Whole Lotta Kristin Goin' On

I am for the time being a little obsessed with this novel. A few notes as I make my way through the second book, The Wife:

Here's an excellent commentary on the novel from David Warren, a Canadian Catholic writer whose name I've seen here and there in publications like Touchstone (I think). I came across it because I was looking for information on the two translations. He defends the old one, and says that Undset worked with the translators. I would certainly like to know more about that. I am not 100% opposed to the archaisms, but am not 100% sold on them, either.

Tina Nunnally says that there are some significant omissions from the original in the Archer translation. I've now encountered one of those, and can vouch for the fact that it's very significant indeed. It has to do with Kristin's repentance for the events of The Wreath, and while it does not change the fact of that repentance, which is clear enough in Archer, it adds a great deal of force and passion. Why was it omitted? I can't think of any good reason why a translator would have taken such a liberty. I know nothing about Archer but it seems unlikely in the extreme that even a militant atheist would have done so, especially as the book is drenched in Christian doctrine and sensibility throughout. So presumably it was an aesthetic choice, and if so was it Archer's or Undset's? She must have approved it, at least, if Warren is right about her participation. Perhaps she thought she had laid it on a bit thick? That's possible, as it's not just a paragraph--it's a couple of pages. But if so I disagree. I found the passage very moving and would put a plus in Nunnally's column for it if I were tallying the merits of the two translations.


I suspect that Nunnally does not have a good feel for the Christian aspect of the novel. In keeping with my general practice of not reading introductions to novels until after the novel itself, I skipped Nunnally's introduction to The Wreath. I've now read it. She says that although Kristin is "well versed in the strictures of the Church...[s]he listens to her heart rather than to those around her." That's a very inadequate description of the moral, never mind spiritual, dimension of the novel.  (Also, I roll my eyes whenever anyone talks about following one's heart.) And:

Kristin's act of rebellion might be viewed as foolhardy or courageous...

How about wrong? And "strictures" suggests the usual modern misunderstanding of Christianity and especially of Catholicism: that it's all about rules invented and imposed by a (white male) power structure. Not that the Church hasn't made it easy for people to see it that way, but one would like a translator of Sigrid Undset's work to have a richer understanding of its spiritual world. In any case Kristin isn't merely "well versed in the strictures"--she is a believing Christian, which is another matter entirely. And then:

...but in either case she has to suffer the consequences of her actions. She must learn to take responsibility for her own fate.

Well, that's not false, but it's not very insightful, either. Only in the next paragraph does Nunnally mention sin, but even then there's an implication that the novel's conception of sin is a feature of its medieval culture rather than a conception of human life that is at the very least very much alive and relevant to our own time. 


But Nunnally's comments are profound when considered beside something I saw on a site where people comment on books--it wasn't Goodreads, but something like it, and I don't remember where now. 

Life was difficult for women in medieval Norway, but Kristin's would have been easier if she had made better choices.

The same could be said of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.


That fashionable "choices" and "decisions" terminology has bothered me for  a long time. It suggests a certain calm, reasonable process of evaluating possible courses of action and rationally picking one as promising the best "outcome," another word much favored today. I once heard it applied, laughably, to the "decision" of a group of drunken college girls to take a golf cart for a midnight spin which ended with the golf cart on its side and a few relatively minor injuries to the girls. I've seen it applied in contexts like this: "He was in prison because of decisions he made when he was young." And the final (pre-prison) one of those "decisions" was to rob a convenience store and shoot the clerk. Sure, it was a "decision" in some strict sense, but the language makes it sound like he calmly deliberated about the choice of armed robbery as a career. More likely it was not much better than an impulse, possibly one of a series of impulses likely to lead to bad "outcomes." At best it was an extremely inadequate risk analysis. We aren't operating rationally when we "decide" to act on an impulse, or, as Kristin did, on an overwhelming passion. Of course life involves a constant choice between right and wrong, but the tone of this kind of talk is often suggestive of just the opposite: that it's a merely utilitarian calculation of likely practical result.


