Certainly my most significant reading accomplishment of this past spring was Sigrid Undset’s classic Kristin Lavransdatter. I meant to write about it long before now, but I’m sure I have nothing original to add to the many, well-deserved discussions that have taken place elsewhere. I can’t let the occasion pass without marking it, though, and the simple solution is to skip writing a formal review and instead make a few observations.
If you’ve already read Kristin, skip to the next paragraph; if you haven’t, here are the facts about this work. In 1920, Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) published The Wreath, the first in a trilogy to be known as Kristin Lavransdatter, quickly followed by The Wife (1921) and The Cross (1922). Her epic portrays one woman’s life in fourteenth-century Norway, from her girlhood as the beloved daughter of a respected chieftain/farmer, to her scandalous marriage to a man she loves too fiercely to live with successfully, to her raising of seven sons as headstrong as she, to her death of the plague in a nunnery. Though Undset was already well-known in Scandinavia as the author of numerous novels and stories, it was the accomplishment of this trilogy that led to her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Starting in 1997, Penguin published these volumes separately in a new translation by Tiina Nunnally that went on to win translation awards. I read the single-volume Penguin Classics Deluxe paperback edition that runs 1144 pages, including the explanatory notes (which shed a great deal of light on the medieval Scandinavian place names, artifacts, and customs).
Where do I start with my observations? Two reasons why I’m glad I read it: first, it’s a remarkable story remarkably told, and second, I can’t imagine another book—fiction or non-fiction—that could so capably reveal the intricacies of the medieval Scandinavian world to modern people. The narrative is built around the well-researched historical details of daily life, and the worldviews of Undset’s characters are complex and plausible.
Religion is an integral aspect of the setting, taking place as it does in the transitional years between the late pagan and pre-/early-Christian eras, and Kristin and her neighbors practice both Christian and pagan rituals, seeing little or no incompatibility between the two. This makes for rich religious dynamics. Sin and forgiveness are major themes of the work, as Kristin grapples with her choices and their consequences, and her anger at God, later in life, for having been allowed so often to get her way. Love is also a related theme: love for God and others; love familial and erotic; love sacrificial, bitter, misunderstood, and unrequited.
I didn’t struggle with the Scandinavian personal and place names, as some fellow readers warned. But they were right about political details bogging down the second book a bit. However, those details also contribute to the plot and round out the historical picture, and so are worth pushing through.
Perhaps what I most appreciate is how the land itself plays a character role. I’m particular to novels with a strong sense of place, and Kristin’s story is inseparably rooted in the her native soil as she works her family’s estate to preserve their valley’s way of life. The internal seasons of Kristin’s soul change with the frozen winters and golden summers of Jorundgaard. Here Nunnally’s translation abilities stand out—clearly Undset gave her unparalleled material in the original Norwegian—with gorgeous word choices in soaring descriptions of natural beauty, descriptions that are never extraneous but always reflective of Kristin’s heart.
This is without question a masterwork of world literature, one I wish I had discovered sooner. I find myself wondering, given the stack of new books always pressing to be read, if I will ever take the time to read it through again; I think it would be worth it.
Have you read Kristin? In light of my comments not taking a more standard review form and to contribute to further conversation, I’d like to link to other bloggers who also have reviewed or discussed this. Leave your link in the comments and I’ll compile a list here. And, of course, if you’ve read it but not posted about it, please feel free to jump in here with your thoughts. Thanks!
UPDATE: More Kristin-talk around the web:
Superfast Reader (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross)
WordLily (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross)
Sherry at Semicolon
Shelf Love (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross)
Carrie K (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross)
Carol in Oregon (by volume — The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross)