on January 13, 2008
Kristin Lavransdatter is the biggest literary surprise that ever engulfed me, as I read its 1,168 pages in three weeks on the subway, airplanes, theater auditoriums, nature trails, and anywhere else I could sneak in a few pages, the better to channel my way into Kristin's compelling, meticulously created and true-to-life world.
This story starts slowly, like a locomotive, but by the end it builds a staggering, devastating momentum that still swirls in my mind, months after finishing the novel for the second time.
If you like treason, torture, betrayal, drunken assaults, bar fights, sword fights, political intrigue, charging bears, brothels, plague, poison, suicide, damsels in distress, black magic, and human sacrifice, you'll find it in these pages.
And if you like stories of spiritual quests, coming of age and reflections from age, the bonds between fathers and daughters, and of mothers and sons, platonic love, unrequited love, doomed love, the joys of children, the inextinguishable anguish of burying children, the circle of life that never stops turning, and the most tender, heartbreaking passages I've ever read of the love between a mother and her child, you'll find even more of it in Kristin's life story.
And to all the smug reviewers who chastise Kristin and wish they could have just slapped some sense into her, I say this: can you really imagine that Kristin could have led her life any other way? My answer is this:
"All that happened and would happen was meant to be. Everything happens as it is meant to be." (p. 289, "The Cross")
Kristin is not a saint, but neither is she a cautionary tale. As long as we humans can love and live, we will love well, love madly and sometimes love foolishly, and we'll tell stories about it. And this story of Kristin is for me the truest love story ever told, and I will never forget her.
on September 22, 2006
I read this as a book-club selection, and I'm so glad I did. Under different circumstances, I might have avoided the title, because of its size and the seemingly dry first page (it starts with a lineage and a history of the family's geographical locations).
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.
on October 25, 2005
Many novels set in the Middle Ages happen to have a few people and a few human values in them. Authors dwell upon the trappings of the times, ensnaring their characters in endless descriptions of clothing and castles, until the stories read like a 6th Grade history text, in which a child hero takes the reader through the facts and figures of the era by recreating A Day in the Life of A Knight. Or a Monk. Or a Serf.
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.
on June 3, 1997
The trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, tells the story of a Scandanavian woman who lived in the 1400s. The books--The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross--were written by Sigrid Undset and won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature.
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.
on August 11, 2008
"Kristin Lavrandatter", Sigrid Undset's Nobel-prize winning trilogy from the 1920s, doesn't appear on any college reading list that I have ever seen, despite its beauty, depth of observations about love, marriage, and family psychology, tour de force representation of life in medieval Norway, and the critical praise heaped upon it. Its length (1,000 pages plus in most translations) is probably one factor, and, some might say, another factor was the "medievalist" style of archaic English used in the Charles Archer translation that until recently was the one available. A very recent translation by Tina Nunnally is done in more modern, colloquial English. I should state here that I am probably in a minority in adoring the Archer translation - I did not, as others report below, find the language a chore at all: on the contrary, I found it enhanced the feel of having stepped into the past. I found the newer translation to be less satisfying, stylistically. Unless one speaks fluent Norwegian and can read the original without the veil of translation between reader and author, the matter is somewhat moot. So far as I could tell, Nunnally did not offer anything in her modernist translation that was substantially different from the story and characters presented in the Archer translation.
This great epic of Undset's is divided into three books: The Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross. Set in the 1300s, in feudal Norway, the novel's central character is Kristin Lavransdatter (literally, "daughter of Lavrans"), the eldest child of well-to-do, upright, respected, landowners. Pretty, intelligent, sheltered yet strong-willed, and the light of her deeply religious father's life, the novel opens during Kristin's childhood and ends with her death in old age. In the many pages between, Undset observes a life teeming with conflict, religious struggle, sexual awakening, marriage, and motherhood. And, through these stages of Kristin's life, Undset opens a window onto life in medieval Norway, of the powerful role of the church in everyday life, the restricted roles of women, the custom of arranged marriages, child-rearing, farming, and politics (Norway's monarchy had passed to Sweden at the time).
Undset's achievement at weaving together this enormous tapestry, of presenting so many characters, in addition to Kristin, with all their varied human foibles, is monumental. You will feel as if you have stepped into an alternative, yet quite real universe. Whether you read and prefer the newer translation or (as this reviewer does) the older translation, Undset's knowledge of the poignant, and apparently eternal, realities of relationship and family life should be equally rewarding. Undset had a strong interest in family psychology, women's issues, and was a convert to Catholicism - these interests, together with the painstaking research she undertook, combine to give us this living, breathing picture of life in the Middle Ages.
Book I, The Wreath (the title refers to the golden wreath of maidenhood worn by young girls before marriage) covers Kristin's life from childhood to her wedding; Book II, The Mistress of Husaby, covers Kristin's life from her marriage to her widowhood; Book III, The Cross, covers her life from the death of her husband through her death.
