16 January 2014

Nobel Women: Sigrid Undset, author of Kristin Lavransdatter and other inferior works

Posted by Megan Marsh

Sigrid Undset wasn't awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her entire oeuvre: rather, it was 'principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages'. Per Hallström, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee, opened his 1928 presentation speech with a rueful look at Undset's earlier work depicting the lives of contemporary women. These novels are ‘gripping’, he concedes, ‘as far as the scope of the personages permits’. But her characters were too ‘prompt to make the gravest decisions as soon as [their] aspirations for happiness were at stake, ready to take the ultimate logical and sentimental consequences of [their] impulsive nature’. He congratulates Undset on finding a more lofty subject.

I owe some thanks to Hallström. I had been struggling to come up with an adequate summary of Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset’s medieval epic which follows one woman from cradle to grave. At 1124 pages, the novel is less a portrait of a person than a landscape of a life. Fortunately, while denigrating its inferior predecessors, Hallström inadvertently describes it perfectly: the book is about the logical and sentimental consequences of the grave decisions that Kristin makes, unhesitatingly, when her aspirations for happiness are at stake.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that themes deemed trivial when set in contemporary Norway become lofty when planted in the 14th century. The institutions of church and family are central to Kristin's world, and for some that's what makes the book appealing. My unreliable internet research indicates that Kristin Lavransdatter is mostly read these days by hard-line Catholics and advocates of ‘traditional marriage structures’, who interpret it as a cautionary tale – one typical commentator remarks that the book offers ‘timeless lessons about being a better woman’.

This does Undset great injustice. Despite its Catholic worldview, Kristin Lavransdatter isn't moralistic: what it does offer are timeless lessons about writing a better woman. Kristin is complex and difficult; she refuses to be introspective or to learn from her behaviour, and she frequently suffers for this. Happiness appears in brief sunlit moments which are quickly overcast. But isn't this what life is like? Relationships do founder, children do grow up, and mundane chores must be done. Near the end of the book, Kristin suddenly realises that she doesn’t regret her unhappiness; in fact ‘there was not a single day she would have given back to God without lament or a single sorrow she would have relinquished without regret’. It's an astonishingly powerful moment.

My curiosity has been piqued. In the spirit of perversity, I've earmarked Jenny, one of Undset's earlier works, for future reading. I'll let you know how it compares.

This month I'm going to be reading Elfriede Jelinek. I'll be sharing my thoughts on twitter @megancgm - opinions and advice are, as always, appreciated.