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All posts for the month November, 2009

Scandinavian winter

Published November 20, 2009 by Kat

Right now, at the threshold of the long dark days of winter, we still have enough summer sunshine in our bones to savor the idea of a long, cold, dark winter, shut in our houses, with happy snowdrifts and icicles outside and lots of warm rosy light and hot cocoa inside. The holidays are ahead of us, and our boots and sweaters feel so, so good after so many months of shorts and t-shirts.

The Danish have a word that every source I’ve read has assured me I simply cannot understand because I’m not Danish myself: hygge. Hygge incorporates the happy feeling of being with the people one loves; the conversation, the light, the laughter. It also incorporates good food and a cozy environment. It sounds to me as if it captures this late-Autumn, early-Winter feeling precisely.

Every so often, when I can see it, I like to watch the movie version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It is, by a landslide, my favorite of all his books, and the movie version of it thankfully doesn’t disappoint. It is puckish and gruesome and charming in just the right amounts, and the beginning parts set in Norway are oh! so charming and full of hygge. The pointed houses, the long braids of hair, and need I mention the Scandinavian knits? Sweaters and stocking-caps and mittens, all covered with white motifs against blue and red and green and black backgrounds. Arrrrr, good thoughts indeed. If you’re looking for a movie to give you that cozy winter feeling, I suggest that you check it out.

Once on a message board I read a post by a person who had spent his childhood in Norway. The thread was about memories of school and childhood. He said that every morning for breakfast, his mother gave him a big bowl of oat porridge, with a handful of raisins in it. It was surrounded by a moat of whole milk and capped by a pat of golden, melting butter.

After breakfast, he and the other children would ski to school. It was so cold outside that in addition to their delightful Scandinavian knits, they all had to wear down snowsuits. They were perfectly comfortable as they skied in the morning darkness, but as soon as they got into the warm cloakroom of the schoolhouse, it was a scramble to get the snowsuits off as soon as possible.

After skiing back home from school in the afternoon, he would spend the evening doing his schoolwork, sitting right in front of the fireplace with the two or three big family dogs snoozing around him. He and the dogs and the fire all kept each other warm, and his dripping boots drying by the fire gave a very comfortable sensation of how toasty and nice it was inside, compared to the frozen wilderness outside.

I think there’s plenty of fodder for some Scandinavian daydreaming in that. Truth be told, it’s one of the most charming things I’ve ever read.

The Woman In White

Published November 16, 2009 by Kat

The Woman in White

There are a few glaring gaps in my knowledge of Victorian novels, and Wilkie Collins used to be one of them. Though few of his novels are still familiar today (The Woman In White and The Moonstone being the two most famous), in his heyday he was a bestseller in the ranks of Dickens–and a great friend of Dickens, with whom he made many literary collaborations and who personally edited some of his work.

The Woman In White was Collins’s first blockbuster novel, and even today it is easy to see why. Widely billed as one of the first “sensation novels”, the Woman In White is still today a breath-holding page-turner of a book… and so, so smartly written to boot.

In format, the story is told chronologically as the formal statements of several narrators concerning the adventures of Laura Fairlie. The narrative is book-ended by Walter Hartwright, a drawing-master who first meets the woman in white and then becomes embroiled in fallout of her deadly “secret” which will lead to the “ruin” of Sir Percival Glyde, Laura Fairlie’s fiance.

As we switch from narrator to narrator, we feel the switch palpably. In the same way that Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe cannot be relied upon as an impartial narrator of her story, none of these narrators are capable of seeing or understanding the situation in its whole; indeed there are many parts where the reader knows more and many where the reader apprehends things that have been left out.

Though the novel was initially released as a serial, and we begin to feel it towards the end as Collins begins to run out of steam, the early and middle parts of the story must have been exhaustively laid out ahead of time. Handfuls of words come back with shocking significance two and three hundred pages later; things that Collins has talked us out of remembering affect the entire flow of the story. Most excitingly, Collins bucks many literary trends and refuses to make his good characters all good–his bad characters all bad–or let the automatic assumptions of the reader to very often play out. Indeed, one of the central assumptions of the whole book turns out to be a complete sham. I’ll leave you to find that out for yourself, though.

Having enjoyed the book so thoroughly, I discovered that a 1997 movie version of The Woman In White starring Simon Callow as Count Fosco existed (!!!), and just had to see it. What a mistake, and what a blessing. The TV movie has characters by the same name and puts them in generally the same kind of distress, but there the similarity ends. Characters are merged and mended, scene after scene is made up out of thin air, crimes of the most boring and sordid sort (murder! child abuse!) are committed that were never committed or thought of in the book, and that incidentally is one of the things that made the book so exciting, the fact that the villains were never dreadful in quite the way one expects. In the TV version, even Sir Percival Glyde’s “secret” is changed completely. You aren’t going to spoil one bit of the book for yourself by watching the movie first.

Do, do, do read this book if you’re up for a very long Victorian thriller that will keep you awake far into the wee hours, with your heart pounding in your throat and your mind racing to figure out what will happen next. I only wish I had a hundred such Victorian novels left to read that had a chance of being so good.