The central conflict of the novel is Kristin's marriage to Erlend Nikulauson. Erlend, although of a noble family and even more well-born than Kristin, has lived in adultery with another man's wife and has two children with her. After Kristin falls in love with Erlend and refuses to marry Simon Darre, the good man that her father has selected for her husband, and who has fallen deeply in love with her despite the arranged character of the marriage, the relationship between Kristin and her father undergoes tremendous strain. A series of tragic circumstances weakens Lavrans's resolve never to wed his daughter to an adulterer, and at last Kristin and Erlend are married, concluding the first book.
Husaby is Erlend's great estate, thus, Book II, The Mistress of Husaby, takes us through Kristin's married life, the complexities of her relationship with her husband, and years of childbearing. Erlend, at heart an adventurer who prefers the open sea to caring for his lands, flocks, and household, chafes under married life and exhibits an undisciplined, weak character except in matters of warfare. Kristin finds she must provide the strengths that he lacks at home and resents Erlend for it. Simon, meanwhile, eventually marries Kristin's youngest sister, although he never ceases to love Kristin, which opens up a breach between the two sisters.
Erlend also becomes embroiled in a failed political coup that eventually deprives him of his lands, forcing him and Kristin and their sons to return to Jorundgaard, Kristin's childhood estate, which is now hers by right after her father's death. Thus, the last book, The Cross, takes us through the hardest years of Kristin's life, with an embittered husband who is killed in a dispute not long after the return to Jorundgaard. Kristin's years as a widow, providing hard-won wisdom and comfort to her brood of headstrong sons, and the spiritual peace she finds at last after her tumultuous life, make up the final section of the book.
Throughout all three books, the role of Catholicism plays a very strong role not only in daily life, but in the psyches particularly of Kristin and her father and mother. The struggle to accommodate the high standards of Christian practice and goodness that conflict with human feelings and weaknesses is a connecting theme in the work, as is the immutable nature of character. One cannot help wondering as one reads what would have happened had Kristin done her father's bidding and married Simon, much the stronger and more sensible man, and one who loves Kristin in his way as much as Erlend does. And yet, Undset makes it clear that the love between Kristin and Erlend, despite all the trials it endures, is one that neither could have lived without.
I cannot recommend this unique and brilliant work highly enough. It will stay with you for the rest of your life.
on July 28, 1998
It was with undiluted pleasure that I saw that "Kristin" was finally being published again after a generation of neglect.
What can be truly said? That I first read the book when I was 12 (in 1968!) and have reread it countless times since? That to dip in again resurrects a state of mind that conjures a bleakness of snow-bleached fields and the goddess of a flower-strewn meadow? "Kristin" shows how material reality can be transcended by the spiritual, how moral values are warped despite good intentions, and how time can purify and resolve even the most tragic circumstance.
In one scene of "Kristin", for example, she cares for her former fiancé, now her dying brother-in-law. Although they have had close contact throughout the years, she is made to realize just how much this man has quietly sacrificed and suffered for her sake. The sometimes crude details of his final illness only add poignancy and texture to the heartbreak of losing! a more than true, yet not quite appreciated friend. Her "penance" in lovingly caring for his now bloated and decaying body as his soul feels its way clear to show at last its true feelings combines to form a unique montage. Although an unrequited lover, Simon has truly loved. It is he who wins through dying well and Kristin who loses by realizing too late what exactly he had meant to her.
Superficially, "Kristin" can be difficult as the language has almost the sparceness of a history text and is reminiscent of the required reading of bygone sagas, dry and lacking in the florid passion of description to which we are now so accustomed. But as the details build and the light of psychological insight begins to highlight inner feelings, the tale becomes impossible to relinquish. Once read, never forgotten.
on January 13, 2003
At first, I was a little put off by the abundance of place names and characters in the book. It took me awhile to get through the first few chapters. However, I soon found myself completely hooked and physically unable to put this book down. It is without a doubt the best book I have read in a very long time. I am only surprised that I haven't heard of it before.
As I read, I found so many different things to like about this book. First, there is the setting: medieval Norway. The author writes realistically (at least I judge it so) within this setting, and it is fascinating. She gives an impossible wealth of details about many things. (To be honest, I skipped over many of the details in favor of the storyline. I'm just not that much of an historian, but I did appreciate the research done.)
Second, there is the storyline, with its irresistable call. The book is worth reading for that alone. It reminds me of a medieval Norwegian "Gone with the Wind" - only better. I am not much the "Gone with the Wind" type myself, so if tragic plotlines turn you off, never fear! The book manages to remain positive, if not exactly with a "Hollywood ending." Powerful and inspiring, it offers romance, political intrigue, betrayal, adventure, heartbreak and way too much more to mention here.
