Review of “The Bridal Wreath,” Volume I of the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy by Sigrid Undset and Translated by Tiina Nunnally

I signed up for the Kristin Lavransdatter Readalong, sponsored by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Emily from Evening All Afternoon.

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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.

Discussion

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.

fiddler-on-the-roof-800-75

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:

(Tevye)
“Golde I’m asking you a question…”

Do you love me?

(Golde)
You’re a fool

(Tevye)
“I know…”

But do you love me?

(Golde)
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?

(Tevye)
Golde, The first time I met you
Was on our wedding day
I was scared

(Golde)
I was shy

(Tevye)
I was nervous

(Golde)
So was I

(Tevye)
But my father and my mother
Said we’d learn to love each other
And now I’m asking, Golde
Do you love me?

(Golde)
I’m your wife

(Tevye)
“I know…”
But do you love me?

(Golde)
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?

(Tevye)
Then you love me?

(Golde)
I suppose I do

(Tevye)
And I suppose I love you too

(Both)
It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It’s nice to know

Evaluation

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.”

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26 Responses to Review of “The Bridal Wreath,” Volume I of the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy by Sigrid Undset and Translated by Tiina Nunnally

  1. Rebecca Reid says:

    I haven’t read this yet so I skimmed most of the summary, but I love the comparison to Fiddler on the Roof — and I’m getting excited tor read this book sooner!!!

  2. tuulenhaiven says:

    I’m glad the book only gets better. The story behind Lavrans and Ragnfrid’s marriage was definitely more intriguing to me than Kristin’s story. Interesting comparison to Fiddler on the Roof.

  3. Steph says:

    Great wrap-up for the first part. Normally I avoid spoilers like the plague, but I think you did a great job of condensing the key points into a nice succinct form.

    Often wonder about these books that are sold as individual volumes – clearly this works for something like The Lord of the Rings, but I had the same issue with 2666 by Bolano. None of the parts felt sufficiently solid in their own right to stand on their own or satisfy a reader in that way.

    I’m also glad to hear that the book just gets better as you read. It’s something I will keep in mind if I ever tackle this beast!

  4. Eva says:

    Aww-I loved the amber waves of grain bits. 😉 Loved your comparison to Fiddler on the Roof-that song did feel very similar to Lavrans & Ragnfrid!

  5. Pam says:

    You had me at Tradition! :O) If it compares at all to Fiddler, I’m there. My daddy and I danced to Sunrise Sunset at MY wedding. He cried. This story has a long history in my family. And yes, yes, he approved of my husband. :O)

  6. Valerie says:

    I’m glad to know that you think this gets better and better; not that I thought Part I was bad! I look forward to starting Part II soon. Maybe next week?

  7. Staci says:

    I applaud you for just getting through Volume 1 and then you go and do all of them!! Wow!! Not something I would read but I’m glad that you enjoyed this huge accomplishment!

  8. Congrats on completing all three volumes. Not my cup of tea but I really enjoyed your telling of the tale. Linking it to Fiddler on the Roof was nice. That is the only Broadway Show (on Broadway) that I saw in my one and only trip to NYC. It was a highlight. I’ll never see the show again because nothing can compare to how well done it was.

  9. Nymeth says:

    You know, I don’t think I’d even heard of this trilogy until the read-along began, and now I’m dying to read it!

  10. Emily says:

    Interesting comparison to Fiddler! Her descriptions of the land were actually some of my favorite bits, but then I kind of lust for a trip to Norway, so maybe I’m living vicariously through Norwegian lit. 🙂 Your review makes me eager to move on to Part 2!

  11. Jenners says:

    This kind of sounds like a challenge to me … I thought you didn’t do challenges! : )

    Interesting discussion … as always.

  12. Richard says:

    Very nice post, Jill! I was put off by some of the more melodramatic aspects of Kristin’s romance with Erlend, but I’m happy to hear that the trilogy gets better as it goes along. And while I agree that the first part feels very much like a laying of the groundwork for what’s to come rather than a complete unit in and of itself, I’m actually ok with that given the scope of the work. Anyway, I look forward to your upcoming posts on parts 2 and 3 and on the Willis book.

  13. softdrink says:

    Can’t wait to hear your thoughts about Kristin “standing by her man.” I’m currently drowning in political machinations, but still reading. For awhile I was flying through it, but I seem to have slowed down halfway into book 2.

  14. Marie says:

    Oh man. I really want to read Kristen Lavransdatter. I have it on my TBR shelf- got it for Christmas last year- and just haven’t gotten to it. maybe 2010 will be the year of the long novel and I’ll make a deal with myself to read KL, War & Peace and maybe one more biggie. 🙂

  15. Alyce says:

    I enjoyed reading your review, and look forward to reading about the second and third parts too. This is definitely not a book that I would have gravitated toward (ok, I wouldn’t have given it a second glance), but now I’m curious about it. 🙂

  16. EL Fay says:

    I think it’s great that you read all three books. I’m definitely glad to hear that The Wreath is the weakest one. As you noted, it’s mostly stage-setting, which I found boring.

    I also noted the feminists aspects of the work, but felt that it ultimately kept within time and place. Kristin always knows that what she’s doing is wrong by the standards of her day. I brought up Dante’s Inferno, but your Fiddler on the Roof comparison is very interesting. Love and marriage don’t always go together, do they?

  17. Lisa says:

    I’ve become so intrigued with this book as I’ve read reviews. It’s one of the great things about blogging; I’m hearing of a book I have never heard of before and further being enticed to be brave enough to pick it up!

  18. lena says:

    First off, I cannot believe you read all three so quickly! But I am so glad to hear that it picks up!

    I enjoyed the stage-setting of book one – that rarely bothers me if it is done correctly and I think Undset definitely knows her descriptive prose.

  19. I thought I had commented on this, but perhaps it was just our back and forth via email about Kristin Lav!

    I do have high hopes for Kristin showing more strength (and caring for others, other than herself that is) in the next two books, so I’m glad to read that you consider this the weakest in the trilogy.

    As I linked in my post, I love the connection to Fiddler on the Roof, very apt!

  20. Pingback: Kristin Lavransdatter – The Wreath – by Sigrid Undset « Page247

  21. Frances says:

    Can’t tell you how reassuring it is to read that you think The Wreath the weakest link in the chain so to speak. I found the read uninteresting, disappointing in some regards but the descriptions of the natural landscape were lovely. I felt little connection or interest in the main character, but am hoping it has more to do with her age, and the demands of setting the foundation of a story than a reflection of what the rest of the trilogy holds. Nice post!

  22. Gavin says:

    Great review! I’m so glad to hear that you think “The Wreath” is the weakest part. I enjoyed Undset writing, her descriptive passages and all the historical information but had a hard time liking Kristin. I had a much stronger connection with her parents and other characters. I love the comparison with “Fiddler”.

  23. claire says:

    Like the others, I’m so glad to hear it gets better. I have been curious about Ragnfrid and Aashild, and Ragnfrid and Lavrans (and possibly Lavrans and Aashild?). Anyway, I also felt Undset was setting the stage here, and especially so in the end, which finally made me eager to go to part 2. Love the Fiddler song! 😀

  24. Lu says:

    I’m so glad to hear it only gets better! That’s a great comparison, thank you for the quote!

  25. Pingback: Review of Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume III: The Cross, by Sigrid Undset and translated by Tiina Nunnally « Rhapsody in Books Weblog

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