There are two translations of Sigrid Undset’s remarkable trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. That by Archer and Scott came out promptly after the Norwegian originals in the early 1920s. Undset had lived in London, spoke English fluently, and knew the translators. She would have been consulted on fine points. I am told by a native Norwegian that the (mildly) archaic English these translators used nicely echoes effects in the sentences of an authoress who was steeped in Old Norse, and intimately familiar with the old sagas.
The other, commissioned by Penguin Books three generations later, is by Tiina Nunnally. I’m sure it is quite accurate, but I put it down. I’d read the older version years ago, but did not return to it from nostalgia; at first the new version seemed a breath of fresh air. But Nunnally’s very “modern” English changed the atmosphere. It obscured nothing — passages touching on physical sex were if anything belaboured and spiced up — but everything seemed wrapped in cellophane. The protagonist Kristin herself becomes more “modern,” too, where in the older version she had struck me as “timeless”; and rather more immediate.
I dwell on this, for in articles and interviews, Nunnally sneered at the old translation, insinuating that it was grinding, stilted, anachronistic, loose, and bowdlerizing. She is herself a creature of “Scandinavian Studies” in current academia, who knows how to alienate readers from a rival text, by telling them they will be alienated.
For as long as I can remember, readers have been trained to associate literary archaism with the stuffy and Victorian. Shielded thus, they may not realize that they are learning to avoid a whole dimension of poetry and play in language. Poets, and all other imaginative writers, have been consciously employing archaisms in English, and I should think all other languages, going back at least to Hesiod and Homer. The King James Version was loaded with archaisms, even for its day; Shakespeare uses them not only evocatively in his Histories, but everywhere for colour, and in juxtaposition with his neologisms to increase the shock.
In fairy tales, this “once upon a time” has always delighted children. Novelists, and especially historical novelists, need archaic means to apprise readers of location, in their passage-making through time. Archaisms may paradoxically subvert anachronism, by constantly yet subtly reminding the reader that he is a long way from home.
Get over this adolescent prejudice against archaism, and an ocean of literary experience opens to you. Among other things, you will learn to distinguish one kind of archaism from another, as one kind of sea from another should be recognized in a yacht.
But more: a particular style of language is among the means by which an accomplished novelist breaks the reader in. There are many other ways: for instance by showering us with proper nouns through the opening pages, to slow us down, and make us work on the family trees, or mentally squint over local geography. I would almost say that the first thirty pages of any good novel will be devoted to shaking off unwanted readers; or if they continue, beating them into shape. We are on a voyage, and the sooner the passengers get their sea legs, the better it will be all round.
This is peculiarly so for Sigrid Undset. And the paradox here, in Kristin Lavransdatter, is that we must become fully immersed in the XIVth century — mediaeval daily life in the interior of Norway — to begin recognizing the timelessness of her characters and their situations. She is using the form of the historical novel to an extremely useful purpose: to crack through our “modern” superficiality; to take us out of ourselves in order to look about, in the strangeness of a strange new world, then find ourselves again in the costumes. This is Tolkien, for adults.
Undset was a formidable mediaevalist. Her father was a reputable archaeologist, and both her parents historically learned. From childhood she had heard this peculiar aesthetic call, and succumbed to the true historian’s fascination with what lies under things. In that field and from her eventual home of Bjerkebæk at Lillehammer — living surrounded by the landscape in which Kristin Lavransdatter is set, described with such a crisp poetical exactness — she was entirely on her own turf. Scholars to this day acknowledge her as genuinely expert: there are details in her XIVth-century reconstructions that were speculative, at the time she was writing, but have since borne out. She knew, as it were, where the old, pre-Reformation Norway was buried. For this alone, the trilogy — and the tetralogy that followed it, called The Master of Hestviken — is a pleasurable education.
