I read in great big gulps while our daughter naps on the weekend. Now halfway through. I am soon leaving for a week’s vacation without internet, so you’ll have to wait a little while for the next installment, which will probably be the last one.
This may be the single best novel I’ve ever read. (The other contender is War and Peace.)
Again I am struck by Undset’s gift at sketching characters that are utterly believable, as complex as any living being, and deep. I am struck by her gift of “showing not telling.” When I wanted to be a writer (ha) those were the two things that bedeviled me. Those who can do it I view as gods.
(Before I started Kristin I was reading Infinite Jest but for all my true admiration for DFW’s amazing wordsmithery, this is not where the charism of writers lies.)
I’m also struck by what a page-turner this is. I am intensely invested in the story. I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. As I write this I’m struggling with the temptation to just spend the whole day reading the book—but of course I have a business to run here.
All right, some chaotic notes.
Kristin’s strength. Kristin has a quality, which is a typically womanly quality, that I’ve seen in life and don’t think I ever saw portrayed so well in art, which I would describe as possessing a nearly infinite fount of strength that the bearer herself would not suspect. Invariably the back-jacket-type descriptions of the book use words like “headstrong” to describe Kristin, probably because bookish readers of this era feel they wouldn’t be able to identify with a female character if she wasn’t “strong” in the way we today want to see female strength. But Kristin isn’t “headstrong” like, say, a Katharine Hepburn character. Her strength is deep and invisible, even to her. I am sure that Kristin would never describe herself as “strong,” let alone “headstrong”, and yet that is quite clearly what she is but not in the way we describe it. Here is an innocent, country maiden who suddenly finds schemes and lies to find her world-wise lover that astound even him, stands up to her legal fiancé and her commanding father and even briefly turns into Lady Macbeth—but no, that’s not the right way to put it. Lady Macbeth’s scheming ways, as much as they come from a deep, dark place within her, are cerebralized. Lady Macbeth knows that she is Lady Macbeth and wants to turn into Lady Macbeth—that’s her perdition. Kristin just acts. After refusing her girlhood friend because it would go against her father’s wishes, she fights off a would-be rapist like a lioness. She turns around her husband’s estates with a speed, facility and astuteness that would awe any CEO. But perhaps the most striking moment is, after her husband finds out she is pregnant from before they were married, and they refuse to talk about it, she finds a way to joke about it in public in front of her husband and his vassals. She is genuinely mortified by her sin, but at the same time she has the strength and the wit to use it to her advantage in a social context.
The sin of pride that we all share. All sins come from the sin of pride. Kristin shows this. She is properly mortified by her sin of betraying her fiancé and the trust of her father, of being complicit in the death of her paramour’s concubine. She is wise enough to understand that the excuses to minimize her sins are just that. The death of Erlend’s concubine was part self-defense, part-suicide, part-accident, but she knows that if circumstances had been different she would have driven the dagger in her heart herself. But that’s not the worst part. Even after atoning for her sins with a barefoot pilgrimage (by the way, we should bring that back in style), even after seeing the gift that is her son, she is still tortured by her sin. And this is the greater sin. Kristin cannot receive the redemptive love of God, but not because she is sinful, for that is no barrier to anyone, but because she is so focused on the blackness of her sin. At one point, she thinks, there has never been greater sinner than me. My sinful nature is so deep that I can never be redeemed. In other words: me me me me. O look God, what a good Christian I am, how I beat my chest with sincere grief over my sin. This is the sin that leads believers astray. It’s the sin of Judas—Judas’ great sin was not that he betrayed Christ, Judas’ great sin was that he committed suicide; that is to say, that he believed he was beyond God’s infinite redemptive powers. And the priests around her see this, and tell her, because they are wise, and she understands, but at the same time it doesn’t work, because she cannot free herself from her good intentions and her navel-gazing long enough to receive the fire of God’s redemptive love. Kristin’s great sin isn’t sleeping with Erlend, or betraying her fiancé, or conceiving a child out of wedlock, or even being involved in a wrongful death. Her sin is not trusting enough in God’s love, because she is too focused on herself, that she can be redeemed of her sins. And this is the sin of pride we all share.
