Thursday, May 11, 2006

Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922), by Sigrid Undset

Going to try to catch up with some of my recent reading. First up: Literature in Translation!

SPOILERS FOR NOVELS WRITTEN EIGHTY YEARS AGO! LOOK OUT BELOW!

Back in college I heard more about Sigrid Undset than I read. The Scandinavian Studies department was small, and I had classes with the grad students. We went to the same department functions. They taught some of my classes. A few times Undset came up, and there were some sighs and eye-rolling. I don't remember the precise complaints, but the impression I had was that they considered Undset dull and preachy.

That impression wasn't contradicted by my only encounter with her as an undergrad; for one of my literature courses we read Jenny, the story of a young Norwegian painter caught up in a succession of unsatisfying relationships in 1920's Rome. Undset seemed to be writing from the belief that romance or marriage was no place for an educated, intelligent woman; that simple passion and affection could not bear the weight of analysis which such a woman would inevitably place upon it. But neither does Jenny find satisfaction in her work, because of her preoccupation with finding love. She seems about to find some solace in motherhood, but her baby dies after six weeks, and she ends up committing suicide.

It's difficult to believe that the same woman wrote Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy of books (The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross: the link goes to the collected edition) set in medieval (early 1300's) Norway. Kristin is a strong-willed and passionate young woman, willing to court scandal for the sake of romance. This is a very Catholic novel (Undset converted soon after writing the trilogy): though Kristin brings shame upon her parents, they forgive her; despite her husband's transgressions, Kristin forgives him; and in the end, Kristin seeks atonement for a lifetime of pridefulness by going to serve in a convent. It's a Catholic book, but not a pious one. Kristin is not a saint but a sinner like anyone else, and in some ways the trilogy reads like a Norwegian telenovela--the difference being that the frequent violence and sexuality is depicted in laconic Scandinavian fashion. (Not so much with the yelling, those Norwegians; more with the stony silences.) And in the midst of it all is perhaps the most realistic epic love story I've ever read, of two people who love each other with more passion than reason, who make each other crazy and bring each other great pain and are probably completely wrong for each other, yet are bound by ties they don't know how to break.

I think that it's totally possible and valid to read these books as a straightforward family saga, centered on a smart if bull-headed woman and the men in her life. (Kristin ends up bearing eight sons, and she has complex relationships with her father and at least two men besides her husband who love her all their lives.) But what I like best are novels with dimensions, and these books have them. It should be said, if you have a violent aversion to all matters religious, these are not the books for you. Kristin's understanding of faith becomes more nuanced as the story progresses, as amid her transgressions she struggles with the expectations placed on her by the church and its agents. Contrasting this are elements of old folk beliefs which are presented no less seriously, and even take on a more concrete (if brief) presence in the text: the elf-like huldre of Norwegian legend, the folk medicine of pagan days.

Kristin Lavransdatter is so respectful of historical reality (the picture of medieval Norway is remarkably vivid and grounded) that there almost doesn't seem to be room for a feminist reading of these books. While women in Scandinavia of that time were better off than in some other areas--they could at least inherit and hold property separate from their husbands, and wives of landowners wore their keys around their necks as a sign of their control of the homestead--in larger matters of politics, religion, and family honor, they had little influence. Kristin is far from passive, but as Undset writes her she is bound to certain roles. The major political intrigue of the novel is one which has a profound effect on the fortunes of Kristin's family, yet she doesn't learn of it or her husband's involvement in it until after the fact. In public matters she alone has no influence, but requires male sponsors to advocate for her. This leads to bizarre reversals; at various points in the novels Kristin seems to serve as mother to her husband, daughter to her sons. The violence in which they and others become involved is something Kristin is powerless to prevent. But in the end it is her intercession in the face of threatened violence that becomes both the culminating act of defiance and her doom. Undset is no more optimistic, in the end, about the viability of stepping outside of traditional gender roles. But for Kristin, at least, there is a life to be lived, one Jenny never got a chance at.

Amid those contrasts I suppose one could argue that on some levels--despite the ugly death and injury by everything from household accidents to longspears to the inevitable Black Death--Undset is guilty of taking a pastoral view of the past. This is certainly something we see in fantasy nowadays, and not just the medievalists; some have accused even García Marquez of fetishizing rural, "simple" life. I'm not that interested in those arguments. For me it's enough that I came to Kristin Lavransdatter suspecting that I would read half of the first book before giving up, and came away feeling that these were among the best books I've ever read.

NEXT UP: Midnighters

10 Comments:

Blogger SarahP said...

Interesting review! This is one of those books I've seen on the library shelves and never felt remotely motivated to pick up. Still don't, but I loved your comment about stony silences.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I know what you mean, Sarah; if I hadn't run across some used copies cheap, and if I didn't have the background in Norwegian/Scandinavian lit, I doubt I would have given it a shot. But honestly, it's excellent.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Trent said...

Can't say I'm familiar with Ms. Undset's work but now I'm interested. Modern religion, folk beliefs, Scandinavia...what's not to love?

Prof. Susan Brantley taught my Icelandic Sagas class at UW (don't know if you know her) but she had a different take on women in medieval Scandinavia. She argued that women of that time had a great deal of power in influencing politics and especially family honor by goading men into making certain decisions. Laxdaela Saga is probably the best example of this as Gudrun is the one pulling the strings and continually puts Bolli and Kjartan at odds, shaming Bolli into action and generally keeping the flames of the feud stoked. She made similar (and convincing) arguments about Gisli's Saga, Volsunga Saga, and Njal's Saga where women are manipulating and using shame/honor to drive events to certain conclusions.

But women were not treated as equal agents and had no accepted function in the public sphere, which I think is what you were saying anyway. Just thought you might be interested.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

You had Brantly? Small world, man. I had her for some classes, and worked as an assistant to her for a semester.

I took the same sagas class, and I remember her talking about that. Certainly there's something to that, particularly when you're talking about blood feuds; but there aren't any of those in KL, and Kristin's husband Erlend plays things pretty close to the vest. For the most part Kristin herself doesn't take much of an interest in political matters except insofar as they affect her own family. So I don't disagree with Sue's take, but I think it's somewhat more specific to the sagas and that period. By the 1300's things had settled down quite a bit. That's actually one of the themes of the book; the consensus among his peers is that Erlend was born to be a great warrior, but since the opportunity for making war is on the wane, he becomes something of a throwback.

I really think you ought to check these books out, Trent. I think we'd have a lot to talk about.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

You really give good review, Dave. I'd love to see you writing some for Strange Horizons. Just mentioning it.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Heh. Thanks, Karen: I'd actually talked to Niall at one point about doing some comics reviews, specifically. I never did follow up on it, though. I should do that now that I have actual time.

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Pete said...

Scandinavian Studies department??? Where, may I ask, did you go to college?

9:39 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Heh. Hey, Pete: I got my degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It's one of only a few (maybe a half-dozen or so) places in the U.S. offering the degree.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Rosalie said...

This is a great review. I'm looking for interesting reads before summer school starts and I think I'll have to add Kristen Lavransdatter to the pile. Who could resist a good epic?

3:42 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

UMass at Amherst has a Scandinavian Studies department, too, which is how I first learned to speak Swedish.

3:46 PM  

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