Tourism at the Cathedral & Other Middlebrow Dawdlings

There is a checklist in my London guidebook:  London Eye (a ferris wheel), The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Carnaby Street, etc.  Guess how many of these I have checked off?  Very few.  I’m not much of a sightseer.

I do describe myself as a tourist, though.  I am an aficionado of the museums and shops in Londons.  Are there any museums better than The National Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery ( the latter is, sadly, closed  for “a facelift”)?  And the bookstores!  I recently visited John Sandoe Books, 10 Blacklands Terrace, which must be the best bookshop in the world:  there is a magical system of sliding bookcases attached to the front of other bookcases, so that there are literally layers of books as you slide the shelves.   I also recommend Foyles (an enormous bookstore with a brilliant selection of books), Any Amount of Books (a used bookstore curated by geniuses), and Hatchard’s, a beautiful store founded in 1797. 

We see some sights, and we find ourselves getting better at stairs.  Where’s the lift, I wondered at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  I kept coming across glass elevators with crime scene tape exed on the doors.  Was there actually a crime, or were they simply out of order? I climbed the stairs. (Great medieval sculpture on the ground floor, by the way!)

Finally I made it to St. Paul’s Cathedral.  I felt such joy.  How could Christopher Wren have designed this fantastic cathedral and so many other gorgeous churches?  He began to design it in 1666, and construction began in 1675.  It took 35 years to finish it.  Hard to imagine all that time.

But talk about stairs:  there’s no way I would climb up to that balcony around  the inside of the dome, even on a guided tour.  It gives me vertigo to think about it.

The first time I saw St. Paul’s, it was a slushy winter day.   I shivered as I sat in in the beautiful nave, consulting a multi-media guide, and later wandering around the crypt with my coat zipped up.  This  time I was happy to appreciate the exterior on a warmer day.

I am more comfortable in Christopher Wren’s smaller churches.  His own favorite of his churches was St. James’s Church, completed in 1684.  And I love it, too.  It’s cozy, almost Barbara Pymish, I think, and according to the guidebook, “it contains one of the finest works by the master Grinling Gibbons…, an ornate limewood screen behind the altar.”

The relaxing thing about smaller churches is that you can sit down with your shopping bags and take a break from the hubbub.  There sre so many exquisite yet comfortable old churches.  As you rest, you will feel like a character in an English novel, perhaps the woman in Monica Dickens’ “The Winds of Heavens,” though she probably rests at Harrods or perhaps somewhere less fancy over tea, come to think about it. 

Too Old to Become a Medievalist, Too Young to Forget Doris Lessing

The good news is, I was not having a Doris Lessing moment.  I did not fly to London to have a breakdown.  In Lessing’s 1973 novel, ” The Summer Before the Dark,” the sympathetic heroine, Kate Brown, has a breakdown in a hotel in London.  She is middle-aged, though she does not look it; her slightly older husband tries embarrassingly hard to look younger so he can philander with younger women.  And Kate’s adult children no longer need her.  Who is she now?

I do not have such identity problems.  Instead, I identify with Martha Quest (“The Children of Violence” series).  In Lessing’s five-volume bildungsroman, we follow rebellious Martha from girlhood through old age.  She is a less conventional character than Kate Brown.

It is in Martha’s spirit that I visit London.  Well, I am just a tourist, while Martha was brave and moved to London.  I look for restaurants that apparently closed during the pandemic.  I show up an hour late for a free concert. I study theater posters by the tube escalators, but they seem to be mostly for musicals – trying to recover after the financial crash of 2020 so they can afford to stage more serious plays?

I went to my favotite art museum.  I loved Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Erasmus, which is almost as witty as Erasmus’s  lovely book, “In Praise of Folly.”  Erasmus’s hand  rests is on a book inscribed “The Labours of Hercules of Erasmus of Rotterdam.”. You have to admit that’s very funny.

 But then I walked into one of the medieval art rooms.   I fell in love. It looks like modern art, so flat and ethereal, or flat and clumsy occasionally, as if the artists deliberately painted without perspective.  My favorite was the second panel of four depicting St. John.   It is hypo-realistic, if there is such a term, almost as if he is flying low in the sky, magically, as he leaves home.  One tires of religious art sometimes, but it’s always appropriate in medieval art.

I felt a bit like Kristin Lavrensdatter, the heroine of Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy, as I walked arond the room.  

