Review of Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume II: The Wife, 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) (See my post here)

November: The Wife (pages 295-697)

December: The Cross (pages 703-1124)


****************

In Volume II we come to learn the answers to quite a few of the mysteries left unresolved in Volume I. We also have less emphasis on biological nature and more on human nature.

Plot Summary

In Part I, we had “Fiddler on the Roof.” In Part II, we’ve got “Gone With the Wind.”

The story picks up with Kristin married to Erlend, and at the mercy of an era without birth control. (It is never explained, however, why Kristin is so fertile now, when she never got pregnant in the past.)

Although Kristin seems totally absorbed in her children (to Erlend’s dismay), she never gives up her overriding absorption in herself, and indeed, her arrogance seems to grow in this volume. She sees herself as the most sinful of creatures, and the cause of all the woe around her. No amount of penance is sufficient to absolve her, even though bishops and saints have felt absolved after less effort. (She looks at her first-born son and thinks: “Conceived in sin. Carried under her hard, evil heart. Pulled out of her sin-tainted body….” And on and on….)

Kristin keeps producing sons. She breastfeeds her children long after she should, and constantly tends to them and is obsessed by them. She resents Erlend for not being more “involved” with them. For his part, Erlend is starting to feel left out and alienated from his home life.

It doesn’t help that Kristin grows close to Erlend’s brother Gunnulf, who is a monk and who lectures Kristin ceaselessly about piety and the need to give oneself over to God. (The Norwegians were converted to Catholicism by King Olav in the 11th Century. But they clearly didn’t give up many of their pagan beliefs, and Kristin and the others seem to have no problem or only superficial objections to calling upon pagan practices as needed.)

Kristin projects her self-hatred for her sins onto Erlend, and is so mean to him that even her father Lavrans and her brother-in-law (and former fiancé) Simon chastise her for it. But she is unrelenting. Erlend, who forgives and forgets with a nonchalance that irritates Kristin to no end, is astonished to find she has held onto every grudge for fifteen years.

Lavrans becomes gaunt and sober. Kristin of course thinks it is because of her, but in fact he has heart problems. As he nears death, he and Ragnfrid become even closer, and their last months together are like a new marriage for them both. (Needless to add, Kristin finds herself struggling with jealousy.)

Meanwhile, as time goes on, Erlend gets involved in politics, and worse yet, in a plot to overthrow the King. He is arrested, and while his fate is uncertain, it appears he could be sentenced to death. All of the sudden Kristin loves him ardently. Clearly she only wants him when she thinks she can’t have him.

Simon, still in love with Kristin, helps win Erlend’s release. Erlend realizes Simon still loves Kristin, but he isn’t bothered by it; he feels love and gratitude toward Simon. And Erlend of course still loves Kristin, and for the time being, she loves him again too.

Erlend’s properties have been confiscated, so Kristin and Erlend go back to Tara Jorundgaard, Kristin’s family estate. The book ends with Kristin swooning in Erlend’s arms, the theme from “Gone With the Wind” playing, and Simon walking off into the sunset.

Rhett and Scarlett

Rhett and Scarlett


Discussion

In this Volume, we find out what the sex problem was between Lavrans and Ragnfrid, and how Ragnfrid knew Lady Aaschild from before. We also learn why certain conversations in Volume I sent Ragnfrid crying out on the moors (or the Norwegian equivalent thereof). These revelations contribute a great deal to understanding Ragnfrid’s character, and make the last months together of Lavrans and Ragnfrid much more poignant.

The book gets very annoying when it dwells on Kristin’s religious travails. Apparently, these are a reflection of Undset’s own search for religious truth, but the constant wallowing in a sense of sinfulness and begging for redemption is very tedious.

Erlend and Simon both become more likeable, even as Kristin grows less so. (Apparently, however, she is still very beautiful, which does a job on both Erlend and Simon.) She has developed the habit of lashing out against everyone she loves and who loves her – even her father. It is as if she purposefully tries to hurt them so she can hate herself even more. Or, perhaps, she resents them for still loving her in spite of her sinful nature.

Although we hear a lot about the sorry lot of women in terms of getting betrothed right at puberty to whomever their families select, we also hear a lot about how women manage (in their inimitable age-old manner) to rule their roosts regardless of their de jure powerlessness.

Volume II favorite passage

[Lavrans and Ragnfrid recognize he is dying, and they form a new bond out of new revelations between them.]

“He slipped one arm under her shoulder and pulled her close to his side. They lay there for a moment, cheek to cheek.

Then she said softly, ‘Now I have asked the Mother of God to answer my prayer that I need not live long after you, my husband.’

His lips and his lashes brushed her cheek in the darkness like the wings of a butterfly.

‘My Ragnfrid, my Ragnfrid.’”