Apparently there is a thriving tourism business in Norway built around Kristin Lavransdatter and other Undset works. I very much want to see those places, as Undset's descriptions make the landscape sound wondrous. At minimum, I would like to see a good many photographs of them. There should be an illustrated companion to Undset's medieval works, though I have not been able to find one. And for the human environment of the novel, there is an attempt at constructing Jørundgard, the estate of Kristin's family. It was built for the 1995 movie of The Wreath, directed by Liv Ullman. I saw it at the time and thought it was interesting in itself but not especially good as an adaptation of Undset. I'd like to see it again, if only for the visuals.

Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in Ab

I listened to this a couple of times back in January, and didn't quite know what to make of it. The note I made as a start to this post said "starts off with a noble, English-elegiac melody, and then a fight breaks out." The agitation of the first movement gives way to much quieter second and third movements, and then returns to a great degree in the fourth. That noble theme with which the symphony begins returns, too, and I thought it was going to be in triumph, but it seems to me a much more limited victory than that, unvanquished but perhaps weakened, not nearly as majestic as in the opening. 

I didn't dislike the symphony, but that's not to say that my reaction simply fell in the lukewarm middle: I genuinely didn't know whether I liked it or not. I put it aside for a time, then Lent came, and I didn't listen to any secular music then. Last week I finally got back to it. And now I can say that I do indeed like it, and will probably learn to love it. Those two inner movements are quite beautiful; they just needed a few hearings to sink in on me, as is often the case. Much of it is not exactly what I expect of Elgar--there's more Romantic storminess--but that says more about my limited acquaintance with his work, and maybe with some vague notion on my part that English music is supposed to be pastoral, than about the work. 

This is another LP from the Fr. Dorrell trove. It's a Seraphim recording (S-60068), but I'm pretty sure that's not the original issue, which according to Discogs was probably British and appeared in the early '60s. Seraphim, as old classical music fans may know, was the "budget" imprint of the more prestigious Angel label. I'm pretty sure my copy was produced sometime in the '60s. The cover of mine is not nearly as bright orange as this one.


The performance is perfectly fine as far as I'm concerned. I have nothing to compare it to. The sound is pretty much the norm for its time, not strikingly good as some of these older recordings can be, but not bad.

This YouTube video seems to be the same performance.

The Wreath: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part One

As I approached the end of The Mill on the Floss I was, naturally, thinking about what to read next (what novel, I mean). I think I mentioned in a comment that I was trying to decide between two re-reads, Dostoevsky's Demons and Kristin Lavransdatter. (Interesting that I name the author of the former but not the latter. I think that's because Demons seems to me a not entirely distinctive title; it would not surprise me to learn that there are quite a few other books with the same title. And also because the name of the book was established in my mind long ago as The Possessed.) 

KristinLavransdatter-TheWreathThis is the cover of the edition I'm reading.

When I read Kristin back in the 1980s, the only available translation was the Archer one made in the 1920s. (Archer and Scott for the first volume; I do not know anything about either of the men.) A new one, by Tina Nunnally, appeared around 2000 (as best I can tell), and seems to be generally considered a great improvement over the old. But as a casual reader I don't find this to be obviously or entirely so.

The most significant charge against the old translation is that it is written in a deliberately archaic style which is not Undset's and which presents an obstacle to the contemporary reader. Well, the second of those is certainly true, and I will have to take the word of those who can read the original that the first is also. But one doesn't have to read Norwegian to know that Archer's English is not that of Kristin's 14th century, which was what we now call Middle English. It's closer to that of the 16th and early 17th centuries: much use of now-obsolete words and phrases--"I trow" and "I wot" and "'twere" and all that sort of thing. So it seems questionable on that ground, and I would like to know Archer's justification for his practice. And in general his prose leans strongly toward sentence construction which is at the very least old-fashioned to us. Here's one simple and straightforward sentence, chosen more or less at random from the opening pages of the book:

When the child Kristin was seven years old, it so fell out one time that she got leave to go with her father up to their mountain sæter.

One day when the child Kristin was seven years old, she was going to accompany her father up to their mountain pastures.

I don't think I need to tell you which is which. 