What are your favorite places in London?  Medieval art recommendations?  Shops?

The Grasp

The most important thing  is to have a grasp, said Plato.  Or perhaps he said “grip.”. No, of course he did not say that.  I made it up.   

But I do not have a grasp of the pink weights in the photo above (behind the pillow).  I, who at the height of my body-building powers, could lift five- pound weights!  Not impressive, I admit, but I will have to switch to soup cans now.  

Writers often don’t have a grasp of Latin.  I found another Latin error in a book today.  It was by a dead 20th-century author, who may have had only a fuzzy knowledge of classics.  I do not blame her for this.  Perhaps she just  made a typing error.  Or perhaps the editors and proofreaders did not catch it.  Kudos to the authors who get it right, like Ms. Kwang, author of “Babel,” who consulted some classicists, she said in the acknowledgments.

Many of us do not have a grasp of art.  I do enjoy art, but I have little to say about it.  I love the Impressionists, don’t you?  But we mutter inanities:  we people don’t have an art history background, nor do we have an art vocabulary. 

What do you grasp, or not grasp?  Remember what Plato said, or what  I actually said

It’s Like This, Cat: Calisthenics at the Bookstore

“It’s Like this, Cat!” we used to shriek.  We were very silly girls indeed,  those of us who were Catherines, Kathleens, Kathys, Kates, and Caitlins.   We loved “It’s Like This, Cat,” a charming, thoughtful children’s book, but we thought the title very funny:  a bit of Beat,” i.e. “Beatnik,”slang,  addressed  to our favorite feline animal – perhaps the vocative of all us Kats.

Old habits never die.  Today I kept muttering, “It’s like this, Kat.”  I was  trying to be philosophical when I could  not make out the titles on the bottom shelves at a used bookstore.  Squatting and crawling are necessary postures for reading the titles on the bottom shelf. .Though I have recovered from my sports injury of the summer, I cannot squat like I used to, Kat.

My squat is an awkward curtsy now.  Bend the knees – lower, lower, lower  – but don’t actually kneel, because it hurts.  “Ow,” I said at least three times as I forgot about my bizarre new curtsy-squats and ended up on the floor.  Three’s the charm.  Very undignified.  I must practice squats.  Especially in used bookstores, where the best books are near the ground or on top of a ladder.

It’s like this, Kat.  You’ve never squat-curtsied before. Stay cool, like a cat.

The Invisible Woman: “The Summer Before the Dark” by Doris Lessing

   At  the age of eighteen, one of my favorite novels was Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark.  I went so far as to type up my favorite quotes and tape them on the mirror. Looking into the mirror, the heroine, Kate Brown, tries to figure out who she is, under all the gloss and expectations.  It made sense to me to read her words on the mirror, because at that time, Lessing’s novels were a template for my life.

This short, intelligent novel is what I call “Doris Lessing-lite.”  She explored this material in more detail in her masterpieces, The Golden Notebook and the Children of Violence series.  Kate Brown wonders what the point is. Women get points for being a good wife. They get more points for being a good mother.  They still get points for being a bad mother. But what happens when no one needs her?

Things get dicey if you are not a wife or mother, Lessing knew.  Many  disapproved of Lessing for divorcing her first husband and leaving their two children with him.  After her death, many women writers raged about her allegedly unmaternal feelings   And even though Lessing married a second time, and had a third child whom she raised,  these women were still enraged.  Astonishing, isn’t it, that some of those women considered themselves feminists?

Over the years, I have internalized Lessing’s doctrines to the point that I see connections between The Summer Before the Dark (1973)  with The Golden Notebook (1962) and the last half of The Four-Gated City (1969).  In all three  novels, the heroines question stereotypes, not just gender stereotypes, but the intricate, yet senseless mechanical organization of society.  

Kate Brown is in her forties, a little older than the heroines of Lessing’s ’60s books. In her summer before the dark, she is torn from her suburban home by her  husband, Michael, a doctor who plans to spend the summer in some medical research exchange in America: and she knows that he  will be unfaithful. One of Michael’s friends needs a translator of Portuguese for a world food conference, so instead of spending a leisurely summer thinking about her future and keeping the house open for her four grown-up children, she finds herself working overtime as a translator, and becoming beloved of her colleagues.

