Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter

Reprinted from Crisis Magazine, an excellent biographical sketch of the Norwegian Catholic writer Sigrid Undset.

Most of us here in the United States have probably never heard of Sigrid Undset. I remember it was my grandfather who first introduced me to Kristin Lavransdatter, her brilliant trilogy of novels set in medieval Norway. My father's father was and is a very taciturn, stern man. He was the child of Norwegian immigrants and proud of his heritage. He told me once that my name in Norwegian would be "Kristin." Maybe he liked it because it reminded him of Kristin Lavransdatter. Like Sigrid Undset, he was a convert to Catholicism (something I didn't know until very recently.) His conversion from Lutheranism was probably precipitated by his marriage to my devout Irish Catholic grandmother, in an era when "mixed marriages" were not well looked upon. Whatever the circumstances, he soon became as devout a Catholic as she (somewhat to the dismay of his Lutheran relatives). He probably found much to relate to in the conversion story of Sigrid Undset.

As a child, I was a voracious reader. (I still am!) One summer while we were visiting my grandparents, Granddad suggested I read The Mistress of Husaby (more properly called The Wife as that is the title Undset gave it, translation notwithstanding). Unfortunately the translation was the older one by Charles Archer, and while I was reading well above my grade level at the age of 10, I wasn't quite precocious enough to manage a book chock-full of archaic language like "I trow." Not having read the first book, I also didn't quite understand why Kristin, the heroine of the novel, was constantly depressed and thought that her child would be born deformed. Needless to say I didn't make it all the way through the book.

However, in college something sparked the memory of the Kristin Lavransdatter stories. Maybe it was a blog article about Sigrid Undset, the Catholic author. I logged on to Amazon, ordered the trilogy (in a newer, more accessible translation), and was instantly hooked. Somehow I found I could relate well to my supposed namesake. At twenty I could understand the guilt that sin leaves behind it much better than I could as a child. Kristin is the apple of her father Lavrans' eye - yet she defies him to marry the man she loves - or thinks she loves.

Don't be deceived by the seemingly chick-lit plot I've described so far - this is not light reading. In contrast to today's more popular romances, sin has consequences in this story. Kristin's defiance of her parents, her society, and God has its price. She gets her heart's desire - yet she is somehow never happy with Erlend. He is not the perfect knight she believed him to be, but a weak, fallen man. Although he loves her in his own way, he constantly betrays and disappoints her. However, Undset shows us how Erlend's betrayals great and small shape her into an iron-willed woman and mother. And when Kristin is most in need, it is her former fiance' Simon who keeps faith with her in the most unexpected way.

Perhaps what I like best is that no character in this trilogy is a cardboard cutout. Simon, unassuming at first, soon reveals himself to be one of the most complex characters in the story. His life is inextricably and painfully bound up with Kristin's. The revelation of the secret burden of Kristin's mother Ragnfrid gives us insight into how regret and guilt have shaped her life - as they do her daughter's.

The end of The Cross, the last novel in the trilogy, is perhaps its most powerful moment. Kristin recognizes her utter weakness and fallibility - yet she comes to understand that she has served God in her life. She has been an unmindful, disobedient servant perhaps - but a servant nevertheless.

I have read Kristin Lavransdatter again and again, and every time I read it I find something new in it that I never noticed before. I have yet to read any other novel that has been so enriching to my spiritual life. It is both catholic and Catholic in its appeal. I highly recommend it to everyone.

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