Nov 04

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

The Brown Wedge1 comment • 237 views

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

This must be the most obscure highly canonical novel. Or maybe just the most obscure such that I knew about – at least, since that poll of living Nobel laureates voting for the greatest books ever, which must qualify something as canonical. This was on there, and then I saw it in a charity shop, so thought I’d try it.

It’s almost 1,000 small print pages, a realistic tale of a woman in 14th century Norway, written in the 1920s, and in a style (translated obviously, so I don’t know how this reflects the original) like 17th to 18th Century English. I guess it’s a rich time to examine, with Christianity having only partial overcome older superstitions, so the people go to church but believe in elves and magic, even though there is no evidence of anything of the sort (yes, ditto Christianity, of course), but that’s not necessarily of great interest to me. Nor is medieval historical accuracy, though I don’t doubt this is full of that (the notes make that pretty clear). I do like getting to know very different lives, but I think what kept me reading, which did feel like hard work at times, was the titular character. She doesn’t make a fast impact, but the character gradually accretes into something substantial and strong and memorable, from her childhood to the end.

But it’s basically a historical family saga, light on action, not something I’d recommend anyone else reading for fun, and the constant reference to any young woman or girl as a ‘little maid’ made me cringe. We all know that being Scandinavian gives you a big edge in the Nobel stakes, and while I can see this being a major and important novel in that part of the world, I couldn’t really regard it as one of the world’s great books, personally.


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    Doctor Mod on 21 May 2008 #

    This is really just about the last thing I’d have thought to see on Freaky Trigger–but I’m actually quite delighted. I can remember a time–about forty years ago, I’m sorry to say–when this novel wasn’t so difficult to find at a bookstore and was truly considered canonical. I think that it’s now rarely read outside of Scandinavian literature courses–which, in turn, aren’t exactly abundant outside of Scandinavia.

    Some (30?) years ago, I became interested in medieval Scandinavia. I can’t remember why, but it might have been the result of seeing a Bergman film or a book I read on St Birgitta of Sweden. I discovered that Sigrid Undset was a truly unique and eccentric character. She converted to Roman Catholicism–and there are incredibly few Catholics in any Scandinavian country–had some sort of “divine madness” that lead her to enact her notions of Christian virtue in some thoroughly quirky ways.

    One story about her that has stayed with me involved a hermit monk who lived outside her town. Someone told her that the monk was dying and had expressed desire to see, before passing from this life, a sight he’d never beheld–a naked woman. Now, anyone who’s seen photos of Undset knows she was a stern-looking woman of valkyrie-like proportions later in life. She thought it her duty the grant the man his dying wish and thus hiked to his cave to bare all. One hopes he died happily.

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