Author: Sigrid Undset (tran. Tiina Nunnally)
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: 1920 (1977)
Note: This review contains spoilers.
A great book does not need to create a likable central character to attract a reader. In fact, it can be the unattractive character who appeals to us in an exploration of evil, sin, or even a failure of morals. Or, conversely, we may find a character who is flawed but appealing in their humanity. Pulp fiction is built around detectives who both appeal and repel, but are ultimately attractive due to their humanness.
In Sigrid Undset’s first volume of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, we find a young heroine who grows up to be so self-centered she is hard to like. In fact, she is quite unlikable but with none of the redeeming qualities we may find in other failed people. Instead, her life goes on and she seems to learn nothing from the damage she leaves in her wake.
This is 14th-century Norway and Kristin is the daughter of Lavrans and Rangfrid. While the mother is reclusive and depressed, Lavrans is a successful and popular farmer and close to young Kristin. They’ve lost infant sons and their youngest daughter, so Kristin is all they have. She is quick to fall in love, first falling for a farmhand who is later killed. Her father then gets her engaged to a young man she does not want to marry, but she agrees to spend time at the convent while awaiting her marriage. The convent is home not just to nuns, but young women waiting to return to life beyond the convent.
While there she meets Erlend Nikulausson in town and begins an affair with him (less than a year after losing her first love), including losing her virginity to him (the “wreath” represents her virginity). Erlend comes from a royal line but has been excommunicated by the Catholic Church and pushed aside by his family for having an open affair with a woman who is married to an elderly husband. Erlend and the woman, Eline, have two children together. While Erlend and Kristin profess their love for one another, Eline commits suicide. Kristin’s father is obviously reluctant to bless the union of Erlend and Kristin, so Kristin just acts depressed for nearly a year. Well, except when Erlend shows up again and she gets pregnant. Her father finally relents after his wife intercedes and Kristin manages to get married without people knowing her wreath is a lie.
In the end, I find her to be a self-centered young woman who forgets about her first love quickly, starts an affair she knows will tear apart her community, pushes away a father whom she has always loved, is not too upset when Erlend’s mistress conveniently kills herself, and in the end gets what she wants.
I don’t think I’m in the majority here. The trilogy is often cited as the reason that Undset received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Perhaps the other two volumes redeem Kristin, but I’m not patient enough to find out. While I may not like the main character, Undset’s writing is outstanding (as is the translation) and she brings medieval Norway to life. Some of the writing is pastoral, but she balances it with thoughtful dialogue and a range of characters. Kristin’s mother, Rangfrid, hovers on the edge for much of the book but when she emerges more at the end we see an insightful and deeply grieved woman.
In the end, I cannot recommend the book but I also know many will read it and enjoy it. We can’t love all the classics, but classics certainly rise above a sole blogger’s opinion.