Kate learns that looks – the way she presents herself – define who she is.  She gets an expensive, gorgeous haircut and has her hair dyed the dramatic red it was when she was a girl.  She buys beautiful, eye-catching clothes.  Suddenly she is not just a stand-in but has administrative potential:  she is promoted to help the conference-goers with everything from where to buy a certain shampoo to getting an immediate appointment with a top medical expert. Her decades of maternal skills ironically have landed her in a job that pays a staggering amount of money.

But does she want to be a professional? In August, she travels to Spain with a younger man, a dropout in his thirties, who gets very ill.   During this horrible vacation, Kate realizes that her flirtatious friend, Mary, would never so much as have looked at this particular young man.  Kate knows  she should be spending the summer figuring out who she wants to be, not as a mother-figure to a young man in his thirties who is ill but also having a nervous breakdown.

And then, not surprisingly, Kate gets very sick.   And she ends up in a very expensive hotel in London, having a breakdown, because she has nowhere to go:  her house is rented till the the end of October.  At this expensive hotel, a young woman whose role is very like Kate’s administrative role at the conferences is assigned to take care of her.  And Kate realizes that rich people all over the world can buy this expensive care and expertise.

Kate loses sense of time. By the time she is recovering, she has become an invisible woman. She loses so much weight that her beautiful dresses hang on her, and her hair has grown out, frizzy with gray roots.  People mistake her for a madwoman, and honestly she is a bit mad.   

She goes into a greasy spoon restaurant where she is ignored by the waitress.  And she is so outraged after years of being treated as that special person, Mrs. Kate Brown, that she spills a glass of water on the table;  the waitress says she will change the tablecloth after Kate finishes her meal.  Kate wants to cry and scream.

She realizes she needs to learn how to be alone.  She rents a room in a basement apartment where she can have her breakdown without expensive intervention.

The basement is the opposite of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife’s attic.  In The Four-Gated City, the heroine Martha Quest has a breakdown in a basement apartment, where her employer’s mad wife, Linda, lives.  Lessing read Laing in the ’60s, and Martha and Linda are not mad but in touch with other realities that could help mankind.  The basement is significant:  closer to the earth?  More escapable?

Kate’s breakdown is a source of pain and grief.  She may not have wasted her life, but she has painted by the numbers.  She has never lived alone.  As a young girl, she devoted herself to finding a man.  She dropped out of college to get married. 

And then there is the issue of invisibility.  In her billowing clothes, she is an old woman, a stick figure.  Men ignore her, and she has always been noticed.  But when she wears a tight sheath given her by her roommate, the men look and ask her out. 

Before the summer is over, Kate will have to decide whether to work or return home. And if she goes home,  she will win back her status, but will she be able to hang onto herself? The Summer Before the Dark is not quite my jam anymore. But Kate’s life is more ordinary than Martha Quest’s or Anna Wulf’s, so I think this novel would be more relatable to new readers than her 1960s classics.


What Agatha Christie Should I Read? and a 50-Book TBR for the National Book Award Longlists

Which Agatha Christie should I read? I asked myself while reading Lucy Worsley’s enjoyable biography, Agatha Christie:  An Elusive Woman.  Though I am not a Christie enthusiast, I am intrigued by her life and career; and Worsley examines the most striking details of her history. Perhaps Worsley’s book is better than Christie’s mysteries.

I have a stack of Christies I’ve accumulated over the years.  (Some of them are a bit musty, from years in the mudroom.)  I enjoy Christie’s Miss Marple books, but never made much headway with the others. This month I chose to read two, the first a standalone, The Sittaford Mystery (also published as The Murder at Hazelmoor),  and the second, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first in the Hercule Poirot series.  

These are the perfect length for bedtime escape reading.  But honestly, I found them only so-so.  Worsley explains that Christie hated description and devoted her energy to dialogue.  It shows, unfortunately.

Of the four Golden Age Queens of Crime – Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers – Christie is my least favorite.  There is more depth to Sayers’ characters, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham are both better stylists than Christie. 

But back to reading Christie:  I started this month with The Sittaford Mystery.  The murder victim is Captain Trevelyan, a crusty old man who wins prizes for crossword puzzles and acrostics.  Before the body is found, the murder is announced during “table-turning” (rather like a ouija board only done with tilting of the table)  at a small party given by Mrs. Willett and her daughter, Captain Trevelyan’s tenants.  The table spells out TREVELYAN – DEAD- MURDER.