It is partly because of this expertise that Undset is free of romantic illusions about the Middle Ages. She needed the background “Age of Faith” to depict human passions more sharply, to strip away the clutter and insulations of technologized and urbanized life. But her purpose was hardly escapist. By thirty pages in, we are not only bathed in this exotic environment, but exposed more directly to hard facts of life that tend to be ignored, today, until it is too late. We feel the winter cold and the demands made to survive it; we begin to understand that if the crops fail we will starve. The consequence of every human action is amplified, in the absence of our “safety nets.” The politics which Undset depicts are personalized, not abstracted: men of all classes take counsel of each other, not from lofty principles but out of necessity. The dependency of man on man, of woman on woman, of man on woman, and woman on man, ceases to be any sort of parlour game. We are about as far as we can get from the fatuities and asininities of “human rights.”
The book is about motherhood. (I think this is very well expressed, here.) It is also about everything else that comes into human moral experience — about childhood and fatherhood and priesthood and nunhood, belief and unbelief, marriage and aloneness, love in the kaleidoscope of shapes and angles, the power of eros beyond even lust, sanctity and devilry, work, dreams; and in multiple dimensions about sin and grace. But everything is refracted through the prism of motherhood, and by this a huge background statement is made. More than any other novel I have read, this one slaps me in the face with the Fact of Woman.
It is for this reason that it is never taught at Harvard or elsewhere in the Ivy League, as part of “Women’s Studies” — because Undset absolutely refuses to be shallow. She grew up as a feminist; her own mother had been by 1880 well ahead of the “sisterhood” today. Our authoress had written when quite young various feminist tracts, and short novels meant to be “contemporary” and shocking. In the face of reality, through the First World War, she had grown out of it. And from her own difficult life, full of man problems, and children not only her own, she was in no possible doubt that women are moral agents in the fullest and most absolute truth. Not only most spectacularly in her protagonist, Kristin, or in Kristin’s mother Ragnfrid, or later her daughter-in-law Jofrid, but in the little galaxy of other characters through the passing scenes, the theme of motherhood is revolved. Moreover, not only Kristin in the foreground, but other females in the story are wilful souls; and as we will see, for better and for worse, they will not be shackled. In the relations between the women, Undset tackles issues that even our best woman novelists tend to ignore: because Undset’s women live also through their men, their sons and their daughters, and therefore through time in a way post-family life has forgotten. This does not diminish but enhances their place in the world.
Yet too, this is no book “for women,” no chick-lit of any kind. For I would also say that I have never read a novel in which I could see men so clearly through a searching woman’s eyes; in which, as I hinted above, I felt so judged. The failures of men, and at the most painful, the failure of men to be men, is presented in light that is often excoriating. Indeed, the manner of a woman’s judgement must come as a revelation to men: not only the grown women but the girl children. Through that prism of motherhood, things are seen that men might not want to see, including centrally the scandal of being loved not for our virtues but in spite of our appalling weaknesses. And in this sense, women are stand-ins for God.
Conversely, the nobility of a man — Kristin’s father, Lavrans, in the first instance — is revealed in and out of season, and through all his naiveté and frailties. To me, the conclusion of the first volume, where the good will of the aging Lavrans is breaking down, while all the ground of his trust is shifting beneath him, and there seems nothing left on which he can rely, was a terrible reckoning. There is a moment of weakness, at which he cracks into pettiness over something so minor as the failure to return a cart; and the whole world seems to be lost, along with his heritage and a life’s labour. Then to top it off, in his occluding despair, his wife selects the worst conceivable moment to tell him that when she was young, she had been as false as his daughter. And how does he react? Incredibly, after absorbing this final blow, his first thought is for his poor wife, who has carried this burden so long and so secretly in her soul.
Or rather, not incredibly. It is the extraordinary gift of Undset to make that moment credible. And too, to make it pass as lightning that has illuminated all the landscape, and then, with the storm, passed on. How many novelists can depict sanctity, or the truest of true loves?
