My first hundred pages. Below the fold because spoilers.
One good thing about having a toddler is that her naps are a great time to knock out some reading. In my first day I was able to swallow the first hundred pages of the book. I stopped after Kristin is seduced by Erlend.
I am by no means a smart enough person to write a cogent critique of a book, so these will only be random impressions.
First, I was surprised by how fast and how easily I took to the book. I’m not actually a well-read person, and I have to admit it’s still harder for me to read English narrative than French. I took a deep breath upon seeing the alphabet soup of the names, reminiscent of the dreaded ensemble casts of doorstop Russian novels.
I nearly wept when as a little girl Kristin sees a stained glass window for the first time. I could picture and feel the moment perfectly, and as I imagined the wonder of a small, believing child from a world with no razzle dazzle, beholding the beauty of a stained glass window for the first time, I almost cried with joy. And then I stopped and went something like “Holy shit, I’m only 30 pages into this book and I’m already this deep into it.”
So thanks Matt.
It’s striking the extent to which the characters feel real. I was also apprehensive when I found out the book begins with Kristin’s childhood, as I am often disappointed by depictions of children, and their psychology, in art, often too simplistic and patronizing. Here Kristin feels as real as any little girl, as do all of the other characters.
Because Kristin had been pitched so much as “a book about motherhood”, I was surprised by the prevalence of the religious, even though I knew Sigrid Undset was a devout believer. Again, everything here feels real. The way we are torn between what we know is true and right and what we end up doing. The way we regret. The way ordinary, theologically unsophisticated believers can grasp the truths of the faith so well. The well-meaning parish priest, the holy man and the Church bureaucrat are all figures we recognize from our lives and which are all sketched so well here.
Finally, the descriptions of Medieval society seem absolutely spot-on (the expert on Norwegian history said).
After all, how can I not like a book where a father instructs his seven year old daughter to drink ale liberally because it’ll strengthen her blood?
The brutality of the world is sketched without sentimentality. The scene where Kristin’s little sister is crushed by a log is absolutely heart-rending (the fact that I have a little girl probably didn’t help), and the ensuing drama of impotence, and then, stolid acceptance of fate, is quite striking. In an era where so little of nature and the world seemed controllable, acceptance came much easier—with Christianity playing its role—, with both the good and bad that entails. This is nothing that Undset tells us, and yet it is evident throughout.
I was also struck by how similar the decision of Kristin’s betrothal is to the engagement in Madame Bovary. Ah, patriarchy. A decision purely reached by the parents of which the child is later informed, and based largely on financial concerns. There is no doubt that Lavrans is a good man who loves his daughter like all the world, and yet he couldn’t imagine that she might have a say in who she is married off to—nor does Kristin find anything to object. Later, when her fiancé treats her as an object, she notes that it does not sit well with her, and even more so that her father finds nothing objectionable about it, yet she is quite unable to conceptualize why.
And obviously, to the Modern reader, Kristin’s brushes with rape are just terrifying. In both cases, Kristin’s wits and strength save her (again, Undset is masterful in showing without telling the reservoir of strength in Kristin that she herself does not even suspect)—and in both cases, she refuses to have any accountability against the attempted rapist, on account of her shame. This even though the first time, her refusal to have her attempted rapist held accountable indirectly led to the death of her best friend. How naïvely infuriating to the Modern reader!
All in all, modernity is pretty great.
So there go my first chaotic thoughts about the book. Excellent naturalistic style. Very deep and real characters. Great religious themes. Outstanding portrayal of Medieval Norwegian society. Those are the things that leapt out at me.