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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. 


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I read the newer version last summer, Mac. Although they were collected into the one hard to hold volume. Considering the length I breezed through relatively quickly, but it was during a time that I traveled to Missouri and then New Mexico. I think I had finished it before I left Missouri. Hanging out with the folks there is plenty of time to read.

You are correct, the action (so to speak) is pretty limited, and the story is them almost solely about the characters in Kristin's family. There was a little discussion of the politics of the time, what is going on here and there around Norway (and Sweden, I think). I did not give any of that much though but just kept reading.

It is always fun to go on and on about the differences in translations. There is the school of thought that all published translations are quite good, or they would not have been published. Questions of variants in style are generally subjective.

At any rate I would like to re-read the trilogy at some point. I would also like to re-read War and Peace. Both are daunting prospects!

I started reading the trilogy after I posted something about an article about Kristin on Facebook, and my sister saw it and is reading the trilogy and loving it. This might be my third time, but is probably the second.

I have never read the Nunnally, but I have no trouble with the Archer. The first time I heard people talking about its being difficult to read, I didn't know what they were talking. I must think archaic thoughts.

I am about 30 pages into the second book. I was REALLY wanting a copy of the second volume of Nunnally because I did not want to lug this heavy book around the airport, but since I am going later, I will probably finish it before I go. I used to have a three volume boxed set of the Archer, which I gave away. What a dummy.


I don't recall thinking Archer difficult when I read it, but it's often more complex than Nunnally and occasionally, judging by the bits I'm reading now for comparison, knottier than people are generally used to dealing with. But then it's no more difficult in the sense of complexity than George Eliot. As much as anything, I suspect that some people just have an aversion to the archaisms. This somewhat obnoxious discussion of Nunnally thinks Archer's English sounds like a Monty Python script, which marks the writer as a bit of a dingbat in my eyes.">">

I didn't know the Nunnally translation was available in one volume. Or maybe I just forgot. When I ordered it from Amazon there was a variety of formats, and the Penguin paperback seemed to be out of print. Mine came from some off-Amazon supplier and the design of one volume is different from the others.

I don't know if I'll ever read War and Peace again. Not high on my list, anyway. I would re-read Master of Hestviken before W&P I think.

Wikipedia's entry for Kristin has a useful family tree graphic that is helpful if you tend, as I do, to forget which relatively minor character is which. I kept having trouble with Erlend's family.

It prints nicely on one 8 1/2 x 11 page. I have it taped to a convenient door.

I mislead you somehow. I wanted the Nunnally because it isn't one volume. It was my big green Archer that I didn't want to lug around.


My Nunnally is one volume.

I had forgotten how hard it can be to follow the politics, once that gets going.

Oh dear, I didn't remember there were politics.


Well, not exactly politics in our sense. Nobody running for office. :-) But there are power struggles and intrigues going on among the nobility and royalty, with the possibility of war (only a possibility at the point I've just read), and some of the characters get involved. Erlend, for instance.

You are right. It is confusing. I will just take Lavran's side even if I can't figure out what it is.


That's probably the best choice. I'm pretty sure Erlend is not going to pick the prudent course of action.

Kristin just annoys the heck out of me.

Heh. Care to elaborate? I wonder if women are less sympathetic to her than men. I remember you quoting your daughter years ago as saying Kristin was a "brat." At least I think it was your daughter.

This will have a spoiler if, by any chance, someone hasn't read the book before.

Both of my daughter and I hold the "brat" opinion.

For one thing, she isn't happy when her father and Erland begin to get along better. Then, she is jealous when she sees how close her parents have gotten--finally, after years of having something standing between them.

And then, she chooses to tell Lavrans all the terrible things that she and Erland did, and that Simon knew about it, after Erland and Simon have been so careful to protect Lavrans.

I do love the part about his death. I hope I can emulate him somewhat.


I thought you might be thinking of those parts. I'm behind you and just read that bit about telling her father today. A bit before that there was a thing that made me laugh out loud. On that same visit to Jorundsgaard, she's peeved with Erlend. So she's mean to him. And then--this is the part that made me laugh--if he's nice in return, she's mad because she thinks he's not taking her seriously. But of course she's also mad if he's mean in return.

I vaguely recalled from my previous reading that sometimes she puts Erlend in a position where he just can't win. I guess it was incidents like that that left that impression.

But that terrible confession to her father is another instance of the impulsiveness that got her into so much difficulty to start with.

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