May 20, 2004
Looking for a Rest Area
Poem: "Looking for a Rest Area," by Stephen Dunn, from Looking for Holes in the Ceiling. © University of Massachusetts Press. Reprinted with permission.
Looking for a Rest Area
I've been driving for hours,
it seems like all my life.
The wheel has become familiar,
I turn it
every so often to avoid the end
of my life, but I'm never sure
it doesn't turn me
by its roundness, as women have
by the space inside them.
What I'm looking for
is a rest area, some place where
the old valentine inside my shirt
can stop contriving romances,
where I can climb out of the thing
that has taken me this far
and stretch myself.
It is dusk, Nebraska,
the only bright lights in this entire state
put their fists in my eyes
as they pass me.
Oh, how easily I can be dazzled--
where is the sign
that will free me, if only for moments,
I keep asking.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset, born in Kallundborg, Denmark (1882). She's best known for her historical novels about medieval Norway, especially the three-volume Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) and the four-volume Olav Audunsson (1924).
Her father was an archeologist who specialized in the Middle Ages, and Undset became interested at a young age in medieval history, especially the folktales and myths of Scandinavia. When she was sixteen she got a job as a secretary for an engineering company, and she worked there for the next ten years, writing her first novel in her spare time. She finished it when she was twenty-two years old, but it wasn't accepted by any publishers. She spent the next two years writing her second novel, and in 1907 Mrs. Marta Oulie was published. Its first line is, "I have been unfaithful to my husband." Critics were outraged, but sales went through the roof, and it wasn't long before she was able to quit her job and devote all of her time to writing.
In the early 1920s, when she was forty-two years old, Undset converted to Catholicism. Her family wasn't religious at all, and Norway was almost exclusively Protestant, so becoming a Catholic was a risky and unusual thing to do. She constantly had to defend herself in public. But it was around this time that she wrote Kristin Lavransdatter, which is set in the Catholic Norway of the Middle Ages. Its main character is a young woman who is forced to choose between marrying a man she doesn't like and disgracing her family.
Kristin Lavransdatter was a huge success, and in 1928 Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature. When the Nazis gained control of Norway in early 1940, Undset joined the Resistance and moved to Sweden. Eventually she had to flee to the United States, where she made money by giving lectures across the country. She returned to Norway after the war, but she never published another book.
Undset is still one of the most popular writers in Norway today, and Kristin Lavransdatter is one of the most recognizable characters in all of Norwegian fiction. The Kristin Lavransdatter series was made into a three-hour long movie in 1995, and more than half the population of Norway bought tickets to see it.
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Honoré de Balzac, born in Tours, France (1799). He devoted most of his life to writing a massive series of novels and short stories depicting all aspects of French society in the nineteenth century—La Comédie Humaine, or The Human Comedy. Oscar Wilde once said, "The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac."
By 1832, he had written several short stories and novels, but they hadn't had much success. Then he had the idea for a series of books that would encompass the entire French society of his day. He chose the title The Human Comedy, to contrast with Dante's Divine Comedy. By the end of his life, he had written about ninety novels and many more short stories, and he had created more than 2,000 characters.
He wrote about everyone and everything. He once said, "I am not deep, but I am very wide." The action of most of his books takes place in Paris, but he also wrote about life in small towns and in the country. He wrote at a time when the Industrial Revolution was creating a huge middle class, and he often wrote about people who were caught up in their newfound wealth. He wrote about banks, offices, factories, the stock market, the media, and the first commercial advertisements. One of his characters says, "I am of my time; I honor money."
Balzac had a huge influence on later nineteenth-century French novelists like Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. Henry James thought he was the best novelist of all time, and Willa Cather once said, "If one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live." Today, Balzac is rarely studied in American schools. Even in France, Balzac's novels are outsold by writers like Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, and Collette.
Balzac said, "All happiness depends on courage and work. I have had many periods of wretchedness, but with energy and above all with illusions, I pulled through them all."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®