As Emily pointed out, “we’ll be reading the Tina Nunnally translation, which won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize in 2001 and apparently restored a number of the more experimental passages, which had been excised from the original English translation. It’s available from Penguin in both omnibus and three individual editions.”
Participants are to post their reviews of each section around the end of the month, and we will compare notes. The schedule is as follows:
October: The Wreath (pages 1-291)
November: The Wife (pages 295-697)
December: The Cross (pages 703-1124)
My Personal Plan of Action
I finished all three volumes at once. I didn’t want to have to waste a lot of time floundering around in Vol. III figuring out, e.g., which Sigurd was which. I also thought that having an idea of the entirety of the book would give me a better perspective by which to evaluate each volume. I read Volume I in both translations but decided to stick with the Nunnally. I also read Dooms Day Book by Connie Willis to serve as a comparison at the end. So I will have four posts on this book. In the third post, for Volume III, I will examine some additional elements of the plot as part of my overall impressions.
Plot Summary of Volume I
First published in 1927, this is Book I of a trilogy that follows the fictional life of Kristin Lavransdatter in 14th Century Norway. This is a culture that is manifestly Catholic, but still deeply wedded to pagan beliefs. It is the Church, however, that structures social and cultural life: times of the year are marked by Holy Days, church days, and church rites and rituals. Sins can be prayed away or even bartered away through a trade of money and/or land. (Thus the Church is able to accumulate wealth.) It is understood that holy men can bring God’s word, but they are still men and therefore sin cannot be expected to be foreign to them. And even after three centuries, most of the Catholic ritual is still in Latin rather than Norwegian and therefore unintelligible to all but the most privileged classes; they pick up the slack by sticking with what they know, which are the superstitious customs and cures to ward off sickness and evil and to explain the mysteries of the universe.
The book begins when Kristin is seven, and recounts the close relationship she has with her father Lavrans. Her mother, Ragnfrid, is moody and withdrawn. Kristin is definitely a daddy’s girl, and remains so her whole life. She has no living brothers, and two sisters. Her best friend is a neighbor boy, Arne Gyrdson, who grows up to love her. When she was fifteen, however, her father betrothed her to Simon Darre, who was considered to be a felicitous match. Kristin failed to be impressed with Simon, and begged to go to a convent for a year to get peace of mind.
While at the convent, rather than encountering serenity, Kristin encounters Erlend Nikulausson, a handsome man who gets her heart racing. After several assignations, they give themselves to each other in body and soul, saying to each other “May God forsake me if I ever take any other…into my arms, for as long as I live on this earth.” They cannot marry yet, however. Kristin has to break off the betrothal to Simon, and Erlend has to free himself of his own entanglements, including an old paramour by whom he had two children.
Many try to discourage Kristin from her attachment to Erlend, but she remembered words she had heard as a child (ironically, from Erlend’s aunt): “…good days [are] granted to sensible people, but the grandest of days are enjoyed by those who dare to act unwisely.”
They’re finally able to marry, and in the drunken aftermath of the celebration, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, now married some twenty-seven years, and struck by witnessing the love and lust shown by Kristin and Erlen, review their own feelings for one another.
Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for this trilogy (along with other work), which focuses on the lives of women. She was considered to be a trailblazer in her emphasis on the erotic needs of women, and on the sexual perils they faced as well. (Women could scarcely go out unaccompanied in the Middle Ages, lest they be raped.) The Bridal Wreath is a good book, but it doesn’t actually end. It just sort of comes to the end of a chapter. I have no idea why it would be sold separately from the other two installments although it is the only one of the three volumes that might be able to stand alone.
Each of the three volumes does have a different emphasis however, and represents a different phase in Kristin’s life. I would compare this volume to “Fiddler on the Roof” (which was based on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and his Daughters). That story concerns an impoverished Jewish community in the Pale of Settlement in Russia, which follows the time-old practice of arranged marriages according to class and dowry. Tevye, the hero and father, has three daughters he needs to get bethrothed. But each one does him the enormously complicated disservice of falling in love. And each time, Tevye must somehow reconcile his faith in tradition and his disapproval of the “chosen” husband with his love for his daughters.
He dissembles to protect his wife, although it is he who needs the protection. In the final scene, he comes to see the appeal of love, and wonders if his wife loves him. This could have been the dialog between Lavrans and Ragnfrid:
“Golde I’m asking you a question…”
Do you love me?
You’re a fool
But do you love me?
Do I love you?
For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
Golde, The first time I met you
Was on our wedding day
I was scared
I was shy
I was nervous
So was I
But my father and my mother
Said we’d learn to love each other
And now I’m asking, Golde
Do you love me?
I’m your wife
But do you love me?
Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?
Then you love me?
I suppose I do
And I suppose I love you too
It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It’s nice to know
I’ve finished the entire trilogy now, so I can say that I think Volume I is the weakest of the three. But in part this is because Undset is setting up the background of daily life on a Norwegian farm and introducing us to many of the characters and family lineages. She does tend to go on and on about matters like the amber waves of grain, whereas I think modern readers might get a little impatient over that.
Also, for most of the beginning of the book (i.e., Volume I), Kristin is still a child, and her life isn’t that interesting yet. Moreover, Undset alludes to quite a few “mysteries” in this volume, perhaps to induce us to keep reading. It’s rather annoying since you don’t find out what they are all about in Volume II. (Examples include: why Ragnfrid is so moody and given to running outside and crying from time to time; how she knows Fru Aaschild, a local witchy-woman; and what the problem is with the relationship between Lavrans and Ragnfrid.)
The book gets better in Volume II, and even more so in Volume III.
Volume I favorite passage
“Erlend put his arm around Kristin, and now she felt arm and secure – at his side was the only place she would ever feel safe and protected again. … Without knowing it, Kristin was gathering up from all he said every little thing that might make him more attractive and dear to her, and that would lessen his blame in all she knew about him that was not good.”