I kid in the headline, but this really does involve a large introspective journey into the natures of Sin and Faith.
Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928, in large part because of this trilogy of novels. These novels trace the personal history of Kristin Lavransdatter, a medieval Norwegian noblewoman from her birth through….well, I will have to see when I read the third novel. This first section primarily deals with her childhood, her adolescence, and her various courtships, love affairs, and troubling experiences with sexuality and her own identity (religious and sexual). It’s not really a salacious book by our standards, and reads like the post-19th century novel that it is. It’s honest, while still being discreet; it’s realistic about its characters, while not allowing prevailing mores to set the moral and emotional tones by themselves. What I mean by this is she is neither a feminist firebrand, nor a hapless victim. You see her choices, see her limitations, follow along with her mistakes, but neither the book nor the other characters treat her as a pariah. (Spoiler: In the second book as she gets older, she starts to anxiously reflect on her younger self and her choices and admonish her misdeeds…ie like everyone over the age of 25 does).
The language in the book is rich and flowery at times, but it’s not overly baroque. From what I can gather about various translations of the novel, early translations made this out as if it were written in medieval Norway, not just set in it, but the language in this newer translation is older (the books were written in 1920ish) but not antiquated, and certainly not ancient by any means. The dialog is a little stilted, but it doesn’t sound false or heavy. Over all, it’s really readable, evidenced mostly by the fact that I pretty much read it straight through. For reference, I am reading the Tiina Nunnally translation from 1997.
Here’s some samples:
Brother Edvin took Kristin into the sacristry and showed her the monastery’s books, which were displayed on stands. They contained the most beautiful pictures. But when one of the monks came in, Brother Edvin said he was merely looking for a donkey’s head to to copy.
Afterward he shook his head at himself. ‘There you see my fear, Kristin. But they’re so nervous about their books here in this house. If I had the proper faith and love, I wouldn’t stand here and lie to Brother Aasulv. But then I could just as well take these old leather gloves and hang them up on that ray of sunshine over there.’
Kristin went with the monk over to the guest house and had something to eat, but otherwise she sat in the church all day long, watching him work, and talking to him. And not until Lavrans came back to get Kristin did either she or the monk remember the message that should have been sent to the shoemaker.
In the spring after Kristin’s long journey, Ragnfrid gave birth to a daughter. Both parents had no doubt wished that the child would be a boy, but this did not trouble them for long, and they developed the deepest love for little Ulvhild. She was an exceedingly pretty child, healthy, good-natured, happy, serene. Ragnfrid loved this new child so much that she continued to nurse her even after she turned two. For that reason Ragnfrid followed Sira Eirik’s advice and refrained from participating in her usual strict fasts and devout rituals for as long as she had the child at her breast. Because of this and because of her joy for Ulvhild, Ragnfrid blosomed; and Lavrans thought he had never seen his wife look so happy and beautiful and approachable in all the years of their marriage.
What is this book and what am I doing reading it? I knew of it because of Nobel prize awareness in general and then I found it in a Little Free Library. No clue why I started reading it at the end of Winter Break and less of a clue why I read it in pretty much one sitting. It’s not super difficult but also not breezy at all. It’s dry, but rewarding. It’s religious, but as someone fairly familiar with Christianity, but not a Christian at all, I didn’t find it dripping in it. It’s a historical novel (in scope, in subject, and since it’s 100 years old, in practice), so the religious part feels more closely tied to my understanding of the character and her sense of the world, as well as the spiritual language of the culture, than it does feel like anything remotely like proselytizing. You don’t have to be all for the spirituality, but you have to be understanding and compassionate about it, or else the character choices will seem too simple or illogical.
I made the joke about Game of Thrones above because this is a medieval historical novel that focuses more on aristocratic domesticity than on politics and warfare, but there’s some parallels. Kristin is possibly a proto-figure in medieval and even fantasy novels of the young girl who dreams of romance and then has to face up to the realities once she’s gotten what she wants, so you might see some similarities with Sansa Stark for example. I will also include an older cover where she looks exactly like Sansa Stark.
In terms of a recommendation, I warned you about what this novel is, so if you’re into that…And for what it’s worth, I am already 200 pages into the second part of the trilogy.