His friend Major Burnaby walks through the snow to the captain’s house and finds the body.  Shortly thereafter, the police accuse Jim Pearson of the murder:  he had visited his uncle, the captain, in the late afternoon and then fled on the early morning train.

And then the comedy begins: thanks to Jim’s charming girlfriend, Emily Trefusis, the murder is solved quickly, with the help of a journalist who has a crush on her.  And the police are also adept sleuths.  Their investigation parallels Emily’s. 

I enjoyed this gentle comedy, but it was not particularly brilliant. My copy of The Sittaford Mystery actually crumbled as I read it, which didn’t help. (VERY old paper in a used book.)

Then I read Christie’s first Hercule Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, said to be a classic.  The narrator is Captain Arthur Hastings, a soldier convalescing from an injury, who is staying at Styles Court, the home of his friend, John Cavendish, who lives there with his dysfunctional extended family. The family is dominated by the rich owner of Styles Court, Mrs. Inglethorp. She is murdered – by poison – and anybody could have done it.  It takes Hercule Poirot, a friend of Arthur, to solve the crime.

I didn’t love this novel, but it was entertaining enough. Which Poirot should I read next?

I want to be a Christie fan now that I’ve read Worsley’s book.  Tell me what to read!

The National Book Award Fiction Longlist

BY THE WAY, THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD LONGLIST HAS BEEN ANNOUNCED.   There are five categories:  Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature.  It’s like the Booker Prize, only with more genres.  I do hope to read at least one of these before the winners are announced in October. 

You can read the longlists here.  


“Shirley” by Charlotte Bronte: Romance and the Industrial Revolution

Writers’ museums are enjoyable, yet boring. I considered traveling from London to Haworth, The Bronte Parsonage Museum, but it seemed too complicated, and would probably be  too touristy anyway.  Even the Dickens Museum is too touristy.  There are do’s and don’ts:  don’t linger in Dickens’ dining room, because you will not want to see plate settings labeled John Forster and Thackeray.  It is also, if I remember correctly, a  talking dining room, with a loop of The Pickwick Papers set on “forever.”  Do go upstairs and look at Dickens’s desk, specially designed for his readings.  I love the upper floors of the Dickens museum

I fear that Haworth’s dining room might recite Jane Eyre.  In fact, the only writers’ museums I can honestly recommend are in Nebraska:  Willa Cather’s in Red Cloud and Bess Streeter Aldrich’s in Elmwood.

The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire

Charlotte Bronte is, of course,  best known for Jane Eyre and Villette, both masterpieces, while her novel, Shirley, which she finished in 1849, after the deaths of her siblings Branwell, Emily and Anne, is unfairly overlooked. 

Shirley is an entertaining, well-written, serious book, if wildly uneven.  One gets the feeling that the mourning Charlotte lost her sense of form when she went back to writing Shirley.  It begins as an industrial novel, set in Yorkshire, centered on the clash between workers and manufacturers in 1811.  But soon it turns into a romance, and a fascinating study of women’s depression.

Bronte begins by introducing us to a a comic trio of  curates.

Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.  

And then we meet Mr. Helstone, a well-respected, crusty clergyman, who interrupts the curates’ party, and commands Malone, his Irish curate, to accompany him to Robert Moore’s mill.  Moore expects trouble: he has ordered new machinery to be delivered. And many of his out-of-work employees, whom he has fired because of a trade embargo during the Napoleonic Wars, are militant.  And indeed there is violence:  the wagons are stopped and the machinery broken.

I am fond of Victorian novels about industrial change:  I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a masterpiece, and Mary Barton.  In fact, Charlotte was worried when Mary Barton was published before Shirley, in case it affected sales and reviews.

But never mind:  Shirley is not entirely an industrial novel.   Bronte abruptly changes tack  and focuses on the heroine, Caroline Helstone, an intelligent young woman who has been brought up by her unaffectionate uncle, Mr. Helstone.  He wrecks Caroline’s happiness when he forbids her to spend time with  Hortense Moore, Robert Moore’s sister, who is teaching her French, mathematics, and English literature.  The Moores are Caroline’s Belgian cousins. Mr. Helstone fears that Robert may want to marry Caroline, for the little money she has.  (Mr. Helstone miscalculates:  there is not enough money for cold, calculating -yet supposedly lovable- Robert.)

