to reading Kristin Lavransdatter, which I had just started.
It was only after finishing that massive work that I went back to Ducks. This time I enjoyed it thoroughly. I became more in tune with the narrator’s stories. Her interior monologue revealed more and more about her past relationships, her current crisis with her teenage daughter, Stacy (“she hates me”), and her recent bout with cancer.
The narrator, like so many women, is ambivalent about having four kids. She clearly loves them, but finds them all-consuming. Her doubts about her mothering abilities are just one topic in her continuous litany of self-criticism. As many people do, she worries constantly about her faults, but doesn’t congratulate herself for her successes, strengths, and heroic qualities. Personally, I was impressed by the patience and skill it would take to produce the number of pies and cakes she makes every day, in spite having four children constantly underfoot!
I found the ironic but real kind of solace you find in reading about another person’s despair. Sometimes I was reading Ducks in the early hours of the morning, tormented by insomnia yet again, when the narrator’s outpouring of negativity meant I was not alone in sinking into these irrational depths. Also, Lucy Ellmann is a genius for being able to make even depression laugh-out-loud funny.
The self-deprecation and the narrator’s endless rants about guns, shootings, toxic damage to the environment, and her mother’s death are balanced by one constant bright light—the narrator’s thoughts about Leo, her husband. It’s heartwarming to read about such a steady, staunch kind of happiness. We know Leo must have lots of reasons to love her.
Reading to the end of Ducks brings an unexpected reward. After over nine hundred pages of wandering comes a terrifying, suspenseful climax (no spoilers!). The lioness’s story, too, comes to a parallel climax. Ellmann combines both human and animal stories in a masterful way. The cougar interludes in the text, which at first seem to be irrelevant, are united to the main story by the theme of motherhood and all the passion and devotion it entails.
Both human and animal stories are resolved in ways that are happy, though not without ambivalence. The lioness’s disdain for the human race exceeds even the narrator’s distress, and both characters’ points of view make the current sorry state of humanity (especially in the United States of America) all too obvious.