The story of a woman in Norway in the 1300s…. That doesn’t sound all that interesting; but it was riveting.
Warning: Spoilers for the book may be scattered throughout this post. I think the novel would be quite readable knowing everything I mention; but if you are the kind of person who gets annoyed at having details revealed early, then you’ve been warned.
I just finished reading this wonderful historical novel (I almost called it a Norse saga, but that might be confusing as it is set in the middle ages and was written in the 2oth century). It’s taken me a while to get through it, can’t remember the last time a book occupied me for such a long stretch. I started it sometime before Christmas, I think, and it was the only reading material I took with me to Texas. (I don’t use plane time for reading anymore, alas, that might explain why I felt so confident in not taking anything more.)
I’m not calling this post a review because I don’t really feel up to writing a review. I’m still busy digesting. I really wish I knew someone else who’d read this book who would sit down and chat about it with me. I feel like I need another mind to bounce off of. But I did want to record some of my first impressions and I rather hope that this entry may attract some readers who have read the book and may generate some fruitful discussion.
I originally picked up Kristin Lavransdatter because I’d seen it mentioned favorably again and again on various Catholic blogs. (Of course, I can’t remember which blogs.) Sometimes it isn’t a particular review that makes me add a book to my list but a growing sense of its importance to a wide range of readers. In This House of Brede was another such book.
One of the reviews I recently read mentioned that there was a new translation available that is supposed to be quite excellent. As I didn’t keep track of that review, I didn’t know which edition I should go for. AS it was I actually picked up two different translations. Volumes I and II were the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Tiina Nunnally, while volume III was the Vintage edition translated by Charles Archer. On the whole I think I liked the Nunnally better. Certainly the Penguin edition had more extensive notes. I’m curious to see whether there is a better edition out there than either the Penguin or the Vintage.
I knew from the outset that Kristin Lavransdatter is considered to be a Catholic classic (though that’s about all I knew) and so perhaps that has colored my first impressions of the novel. But I rather suspect that I’d have read it the same way coming to it completely cold. This is a clear story about sin and the consequences of sin, about repentance and relapse and redemption. Most of all, it’s the story of an everywoman. Kristin is by no means a saint; but neither is she oblivious to the spiritual life. She is a woman whose life is dominated by one sin that colors everything she sets her hand to. She’s a penitent sinner, however, and throughout the novel she struggles to escape the habits of sin. Even while she sees how her sin taints everything she loves and disfigures her family and is visited on her children, she cannot free herself from her attachments. She is a woman in need of grace, painfully aware of her inability to achieve her own release and her need for a redeemer and yet unable to completely surrender to opportunities for grace when they present themselves. At times this is supremely frustrating, all the more so because it is a painfully familiar reflection of my own spiritual struggles.
Kristin is not always a lovable heroine—sometimes she’s maddening; but she’s wonderfully human. A reviewer on Amazon compared her to Emma Bovary, not a bad comparison. However, I found Kristin much more sympathetic. Emma is fatally blind to her failings. Kristin is much more self-aware. She frequently knows exactly how wrong she is and what she should do. She is just unable or, more precisely, unwilling to do what needs to be done. Her struggle reminds me of the wonderful scene in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce of the man with the lizard on his back. The angel keeps asking if he can kill it and the man, while wanting the lizard silenced, can’t face the idea of letting it be destroyed. Except that in Kristen Lavransdatter Undset presents a much more detailed, more complex and complete portrait of what Lewis merely sketches in passing.
I can’t think of another novel that so clearly explores the spirituality of married life, and so seriously considers the challenges and rewards of the marital vocation. I know there’s more to say here; but I can’t quite put it into words yet.
Finally, I just had to mention that reading the cover blurbs on both the Penguin and the Vintage editions I was taken aback by how obvious it was that the writer of the blurbs either hadn’t read or hadn’t understood the novel. The Penguin edition of The Wreath proclaims: “Defying her parents and stubbornly pursuing her own happiness, Kristin emerges as a woman who not only loves with power and passion but intrepidly confronts her sexuality.” Excuse me? that blurb almost made me put down the book unread. Kristin Lavransdatter is not a proto-modern feminist screed about a character who anachronistically challenges the narrow strictures of society. No, it is a novel about sin and redemption and that should be obvious to any reader who doesn’t come to the book with ideological blinders firmly in place.
And Penguin’s blurb about The Wife is just as wrong-headed: “[Erlend’s] single-minded determination to become an influential political figure forces Kristin to take over management of his estate, Husaby, while raising their seven sons.” I thought it was quite clear that Erlend’s political ambitions were beside the point when it came to Kristin’s taking over the management of the estate. It had much more to do with their individual temperaments and how they were each raised. She was raised to know how to manage an estate, he was not. She cares about such domestic details, he’s oblivious.
But the Vintage blurb took the cake: “The Cross shows Kristin still indomitable, reconstructing her world after the devastation of the Black Death and the loss of almost everything that she has loved.” Um, this one just plain confounds me. Did the writer miss the fact that the Black Death occurs at the very end of the novel after Kristin has renounced her ties to the world and entered monastic life, and in fact Kristin does not survive the plague to reconstruct anything?