Caroline in solitude changes overnight from a charming, lively woman into a depressed, mousy, miserable girl.  Caroline is completely alone, so she follows a schedule, studying, doing good works, and exercising every day.  She tells her uncle she would like to go away find a position as a governess.  He is angry, because of class reasons:  Caroline will never have to work, he says, and he will not allow it.  

But what is Caroline to do in the village?

We do not meet the heiress, Shirley Keeldar, until page 203 (the Everyman’s Libray edition).  And so I cannot seriously regard Shirley as the heroine and think the title is a misnomer. The heroine is Caroline, and that should be the title.

But Shirley’s move to Fieldhead saves Caroline from despair. The two become best friends, yet Caroline still longs to go away and work.  And, because she pines for Robert (and has no work) she becomes very ill and falls into a terrible depression. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this odd book.  Yes, it rambles, but Charlotte Bronte is brilliant, witty, and is one of the best – perhaps the best – writers of the 19th century. 

I don’t know the history or politics, but Bronte takes the side of the mill owners, because they cannot compete internationally unless they mechanize; yet she is fair to the unemployed mill workers and their starving families on a personal level. 

Is Roman Humor Funny? Humiliation in Apuleius’s “The Golden Ass”

 Sometimes I struggle to laugh with the Romans.  My favorite poets are sophisticated and witty (Catullus and Ovid), or even broad and slapstick (indignant Juvenal, Martial, and Horace’s satires).  But not all jokes translate equally well, and I am simply unsure whether the translators get it right. There are many philosophies of translation – and I do not agree with all of them

One of my favorite novels, The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses, written in Latin by Apuleius in the second century CE, is a picaresque comedy about the transformation of Lucius into an ass after he messes around with a witch’s ointments. In Book III,  Lucius is taking a few days off from his travels, staying at the house of Milo in the town of Hypata.  

At a dinner party, he hears that Milo’s wife, Pamphile, is a witch.  Instead of being scared, he is intrigued (typical Lucius). After getting very drunk, he returns home and thinks he finds a gang of three robbers trying to break into Milo’s house.  He stabs and  kills them.  The next morning he is marched through the town to be tried publicly for murder.  And then the whole thing turns out to be a practical joke. He did not kill men at all;  rather, he stabbed three balloons, or rather, inflated winebags.Is this funny?  Actually, parts are very funny. But, oddly, this particular passage does not strike me as humorous in the Latin. The emphasis is on Lucius’s humiliation, shock, and tears. 

But it is funny – in Robert Graves’s down-to-earth, pared-down translation.  Graves, a classicist, poet, and novelist, certainly doesn’t dwell on Lucius’s emotions. 

He writes,

Then the laughter, which had until now been slyly repressed by the stage-managers of the hoax, burst out uproariously from the whole vast theater.  Part of the audience cheered me exuberantly as a jolly fellow, but many could do no more than press their hands to their stomachs to relieve the ache.  The proceedings ended abruptly, and as the great crowd poured out of the theatre, drowned in floods of mirth, every face was turned back for a last hilarious look at me.

From the moment that I pulled back the shroud, I had been standing there as stiff and cold as stone, exactly as if i had been one of the marble columns that supported the roof; and my soul had not yet floated back from the shadows of death, when my host Milo came up and with gentle insistence drew me away with him.  Then my tears burst out once more, and I could not restrain my convulsive sobbing; however, he took me home by side-streets and narrow passages to spare me the embarrassment of being recognized.  He tried to calm me by cheerful attempts at consolation, but I was now burning with such indignation at having been victimized in this insulting way that he could do nothing with me.

William Adlington, who translated The Golden Ass in 1566, is truer to the text, I think.  He seems more sympathetic to Lucius’s feelings.

Whereat the people laughed exceedingly: some rejoyced marvellously at the remembrance thereof, some held their stomackes that aked with joy, but every man delighted at this passing sport, so passed out of the theatre. But I from the time that I uncovered the bodies stood stil as cold as ice, no otherwise than as the other statues and images there, neither came I into my right senses, until such time as Milo my Host came and tooke mee by the hand, and with civil violence lead me away weeping and sobbing, whether I would or no. And because that I might be seene, he brought me through many blind wayes and lanes to his house, where he went about to comfort me, beeing sad and yet fearfull, with gentle entreaty of talke. But he could in no wise mitigate my impatiency of the injury which I conceived within my minde.