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19 Responses to Review of Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume II: The Wife, by Sigrid Undset and translated by Tiina Nunnally

  1. Julie P. says:

    What a fantastic idea! I wasn’t even familiar with this book before your post!

  2. Steph says:

    Hmmm… I enjoy a sudsy book as much as the next gal, and provided I’m in the right mood for maudlin melodramatics, I could see this book being pretty fun for me. BUT, I worry about all the religion talk, which by your own confession was rather lengthy and drawn out and dry, and I wonder if that would be a deal-breaker for me.

    The more I read about this book, the more I wonder at it’s “Nobel-worthiness”. It doesn’t sound like it’s a bad book by any means, but it doesn’t appear to be staggeringly brilliant either. Now I’m torn because it is such a long book and a big time investment to make if it’s only mediocre!

    • Definitely mediocre! In my fourth and last post on this book, in December, I compare Kristin Lavransdatter to Dooms Day Book by Connie Willis. I decry the fact that Undset got the Nobel Prize for such a mediocre book compared to one on a similar subject, i.e., Dooms Day Book (which did, however, get the Hugo and Nebula awards).

  3. Holy smoke! This is quite the commitment you’ve made. I admire you for doing it. I’ve got too big a TBR mountain range in here to take on something like this.

  4. athomewithbooks says:

    That is a sweet quote that you cited. I loved your comparison of the second volume to Gone With the Wind – it definitely gives you an idea what the feel of it would be. I would imagine that Kristin is not the most likeable character in the world. 🙂

  5. Staci says:

    You’ve done some serious reading and it does sound like a great story!

  6. Eva says:

    Seriously?! It’s funny how you and I have such different opinions on the same volume! I don’t think Kristin is like Scarlett AT ALL, and I found Erlend to be an unfeeling jackass. lol I enjoyed the religious stuff, because it seemed so true of struggles. And I ended up abandoning Doomsday Book about halfway through because I thought it was so awful. So maybe we just have different taste in medieval historical books. 😉

  7. Lisa says:

    I’m really torn on ever bothering to pick this up. It’s such a time committment and there are so many great books out there. I don’t have reading time to risk on giant mediocre books!

  8. Richard says:

    I’m not a Gone with the Wind fan at all, Jill, but I appreciate the apt comparison! And while I found The Wife to be a tiny bit less histrionic than The Wreath, I found the second installment of the story to be even more superficial in many ways (Lavrans’ death scene, and the bond between him and Ragnfrid that you mention, are about the only moments in KL where I’ve actually cared about any of the characters). In short, what a dud!

  9. Emily says:

    Come to think of it, what Gone with the Wind really lacked some some good old bubonic plague to tie things up neatly for Scarlett & Rhett at the end! 😉

    I found the religiosity very trying as well, and I also thought it was puzzling that Undset, who was on the verge of converting to Catholicism as she wrote the book, would focus on a character whose religion actually seems to make her a LESS generous/competent/good person.

  10. claire says:

    I just finished. Lol, you’re so funny. I did really love Gone with the Wind, though, it was a page-turner and Scarlett was so passionate a character that it was hard not to follow her during her misadventures. Kristin, on the other hand, lacked such passion.

  11. tuulenhaiven says:

    Nice Gone with the Wind tie-in! Funny. I agree that this book lacks…um…many things, but it is still keeping me just interested enough to want to continue. I’m starting to really look forward to the bubonic plague though…!

  12. Amy says:

    I just finished book 1 and I don’t think I’m going any further. Too bad I didn’t find out about this read along until now! 🙂 I might have had the push to go forward but not now. Kristin drove me crazy and I think it’s time for her to spend some time on the shelf by herself.

  13. softdrink says:

    I can totally see Erlend muttering “Frankly, my dear…”

  14. EL Fay says:

    Great post! I’ve had a strange reaction to Kristin. On the one hand, I agree with everything you and everyone else has said about her. Yet I still feel sympathetic to her.

    I’ve never read Gone with the Wind, unfortunately. But I have read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year so we’ll have to see how it compares to KL once the plague arrives!

  15. Valerie says:

    Interesting analogy to Gone with the Wind — like Scarlett, Kristin seems to have quite the effect on men. and, like Scarlett, she was deeply attached to her father.

    I have to agree with you that Kristin’s constant guilt feelings got very tiresome. I thought perhaps it was the mood I was in while reading it (or that I’m unsympathetic), but I guess it was mostly her!

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

  17. Pingback: Comparison of Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset and Dooms Day Book by Connie Willis « Rhapsody in Books Weblog

  18. Thanks for this. I’ve reviewed this book for catholicfiction.net, and I had a similar opinion as you. They asked me to reconsider, so I’ve written a new one. I’d be pleased if you’d, uh, review the review for me (since you too have read the book, and I’d really like to stay on catholicfiction’s good side). Feel free to e-mail me if you’re interested. Thanks so much.

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