Monday, March 21, 2016

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22)

JEEZ! Did this really take me two full months to read? Where's the sense in that? Granted, it's twelve hundred pages, but as a comparison, note that it took me slightly less than three months to read In Search of Lost Time, which is about three times as long. So it should've taken me about a third as long to read, not two thirds. I suppose it's partially because I had this constant feeling, reading Proust, that, okay, I have to keep pushing onward, otherwise I'll never finish this. Whereas with a shorter book, even a very long one by most standards? That's just business as usual.

Whatever! Sigrid Undset was a Norwegian author who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, mostly on the strength of this and her Master of Hestviken tetralogy. Kristin Lavransdatter is, in fact, a trilogy, though this English translation is published in one volume: The Wreath (1920), The Wife (1921), and The Cross (1922) (I feel like the trilogy as a form has fallen into disrepute because it's become the de facto form for terrible genre fiction, but that's not fair). Taking place in the fourteenth century, they chronicle the life of the titular Kristin, eldest daughter of a rich family, from the age of six to her death at, by fourteenth-century standards, a relatively old age.

The Wreath is by far the most focused book in the trilogy, and therefore, in my opinion, the best. Specifically, it's mostly focused on the events leading up to Kristin's marriage. Her parents engage her to Simon Andressøn, a decent guy with whom, alas, she feels no affinity. Instead, she strikes up an illicit affair with one Erlend Nikulaussøn, who is more exciting, though also kind of impulsive and generally questionable. He has two illegitimate children from an affair with a married woman, for one thing. Undset gets a lot of mileage out of the uncertainty here: they're all keen to get married, but would he make a good husband? He seems basically sympathetic, but his past IS an issue. Still, in counterpoint to that, there's Kristin's parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, who dutifully got married when it was required of them, and who, though they seem to have a good relationship, and indeed do in many ways, have never felt any real passion for one another. I'm not gonna sit here and tell you I think the characters are that compelling, but overall it's pretty good, and one is left really wanting to know how this marriage is gonna work out for them.

Welp, The Wife starts off basically where its predecessor left off. In the beginning, it's pretty good with the ups and downs of Kristin and Erlend's marriage, though it's possible we could do with a little less hyperventilating about how horrible it is that their first child was conceived out of wedlock. Is this historically realistic? Maybe, but STILL, people.  GET A GRIP.  Kristin's old fiancé Simon becomes a more significant character here; he ends up marrying Kristin's only surviving sibling, Ramborg, even though, we come to realize, he's still carrying a torch for Kristin.

So all that's well and good, though Undset is harder on Kristin than I would be, blaming her for not loving her parents enough (seriously?) and for her husband's inevitable infidelity. But the thing is...well, as I may have hinted above, this book is a lot less focused than its predecessor. One starts to drown in a sea of very similar names of people with all kinds of tangled relationships with one another (not unlike your average Norse saga, when you think about it!), and also, The Wife brings politics into the mix, which are pretty dry and not always super-comprehensible. The book's climax is Erlend's arrest for having conspired against the throne. WILL HE BE EXECUTED?!?! SPOILER: no, but he does lose his family's estate, leaving him and Kristin only with what they got from her parents. OMG.

OH MY. So this all continues in like fashion in The Cross. Simon's a more important character than ever. Kristin and Erlend get estranged as shit. Their more or less interchangeable sons do less-than-thrilling things. On the bright side, a bunch of important character die! But by the end, I was more than ready for the end. I'll admit that the trilogy sorta rubs off on one a little--when you spend so much damn time with a novel, maybe that can't help happening. Also, the portrayal of medieval Norway certainly feels accurate, which is something I appreciate, and there are some nice landscapes. But that is...perhaps about all.

One fun thing to do is look at the subsection about the novel on Undset's wikipedia page, which was written with no pretense of objectivity by someone who was seriously in the tank for her. "All of her characters," it says, "however minor, are every bit as complex and multifaceted as characters in Shakespeare." GAWD, what bullshit. The only characters with any level of depth are Kristin, her parents, Erlend, and Simon. The idea that anyone would think the dozens and dozens of others swarming around have any level of anything...I don't know what to say.

Still, between Undset and fellow Norwegian Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun, we have a fun story of contrasts: Undset was speaking out against the Nazi regime before it was cool; her books were banned in Germany, and she spent the war in exile in the US, where she continued her denunciations. Hamsun, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis. Whee. And yet...though I haven't read Hamsun, from what I know about him, I feel like I'd probably like his books more than Undset's, dammit.  If there's a moral here, please tell me what it is.

Now to read something nice an' short as a palette-cleanser!


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