The Hogarth Press edition of William Adlington’s translaation.

 I love Adlington’s take on Lucius’ mind-set, which matches my own reaction to the Latin text.   I am a reader of Latin (meaning I don’t write it down), and am certainly not a translator. But I am posting my literal translation here, so you can compare Graves’ and Adlington’s translations.

And the laughter of some of the crowd, having been restrained strategically for a short time, now burst out freely. Some cackled like jackdaws, others calmed the pain of  their laughing guts by pressing down their hands. And certainly all were deeply imbued with joy as they departed from the theater looking back at me.  When first I grabbed the hem of the shroud from the bodies, I stood frozen, stone, no different from the statues and columns of the theater. But before I emerged from the lower regions of hell,  my host Milo approached me – I was freed from the false charges –  but I struggled, sobbing with tears shining and rapidly falling, and he dragged me along with him clement violence.  And through the bends of a deserted road he led me home, and tried to solace me with various words, as I moaned and trembled. But he could not soothe my shame and injury, which had stuck deeply in my chest.

I simply cannot laugh at Lucius’s reaction to the hoax.  He seems to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after being accused of murder and faced with instruments of torture. Which might account for his idiotic experimenting in a witch’s workshop.

I do enjoy  Graves’s translation:  it is elegant and enjoyable. I would love to read all of Adlington’s one of these days.

 But who is truest to Apuleius? There are many theories of translation. It’s so complicated, isn’t it?

A Masterpiece by a Nobel Winner: Sigrid Undset’s “Olav Audunssøn”

The Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset is one of my favorite novelists–to the point that I tried to teach myself Norwegian after I read  Kristin Lavransdatter. Set in medieval Norway, this fascinating trilogy focuses on the struggles of willful, beautiful Kristin, who dumps her betrothed to marry Erlend Nikulaussøn, a charming but irresponsible knight with a bad reputation, whose neglected estate she must manage, along with yearly pregnancies and one handicapped child, and the consequences of Erlend’s radical politics (he goes to prison).

I am also a huge fan of Undset’s Olav Audunssøn, previously translated as The Master of Hestviken, a brilliant tetralogy set in medieval Norway. Somehow, this classic has been forgotten, while Kristin’s fans remain manifold.  And so I was delighted to learn that the first three volumes have been published by The University of Minnesota Press, in new translations by the award-winning Tina Nunnally.

An old set of The Master Of Hestviken, translated by Arthur G. Chatar

I personally also adore Arthur G. Chater’s original English translation of Olav Audunssøn, as The Master of Hestviken (1928-1930).  He does capture the sense of an older time,  using a more elaborate, archaic vocabulary and occasionally inserting a  “’tis.”  Nunnally’s style is plainer, more accessible to a younger generation.  And that is why we need new translations, of course,  so people will continue to want to read them, in language they appreciate. 

Let me start by reviewing Volume I of Olav Audunssøn: Vows. (In Chatar’s version, this is called The Axe.)

The graceful prose had me spellbound from the beginning to the end. Like The Wreath, the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset’s Vows (Volume I of Olav Audunsson) delineates a tragic love affair.

Sigrid Undset

Olav and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter are betrothed when they are children by their fathers–while their fathers are drunk. Is the betrothal real, or a joke? That is the question.  After Steinfinn Toresson’s death, the couple meets opposition to their match. Because they have had sex, they believe their relationship is a legal marriage. Ingunn’s relatives want her to make a better match.  Eventually the Bishop finds  witnesses to the betrothal and declares them married.  But an act of violence during a fight ends in Olav’s killing one of Ingunn’s kinsmen, and he goes into exile.

Olav has adventures abroad, while Ingunn suffers a brutally lonely ten years taking care of her grandmother on her aunt’s isolated estate. Ingunn goes nowhere, and sees no one.  She is loyal to Olav, but as an adult she suffers from his absence and wants to be married like other women. She becomes friendly with a young scribe who runs errands for a priest and has a baby. And   Undset writes about it without moralizing about the different standards for the sexes.

Christianity is an important factor in Undset’s work, and I am fascinated by her descriptions of the lives of the monks and well-educated priests, the feast days and the church services, and the structure Catholicism gives to people who suffer unforgettable and unforgivable sins wrought by themselves and others.
Olav Audunssøn is a masterpiece.

