Thursday, 2 September 2010

Several books

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, 1928 Nobel Prize for literature, a massive trilogy taking place in 14th century Norway. She was an expert on that period, her father had been an archaeologist. The work is monstrously big, and have just read that in fact it was cut short in the translation  I read - by Charles Archer - where she had experimented with stream of consciousness, which is something that has been restored in a recent prize-winning translation, which I'll have to look at some time. Sigrid Undset is a master at describing human character and the way it changes as a result of life's experiences. When I started the book I found it a little insipid - the love of the father for the daughter, the daughter for the father, so perfect, but when the first imperfections were described I was captivated, because she manages to hint and show and for a while nothing much changes, and one's awareness grows gradually. Some of the characters are not able to change at all, though as a reader one does wish they would. The Wikipedia article describes her as unsentimental, and that is true as far as the historical description is concerned. This book took up far too much of my time, and yet am very glad I've read it.
One of her early books published in the 1920s Fru Marta Oulie starts with the sentence: "I have been unfaithful to my husband". I am impressed. Reading about her life, I am aware how little I am writing.
The next important book was Yann Martel's  The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, (1993) four not very short, short stories...Under-statements about life and death. The third story - my favourite at the moment - is entitled Manners of Dying and is a series of ten letters from Harry Parlington, warden at a Correctional Centre where the death penalty is carried out by hanging.The letters are all addressed to a Mrs Barlow and relate the manner of death of her son Kevin. But each death is different and carries a different number, an increasing series - "Manner of dying 18, manner of dying 213, manner of dying 319, 534, 541, 760, 985, 991, 1096." (The number 18 is chai  in Hebrew and stands for life).
I've just looked up the name Kevin Barlow on Wikipedia: he was an Australian on an initial drug run to/from Malaysia, who was caught and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 7 July 1986. Harry Parlington is not there, though there is a Parlington Hall in Ireland with an arch celebrating the independance of the United States. And I wonder if Harry is a reference to Harry Houdini, who knew how to set himself free from fetters...The letters are supposedly typed by a person whose initials are ym. Is there a link between Yann Martel and Kevin Barlow?

The Struggle for Religious Freedom in Germany, by A.S. Duncan Jones, Dean of Chichester, published in 1938, and stored in the stack room of Wellington Central Library, in somewhat battered condition. Someone has underlined it heavily in pencil and when I tried to rub out the pencil, the print went as well...
A gift for someone wanting to understand what was happening in Germany after Hitler's 1933 access to power. Have made notes and photocopied bits. Some very telling details - including one sentence right at the end...(p.267)
"It does not become us to utter one word of reproach for those who have not been able to rise to those sacrificial heights. Nor may we criticise those who have so risen, because they have not done something else as well: because, for example, they have not made a violent protest against the shameful treatment of the Jews or the horror of the concentration camps."

The Bishop of Chichester was George Bell, promoter of oecumenism. He was against carpet-bombing of German cities, and spoke out against it. Churchill was not pleased. It may well be he who said in the British Parliament that the first nation which was conquered by Hitler was the German nation - that bit was written by Wilfrid Israel for him - it's in the eponymous biography of Wilfrid Israel, also to be found at the Central Library.