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Kristin Lavransdatter : The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, The Cross. Hardcover – 1929
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Then, there's Sigrid Undsett's `Kristin Lavransdatter,' written in the 1920s and winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature. This novel contains strong people with real attitudes, who happen to live in 14th Century Norway. Universal themes create a link between the Medieval era and modern times, the same way the motifs of `Romeo and Juliet,' or `Othello' link the Renaissance to the 21st Century.
The epic story (over 1100 pages) focuses on Kristin, the strong-willed and somewhat spoiled daughter of the knight, Lavran. Intelligent but impetuous, Kristin struggles through her teenage years, breaks an engagement to the embarrassment of her parents, and marries Erland, a man of whom they disapprove.
Kristin and Erland have a rocky, but at the same time joyous marriage. In some ways, he is a disappointing husband. He is a passionate lover, but cannot manage money or land, and has no common sense about people. Forced to become the brains of the family, Kristin constantly struggles between keeping her place as a woman, and managing finances and fields.
As her children grow up, Erland gets on the wrong side of national politics and plunges the family into poverty. She copes. Eventually he dies in a fight. She becomes a nun. .
Sigrid Undsett takes Kristin through every phase of development, from a little girl terrified when she thinks she sees a forest nymph, to a teen refusing to see the wisdom in guidance her parents are trying to give her, to becoming a mother and understanding exactly what they meant, to making peace with herself at the end of her life.
More exciting, the author places other characters, Erland, Kristin's parents, her children, siblings, family priests, in-laws, and friends, in situations very similar to hers. But they have their own ways of reacting, depending on their temperaments and backgrounds. This creates layers and layers of human thought and action for a reader to compare and contrast in `Kristin Lavransdatter.'. Undsett also varies the pace of the book, balancing character action with contemplation. She holds the description of Kristin's surrounds to what she needs to drive plot and character, giving a picture of 14th Century material culture without excessive detail. She manages this in part because she grew up with an archaeologist father, who specialized in the Medieval Period. From early childhood she heard about artifacts of the Middle Ages and their uses. When she did her own research for `Kristin Lavransdatter,' she had long passed infatuation with castles, and could concentrate on the humanity of the knights living in them.
`Kristinlavransdatter' was written in Norwegian. The original English translation, also from the 1920s, imitated Medieval grammar and usage. The result was a dense and complex tangle of phrase, paragraph and sentence, which made the book difficult to read.
A translation finished this year by Albuquerque writer Tina Nunnally stripped away the faux Old English. Ms. Nunnally used simple, modern language with an occasional nod to earlier forms.
The combination of skillful author and sensitive translator makes `Kristin Lavransdatter' an attention-holding read despite its length. Students of human nature will love the story. So will people who like historical fiction. Young adults will identify with `Kristin Lavransdatter' as will their grandparents.
Well. Thank heavens for book clubs. Because this is a book I will read again, and I rank it right up there with Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude.
Undset follows the life of one woman, Kristin Lavransdatter, from childhood to death. The handling of the various season's of Kristin's life are pure genius. Undset captures the qualities of each stage, without being trite or predictable. I think this is why I often felt as if I were inside the mind and heart of Kristin, even though our surface circumstances are wildly different.
Here's an example of a scene that absolutely made me weep, because I could relate to that fearful time of life when one looks at one's parents and realizes they won't always be here. The poignant moment takes place in a "hollow between small hills," as Kristin departs from her father.
"Kristin...ran her fingers over his clothing and his hand and his saddle, and along the neck and flank of his horse; she pressed her head here and there..." (p.544)
The desperation, the sense of wanting to touch and touch again that which is about to slip through one's fingers... how beautifully Undset captures that.
And, how beautifully she also captures so many other moments--of passion and betrayal, of forgiveness and unforgiveness, of acceptance and denial, of longing and loss.
I wish I had a few weeks to hide away in my room... I would pick this up again without pause. Nevertheless, the characters are still with me, calling me to a reflection and deep feeling I haven't experienced in quite some time.
Before I commit to read a book, I have to want to read it. For many years, my younger brother told me I should read Kristin Lavransdatter. My reaction: What is so great about some lady living in the middle of nowhere in the 1400s? Maybe later...on to the bestseller list.
Oops! I had to eat my words and credit little brother with a great pick! Not to mention a total surprise!
This is probably the best set of books I have ever read in a lifelong love affair with the written word. The story chronicles the life of a woman from youth to death. In essence, however, the author touches on the lives of all women who have loved a man or men, borne and reared children, and faced the lighthearted concerns of youth, the cares of everyday adult existence, and, finally, the contemplations of elderly wives, widows, and grandmothers. Kristin's joys and trials are familiar...universal. First, she defies her parents. (Sound familiar?) She makes choices, then lives with the consequences of her choices.
Sometimes the names and terms are confusing; but, ultimately, the story is well worth the effort. Try it! And remember, men, my brother, whose reading tastes revolve around Asimov, engineering, and the Civil War, pushed these volumes rather forcefully into my purview.