Sigrid Undset: Kristin Lavransdatter (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
Now and then someone recommends a book to me and my heart sinks. It might be that the title sounds naff. Or that the author is someone I’ve made a vow never to read. The genre might be the problem (as regular visitors to this blog know, magical realism and I have a largely hate-hate relationship), or the subject matter.
In the case of Norwegian Nobel-Prize-winner Sigrid Undset‘s Kristin Lavransdatter, it was the 1,100-plus page count that had me gnawing my knuckles in dread.
Now, as anyone who’s seen my plans to read the world in 2012 knows, I’m not afraid of a challenge. It’s simply that on balance I prefer novels to look like books rather than doorstops. So when this three-volume beast thunked on to the mat, it took me a good while to work up the enthusiasm to open it and have a read.
But, oh, am I glad I did because, quite simply, and with no qualifications of any kind, this is one of the best books I have read in my life.
Set in fourteenth century Norway (I know, it’s not a promising start, but stick with it), the 1920s trilogy follows the life of noblewoman, Kristin Lavransdatter. The narrative keeps largely to the estates and convents at which she lives, yet this is no period kitchen-sink drama: kicking sand (or perhaps Scandinavian snow) in the face of all those who maintain that women’s lit is narrow and homely in scope, Undset uses the domestic as a prism through which to view national and international events.
In this, the book shares ground with Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but, as the protagonist is female and, as such, not privy to the machinations of the kingmakers as Mantel’s hero is, Undset’s achievement is all the more impressive.
Impressive, too, is Undset’s knowledge of the period in which her story is set. This is evident in everything from the detailed descriptions of rituals around events from births, through the preparation of the marriage bed and the last rituals of dying right down to her choice of similes. These are consistently faithful to the setting and yet fresh and memorable for the modern reader — for example, when Kristin is only able to glimpse her lover from a distance at convent services, she is described as feeling like ‘a hawk that sat chained to a roost with a hood pulled over its eyes’.
Yet what brings all this alive is Undset’s feeling for the characters and world she has evoked. Instead of a cold procession of historical and anthropological details, we are presented with a vibrant milieu, peopled with beings riddled with faults and contradictions. What comes home again and again over the course of the epic is its author’s insight into and sympathy for humanity and her awareness of the cruel conspiracy of character and circumstance that drives people off the course they would have wanted for their lives and yet enriches existence.
The upshot of this is a cast of characters with whom we feel and live through events (when Kristin’s father Lavrans died, I cried my eyes out on the tube — apologies if you were riding in the same carriage), and it makes for a book that is without question among the greatest works in the world. If I hadn’t already read it, I would be recommending it to myself for next year, regardless of its length.
Thanks to Jason Cooper for the recommendation.
Picture by jimgrant