Eve Tushnet writes, “Kristin Lavransdatter is an epic tale of fourteenth-century Norway, a saga of marriage and motherhood, sin and penitence, suffering and acceptance. I read it for the first time at age thirty four, and that’s a good age to meet it. But I wish I’d read it earlier. I wish I’d devoured it as a teen, let its view of life sink into me and change me long before I could really understand it. I suspect this would be a good book to grow up with.”
I’ve mentioned before the book on the Viking Age which I translated a while back. There’s still no word on when the English version will be published, but the publisher, Saga Bok, has posted an excerpt on their blog here.
How far back in time the oral Thing system functioned, no one knows. It was likely not as highly developed during the Migration Era as it became after the start of the Viking Age in the 9th Century. It is also remarkable that the Norse Thing system has not up till now attracted much interest in the world at large. But in all probability that is easily explained. The Norwegians of that age left behind no monumental structures, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan civilizations. On top of that, Scandinavia lay on the outskirts of civilization, and encompassed only a small number of people. In this matter European scholars (including Norwegians) have allowed themselves to be deceived by appearances – the impressive structures and statues of southern Europe. Those who did not erect such monuments must not have had any significance in historical development.
What do you do when you’re recovering at home from a medical test, still under the influence of a mild sedative, and have stupidly left your Kindle at the office?
If you’re me (which is admittedly doubtful) you go to Netflix and stream a Norwegian movie you’ve heard interesting things about. That movie was A Somewhat Gentle Man, directed by Hans Petter Moland and starring Swedish actor Stellan Starsgård (in a marvelously underacted performance).
Titled En Ganske Snill Mann in Norwegian (I’d have translated it A Rather Nice Man myself, but this translation is good), A Somewhat Gentle Man was marketed as a “hilarious” comedy according to the DVD box. I think it’s more of a quirky, updated Noir, including large doses of black humor. Instead of the angular shadows of classic Noir, this is a Film Gris. The whole world of Ulrik, the film’s antihero, is gray, from the gray Norwegian winter sky, to the gray concrete buildings of Oslo’s seedier side, to the gray basement room he rents (almost indistinguishable from the prison cell from which he’s just been released) to his gray clothing and gray hair. Occasional flashes of color, especially red, compel the eye and signal moments of hope in his life.
Freshly released after 12 years’ incarceration for murder, Ulrik quickly reunites with his old underworld buddies. But he’s not eager to go along with their plan for him, which primarily involves his killing the man whose testimony got him convicted. Basically he wants a quiet life, to work as a mechanic and avoid confrontations (he’s almost quintessentially Norwegian in this). Most of all he wants to reconnect with his son, who is now living with a pregnant girlfriend who has no wish to have a felon grandfather involved in her coming child’s life.
As is expected in such stories, sex is a complicating issue. Ulrik’s sexual encounters are relatively explicit, and possibly the least titillating you’ll ever see on film. The whole movie has a gritty, realistic look. The women generally aren’t very beautiful, and Ulrik’s participation is as often as not merely dutiful, to avoid giving offense. His old and ugly landlady acts as if she’s doing him a favor. He’s more enthusiastic about coupling with the secretary at the garage, from whom he’s been warned off by the owner (who speaks only in paragraphs, and very fast).
In all these relations Ulrik takes a passive role, until his refusal to murder the “snitch” for his gangster buddies forces him to take personal initiative, which—not surprising in a modern film—brings about what we’re meant to regard as a happy resolution. I share James Bowman of The American Spectator‘s skepticism about the moral congruity of the ending.
Do I recommend the movie? Not generally. Certainly not to younger viewers, or to anyone offended by foul language, nudity and sex scenes (especially unappealing nudity and sex), or violence. Still, if you care for this sort of thing, and are interesting in seeing a quirky take on classic themes, A Somewhat Gentle Man contains much of interest.
It all changed today.
Yesterday it was just cold. Today it’s Father Christmas Land. We have a nice carpet of snow on the ground, and we’ve also got that photogenic ice-coating over all the tree branches, making everything look like crystal. Wonderful to look at, as long as the powerlines don’t get overloaded, plunging you into a blackout.
First it rained. It rained pretty hard, which isn’t a bad thing after our dry fall (except for what it does to the street surfaces).
