Thursday, December 10, 2009
Review: Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset
The Wreath is the first book in a trilogy focusing on the life of Kristin Lavransdatter, a fictional woman living in early 14th century Norway. The trilogy covers her life from early childhood until death; and in one volume, is about 1000 pages (I’m reading the trilogy in the individual volumes published by Penguin classics, so that all of this doesn’t become too overwhelming). The Wreath covers Kristin’s childhood and teenage years, as she falls in love, and has an illicit relationship, with Erlend Nikulausson, an older man with a shadowy past.
The three volumes of Kristin Lavransdatter (The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross) were originally published in the early 1920s. Apparently, Sigrid Undset’s writing was largely informed by her Catholic religious beliefs, and I do believe that this is very much in evidence in The Wreath—starting with Kristin’s trip to the church at Hamar and the author’s descriptions of the church, the influence of religion is very strong in our heroine’s life. And yet, this is not a particularly religious book. Sigrid Undset merely emphasizes the importance of Kristin’s faith, in a time when the church more or less informed and defined people’s lives.
The characters in the novel are particularly strong and well-depicted. Kristin, normally a quiet and obedient girl, is nonetheless courageous enough to defy the wishes of her parents, and the bonds of her engagement to Simon, to fall in love with a man that the other characters in the novel, and the reader, really have no cause to trust. As Erlend declares his undying love for Kristin, I kept wondering, how serious his he? Even after finishing the first volume of this trilogy, I still don’t know what’s going on with him. Only time, and further reading, will tell.
As for the translation, I read Tina Nunnally’s version; I’ve heard that Archer’s is a bit archaic. I recently read an interview with Nunnally, in which she discusses Archer’s nearly leaving out the sex scenes in the book—they’re actually rather tame and muted in comparison with what you find in novels published today. I obviously don’t know Norwegian, and can't compare this translation to the original book, but I’ve found Nunnally’s version to be extremely readable.
As a side note, I've heard that there's a read-along going on for this book. I'm not *officially* a part of it, but some readers' comments on the book inspired me to pick this novel up. I'm very glad I did!