Kristin Lavransdatter is a novel of tensions – between Christianity and the waning paganism, between this world and the next, between the head and the heart, duty and desire, wildness and piety.
The intense human experiences that make up a life – birth, love, sex, marriage, friendship, war, death – are recurrent. We are as violent, as exuberant, and as mundane as ancient characters in the Bible and in epic poetry; but reading Kristin Lavransdatter has so convinced me of the enormous breach that divides medieval society and persons from today, just seven hundred years, that I am surprised we are the same race.
Undset’s trilogy (made up of The Wreath/ The Wife/ The Cross) is a success, not only because of the vivid narrative, vibrant characters, and rich writing, but largely because she is able to unapologetically depict these fourteenth century Norwegian characters in a way which attracts and repel the reader. Certain parts of life – love and friendship – have not changed, though others – arranged marriages, family duty, and primogeniture – have. Undset grew up as the only child of an archeologist and his secretary, in a house filled with books, manuscripts and relics, and it is surely this backdrop which enabled her to infuse her fiction with historical detail without weighting it with the historical novelist’s tendency to add heavy Look What I’ve Researched paragraphs.
There is little explanation for the initiate; just a swift push into dense medieval society. It begins with a property dispute, with a small family on a relatively well-to-do estate. Life is built around one’s duties: duty to one’s kinsmen, to the church, to the saints, to the poor, to better one’s property for the heirs.
Kristin is the beautiful and spirited daughter, the apple of her father Lavrans’ eye. From childhood, she is swayed by two conflicting desires, one for the world and the other for the religious life. She grows in relative comfort and affection, and is willingly betrothed to a man her father chooses. When she meets the dashing bad-boy, Erlend, her caution and duty to her family is sacrificed to their burning passion. They are married (Kristin already pregnant), but not without consequence. Kristin’s guilt at their premature seduction plagues their marriage and the rest of the trilogy. It is this marriage, this wrestling of two spirited and proud characters, which is the vital spark that ties the trilogy together.
The narrative continues without much surprise: characters marry, parents die, children are born, characters age. And unlike many other novels, Undset allows us to witness Kristin and Erlend’s marriage in its entirety, all the joys, tedium and cruelties that constitute a marriage.
There is so much to infuriate the modern reader, especially (if I may presume) the female reader. Women are maidens, wives or harlots. They are protected assets and at worst, heifers. Kristin becomes a skilled housekeeper and lady of the manor, and manages her land and possessions. But she grows hysterical, she weeps wildly; she bows to the wisdom of her father, her husband, her brother-in-law, her sons.
The constant presence of the church may be estranging for some, as well as the constant returning to her old sense of guilt and damnation – the repeated litany of old sins. The church is depicted vigorously, with beauty and irreverence.
Undset passes no judgment and proposes no moral; she spins a tale and this medieval background – both the admirable parts and the backward parts - is the fabric she uses.
It would be unfair for me to impose my modern sensibilities, my understanding of individuals and relationships, upon these characters. The characters and their motivations are extremely “other” to me. How do we in the 21st century (we who have passed through the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment, the Revolutions, the Modern era, and inhabit the Postmodern era) understand the person who thinks in terms of a village and clan and heirs, instead of the individual? Kristin regrets her sins, not because they have spoiled her purity and disappointed God (though this does come up), but predominantly because this reflects badly on her father, because she disappoints those she loves, and causes them dishonor. This concept of communal honor, of one’s good name being dependent on relatives and acquaintances, is foreign.
The introduction to this newly translated Penguin edition says that previous translations have been weighted down with antiquated, almost Shakespearean, speech. Tiina Nunnelly’s translation is clear, direct, and helps to bring the gap between this Norwegian woman on her country estate, wringing her hands over her irresponsible husband and seven growing sons, and me in an airport in Denver, passing the time before I catch my transfer.
Her prose is dramatic, but also constantly reflective. The reader is aware of the intimacy with the natural world which was once so inescapable: frost, floods, fire, mosses, grasses, stone, cuckoos, stars, sunrises, sunsets, snow. Before large cities and easy transport, the world was wild. The morning weather meant something; the night skies were portentous. One knew the names of the flowers and herbs that grew in season, and the birds that sang.
The rhythms of nature were effective and intrusive (as, I consider the heavily falling snow’s potential to delay my Christmas flight, they still are now).
Undset makes sure to draw the reader’s attention to the changing seasons and Kristin’s awareness of the world. Here is a paragraph which describes Kristin’s penitential visit to a church, combining the fluidity between man-made architecture and the outdoors:
“Along the galleries of the heavenly palace stood holy men and women, and they were so beautiful that she dared not look at them. The imperishable vines of eternity wound their way upward, calm and lovely, bursting into flower on spires and towers with stone monstrances…She walked as if through a forest. The pillars were furrowed like ancient trees, and into the woods the light seeped, colorful and as clear as song, through the stained-glass windows. High overhead animals and people frolicked in the stone foliage, and angels played their instruments. At an event higher, more dizzying height, the vaults of the ceiling arched upward, lifting the church toward God.”
And here, she doesn’t remain in the valley and on the mountain, but turns her attention to the water:
“Erlend remembered what he had been dreaming. He was walking along a shore somewhere; it was low tide, and he was leaping from stone to stone. In the distance the sea was glistening and pale, lapping at the seaweed; it was like a silent, cloudy summer evening, with no sun. At the mouth of the silvery fjord he saw the ship anchored, black and sleek, rocking gently on the waves. There was an ungodly, delicious smell of sea and kelp.”
Undset’s storytelling is entrancing, her characters are believably flawed and dynamic, and her prose is lively but wondrous. The only struggle, besides the sheer size of the trilogy, is sorting out who is who. As in Russian novels, all the characters seem to have the same names. One can only guess who is who; the levels and ties of kinship become bewildering.
Okay, no more talk of Scandinavians for a while, I promise. But, like Anna Karenina, put Kristin Lavransdatter on your Big Books to Read Sometime List. Its warmth, depth, and exquisite clarity will reward your efforts.