Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Back to the Classics: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)



My monthly book club scheduled The Wreath, the first book in Sigrid Undset’s trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, for the month of May.
I didn’t have the book and had no idea if it could be read as a stand-alone, so I decided to order the Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition which includes all three titles in the trilogy. I’m thankful I did because The Wreath doesn’t have a satisfying end! Each book deals with a different time in Kristin’s life and The Wreath ends with Kristin’s marriage and the revelation of a secret her mother had kept hidden from Kristin’s father. If you decide to read Kristin L, make sure to get either the book above or the individual books - 'The Wreath,' ‘The Wife,’ and ‘The Cross.’

Kristin Lavransdatter is Sigrid Undset’s most famous work and is set in medieval Norway. It is a saga, the pilgrimage of a woman from childhood to the end of her life, transporting the reader back in time and place to 14th Century Scandinavia. Despite its setting, and the peculiarities of the time period, this story could fit right into our own times. There is nothing new under the sun and time doesn't alter the fact that we all struggle with wrong decisions, weakness of character, and our own wilfulness.

Kristin Lavransdatter was originally written in Norwegian between 1921 and 1923. It was translated into English soon after but the result was considered to be severely flawed with omissions, archaic language, and misunderstandings. The Penguin Classics' Edition is the first unabridged English translation of the trilogy and I found it easy to read - all 1,144 pages of it. The only difficulty I experienced was keeping up with the different Scandinavian names and some vagueness as to what the author meant or implied in a couple of instances but it certainly wasn’t something that marred the story.

Regardless of whether you were wealthy or poor, life was harsh in that northern clime. Lice, plague, feuds, superstition, the bitter cold, were either constant companions or looming threats. I sat by the fire as I read a good part of this book thinking about Kristin getting up from under her pile of skins in the dark to get the fire going for the household. That alone would have been enough to kill me!
The overarching theme of Kristin Lavransdatter is that of actions and consequences - sowing and reaping. Following your heart isn't a recipe for a happy life, despite what we are told.

Kristin was betrothed to a young, steady man named Simon but she asked to go to a cloister for a short time before they married. It was while she was away from home that she met the charismatic and impulsive Erlend and secretly began a relationship with him.

She began looking for evidence that other people, like herself, were not without sin. She paid more attention to gossip, and she took note of all the little things hints around her which indicated that not even the sisters in the convent were completely holy and unworldly.

She deceived her father, persuaded him to break off her betrothal to Simon and he reluctantly agreed to her marrying Erlend. The deception she played upon her father was to haunt her ever afterwards and much of her anguish over her own children was to stem from this act.

The monotonous drone of the waterfalls resonated through her overwrought body and soul. It kept reminding her of something, of a time that was an eternity ago; even back then she realised that she would not have the strength to bear the fate she had chosen for herself. She had laid bare her protected, gentle girl’s life to a ravaging, fleshly love; she had lived in anguish, anguish, anguish ever since - an unfree woman from the first moment she became a mother. She had given herself up to the world in her youth, and the more she squirmed and struggled against the bonds of the world, the more fiercely she felt herself imprisoned and fettered by them. She struggled to protect her sons with wings that were bound by the constraints of earthly care...

But always with that secret, breathless anguish: If things go badly for them, I won’t be able to bear it. And deep in her heart she wailed at the memory of her father and mother. They had borne anguish and sorrow over their children, day after day, until their deaths; they had been able to carry this burden, and it was not because they loved their children any less but because they loved with a better kind of love.

There is much about motherhood in this book. Kristin struggles with hopes and fears in the midst of  her tumultuous relationship with her husband and his influence on their seven sons. Her upbringing was so different to Erlend's and she didn't value the stability and love she grew up with until she became a mother herself. She reflected much on the path she had chosen for herself by following her own desires and rejecting her parent's choices.

Was this how she would see her struggle end? Had she conceived in her womb a flock of restless fledgling hawks that simply lay in her nest, waiting impatiently for the hour when their wings were strong enough to carry them beyond the most distant blue peaks?
...They would take with them bloody threads from the roots of her heart when they flew off, and wouldn’t even know it.


Simon remains on the scene throughout and although he eventually marries twice, he always retains a place for Kristin in his heart. He proves himself a loyal friend and is a contrast in character to Erlend.
Another character who plays a major part in Kristin’s life is Ulf Haldorsson, Erlend’s kinsman. For a while he seemed to be a surly, unreliable sort of character but he turns out to be a true friend of both Kristin and Erlend and has a fatherly relationship with their boys. He loved Kristin but didn't allow his feelings to manifest. They only come to the surface when he confides in a priest many years later.

