Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset via
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, trans. Tiina Nunnally

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 1922

It's about: This trilogy of novels follows the entire life of a woman named Kristin Lavransdatter in medieval Norway. As a child Kristin was very close to her father, Lavrans, and this relationship guides her emotions and actions her whole life. As a teenager, Kristin betrays her father's trust when she develops a relationship with a tall, dark, handsome man with a sword named Erlend, becomes pregnant, and breaks off her betrothal to another man that her father chose for her. Kristin is racked with guilt and regret her whole life, while both her love and resentment toward Erlend grow and evolve throughout their marriage. A book written by a woman about a woman's life of course touches on all the things that affected women's lives during the middle ages and beyond - discovering the world as a young girl, puberty, attention from boys and awakening sexual desire, marriage, pregnancy, birth, and motherhood.

Praised for its nuanced depiction of one woman's life, Kristin Lavransdatter won the nobel prize for literature in 1928.

I thought: I've had this book sitting on my shelf for years. I was hesitant to read it because it was long and because I thought it would be boring. The beginning was a bit slow, but as soon as Kristin met Erlend and they had a certain encounter in a barn, I was hooked. I read hundreds of pages a day because I couldn't get enough ... then I realized the end was coming soon and I slowed way down because I didn't want it to end. As Kristin grew in her experience, she kept surprising me - sometimes she would make silly mistakes, and other times huge and beautiful sacrifices for those she loved, and lots of other delightful things in between. So much happens in this book, and it always kept me interested and surprised.

I think the thing I liked the most about this book was the emotional depth of the characters. I felt for them like I felt for the characters in War and Peace, my favorite book. It's like these people are on the same wavelength as me. Sure, they live on farms in 14th century Norway, churn milk, eat goat meat, and sometimes all sleep together in one big bed, but I get them. They make huge, life changing mistakes, they do stupid things, meaningful things, and totally and utterly redeem themselves in the end because they do just the things that make me love them so much more.

The reason I thought this book would be boring was the fact that, because Kristin was a devout Catholic, it has quite a bit of religion in it. Not to worry - there are no long tracts or rants, Tolstoy-style. Kristin makes friends with monks, goes to church, lives with nuns for a little while, worships, and prays. When I think of catholicism in the middle ages, I think of dogma and corruption. What I don't usually think about is how that religion actually plays itself out in people's lives. Kristin's religion and her worship is the organizing principle of her life. But the light it shines onto Kristin's life is what brings out the depth of her story. Maybe because I am a religious person myself, I understood why Kristin found so much peace and comfort in the every day religious rituals she learned from her devout father, Lavrans, and that she later taught to her own sons. It drew everything together in such a meaningful and lovely way.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: Or, rather, a viewing recommendation: The short film "The Danish Poet" was my first introduction to Kristin and Sigrid Undset. It won an Academy Award in 2007 for best short film.

Warnings: Wikipedia says of this book, "Kristin Lavransdatter was notable and to some extent controversial in its time, for its explicit characterization of sex in general and female sexuality in particular; and its treatment of morally ambiguous situations." This is more of a reason to read the book rather than to not read it. Sex exists in this book, but it isn't described in any sort of detail.

Favorite excerpts: "[Kristin's] heart was withered with anguish, but rigid and mute, she waited for the next one to die; she expected it, like an inevitable fate. She had never fully understood what she had been given when God bestowed on her so many children. The worst of it was that in some ways she had understood. But she had thought more about the troubles, the pain, the anguish, and the strife--even though she had learned over and over again, from her yearning every time a child grew out of her arms, and from her joy every time a new one lay at her breast, that her happiness was inexpressibly greater than her struggles or pain. She had grumbled because the father of her children was such an unreliable man, who gave so little thought to the descendants who would come after him. She always forgot that he had been no different when she broke God's commandments and trampled on her own family in order to win him."

What I'm reading next: Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery