Review of Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume III: The Cross, 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) My post is here.

November: The Wife (pages 295-697) My post is here.

December: The Cross (pages 703-1124)


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

Introduction

In Volume III, all the sins of the parents finally come home to roost, and we move on to the musical “Camelot.” (If you have not yet read this book and plan to do so, please skip the Plot Summary and go to the Discussion sections, since the Plot Summary contains spoilers.)

Plot Summary

Simon breaks off with Erlend, telling him he can no longer stand to be around him because he still loves Kristin. Simon died at age 42, however, from a simple sword nick that became infected. As Kristin nursed him in his death, he made her promise she would take the message to Erlend that he regretted what he had said to him. He wanted to tell her before his death that he had always loved her, but he could not. (See lyrics from “Camelot” Lyrics on “How to Handle a Woman.”)

Ramborg, Kristin’s sister and Simon’s wife, who now has a newborn son, finds a new husband almost immediately after Simon’s death with a lifelong friend of Simon’s, Jammaelt Halvardsson. Kristin is shocked to discover that Simon’s death does not diminish Ramborg’s hate for and resentment of Kristin because of Simon’s inability to love anyone but Kristin. (Kristin’s dismay over how wrong and unfair it is to hold a grudge for so long doesn’t extend to her own behavior.)

Erlend has moved out of the house; after another one of Kristin and Erlend’s vicious fights, Erlend took his things up to his aunt’s old estate in Haugen. Kristin wrestles with her pride to go to Haugen and fulfill the promise she made to Simon. She broods about all the ways in which she thought she was right and Erlend was wrong. She resents that Erlend didn’t remember all the wrongs he had committed over the years and humble himself to her for them. (In the case of Erlend, apparently Kristin sees no problem with holding a grudge.) She resents that he was “luring” the children away from her.

While at Haugen, Kristin and Erlend reconcile, but neither wants to come live in the place where the other does; the old estate of Erlend’s Aunt makes Kristin uncomfortable; it was here, after all, where Erlend’s paramour had killed herself. But Erlend was just as uncomfortable at Jorundgaard, where he felt like a guest, not a master. Erlend can’t believe she won’t stay with him. Kristin leaves, with each of them thinking the other will come around and give in. (Here refer to lyrics from “Camelot” Lyrics for “If Ever I Would Leave You”)

Kristin becomes pregnant from her visit to Erlend. But still he doesn’t come back to her. She names the baby Erlend, a custom reserved for the dead. And then the baby dies shortly thereafter. Kristin is astounded to discover that the whole village thinks the baby was the son of her overseer, Ulf, and that they want to arrest Ulf and punish her. Kristin’s young son Lavrans gallops off to retrieve Erlend and they both come galloping back to Jorundgaard. Erlend quarrels with the crowd gathered there and someone stabs him to death. Now that he is totally unavailable, Kristin can really love him.

Erlend’s sons grow up, but not in the way Kristin had always hoped: Naakkve enters a monastery with his blind brother Bjorgult, whom Naakkve has sworn never to abandon. Gaute stays at Jorundgaard but kidnaps a girl and brings her back as his wife; she turns out to be quite headstrong, and Kristin knows she herself must leave. Kristin heads back to the holy city of Nidaros to join a convent.

After two years at the convent, in late 1349, just before Kristin was due to take her vows, the Black Plague reached that part of Norway. Kristin learns that Naakkve and Bjorgult have died, and then she gets the plague and dies too. She feels calm about the coming of death, because now she will be with God. Her old friends, Sira (Father) Eiliv and Ulf Haldorsson tend to her on her death bed. They know the death of both Erlend and Kristin truly marks the end of an era for them. Ulf regrets he never “sinned” with Kristin; he confirms that he too always loved her. But Sira Eiliv tells Ulf not to regret his good deeds: “for the good you have done cannot be taken back; even if all the mountains should fall, it would still stand.” (Camelot Lyrics for “Reprise” ):

“Each evening, from December to December,
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the tales that you remember
Of Camelot.
Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.
Camelot! Camelot!
Now say it out with pride and joy!

TOM:
Camelot! Camelot!

ARTHUR:
Yes, Camelot, my boy!
Where once it never rained till after sundown,
By eight a.m. the morning fog had flown…
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.”

Evaluation

Where was Undset’s editor? This story could have lost a good 400 pages and not suffered for it. Undset spends pages and pages on an episode with a cow, or a particular grain harvest, or on arguments among the children that have no greater significance, or Kristin’s thoughts about how much she loves having little babies, or Kristin’s self-flagellating about her sinfulness. These passages run on and on. While some of the little incidents serve to make a point, such as Kristin’s attachment to her father, it could have been made in one or two sentences.

[It is interesting to note that after Lavrans death, it was discovered that he owned a flagellum that he apparently used on himself. And we learned in Volume II that Ragnfrid obsessed about her own sinfulness with respect to men as well. Kristin knew of neither of these things, and yet she turned out like her parents in those respects.]

Rating

3/5

Volume III favorite passage

Simon calls Kristin out:

“When Erlend was in mortal danger, you thought of nothing but how to save him, and he thought much more about you than about his seven sons or his reputation and property. But whenever you can have each other in peace and security, you’re no longer capable of maintaining calm and decency.”

CONCLUSIONS

Who was Kristin and Why Were All the Men In Love With Her?

Kristin was beautiful, and passionate (though she hated as fiercely as she loved), kinder to strangers than those she loved, fiercely devoted to her children inasmuch as she was able aside from her self-absorption, and prone to deification (first of her father, then of her husband) but only after the beloved males in her life had departed. It was unclear to me why everyone was in love with her, although a number of the characters in this book seemed to be incapable of rational evaluation in the face of physical beauty. Kristin herself was not immune to this fixation on looks.

She was arrogant, stubborn as a mule, and prideful, yet obsessed with sin and religious redemption. She was remarkably insensitive to others, no doubt because so much of her mental energy went into seeing things in terms of her own needs and wants.

She worked hard even when no one asked her to or expected it of her, but then resented it when her hard work wasn’t appreciated (particularly by Erlend).

As far as I could tell, there were two characteristics that drew so many men to her: one, her looks, which apparently she retained even as she grew older; and two, her outward religious piety, which few others could approximate (or would even want to do so).

Why Have Readers Been So Drawn to Kristin?

Kristin is no one-note character. She is complex, she is passionate, she is at all times a child, and at all times a woman. In fact, Billy Joel has Kristin down pat:

She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child,
But she’s always a woman to me

She can lead you to love
She can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth
But she’ll never believe you
And she’ll take what you give her, as long as it’s free
Yeah, she steals like a thief
But she’s always a woman to me

CHORUS:
Oh–she takes care of herself
She can wait if she wants
She’s ahead of her time
Oh–and she never gives out
And she never gives in
She just changes her mind

And she’ll promise you more
Than the Garden of Eden
Then she’ll carelessly cut you
And laugh while you’re bleedin’
But she’ll bring out the best
And the worst you can be
Blame it all on yourself
Cause she’s always a woman to me
–Mhmm–

She is frequently kind
And she’s suddenly cruel
She can do as she pleases
She’s nobody’s fool
And she can’t be convicted
She’s earned her degree
And the most she will do
Is throw shadows at you
But she’s always a woman to me
–Mhmm–


What About Erlend?

How can you not like Party Guy Erlend? He doesn’t have the authorial attention lavished on him that Kristin does, so one largely has to see him through her eyes. On the plus side, he had great looks, roguish, boyish charm, loyalty, and the inability to stay angry. Okay, he was irresponsible, put pleasure first, didn’t think about the long-term consequences of his actions, and was the “fun” parent rather than the disciplinarian, but since I didn’t have to live with him, I was free to enjoy his positives. And let’s face it: guys who don’t wear galoshes, wouldn’t dream of sweeping up the kitchen floor, and occasionally charge in on their horses, axes at the ready, to rescue you from the bad guys, are much more exciting than other guys.

And So the Enduring Appeal of the Book Is Due To….?

Passion in love and war are always appealing, even if vicariously. It makes us feel more alive. Men who could be best friends with each other except for being torn apart by love for a woman is tragic yet secretly appealing. Screaming at each other followed by being swept away in each other’s arms stretches the emotions from one end of the spectrum to the other, just as do the dangers of war and the elation of survival. This roller coaster ride of extreme emotional states gives both a piquancy and a poignancy to the evanescence of life, so much more so than the quotidian concerns of daily chores and little errands. With passion, there is a difference to one’s life, there is engagement, there is full immersion.

Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur

Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur, a.k.a. Erlend, Kristin and Simon

But The Nobel Prize? Why?!!!

There were 48 nominees for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Other nominees included Edith Wharton of the United States, Thomas Mann of Germany, and Henri Bergson of France. I’m guessing that in 1928, Norway was a pretty safe compromise, politically. I also suspect that Undset’s adherence to the romantic movement, with her evocation of landscape and Aryan standards of beauty, had broad appeal for the European delegates. By 1928, the movies starring Leni Riefenstahl (later to direct Hitler’s most successful propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will”) were wildly popular. In these movies Ms. Riefenstahl played a Wagnerian romantic heroine, in harmony with nature, fearless, and dedicated to fighting evil. It is not unlikely that Undset could have been influenced by these films; certainly the theme of Kristin Lavransdatter touches similar notes. Bergson had the most nominations, but he had a Jewish background. In 1928, Mussolini was already in power in Italy, and Fascist movements were gaining in popularity in Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe. France and Britain also had a surge in antisemitism although it not expressed by mass movements. As philosopher Betrand Russell observed, “The world between the wars was attracted to madness.” I don’t think Bergson had a chance. Thus, in my mind, the Nobel Prize probably was heavily freighted with political considerations, and did not necessarily relate to quality.

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

Please check out my blog post in which I compare Kristin Lavransdatter to Dooms Day Book by Connie Willis, and find the latter to be far superior!

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20 Responses to Review of Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume III: The Cross, by Sigrid Undset and translated by Tiina Nunnally

  1. Very interesting post. I truly like the way you reflect on books!

  2. JoV says:

    Absolutely, the Nobel Prize is politically driven.

  3. Staci says:

    I am amazed how how you stayed with it!! I think I would’ve tossed the book aside after reading more than one paragraph about a cow…but I’m glad to read about it in your review. Certainly not anything I would venture to read but you have a way with words that draws me to what you liked/disliked about a book.

  4. JoAnn says:

    Great post!! After finishing The Wreath and The Wife, I can now live guilt-free without reading The Cross – thank you!

  5. Richard says:

    Jill, I enjoyed your post even though I hate both Billy Joel and (now, one singularly boring trilogy later) Sigrid Undset! What you say about Undset and the Nobel sounds entirely plausible to me, but I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the “enduring appeal” of Kristin Lavransdatter since it just felt like one contrived situation after another for hundreds of pages delivered in the blandest style imaginable. Thanks for joining us in the readalong, though!

  6. Wendy says:

    LOL – loved your take on this 🙂 I think I enjoyed this book far more than you (but I’m a sucker for historical fiction with drama and romance from time to time). I agree – Billy Joel seems to have pegged Kristin perfectly!! Re: the Nobel Prize…had I been on the panel in 1928 my vote would have gone to Edith Wharton whose books always blow me away.

  7. Emily says:

    Great post, Jill! I like your theories on the Nobel committee. It was certainly a tense, awkward time in European politics, and that would, no doubt, affect things like literary awards, etc.

    I also think you’re probably right about some of the things that people find appealing about the book – interesting that they’re the very things I found most tiresome. But then, art’s subjective – always good to be reminded of that. 🙂 Thanks for reading along!

  8. Marie says:

    Wow.
    I still have this on my shelf. I enjoyed your analysis of the Nobel Prize. I still want to read it!

  9. softdrink says:

    Only you could compare KL to Camelot AND a Billy Joel song. I bow to the master (mistress?).

    Amazing how three of us said she needed a good editor. Okay, maybe not so amazing…we’re all just smarter than the Nobel Committee.

  10. Lisa says:

    Well, then I think I’ve learned enough about this book from your reviews to know what I need to know. Anything that could have been 400 shorter is no book I’m going to read!

  11. Bookjourney says:

    Fabulous post! I have not read this – it looks like a wonderful challenge but man…. HUGE! LOL

  12. Jenners says:

    Yowza … what a review!! What dedication! What analysis! And no way in heck would I read this book.

  13. tuulenhaiven says:

    Hahaha… The Billy Joel song is perfect! Excellent post. Thanks for offering up some plausible explanations for the Nobel Prize, etc. and thanks for all your thoroughly enjoyable posts about this book. Hurray for group reads! Farewell (and good riddance!) Kristin.

  14. Dawn says:

    Are you saying I should re-shelve KRISTIN and live guilt-free without reading THE WIFE and THE CROSS?

    I do enjoy Billy Joel’s music (not especially this song, though), and will forever connect She’s Always A Woman with Kristin (and ‘ugh!’ to that!)

  15. Valerie says:

    Impressive post — you clearly did a lot of research for this, and your analogies are interesting!

    Makes me wonder if the fact that Undset focused so much on Christianity in her books is what also spurred the Nobel Prize award. Maybe the “superior race” thing was a factor, but possibly it was the religion.

    I did enjoy this read-along in spite of the books themselves, and will probably keep my KL books (for at least a while) as a souvenier of it :-).

  16. Pingback: Reflections | projects and readalongs

  17. Joyce says:

    KL is my favorite novel of all times and I was thrilled to find a readalong devoted to it. I thought it was a page turner and reread it many times.
    I like how your review shows Kristin’s complexity–her religion should have made her a better person, but her own willful nature undermines her efforts to improve herself. Which is a struggle that everybody goes through.
    I liked the GWTW references. Margaret Mitchell read KL while she was writing GWTW, and I think the influence shows.

  18. Dixie says:

    I am amazed that people would miss reading this great book because some purported expert gives a bad review.

  19. knappen says:

    How is this a good post?? Henri Bergson got the Nobel Prize in 1927 (of course he “didn’t stand a chance” in 1928). Also, you seem to ignore that the KL trilogy was published between 1920 and 1922 years before Riefenstahl became a star.

  20. Marina says:

    Undset was so outspoken in her denunciation of Nazism that the Norwegian government had her leave the country just before the Nazi invasion. I don’t think she would have been a “compromise” vote for the Nobel in Europe, though I agree that politics plays a part in these awards, and that the book’s setting in an Aryan heartland would have appealed to fascists.

    I can believe that this legitimately won the Nobel in the 1920s; it was a worldwide best-seller, after all. But I know “Kristin Lavransdatter” is not for everyone – it’s a long and slow read, and the sensibility is not one that most modern readers go for. Kristin is definitely unlikable a lot of the time, and I skimmed more than one of the many religious diatribes and crying jags. But there is so much depth to her psyche, and to other characters (like Simon and her parents) that I found it fascinating to trace the threads of personality through the thoughts and actions of the main characters over time. Kristin’s inability to forgive – herself or Erlend – was such a contradiction for someone so devoted to Christianity, and really would have been a source of anguish and self-doubt for your average medieval person. She had so many other paradoxes: willful yet impatient with those who bend easily to her will (like Erlend), fiercely devoted to her husband and children, but so prone to anxiety and depression that she feels no joy from her love. One wonders what her life and character would have been like if she’d taken another, more conventional path – if she’d never met Erlend and married Simon Andresson or joined a religious order, and had led a less turbulent life, would she be happier? Or would she still be the restless and unyielding Kristin we know?

    But Kristin could never have chosen the other path, and that’s what makes her a tragic heroine. It is partly her own headstrong nature that creates so much misery, but it is also the fact that she was a woman in a time and place that put enormous burdens on her: she was socially compromised by her affair with Erlend more than he ever was, and she lives with knowing she humiliated her father. She was saddled with childbearing from the time she was first married, essentially missing out on her entire twenties, and faces the worries and cares of mothering alone as Erlend displays no interest in this huge aspect of her life and identity. Erlend loves her unwaveringly but distantly, as he avoids the domestic arena, which is her life, as much as possible: how much is her hard-heartedness toward him the cause or the result of this estrangement? We can’t tell. We know that she certainly drives him away with her bitterness. But we also know that Erlend does not take Kristin very seriously as an adult: he writes off her fears and hopes for their future, and she cannot count on him to support her or the children reliably. As a woman, she was largely powerless to guarantee the family’s well-being in the place of the male head of household, so it is a hell of a lot harder to just let Erlend’s flaws go: not only does she love him and desperately want to respect him, but she is also not in a position to take over the major decision-making from him. His flaws are a lot more dangerous in that light. Did she make things harder on herself and her family with her harshness and rigidity? Absolutely. My heart sank again and again as she belittled and rejected Erlend, who for all his faults was constant in his kindness and love toward her. But her decisions are completely believable, and, as in life, I felt when reading this that you couldn’t tell what consequences would flow, even as you cringe at her cruelty or irrational fears. In the end, Kristin and Erlend’s passionate commitment is steadfast, but neither can love the other the way they want to be loved (he wants lively, carefree affection from her, she wants seriousness of purpose from him). They are both right and both wrong, and both are reacting to gender expectations of submissive women and take-charge men, which neither meet, with tragic results.

    Again, the pace of the book and its central conflicts may be a bit hard to take for the modern reader, but Kristin and her world seem utterly real, which is hard enough to pull off when writing contemporary novels, let alone an epic set in medieval Norway. Undset masterfully immerses the reader in this world; there is no unnecessary exposition of medieval lifeways, but there is enough rich description that the reader can easily imagine herself there. I found it totally absorbing, myself, and believe that for those inclined to take their time and to set aside the (perfectly normal) reactions of the modern reader in order to be immersed in another world, it will be a rewarding read.

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