Undset magnificently portrays the historical events and Norway’s religious climate of those times. The reader feels the bitter cold, smells the smoke of the cooking fires, cringes at the lice ridden beds, and grasps the uncertainty of the political and family feuds.
Although the Christian faith came to Norway in the 9th Century, the old pagan practices arose from time to time. Superstition was still ingrained in people’s minds and became mixed up with religious beliefs. These beliefs tended to surface during such events such as childbirth e.g. it was thought that if a pregnant woman looked upon a burning building her child would be born with a blood-red birthmark.
There is a melancholy feel to the writing which stems partly from the medieval setting and also from the Kristin's emotional turmoil.

She had seen the water from the well back home. It looked so clean and pure when it was in the wooden cups. But her father owned a glass goblet, and when he filled it with water and the sun shone through, the water was muddy and full of impurities.

Her eyes had been open to the fact that after the burdens and toil of a young mother comes a new kind of fear and concern for the aging mother.

Judging by some of the reactions from others who have either read this trilogy, or started and never finished, there is possibly a time of life when reading this epic would be difficult. Maybe it should be read after you’ve weathered a good number of years of marriage, or when your children have grown up; when the reality of life has softened your idealism. I think I may have found it depressing had I read it twenty years ago, but at this stage of my life, I was able to be absorbed in the story without it burdening my thoughts.
On the other hand, Kristin’s choice to follow her heart is a cautionary tale. She knew so little of Erlend to begin with and their relationship which began in haste leaves her repenting in her leisure. Perhaps it is a good book to read prior to entering marriage.....

I glanced over some literary reviews of the book and I thought they were a bit over the top and made the book sound almost R-rated. It was no more like that than something that came from Thomas Hardy’s pen. Madame Bovary was more discomfiting for me than Kristin Lavransdatter. Kristin at least had a brain and a conscience.

Some background context:

Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism in 1924 after writing Kristin Lavransdatter and received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928, at the age of forty-six, "Principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages."
She was involved with the Underground during WWII and when the Nazis invaded Norway she fled to the USA travelling by train through Russian and Japan to get there. Undset must have put an enormous amount of research into her writing. Here are some of the people, places & events she mentioned in her trilogy:

The Church in Norway

Some Norwegian history - many of these people were mentioned in Kristin Lavransdatter

Ingeborg of Norway

Magnus IV of Sweden & Norway

Erling Vidkunsson - Norwegian nobleman and regent of Norway

Norway's Black Plague also here




Kristin Lavransdatter is my choice for the Back to the Classics Challenge, 2018  : A Classic in Translation




22 comments:

cleopatra said...

Great review, Carol! It is the first review that has left me eager to read these books. So fascinating and also very resonating in considering this woman's plight. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy.

Joy313 said...

I have tried and failed to get into this book three times. For some reason Undset's writing doesn't resonate with me. I love lengthy Russian novels and epics, so it's not the genre. I wodner if it is a translation issue. I didn't even enjoy Undset's book on St. Catherine, and it is rare that I don't enjoy a saint's book. Your review is great though-- I might try another crack at it.

Aflyonmyhomeschoolwall said...

I have a significant level of Swedish ancestry (Norwegian is differnt, but awfully close), and the idea of reading this trilogy is intriguing.
Thanks for the review and the inspiration.

Ruthiella said...

Fantastic in depth review Carol! I have this trilogy on my TBR. Every one I follow really enjoyed it so I am looking forward to giving it a whirl.

Silvia said...

Excellent review. I agree with you, maybe it's best suited for us, who've been married for many years and been through some things in life, or maybe it's also a great book before you marry, to serve as that cautionary tale. In any case, as with great literature, the quality of the writing, the characters, and the setting, (another character in itself), are superb, and the lessons taught emanate from the text, not the other way around, as it's the case of bad books, :) I did like all the three books, and each has a different tone according to the age of Kristin.

I also don't find any problem with what's told in the book, for it's told with modesty, and always because it's needed. I agree that Madam Bovary would be more overt, but I did not have a problem with that one either. Actually, Emma's lack of morals push me completely to the other extreme, and reading MB made me stronger in my convictions.

Carol said...

