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BY Simcha Fisher
No matter how late it is, I have to read for at least a few minutes or else I can't go to sleep. It turns out Kristin Lavransdatter: The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset was the wrong book to keep beside my bed, because I couldn't read for just a few minutes. I devoured this book, stopping only to check the title page several times, unable to believe that it hadn't been written in English.
That's the first marvel of this trilogy, written in the 1920's and set in Catholic medieval Norway: the incredibly fluid and evocative language. I'm reading the translation by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott, which preserves enough of the formal language of medieval times to give it flavor, without obscuring the meaning or tone of the narrative. (I haven't read the 2005 Nunnaly translation, which is said to be more concise.) I suppose Norwegian is a language similar enough to English that at least some phrases must have translated easily, but that doesn't fully explain the miraculously felicitous languge. Listen to this:
To the folk of the Dale, waiting and waiting for the spring to deliver them, it seemed as though it would never come. The days grew long and light, and the steam-cloud from the melting snow lay on all the valley as long as the sun shone. But the cold still held the air, and there was no strength in the heat to overcome it. By night it froze hard -- there was loud cracking from the ice, there were booming sounds from the distant fells; and the wolves howled and the fox barked down among the farms as at midwinter. Mend stripped the bark from the trees for their cattle, but they dropped down dead in their stalls by scores. None could tell how all this way to end.
Kristen went out on such a day, when the water was trickling in the ruts, and the snow on the fields around glistened like silver. The snow-wreaths had been eaten away hollow on the side toward the sun, so that the fine ice-trellis of the snow-crust edges broke with a silver tinkle when her foot touched them. But everywhere, where the smallest shadow fell, the sharp cold held the air and the snow was hard.
This passage is, of course, not simply a skillfully-drawn bit of scenery; it's a mirror of what is going on in Kristen's heart, as she longs and hungers after the relief she desires, trying to thaw her father's frozen will -- but she knows, deep down, that at the heart of her triumph lies cold sorrow and pain.
Such deft little double revelations are the second miracle of this novel. The omniscient narrator warns and warns the reader of the folly of Kristin's choices -- but simultaneously makes us understand perfectly why she would do the foolish things she does. We all know a man exactly like the one she falls for: still skating by on charm and good intentions even in his late thirties, still persuading people that, somehow, his sins are more bad luck than bad faith. We want, almost as much as Kristin does, to trust him; she knows, almost as well as we do, that she can't.
The characters are so believable because they are not entirely consistent -- no one is all good or all bad, and even as Kristin deliberately allows herself to be deceived as only a young woman can, she has flashes of adult irritation, rage, and self-knowledge. And it's not just a lady's novel: Undset somehow knows what's in the mind of the men, too. Kristin's father, Lavrans, moves through the novel in the same way that (as far as I can tell!) many real men move through their actual lives: in armor of strength, courage, and steadfastness, which occasionally and unpredictably shifts aside to reveal profound regret and panicked self-doubt, a bitterness toward life which is quickly and smoothly covered over again with a better self.
Poor Kristen, poor Lavrans, and poor, poor Ragnfrid, the unappealing mother, so steeped in loss and secret remorse that she can hardly stand to be with herself, and helplessly punishes all around her because of her sense of guilt.
And this is the third part of the novel that utterly blew me away: it portrays a culture and sensibility which could hardly be more alien to how even faithful Catholics live today. Some of the customs are things we have lost and many of us long for: the seamless marriage of faith and daily living; the unquestioned security of family. And some are barbarically unfair and cruel: the monstrously unjust laws of inheritance; the father's utter control over the lives of his daughters; the unseemly temporal power of the Church, and the meddling of the king in the moral lives of his subjects. And Ragnfrid's endless guilt.
But in any recent novel, the narrator would be slamming us over the head with the injustice of it all: can you imagine treating women this way, etc.; or else Kristin's world would be sighingly presented as a simpler time when love and honor were still the norm, alas. Undset does not play either of these disingenuous tricks. Instead, she shows exactly how it all makes sense for the people involved. The behavior of the characters, their desires and their innermost thoughts, are all entirely consistent with their world, which is so unlike ours; and yet we feel that we know them, and understand all too well their choices and moods. Love has never been simple, and Undset doesn't pretend that it was then or is now.
Please, don't tell me what happens next! I know things won't end well for Kristin, but I haven't read the next two books in the trilogy, and I'm SO looking forward to suffering through it all.