[Undset, Sigrid (2005). Kristin Lavransdatter. London: Penguin Classics, 1168 pp.]
One of the highpoints of twentieth-century historical narrative, Kristin Lavransdatter traces the life of a woman in fourteenth-century Norway, a time of upheavals as a consequence of dynastic struggles, paganism reluctant to accept Christian values and rigid social norms, the breaking of which would bring about tragic consequences. As a result, at the same time as weaving a magnificent tapestry depicting medieval Scandinavia, the novel explores the human, moral and religious conflicts that were to involve the protagonist and her family, maintaining the narrative tension alive throughout its more than one thousand pages.
Divided into three parts – The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross – it follows the story of Kristin, the daughter of a landowner of noble origin, from her birth to her death. In spite of being completed in 1922 (the annus mirabilis of Modernism, when Joyce published Ulysses and T. S. Eliot The Waste Land) and although Undset was familiar with English narrative writing, this novel has the traditional structure of the nineteenth-century realist novel: a single, all-knowing narrator who uses the third person, the use of chapters, a linear temporal progression, the focal centre of a protagonist around whom a constellation of secondary characters revolve…
Nevertheless, Undset, described by critics as the “Zola of the Middle Ages”, differs in her use of realism from nineteenth-century naturalism and the new awakening of Scandinavian literatura (G. Brandes and Ibsen), characterised by their positivism and their permanent attachment to the land (physiology, socio-cultural determinism…). Undset challenged the then-reigning doctrines – doctrinaire socialism and philanthropism of every category – “because they obstinately failed to consider human nature as it really is. They started from the premise that the human race had to progress, converting itself into something different from what it was. I had nourished myself on prehistory and history and was not a great believer in progress” (Lázaro Ros, Prólogo to S. Undset, Obras escogidas. Madrid: Aguilar, 1958, p. 23).
It is precisely this love for the person and the light-and-shade of their potential, their responsible freedom, that led our author from agnosticism to the Catholic faith, into which she was to be baptised in 1924. If Marx, Nietzsche and Freud had undermined the illusion of positivism, revealing darker realities in humankind (alienation, a thirst for power, the unconscious and the libido), Undset overcame both positivist reductionism and the unilateral nature of the philosophers of this suspicion. For an alert spirit, attentive to her own experience and that of others, the existence of evil was evident. As George Steiner has reiterated, “[Joseph de Maistre] understood something fundamental: the Enlightenment is essentially a conscious attempt to cancel the reality of Original Sin, to deny the Fall. For this reason, any critique of the Enlightenment has to try to restore the notion of the original fall.” (in Nuestro tiempo, nº 547-548, 2000, p. 25).
In its pages, Kristin Lavransdatter covers all human forms, creating a contrast between the call to good and the stubborn presence of evil (whether it is called sin, error or injustice). In her pages, one can find the desire for power (in the context of the struggle for the throne of King Magnus), the seduction of wealth (the royal court, the lordship of Husaby), love (whether friendship, parental or filial), infidelity (matrimonial and to one’s lord). Passion and sex are also sincerely dealt with, with a transparent approach that, far from being puritan in nature, was close to that of D.H. Lawrence, although toning down the latter’s crudeness. In addition to the uneasiness of evil, redemption and the liberation from sin by means of (human and divine) forgiveness can also be found. In this way, the enigma of guilt underlies the whole novel, thereby linking up with Dostoyevsky’s works.
The historical background, which never drowns out the narrative thread, is reliable, giving prominence to, among other aspects, the pacification carried out by the late king, Haakon, as well as the reign of Magnus over Scandinavia and the impact of the Black Death. Nevertheless, the credibility of the account is not provided by this or that historical figure but by the novel as a whole, with its realistic settings and, above all, the believable depiction of the social and cultural framework: civil and religious habits and customs, laws, buildings, costumes, tools, cuisine and the way of life of the period, not only of the nobility, but also of churchmen, country folk and the lowest classes of society. Undset, the daughter of a well-known professor of archaeology, inherited from her father an interest in history, a subject about which she wrote several studies.
One of the author’s special merits was the importance that she gave to symbolism and allegory, which permeate all medieval forms of interpretation – especially the hermeneutics of the Bible – and are the touchstone of its art and literature, as is illustrated by Dante’s Commedia. Life as a river that flows inexorably and which, at the same time, sweeps away the dust of generations is a theme that runs through the whole narrative. The Wreath worn by Norwegian maidens at their wedding as a symbol of virginity is the title of the first part of the trilology; the Cross was to be the framework of the third and last part. Rings, such as the third ring that Lavrans gave his wife, the mark of Kristin’s wedding ring on her finger, with the meaning of marriage that they entail, endow scenes with memorable intensity. Similarly, this Norwegian writer demonstrates the significance that was given to costume and clothing, as well as prestige objects, in the Middle Ages.
Consequently, the novel is imbued with the humanism that the author advocated throughout her life, which led her to defend the great importance of women in society and freedom in the face of National Socialism (which is why she had to go into exile as a result of the Nazi occupation of Norway). It was this hopeful defence of individuals – despite the certainty of their faults – that endows the novel with its greatness. Undset’s narrative skill thus immerses the reader in a realistic, fascinating medieval world, as opposed to the idealised one of Ivanhoe or El señor de Bembibre (The Lord of Bembibre) or other nineteenth-century novels, in which saintliness and perdition fight tooth and nail in the heart of the individual in expectation of a victor.
Dr. Enrique Sánchez Costa (Director of the Spanish Department and Professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra, in Santo Domingo).
Other reviewed novels:
Lampedusa, Giuseppe Tomasi di (2010). The Leopard. London: Harvill Secker, 224 pp.