This is not the longest book I’ve ever read, though it comes close – trailing just behind World Without End and War and Peace, and probably The Lord of the Rings too, if we count that as a single book – but it certainly feels like the longest. I started it back in October, and since then it’s been flowing quietly along beneath the other books I’ve been reading like some great leviathan. Now and then I’ve put it aside for a bit, but its shadow has always been there, flickering at the corner of my eye. Finishing it feels like a major accomplishment. If I had a spare bottle of champagne, I’d be tempted to open it.
Set in early 14th-century Norway, Sigrid Undset’s novel is one of those books – like War and Peace in fact – which is almost a national epic. It feels immense even though much of the book’s action takes place within one modest valley around the estate of Jorundgaard, and the book gives a monumental tinge to the simple lives and quiet sorrows of ordinary people. This is a world where the chief achievement of a life is to be well-respected among one’s neighbours. It’s a young world, too: freshly Christian after generations of pagan worship. The old spirits still cast their shadows over people’s lives: literally, in the barrows which scatter the landscapes, but also psychologically, as people are moved to leave offerings for the spirits of their forebears and still fear going out at night alone.
The presence of Christianity does not replace the myths and monsters of the old religion. Kristin and her contemporaries are acutely aware that it wasn’t so long ago that elven maidens haunted the hillsides, trolls lurked in dark caves, and brave knights and pretty girls were lured into the halls of the king under the mountain. It’s no wonder that these humble, rather isolated people cherish their saints and their crosses: out at the edge of the wilderness, they can’t afford the frivolity of courtiers at the heart of the realm. They live too close to the soil: too close to the past.
Divided into three parts – The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross – Undset’s novel follows the life of Kristin, daughter of Lavrans. Her beloved father is an estate-owner of good birth, who has devoted his life to being a good farmer and a good neighbour in their close-knit farming community. Reared to appreciate hard work and honest husbandry, Kristin nevertheless secretly chafes against the path that has been laid out for her. Although she loves her valley, she itches for something with a broader scope; and, above all, she itches for the kind of overwhelming, passionate love which she has never seen between her parents. Faced with betrothal to the dependable but unexciting Simon, Kristin persuades Lavrans to let her spend some time at the convent at Nonneseter before her marriage: a fateful choice. For it’s here that she meets a man who immediately captures her soul: the beautiful, noble and charming Erlend. Instantly captivated, Kristin finds that all thought of her betrothed flies out of her head; and the two young lovers embark on an affair whose consequences will come to dominate not only their own lives, but also that of the repudiated Simon.
Undset was a devout Catholic and a lay Dominican and religion lies heavily on this book: the saints, God and the Virgin Mary have as powerful a presence as if they were characters. Kristin, despite her youthful misdemeanors, is a profoundly religious woman, devoted to the saints whose feast days dictate the rhythms of life in her community. Simon, who might be forgiven for feeling rather angry about the whole situation, behaves with sober dignity and morality, in contrast to the flashy, wayward and rather immature Erlend. Yet even Erlend understands that he is unworthy and, in his own way, attempts to make amends. This is not a book with heroes and villains: each and every character has his or her virtues, but also flaws and shortcomings. For a reader who isn’t religious, there are moments when the browbeating and the sin and the enduring guilt and shame all becomes a bit too much.
The entire book blossoms out of an act which, to modern eyes and in much historical fiction, would scarcely be worth a raised eyebrow – a young couple who sleep together before marriage, resulting in the woman falling pregnant. But, in this novel, this impetuous act is a sign of both parties’ wilful and immature natures, and it spirals out to overshadow the rest of their lives. The child comes too soon after the wedding and Kristin’s self-regard, her standing in the community, and the reputations of her father and husband, are shamed by it. For this devout community, Kristin’s sin is a sign that she is a loose woman and that she’s betrayed the modest, honourable upbringing given to her by her parents. It all mounts into a cycle of complicity, bitterness and recrimination which simmers beneath Kristin and Erlend’s efforts to live a full and loving life together. Whenever they come close to being happy, something interferes: whether that’s their own consciousness of their unworthiness, or wider affairs – for Erlend, as it rapidly becomes clear, is profoundly unsuited for the life of a simple farmer. Sometimes it all felt rather frustrating – but then I would remember that this is how many of our ancestors lived: tormented by their sins, which were made all the more unbearable by knowing that every misdeed was common knowledge in their close and claustrophobic communities.