Hi Cleo, I think these would be the type of books you would appreciate. Just her thoughts on motherhood alone were so piercing & deep. I'm hoping to get my hands on her tetralogy, Master of Hestviken, which she wrote after KL. It's also set in Medieval Norway & I've read that Kristin's parents made a brief appearance in one of the books.

Carol said...

Hi Joy, that's interesting. I thought the books had a similar feel to the Russian novels I've read, sort of...maybe it was the bleak landscape & the length of them! I haven't read any of her other books so I can't compare but I'm looking forward to reading Master of Hestviken, as I mentioned in my comment above. I think the translation can make or break a book but I haven't seen enough of the older version to adequately compare the two.
Thanks for taking the time to comment :)

Carol said...

Anne, how the naming system worked was interesting. Kristin's surname was Lavransdatter because she was the daughter (datter) of Lavrans, While her mother's name was Ragnfrid Ivarsdatter, daughter of Ivars.

Carol said...

Thanks, Ruthiella. I hope you enjoy it!

Carol said...

I agree, Silvia - it is told with modesty. It's like Shakespeare, implied but not explicit. I don't really have problems with most of the older books & classics in this regard. They don't overlook the consequences of poor choices, generally & are great lessons in character.

Brian Joseph said...

Super review. This sounds so good. Based on your description, the heroine actually marries the man that she wants but faces disappointment, this does sound a little different and a little darker and more cynical then other works. You raise a good point about waiting appreciating something like this more when one is a little older.

GretchenJoanna said...

Joy, did you try this translation by Tiina Nunnally? People say that the earlier one was unnecessarily archaic in its language and did not actually reflect the Norwegian of the original. I read the original translation before Nunnally's came out and didn't have a problem with it, but after enjoying this "cleaner" one I don't think I would go back. And I do want to read it again! I know people who read it yearly. It's a whole world I love living in for a few months.

Carole said...

Completely new to me. Thanks Cheers from CArole's Chatter

Carol said...

Thanks, Brian. It was an excellent book.

Carol said...

GretchenJoanna, I’d be happy to read it again. Maybe in a couple of years. I’ve had Anna K & War & Peace in mind for a long time & now that I’ve read KL they don’t feel so intimidating.

Sherry said...

I'm kinda sorta reading Master of Hestviken right now. I've read the first book and started the second, but I put it aside for a while to simmer in my mind. I'll take it back up again before the end of the year. Like Kristin, it's about sin and poor choices and living with the consequences of those choices. But it's not completely pessimistic. I really like Undset's way of writing about people; her characters are believable in their actions and in the things that happen to them.

Carol said...

Hi Sherry, I read Kristin fairly quickly, partly because I was reading it for the Book Club but also because it was so hard to put down! I’ll do as you’ve done & let Master of Hestviken simmer for a while as I read them & try not to gobble them up :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Carol,
I am so glad you have reviewed this book. I have read so many comments about it that I have never been certain as to whether I should take it on. Having read your review I will put it on my to read list.

We had a fabulous trip...I dont think there is ever enough time to do London justice. And there was one Scots taxi driver, for the life of me I have no idea what he said!:)

Margaret

Carol said...

Welcome home! You'll have to tell me all about your trip. I bet that Scots taxi driver was from Glasgow! I used to have to translate for my Grannie when she moved to Australia. It wasn't just her accent but all the Gaelic & colloquial terms she used.
Would be interested in what you think about KL if you get to read it :)

Annie Kate said...

Oh, I found this so depressing when I read it years ago as a newly wed! I almost started it again last year, but couldn't face it. Perhaps you are right in saying that I read it at the wrong stage in my life, and perhaps it will be better now that I am a few decades older.


Thank you for the review.

Thank you also for the comment on my article about Searching for the Positive. Yes, a biblical positive approach is very different from any of the nonbiblical approaches. It acknowledges the fact that ‘weeping may remain for a night’ but also remembers the comfort that ‘rejoicing comes in the morning’ and it turns to the Lord. (Psalm 30)

Carol said...

I couldn’t have read it as a newly wed!! I read The Good Earth by Oeark Buck about 10 years ago & felt that way about it. It was nit the right time for me at all although it’s a beautifully written book. I couldn’t get it out if my mind afterwards & felt so despondent for ages. I’m not sure I ever want to read it again after my reaction to it the first time. Enjoyed reading your article. As always, well expressed 🙂

Carol said...

Aargh! Please excuse the spelling glitches. I don’t do well typing on a phone! The author was Pearl Buck.