Kristin Lavrandsdatter - a review

I got back to some serious reading with a vengeance; Kristin Lavrandsdatter, the very long trilogy by Sigrid Undset. It's Norwegian, with a recent translation into English, by Tiina Nunnally.

Here is my review, that I also sent up to Amazon, where if you are curious, you can buy it.

I have only read the first part of this, (The Wreath) The prose is accessible and transparent and gets at the kind of nuances you do not expect from a translation. Expectations run high for this work, especially given the fulsome introduction in this edition. The implication is that you will inhabit the world of the characters and feel bereaved when you leave it. I don't think I shall be that distraught, for Kristin is a tiresome, self-possessed, tedious woman. She manages to create mayhem wherever she goes, more or less from page one. Other characters come and go, but seem to serve little purpose apart from delivering the odd bit of homespun philosophy. Dialogue is sparse. More often conversations are described by the author rather than reported, so you never quite get to meet them first hand, as it were.

All I have to compare this with is my experience of Knut Hamsun, another Norwegian novelist, who won his Nobel Prize some eight years earlier. I feel Undset lacks the wit with which Hamsun describes his characters, however miserable or reprehensible they are. Hamsun's taught paratactic style has an ease and confidence that Undset lacks. Hamsun's peripheral characters enrich the panorama and are often popped back into the narrative as a knowing authorial joke about deux ex machinas. Many return later in the timeline as old friends, recognisable but changed. They speak for themselves and reveal themselves, teasingly and with great wit, by the contradictions between what they do and what they say, just as we all do. I think particularly of Geissler in "Growth of the Soil" In The Wreath, Kristin meets a monk called Brother Edvin and one imagines, given his important seeming speeches, that he will somehow be plot relevant or at least be a character who makes a difference. He does not. The plot points are glaringly obvious, led by Kristin, of course, who is responsible for an almost comical number of deaths. At first, I attributed this style to a homage to the Sagas, but not for long. This is far too contrived and plodding compared to the peremptory catalogue of sudden death, hard-living and unequivocal tribal positioning that makes the Sagas go like a runaway train.


All I will add to this is that I have read some more and not changed my mind. There is what may be a technical point about the praise heaped upon the book, and that is that earlier translations appeared in a kind of cod Medieval English which probably fooled people into giving it more credence than it deserves. This edition, in modern idiom is like someone trying to write a Mills and Boon romance, but failing miserably. It is not great literature - despite her winning the Nobel Prize for it which, according to shitipedia:

This work formed the basis of Undset receiving the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages"; her work is much admired for its historical and ethnological accuracy.

Historically accurate it may be, but as a work of literature it is just not good enough. If you want to read Norwegian literature, go for Knut Hamsun. Start with Women at the Pump, or Growth of the Soil or Mysteries.

BTW, I hope at least a few of my readers are remotely interested in this review or what other books I read. If you are, please say so.


fellow bookworm said...

WW have you read any Andy McNab ?

Dave said...

I didn't notice this book in Tesco.
More later. Work calls.

wordver= unmot.

spooky or what?

Dave said...

My comment re Tesco is pertinent.
See this in The Times

Norwegian literature isn't high on my reading list, and if the continuing Tescoisation of the country reaches its inevitable conclusion (a monopoly), it will be almost impossible to buy books like this.
Without the outlets to sell minority interest books, publishers will refuse to take the risk. (Exactly what has happened to the record industry, who generally only market music that can be sold through supermarkets and petrol stations)

I'm reminded how BR closed all its branch lines in the 60s. First of all withdraw most of the service, except the one required by law. Schedule that to run at an inconvenient time. Apply to close the line due to insufficient demand. Replace it with a bus service for 6 months, which is slow and inconvenient. Withdraw the bus service.

Back to the subject. I enjoyed your review. I can't say that it made me want to rush out and buy the book though. I'm waiting for the gummint to pass a law banning all publication of negative reviews as they are likely to cause unrest among the sheeple.

fellow bookworm said...

I've just checked and all the norwegian titles are there. That may be the way to go in future.