It’s interesting that the translator of Undset’s magnum opus is none other than Tiina Nunnally, who also translated the troublesome Visit of the Royal Physician. The prose in Kristin Lavransdatter does have a similar starkness and austerity, but at the same time there is something rich and luxurious about the scenes which are described. Undset is careful to show us the traditions and processions of her quiet country community: the rare feast days on which people can hang up their tools and celebrate. And always, always, there is such a magnificent sense of setting – the lovingly-pictured landscapes and the bleak, hard weather are described with just as much care as the characters’ actions and emotions. This section is a good example of the writing style: it conjures up the freezing beauty of the weather, the sensitivity of the characterisation and the constant shimmering of Kristin’s guilt:
The horses’ hooves rang hollowly, for the earth was now as hard as iron from black frost. Steam enveloped the people and the horses; rime covered the animals’ bodies as well as everyone’s hair and furs. Erlend looked as white-haired as the abbot, his face glowing from the morning drink and the biting wind. Today he was wearing his bridegroom’s clothing; he looked so young and happy that he seemed radiant, and joy and wild abandon surged in his beautiful, supple voice as he rode, calling to his guests and laughing with them. Kristin’s heart began quivering so strangely, from sorrow and tenderness and fear… She was bitterly cold; and lodged deep in her soul was that tiny, dull, mute anger toward Erlend, who was so free of sorrow. And yet, now that she saw with what naive pride and sparkling elation he was escorting her home as his wife, a bitter remorse began trickling inside her, and her breast ached with pity for him.
This is genuinely a family saga: like a true saga, the characters are described by their genealogies and patronymics, and most of those whom we meet are cousins, half-brothers or related by marriage. It can all get a bit confusing; but there’s no doubt that family is at the heart of the book. And it’s significant that the title is Kristin Lavransdatter, because Kristin’s father Lavrans plays such a central role. Even after his death, he is the benchmark by which other men are measured – specifically Erlend – and Lavrans is so loved and revered by his neighbours and his daughter that no other man can hope to measure up. (I couldn’t help thinking that he casts the same kind of long, impossibly honourable shadow over the book that Ned Stark casts over Game of Thrones; and I hope that doesn’t sound too frivolous.)
Devout, honest, a good householder and a caring member of the community, Lavrans represents all that a 14th-century Norwegian landowner should be; yet at the same time, his indulgent love for his daughter – something which should not be a flaw, but which becomes one – sets off the events of the novel. Lavrans suffers the bitter fate of the truly virtuous: realising that those he loves are not worthy of the pedestals he’s put them on. His daughter is not the virginal innocent he has supposed; his wife’s placid exterior holds an enduring sadness and resignation. If anything, the central message of this book is that even fundamentally good people have the ability to really mess up their lives by placing expectations on others which those people cannot fulfil.
This is not an upbeat novel. It is full of grace, in both senses of that word, but I found that I had to abandon my expectations about what a piece of historical fiction should be. Most novels are shaped like arrows, with a central thrust of a storyline and a few subplots and pieces of backstory tied around the shaft. By contrast, Kristin Lavransdatter is like a river in its late stages, meandering through a landscape and losing its way among fens. It is beautiful but if you focus too hard on the river, so to speak, you risk growing frustrated by its leisurely pace and, more to the point, you miss the scenery, which is one of the most fabulous things about it. You finish it feeling as though you have forced your way through a dark, thorny forest in the middle of the night, and finally stumbled out into the final scene where everything fades into a pristine, blinding, untouched sweep of virgin snow.
It’s not an easy read and it’s certainly not a quick one; but there is a grandeur to this novel that I’ve rarely seen equalled. The characters aren’t always accessible to modern ways of thinking, but they do give the impression of being rounded and plausible figures of their time (these are certainly not modern people in historical costume). It is a splendid evocation of the medieval mind. One day, when I have more life experience behind me, and perhaps a greater knowledge of medieval Norway, I shall read this again and perhaps draw some different insights from it; but for now I am just immensely proud to have conquered it.