Thursday, May 11, 2006

Unforgettable: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (Nobel Prize for Literature)

Trilogy, original Norwegian copyright 1920-22. Translation by Tiina Nunnally: Copyright 2005, Penguin Classics (3 books in one edition), 1184 pp., paperback

Reviewed by Ana Braga-Henebry, M.A.

I am delighted to see a popular edition by Penguin Classics of one of the world's greatest woman writers settling itself to be in print for any foreseeable future. This review refers to the 2005 paperback edition of the combined trilogy of Sigrid Undset’s master work Kristin Lavransdatter, translated by Tiina Nunnally.

The Penguin Classics page does a great job at introducing the novel to the public:

In her great historical epic Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the life story of one passionate and headstrong woman. Painting a richly detailed backdrop, Undset immerses readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of the period. Now in one volume, Tiina Nunnally’s award-winning definitive translation brings this remarkable work to life with clarity and lyrical beauty.

As a young girl, Kristin is deeply devoted to her father, a kind and courageous man. But when as a student in a convent school she meets the charming and impetuous Erlend Nikulauss√łn, she defies her parents in pursuit of her own desires. Her saga continues through her marriage to Erlend, their tumultuous life together raising seven sons as Erlend seeks to strengthen his political influence, and finally their estrangement as the world around them tumbles into uncertainty.

With its captivating heroine and emotional potency, Kristin Lavransdatter is the masterwork of Norway’s most beloved author—one of the twentieth century’s most prodigious and engaged literary minds—and, in Nunnally’s exquisite translation, a story that continues to enthrall.

Seldom do we find such contrasting examples in quality of work as found in the two translations available of Undset’s master work. When we lived near Princeton, NJ, I was challenged to read the trilogy for a Catholic Woman’s Literary group at Aquinas House. My husband offered to buy it for me in Princeton on his way home, and in a good bookstore he found the then-brand-new translation by Tiina Nunnally.

I had the opportunity to compare the old Archer translation of the 1930s, which has been continually in print since the 1920s, to this new one. For someone who studied translation in graduate school, this was exhilarating. While the new award winning translation by Nunnally flows in fresh, contemporary style, yet reflective of the historical period, the old one had forced medieval English-isms and felt dry and rusty. In further comparing I noticed that indeed Archer has left entire pages out of the volume—and most especially pages of deep Catholic content. (For readers who have read the second volume, one of the passages left out include the spiritual musings by the heroine upon her arrival at the shrine of St. Olaf during her penitential pilgrimage.)

Indeed, the Penguin Classics web page comments:

This new translation by Tina Nunnally—the first English version since Charles Archer's translation in the 1920s—captures Undset's strengths as a stylist. Nunnally, an award-winning translator, retains the natural dialog and lyrical flow of the original Norwegian, with its echoes of Old Norse legends, while deftly avoiding the stilted language and false archaisms of Archer's translation. In addition, she restores key passages left out of that edition.

Sigrid Undset converted to the Catholic Church while doing the research for this great historical novel. Daughter of a noted Norwegian archeologist, and fascinated by her father’s field of study, Undset looked to the past as the setting of her greatest novel. In the process of digging Norway’s medieval world she found Catholic Christianity and wholly embraced it. I believe this process of finding one's true meaning in life is behind the superb quality of the story. Some argue that her four volume novel The Master of Hestviken is a more Catholic book because the Christian thought is already present from page one. Maybe so. But alas, no other work by Undset work has the crisp freshness of Kristin Lavransdatter. Undset seems to transfer into her most memorable protagonist the exhilaration of her newfound faith, which caused no small token on her own personal life. As Kristin in the novel, Undset’s own decisions in life, now in the light of her newfound faith, caused many personal sacrifices as well providing the realities redemption and purpose. Again from the Penguin Classics page:

In Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922), Sigrid Undset interweaves political, social, and religious history with the daily aspects of family life to create a colorful, richly detailed tapestry of Norway during the fourteenth-century. The trilogy, however, is more than a journey into the past. Undset's own life—her familiarity with Norse sagas and folklore and with a wide range of medieval literature, her experiences as a daughter, wife, and mother, and her deep religious faith—profoundly influenced her writing. Her grasp of the connections between past and present and of human nature itself, combined with the extraordinary quality of her writing, sets her works far above the genre of "historical novels."

Few novels are able to remain so wholly in the readers' memories as Kristin Lavransdatter. Sigrid Undset had a gift that is seldom found. This is a story to be savored a paragraph at a time, and a fascinating window into a world that is so foreign and yet it becomes so close in the imagination. Keeping in mind that this novel is best appreciated after the reader has experienced much of life’s vicissitudes, it is still recommended for the high school students. When our daughter read it at the end of freshman year I told her to take note of her impressions and to compare them with her impressions of when she rereads it—hopefully fifteen to twenty years from now.

High school students could certainly benefit from reading Kristin Lavransdatter as an important sample of great Catholic fiction. The foreign flavor, in both style and cultural geography, is strongest in the first three chapters and can be a stumbling block, but a good reader will use those three initial chapters to fully immerse themselves into Kristin’s world. The story of love, romance, suffering and redemption will live in their memories.

One of the great Catholic element of Kristin Lavransdatter is the lesson of life around which it revolves: because of her initial lack of trust and obedience to her beloved father, Kristin undergoes a lifetime of suffering and pain, finding consolation and redemption only under the shadow of the cross. Few books will teach such a crucial lesson this vividly. Of course, this is a lesson than can be learned at any stage of life, yet lessons are best learned in the formation years of our children.

Kristin Lavransdatter is also the Women's Catholic Literary Club par excellence: a challenging yet deeply satisfying read, it could easily dominate an entire semester of meetings' discussions. If you have never hosted one of these, maybe this is the season to do it. Catholic homeschool mothers, I have noticed, enjoy great pleasure in discussing together their thoughts on great Catholic literature, most especially while enjoying a good Port.

See CatholicCulture website for a relevant article referring to the 1999 edition.

Penguin Classics also has in print each of the three volumes individually, in absolutely beautiful covers:

Volume 1: The Wreath

Volume 2: The Wife

Volume 3: The Cross


Mary Eileen said...

Lovely review! I have the hardcover Archer translation, given to me by my mother when I was in high school. She had also read it as a high schooler. I was going to offer my copy to my oldest daughter (now in high school) to read this summer, but instead I think I'll get the new translation for her.

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

It will make a nice gift--an option would be to give her the first volume, The Wreath, to get her introduced to the trilogy. She'll love the beautiful cover.