Thursday, November 3, 2011

Undset Update

You may not want to read the opening chapters of The Snake Pit while trying to fight off a cold with an afternoon nap, as I was doing today. Does the term fever dream mean anything to you?

The Snake Pit is not (a) the 1948 film starring Olivia DeHavilland (nice poster, left) or (b) an Arizona Diamondbacks website or (c) the only place to go for the latest news on Guns N’Roses guitarist Slash—although I would understand if you thought so.

The Snake Pit is the follow-on to The Axe in Sigrid Undset’s tetralogy of life in 13th-century Norway, The Master of Hestviken. Yeah, that Snake Pit! I first wrote about it here.

Near the beginning of the book, Undset gives you the long genealogical set-up for the main character’s conflicts, complete with internecine warfare around the Oslo Fjörd and in the Upplands to the north, and a bloody battle-axe pried from a dead man’s hand just as his widow feels her twin sons quicken within her.

What’s confusing—and excellent kindling for a fever dream—is the names of Undset’s characters.

Can you explain to me why Olav Ingolfsson and Ingolf Olavsson are first cousins? Sorry. If you use their names to explain their relatedness, you’re dead wrong. There’s nothing first-cousinish, even in Norway, about two guys with mirror-image names. Olav is the son of Ingolf, Ingolf the son of Olav, and Ingolf and Olav (the fathers) are brothers. Their names, natch, are Ingolf Olavsson and Olav Olavsson. Just so happens.

Throw in the fact that one of the Ingolf Olavssons is a Catholic priest, while his son, Olav Ingolsson, is a “half-priest,” and you have grounds for confusion or annulment or both. (Master takes place at a time when the Norwegian Catholic priesthood is switching over from married to celibate.)

I was trying for the fourth time to decipher a paragraph in which all of this, and more, is worked out by Undset as I fell asleep this afternoon. That’s when the dream started. It didn’t help that I had just read a paragraph describing the truly scary widowed grandmother of Olav Ingolfsson and Ingolf Olavson—you know which ones I mean, right—the first cousins?

Olav “Half-Priest” begins with the understatement of the week:

Grandmother herself can never have been fair of face. At the time I remember her she was so tall and so portly that she had to go sideways and bend double to get through the door here in the new house. She was half a head taller than her sons, and they were big men. But fair she was not: she had a nose so  big and so crooked that I know not to what I can liken it, and eyes like gulls’ eggs, and her chins hung down upon her chest and her breasts upon her stomach.

I will spare you the details of my dream, leaving grandmother Tora Ingolfsdatter, completely out of it, except to say that two Norsemen fought each with broken mirrors.

1 comment:

  1. Sheesh! Permission granted to buzz the tower for making heads & tails outta that, Mav. =)


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