Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

kristinThis monumental saga of the life of a Norwegian woman in medieval times is far less well-known in translation than it should be. Often divided into three separate works, this edition is a compilation of the three parts. Having read it as one novel, I would balk at calling it an omnibus as none of the sections could really count as a stand-alone novel. The saga needs to be read in full to appreciate the scope and breadth of Undset’s writing. On the surface, it is a great tale of medieval Norway and I was quickly lost in Kristin’s world. It is worth noting that the edition I read was the Archer translation from the 1930s. He chose to use very archaic style and vocabulary which did take a while to get used to. There are more modern translations available (Nunnally, for example) and I will certainly be tempted to re-read this in a more contemporary style, but after the initial adjustment period, Archer’s style complemented the novel’s subject matter well and helped to transport me back to a Norway of so many centuries past. The Archer edition has detailed and informative notes which gave a great insight into the social and political landscape at the time the novel takes place and deserve mention in their own right for the complete and wide-reaching historical background they provide.

This is a multi-faceted novel that delivers on many levels. It is a vibrant and gripping personal history of the characters involved, of which there is a vast supporting cast, every one of them given full consideration and development in the narrative. It is also an account of a woman’s lifetime relationship with her spirituality. Ever present is the moulding of and conflict between religion and superstition in the world Kristin lives in. In her own life, we see her fight a lifelong battle between the person she is and, from a spiritual perspective, the person she believes she should be. Over and above these, it is a stunningly comprehensive social and political history of Norway at this time. It is uncompromising in Undset’s dedication to realism surrounding the characters. It doesn’t fall into the trap of needing ‘happy endings’ for characters – they live and die without undermining Undset’s character development, as the reader expects based on that rather than as the reader wants.

I can highly recommend this. Admittedly, there were parts that I had to persevere with when Undset delved deeply into the Scandinavian political landscape or devoted much page-space to spiritual discussions but I feel that when I inevitably re-read this, I’ll be able to devote more active attention to these passages, being less impatient to find out how situations resolve for the characters. Nonetheless, it was still a superb book and I missed the characters once I put it down, a sure sign it made an impression. My only caveat would be to choose your translation carefully – it would be a shame to pass on this because you can’t get to grips with Archer’s archaic style and it is certainly worth the investment, temporal and emotional, to follow Kristin through her life.

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