Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

The cover art of this edition is just beautiful -- anyone know the name of the painting?
In the past couple of years, I've been quite fascinated with Scandinavia -- a co-worker at the library got me hooked on Scandinavian TV series (I started with Bron/Broen, then quickly moved on to Borgen and Arvingerne). Watching these great dramas has inspired me to read more Scandinavian literature, so I chose a Norwegian classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

In 1920,  Sigrid Undset published the first novel in the Kristin Lavransdatter series, Volume I: The Wreath. Set in Norway during the Middle Ages, about 1300, The Wreath is the story of a young woman's coming of age. Though she wrote contemporary books as well, Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 primarily for this trilogy. I'm always looking for interesting books in translation, and Nobel prize winner made this a win-win selection for me.

The story starts out with Kristin as a young girl and oldest surviving child of her father Lavrans (hence her surname, Lavransdatter, which literally means Lavran's daughter; at that time, Norwegians used the patronymic naming system which is still in use in Iceland today). Kristin's parents have lost three young sons, so she is the great hope of the family. They assume she will marry well and when she is fifteen, she is betrothed to Simon, the son of a neighboring landowner. After a tragedy, she is sent to a convent school for a year, where she falls in love with the dark and dangerous Erlend, a handsome man with a bad reputation. The majority of the book is about Kristin's struggles between following her heart and disappointing her parents or pleasing everyone by marrying a man she doesn't love. Kristin also struggles with the moral implications of Erlend's past and her involvement with him. She's been raised as a devout Catholic and often turns to the priests for moral guidance, which she doesn't always follow.

This cover is from On the Plain by Erek Werenskiold
This book was written nearly a hundred years ago, and I was surprised at how frankly Undset wrote about some of the issues that Kristin was facing -- there's a lot of discussion about Kristin's virginity, children born out of wedlock, and even priests with illegitimate children. Undset was writing in the early 1920s when the role of women worldwide was really changing; I'll have to do more research but I'm pretty sure this book must have been quite controversial.

I read the Penguin classics version which was newly translated in 2005, and I found it a very easy read. It did start a bit slowly in Kristin's childhood, but once she got betrothed to Simon, the plot really started moving and I finished it very quickly. I've always enjoyed historical fiction but I've read very few books set in the Medieval period. Undset did a lot of research and her descriptions of life in the period are excellent. Parts of it actually reminded me a bit of Game of Thrones, especially life in Winterfell (but without the dragons and White Walkers). I definitely want to read the next two books in the series, The Wife and The Cross. I really hadn't been planning on starting another book series (I still haven't finished the last two books in the Poldark series) but Undset really brought Kristin and her world to life. Luckily they're available as free digital downloads from my library so I may just zip right through them.

I'm counting this as my Award-Winning Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge and also as my Norwegian read for the European Reading Challenge.

11 comments:

  1. Oh, how I loved this book! I read it one hot summer in the late 1990s, at night, when most people were asleep. Because I was working very long days and eating rather late suppers, I lived for this time of day when I could deeply sink into this epic.
    Now, I have Volumes 2 and 3 on my Classics Club List. The only problem is that I think I should reread Volume 1 to refresh my memory of that special world Undset created. I've put the decision off, I must admit, but I know that I must reread the first volume.
    I'm so delighted by your thoughts about it.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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    1. I loved it and I can't decide if I should rush into the last two volumes or spread them out, to savor them.

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  2. This is on my list too! It was one of Margaret Mitchell's favorite books. :)

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    1. I remember you mentioned that when I posted my TBR list for this challenge! I love GWTW so that definitely pushed it up on my to-read list. I haven't read GWTW for a long time and I think I'm due for a re-read -- I also have The Gone With the Wind Letters which I want to read as a companion volume.

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  3. Ha, you have the last two Poldarks to finish? I have the last 9 to read! :)

    I love the fact that this reminds you of AGOT! This will also be a good title to keep in mind if you ever bring back the Classic Historical Fiction category.

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    1. I think it's the Medieval setting that reminds me of AGOT -- I was picturing Winterfell and some of the characters. I could see the girl who plays Sansa as Kristin (but in my head Erlend looks just like Richard Armitage).

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  4. I loved these so much when I read them I immediately jumped into the Master of Hestviken quartet, but never managed to make it through--too much medieval Norway at once I guess. Remembering now I may want to go back and reread the Kristin trilogy!

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    1. I want to read the Master of Hestviken quartet also, and my library also has an electronic copy of a contemporary novel she wrote called Marta Oulie which is a recent translation. I hope to read that one too.

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  5. I loved these books! It's been about a decade, but I remember reading them consecutively... something I would never attempt now ;-)

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  6. I found old copies of this trilogy at a bookstore that was going out of business but I have not gotten around to them yet. I find it intriguing that Margaret Mitchell loved it.

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  7. Delighted to hear so much love for these books as I acquired a copy a year or so ago for my reading the Nobels challenge...I hope to get to them soon.

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