The characters in this book are so real, so well developed (I guess in 1000 pages, you'd hope they would be!). Through them, the author holds a mirror up to life. I found myself fascinated.
In closing, a note about politics. The author goes into some detail about the politics of the time, and I have to admit I found this part very dry. (I am definitely a light-weight in that respect.) Around the middle of the second book, there is a lot of such political plotline. I was actually able to put the book down for a few hours when I hit this point. If you reach this point and find yourself ready to quit, I encourage you to skim past this part, because the personal storyline reappears with a satisfying crunch.
Stick with it! Skip the boring parts. You will be glad you did!
on March 4, 2003
I picked this trilogy up because (a) I had never heard of it and (b) I was astonished to note that it had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It had to be worth a try. And what a gem it is - a detailed and historically accurate picture of life in 14th Century Norway, complete with a fesity herione, hulking men and the entire range of human emotions in all their glory.
The novel begins with our hero Kristin bathing in the love of her parents in living in the comfort of a wealthy home. As she grows, she finds herself completely in love, and against the wishes of her parents and her betrothed (another far more suitable man) pursues and secures the man of her dreams. But of course we must be careful what we wish for, and the novels take us through the trials and tribulations of life with someone you love, but are not necessarily suited to.
This is a rich and detailed novel, that is not always to read, but at time it was so powerful that it reduced me to tears. You become completely involved in the character's lives, and in the end this gives you a real sense of satisfaction in your reading.
It certtainly is a different book, and one which is well worth your time.
on June 9, 2000
This marvelous trilogy relates the story of a 14th century woman, Kristen Lavransdatter, from childhood to deathbed. What a journey it is.
Kristen starts off raised by an adoring father and a distant mother. Her father betrothes her to the son of a neighbor. She quickly comes to like Simon, a kind, reliable young man who even adores children. She is quite happy until she meets the handsome, mysterious Erlend, who has a reputation for trouble after having children with a woman who was married at the time.
Kristen falls deeply in love with Erlend, and they begin a torrid affair. Eventually, Simon finds out; and Kristen demands he take the blame for ending the engagement, now too far along to end without scandal - in the selfishness of young love thinking only of Erlend's reputation. Simon agrees, in part because he's too nice - and wise - to force her to marry him now, and in part to protect Kristen's father, who he likes, from being forced into a duel with Erlend. Kirsten gets her Erlend just in time, as she is already pregnant.
The years go by. Kristen makes peace with her parents before they die and starts to raise a family. Simon, not cut out for either celibacy or childlessness, marries twice - the second time to Kristen's sister - but ends up grievously wronging both wives because they're just substitutes for Kristen.
As they enter middle age, Kristen has come to realise that the traits that made Erlend such an exciting lover also make him a less than admirable husband and father - and that it's Simon who has always been there in her darkest hours. But it's now too late, and she must live with the choices she made in her youth. She devotes her life to God and her children, who give her the same joy and pain she gave her own parents - and the circle of life completes itself.
Beautifully written, this series turns one life into an epic.
on March 3, 2001
I've purchased this book 2 years ago, and 9 years have passed since I first read it. I tend to re-read it at least once per year, especially when the first buds of depression appear or I doubt the purpose of human life.
The book is profound and epic in handling the storyline, it's well worth the Nobel prize. It's not a silly bodice-ripper or the story unnecessary embellished by descriptions of sumptuous feasts, glittering costumes, erotic scenes etc. Though, the descriptions of Norway's astute yet breathtaking nature are lavish. The author also expertly describes aspects of social and religious traditions of Norway in 14th century, way of living and thinking, standards of behavior and culture. It's the book where musings and inner conversations of the characters occupy paragraphs.
If you've read this review so far you probably start thinking it's a boring and moralizing book. But behold this: the book spans the life story of Kristiin, daughter of noble parents, and her happy childhood, involves forbidden illicit passion, murder, her stormy and controversial marriage, pride in seeing her sons growing, estrangements and reunions, family feuds, a royal conspiracy, constant choice between earthly chores and consolation in God, heroic and mundane. We see the world as it has been through eyes of the three main characters, their joy, hatred, secret sorrow and passion.
I've read quite a few excellent historical novels by modern writers (such as Zoe Oldenbourg, Margaret George, Sharon K Penmann), but this book is different. Read it and make sure yourself! Subject of the book is eternal. The choices the characters face and hardships they have to overcome are as old as humankind. The ultimate gift of the author, what makes this book different is that the reader feels both close and wrenching sympathy for Kristiin and her kind, but still they remain remote for their rhythm of life, way of thinking and world perception is 600 years old. But the thread of life spins through the pages and binds past and future and we feel tenderness of a caress, warmth of fire and pain from losses. For technology and traditions change, not the human nature itself.