As in this example, Nunnally's prose is certainly simpler and more clear, but it's also without character. I don't recall encountering anything in this volume which would be out of place in an ordinary magazine or newspaper story of our time. But neither do I recall lingering over any sentence for its elegance or flavor. I won't say it's clumsy, but I won't say it's graceful, either. Maybe I would think the same of the original; maybe Undset wrote a straightforward and not particularly rich prose. 

Nunnally's simplicity certainly makes for an easier read. Archer's prose can be something of a struggle, but I breeze right through Nunnally's without conscious effort. Whether anything is being lost I really can't say with any authority, but as the two sentences above indicate, there are often differences of nuance: "got leave to go" and "was going to accompany" are not interchangeable. And "sæter" does indeed mean "mountain pasture," but with implications not present in the latter term; see this in Wikipedia. I have found myself sometimes opening the Archer translation to read his version of a paragraph, just to see if there is something I may be missing. And if it so falls out that I read the trilogy a third time it may be Archer's version again. 

The Nunnally translation is said to restore some passages that were omitted in Archer's, including some with more explicit depictions of sex. If there were any of the latter in The Wreath, I didn't notice them, and one would think, considering the events narrated, that these would appear here if anywhere in the trilogy. I think I also read somewhere that Undset's style had at least sometimes a more modernist bent, but I see no trace of that, either. 

In one respect I prefer Nunnally's translation without reservation: it is issued in three separate volumes. This makes the simple physical act of holding the book and reading it much more comfortable. It also has the psychological effect, for me at least, of making the trilogy seem less daunting: yes, I confess that I am daunted by a very long book, and tend to view it as a task to be completed rather than a pleasure to be anticipated. This is at least partly, I guess, the effect of my desire to read every worthwhile book ever written, which makes me just very faintly resentful when one book demands considerably more time than others, though all that disappears if the book is engaging enough.

The three volumes also make it convenient for me to absorb each separately, as Undset presumably intended (and to write about each in a separate blog post).

In any case, Kristin is more than worth it. Pros and cons of the translation argument aside, I am at least as impressed with the work now as I was on first reading. I had forgotten most of the details of the story; all I had left was the general outline. I recalled it as moving from one disaster to another, and my memory was accurate. The Wreath takes it up to the marriage of Kristin and Erlend. And reading it as a separate novel from the rest makes the impact of certain events, especially those happening right at the end, more concentrated and accordingly more affecting and memorable; you don't just turn a few pages and press on immediately.

There must be thousands of novels that could be broadly described like this one, apart from the medieval setting. "Sprawling family saga" is the typical blurb language; "one woman's story of love and loss." Etc. And no doubt some of them are good stories. Some stories can keep our attention almost independent of the telling: Crime and Punishment would be an unusual  and interesting story in anyone's telling, as would The Lord of the Rings, and many an adventure story of no particular literary merit. But when the story is the more or less ordinary events of more or less ordinary lives, what makes a novel great?

One huge element--the biggest, I think--is the almost magical ability of a very few writers to make their characters live. I say it's almost magical because there doesn't seem to be any particular thing that creates the effect. It isn't a matter of detailed description of scene or action, or of extensive forays into the  inner life of the character. It can be done with comparatively few strokes of that sort. If I were to examine the first few chapters of The Wreath carefully, I doubt I could say "I see--it's this, that, and this other thing" that make Kristin come alive. But she very much is by that point. And it's not only that characters created by this gift come alive; they engage us, even fascinate us, and we come to care about them.

As I mentioned, I didn't remember many details from my first reading, and had entirely forgotten a number of relatively minor characters. But I've remembered Kristin and Erlend, and Lavrans and Rangfrid, very vividly for somewhere close to forty years. 

I'm now a hundred pages or so into the next volume, The Wife. Already I can see Kristin storing up the resentments, the far from unjustified resentments, which will be the source of so much trouble. The back-and-forth of wounding and being wounded between Kristin and Erlend is, I remember now, one of the saddest aspects of a very sad story--sad, and, to resort to the language of blurbs, unforgettable.