It is on this level that Undset operates. Her Kristin is not only wilful but “deeply flawed”; we cannot help identifying with her, nor fail to see objectively what is going, and is bound to go, wrong. She has set her heart on a man who lays waste to everything he touches; she allows herself to be seduced. She sticks by him even when he has proved his irresponsibility and unworthiness, again and again. This lover and eventual husband, Erland, must remind every male reader of what is small and faithless and predictably unreliable in his own soul; yet Undset also comprehends all of his excuses. She makes us see what Kristen sees in him; see even the virtues that correspond to Erland’s vices, for he can be a knight in his recklessness. His love, and their love, is neither casual nor empty. It only raises the stakes in every common endeavour, as they try to raise children in the world. Tragedy will necessarily befall them, but out of this tragedy Kristin’s redemption will be forged.
No: it is better than this. Kristin is no fool. She sees with a frightening feminine clarity precisely what she is getting herself into, and the growth of her contrition likewise follows the turning of this searchlight on her own soul. She sins knowingly, she makes what she inwardly knows is a catastrophic mistake by jilting the good man whom her father chose for her, and who loves as her father loved: selflessly. At seventeen, she is throwing herself away on a man well over thirty with a known, murky past and the earned reputation of a Lothario. She has, in every critical moment, enough “information” not to do what she will do, but does it anyway. In crisis, she does not seek help or absolution. Somehow Undset makes us understand that this is how it must be; that the smartest girl will do the stupidest thing; and it will make a kind of sense as part of something larger.
One might say, “life is like that.” This is a pretty limp cliché that Undset is confirming, but she raises it repeatedly to the visionary level. And in the second volume, where Kristin is now married and mistress of an estate, puzzling in her heart over the vagaries of her boys, who puzzle over her in their boyish understanding, the theme of motherhood deepens and deepens. She is left with very male responsibilities, by her wayward husband — the running of her husband’s estate, an enterprise for which she was never raised or trained, and on which the very survival depends, not only of her growing family but of retainers and families beyond them. And thanks to that feckless husband, that is lost, too.
She is reduced by circumstances again and again to one woman against the world; but she will not be reduced. Through that prism of motherhood, through the extension of family, through the finally mysterious relation of man to all men, soul to all souls, and through every adversity, she is rising. In the end, we may discern that it is a divinely-assisted passage.
The book is far from painful to read. As I’ve said, the “archaic” earlier translation will only be in the reader’s face for thirty pages or so, and the discovery that he is now at home in it will come as a pleasant surprise. As in the reading of any fine saga embracing generations, he will soon feel almost part of the family, emotionally invested in its fate.
There is a moment — and O Lord is Sigrid Undset the mistress of moments — when our heroine is “leaving home” for what will be the last time — the home she left by marriage, and to which she had returned as refuge with her children. Those children have grown, and scattered. A dark cloud of plague is descending upon Norway, but this is not so apparent yet. Kristin Lavransdatter is entering old age, but still has her health. She is setting off on pilgrimage to Trondheim — the grand mediaeval cathedral of Niðarós, shrine of Olav and tomb of kings, capital and spiritual seat of pre-Reformation Norway (still standing in its Gothic stone, so near to the Arctic Circle).
On the first leg, she is accompanied by her son, Gaute, now master of the manor and its future, carrying her “wallets” up the rise on his horse. She will not ride, being Kristin. They must part, Gaute in an explosion of tears, for the mother he will never see again; Kristin in mysterious containment. At the height of land, she looks back over the valley that has been her life, spotting in the far distance, her home. As Undset puts it, she is torn back, for one last home-sick glance; but also torn forward, by something very much like a home-sickness for heaven:
“It seemed as if these yearnings burst her heart in sunder — they ran hither and thither like streams of blood, seeking out ways to all places in the wide-stretched land where she had lived, to all the sons she had wandering in the world, to all her dead beneath the moulds.”
The story is not yet over; but I will leave it there. It is more than a thousand pages, and I have not even mentioned beloved Brother Edvin, or so many other characters brought to vivid life. Yes, it is a Catholic novel, though Undset was not yet a Catholic when she wrote it. Yes, it won the Nobel Prize, eighty-six years ago. Yes, there are many other works of Undset’s worth reading, including her extraordinary biography of Catherine of Siena, and many other penetrating essays and stories, should there be world enough and time; but this trilogy is all of a piece.
One might read, I suppose, any sort of novel; but as must have been said before, a truly great novel reads you.