Medieval Norway, like, sucked, guys. So, I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but, wow. So, like, people don’t even have universal healthcare? No, but joking aside, what a cruel world. Here I have a nit to pick with Carrie Frederick Frost’s excellent First Things post on the book. After noting Undset’s noting of the injustices and the imperfections of Medieval Norway, Carrie writes “the tale stands as a vision of something to be remembered, mourned, and aimed for: a world in which ‘the mysterious relationship of all creatures one to the other’ is at the forefront of the collective consciousness.”
This reminds me of a point that a medieval history professor I knew made when defending Medieval civilization: “People in the Middle Ages committed as much atrocity as in any era; but they repented more than in any era.”
First of all, Undset makes it plain that with regard to Kristin’s sins, what troubles her family, even her devout father, is as much the social consequences of her actions as their sinfulness. Lavrans worries deeply and genuinely about her daughter marrying off to a seducer and an outcast. But he is also deeply unhappy about her marrying a man of few means when she could have made a financially advantageous match. He is worried about what-the-Joneses-will-say. As they all are, because this is a close-knit rural society where reputation is a very valuable social coin.
Kristin is thought to have been too close, too mothering to her first son, so her second son is taken away from her and given to a wet nurse, and apparently this is something that for all her previously discussed headstrong-ness, and her status as Mistress of Husaby, she cannot object to. There is a heart-wrenching moment when she meets her baby and he refuses to nurse from her, accustomed as he is to the wet nurse’s breast.
Erlend’s children born of adultery are social outcasts.
This is, like, not a good society. We in my religious and ideological coalition tend to fret about the atomization of modern society, and the rulelessness, and the anomie of the world of Girls and all that is well and good, but the world of 14th century Norway is not an example. Not that anybody has said it is. But there is a tendency to wipe a nostalgic tear from one’s eye and say “Yes, yes, those times were hard, and many bad things happened, but at least there was a time when most people cared about God and keeping His commandments.” Well first of all, no, Undset makes it plain that most people cared only about the Commandments insofar as they made things convenient for them. Lavrans, devout man as he is, prepares to send his daughter Ulvhild to a convent just because she is unmarriageable, nevermind what she thinks or whether she has a vocation. And second of all, even if that were so, it wouldn’t excuse the deep cruelty of life in an agrarian society. No society is perfect, every society has deep cruelty, but it can still be said that some are better than others.
Speaking of which, it brings me to the other shocking thing about the book, which is the prevalence of rape. I noted this the first time. Twice, before she is wed, Kristin is the victim of attempted rape. Then, in the heart-wrenching scene at the end of the first part of the novel, Kristin’s mother confesses to her husband that she was raped before her wedding, by a drunk relative. And in fact, Kristin’s first son really is the fruit of sin, since it is clear that at the time he was conceived Kristin tried to refuse Erlend, but he forced himself on her, not understanding that her protestations were more than pro forma. And except in the first two cases, this is never acknowledged as rape. Shame (private and social) ensure that no rape is ever punished (that we see). Many cases of rape are not understood as such, by anyone—perpetrator, victim or society. This, perhaps, is the most revolting thing in the novel. Of course rape and grey rape is still prevalent today to a sickening extent but at least we have a language to talk about it and acknowledge its awfulness.
Final point: the depth of the characters. This is a biographical novel, but every character is deep and great. Every character is believable. Every character is a universe, just like every human being. The book is very much Kristin Lavransdatter but it is also so much more. This is not a novel that is merely concerned about the internal universe and life of one character. This is a novel that is patiently and lovingly concerned with everything—and everyone—she encounters. Her parents. Her husband. Her brother-in-law. I guess I don’t have much to say about that, but it’s just outstanding.