I look forward to reviewing the second volume, Providence, and the third volume, Crossroads, soon. (Or, in the Chatar translation, The Snake Pit and In the Wilderness.)

Falling in Love with Monsters & Other Surreal Tropes: Rachel Ingalls’s “Mrs. Caliban” & “Times Like These”

 In 1983, John Updike, the novelist and critic, introduced me to one of my favorite novels, Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban.  His review in The New Yorker was strangly inspiring and powerful.  I love reviews, but Updike’s reviews were exceptional, as though he were able to turn each narrative inside-out and explain its essence.

Mad housewives often inhabited the pages of literature in the late 20th century. Perhaps it had something to do with Second Wave feminism.  The heroine of Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy, is an unhappy housewife whose son has died and whose husband is mostly absent. She has begun to hear programs on the radio that couldn’t possibly exist.   In a cake mix commercial, a woman’s voice said, “Don’t worry, Dorothy, you’ll have another baby all right.”

Her husband Fred usually ignores her.  When he leaves after breakfast, he doesn’t say good-bye.

She stood by the door while he went out and down the front walk.  He didn’t look back.  And, of course, he hadn’t kissed her goodbye for years.  This was the same way that affair of his with the publicity girl had started:  staying lat at the office.  Maybe.  Or perhaps it was genuine, but she couldn’t tell anything about him any longer.

Later, while doing housework, she turns on the radio.  An announcer says that a dangerous giant lizard-like creature has escaped from the Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research.  She decides this announcement is not a hallucination, because it is not addressing her personally. And, indeed, when the monster shows up in her kitchen, and Dorothy falls in love with him, she knows it must be real.  She is determined to save him from the cruel scientists who have been keeping him prisoner. 

But is the monster real? If so, he is certainly preferable to Fred.  And we are completely on the side of Dorothy and the sea creature.

The woman-and-monster affair was a common trope in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. There were a slew of heroine falling in love with monsters or animals.  In Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets, a woman has sex with a dolphin;  in Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, the wife of a zookeeper falls in love with Erasmus, an ape whom she has rescued from scientists’ research; and in Jane Gaskell’s feminist fantasy novel, The City, the heroine, Princess Cija, who has been abducted and raped by powerful soldiers, falls in love with an ape-man in the jungle. 

 One can’t read about women and monsters all the time.  This week, I finally got around to reading more Rachel Ingalls:  her brilliant short story collection, Times Like These, which has been on my shelf for a while.  These remarkable stories are strange, unexpected, and sometimes Gothic. 

Ingalls is often interested in mad or mildly delusional people (like Dorothy in Mrs. Caliban). In “Last Act: The Madhouse,” William, who is besotted with opera, listens to his opera records after school. There are many madwomen.  He wittily observes,  

In quite a few of these operas, for instance, there was a mad scene. When a coloratura soprano was in the cast, you could be fairly sure that before the last act she’d be crazy, although still able to hit a high E.

William falls in love in high school, and gets his girlfriend Jean pregnant.  He gallantly promises he’ll marry her, but his upper-middle-class parents object.  And after Jean is spirited away by her parents, no one knows what happened to her. He hears later that she had attempted suicide and was put away somewhere.  Years later, he hires a detective to help him look for Jean.  They go from madhouse to madhouse, looking for someone who resembles his photo of Jean.  But one wonders by the end exactly who is mad, as William’s behavior spirals out of control.

Ingalls never steps in the same river twice.  In the surreal story, “Somewhere Else,” a travel agent receives a letter saying he has  won a prize: a vacation.  Just as you might suspect, he and his wife, who also works at the travel agency,  are too busy ever to travel themselves. The  other winners are also travel agents who never have traveled.  The  destination proves to be surreal and spooky.

Unhappy marriages are common in Ingalls’s stories.  In “Correspondence,” Joan is the second wife of Max, a sexy war correspondent.  He is addicted to travel and danger, and carries certain lucky charms which he claims protect him in war scenes.  Women find him very attractive.  When Joan sees him flirting at a party, she remembers that this is how he started an affair with her, while he was married to his first wife.  She is tired of his macho correspondent routine.  She wonders, What would happen if he didn’t have his lucky charms?

Each of these strange short stories is bizarrely well-imagined, and each is different from the others.  Ingalls (1940-2019) was an American from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who moved to London in 1965.   Perhaps this dual-country point-of-view shaped her unique imagination. 

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