Then it turned to snow. Big, clotted flakes, like crumbled Styrofoam dropped out of a sack. That went on for a while, then diminished and stopped. We’re supposed to get a few more inches in the next few days.
Almost like the movie “White Christmas,” except that it didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. Pretty close though. I haven’t polled any children, but I suspect they’re pleased.
I’m going to talk to you about lutefisk.
The legend of lutefisk is that it’s an inedible Scandinavian delicacy, deadly to smell and disgusting to eat. Sort of comparable to 100 Year Old Eggs and live monkey brains.
This is an example of Scandinavian overcompensation. Lutefisk really isn’t that bad. It’s a product made of dried codfish, rendered in lye and washed in water, then boiled for eating. It has a strong, fishy smell when you cook it, and tastes extremely bland when you eat it. Its consistency, if cooked right, is closer to jello than anything else I can think of. It’s an odd food, and most people who didn’t grow up with it don’t care for it much. It helps to eat it with plenty of melted butter (for Norwegians) or cream sauce (for Swedes). But all the moaning is highly exaggerated.
I don’t care much for it myself, but my dad loved it, as did his parents and grandparents. Sometimes we make it for Christmas just for the sake of tradition. I doubt if the next generation will eat it at all, after we’re gone.
My favorite lutefisk tribute is the following poem. It can be found in a number of places on the internet, and most of the sites attribute it to either Boone & Erickson (a team of Twin Cities radio announcers who recorded it years back) or “Anonymous.” The actual author is a man named Dan Freeburg, who copyrighted it in 1978 but seems to have given up on enforcing it. Well, he’ll get credit here, by golly.
‘Twas the day before Christmas, with things all a bustle.
As Mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.
Aunts, uncles, and Cousins would soon be arriving,
With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.
While I sat alone with a feeling of dread,
As visions of lutefisk danced in my head.
The thought of the smell made my eyeballs start burning.
The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning.
For I’m one of those who good Swedes rebuff,
A Scandahoovian boy who can’t stand the stuff.
Each year, however, I played at the game,
To spare Mama and Papa the undying shame.
I must bear up bravely. I can’t take the risk,
Of relatives knowing I hate lutefisk.
Then out in the yard I heard such a clatter.
I jumped up to see what was the matter.
There in the snow, all in a jumble,
Three of my uncles had taken a tumble.
From out in the kitchen an odor came stealing,
That fairly set all of my senses to reeling.
The smell of the lutefisk crept down the hall,
And wilted a plant in a pot on the wall.
Uncles Oscar and Lars said “Oh, that smells yummy,”
And Kermit’s eyes glittered while he patted his tummy.
Mama announced dinner by ringing a bell.
They rushed to the table with a whoop and a yell.
I lifted my eyes to heaven and sighed,
And a rose on the wallpaper withered and died.
Then Mama came proudly with a bowl on a trivet.
You would have thought the crown jewels were in it.
She set it down gently and then took her seat.
And Papa said grace before we could eat.
It seemed to me, in my whirling head,
The shortest of prayers he ever had said.
Then Mama raised the cover on that steaming dish,
And I had to face the quivering fish.
The plates were passed for Papa to fill,
While I waited in agony, twixt fever and chill.
He dipped in the spoon and held it up high,
As it oozed to plates, I thought I would die.
Then it came to my plate, and to my fevered brain.
There seemed enough lutefisk to derail a train.
It looked like a mountain of congealing glue,
Yet oddly transparent and discolored in hue.
With butter and cream sauce I tried to conceal it,
I salted and peppered, but the smell would reveal it.
I drummed up my courage, tried to be bold,
Mama reminds me, “Eat before it gets cold.”
Deciding to face it, “Uffda,” I sighed.
“Uffda, indeed,” my stomach replied.
Then summoning the courage for which we are known,
My hand took the fork as with a mind of its own.
And with reckless abandon the lutefisk I ate,
Within 20 seconds, I’d cleaned up my plate.
Uncle Kermit flashed me an ear-to-ear grin,
As butter and cream sauce dripped from his chin.
Then to my great shock, he spoke in my ear,
“I’m sure glad that’s over for another year.”
It was then that I learned a great wonderful truth,
That Swedes and Norwegians from old men to youth,
Must each pay their dues to have the great joy,
Of being known as a good Scandahoovian boy,
And so to tell you all, as you face the great test,
“Happy Christmas to you, and to you all my best.”