Kristin Lavransdatter is an amazing novel about how God doesn’t care if we live or die
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Kristin Lavransdatter is an amazing novel about how God doesn’t care if we live or die

The cover of Kristin LavransdatterKristin Lavransdatter is a novel about the life of one medieval Norwegian woman. | Courtesy of Penguin Classics

This Norwegian masterwork is over 1,000 pages long — and it may be the perfect book for the current moment.

Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset, who in 1928 became the third woman ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of those writers whose career has been largely defined by one book: her massive tome Kristin Lavransdatter. She wrote other highly acclaimed novels, but none have had the staying power (at least in the US and UK) of Kristin.

Kristin Lavransdatter is over 1,000 pages long and was published in three parts between 1920 (one century old, baby!) and 1922. You can purchase it as either one volume or as three separate ones. It follows the life of one medieval Norwegian woman named (you guessed it) Kristin Lavransdatter, from the age of 7 until she dies somewhere around the age of 50. She leads a mostly normal life, but like all of us, she lives in abnormal times. Throughout her lifespan, major world events provide a backdrop of endless political intrigue, rises and falls from fortune and glory, and the arrival of the Black Death in Norway in 1349.

But Undset doesn’t focus on those major world events. She focuses on the life Kristin carves out irrespective of them, a life involving a broken engagement, a scandalous love affair, and a slowly splintering relationship with her seven sons. By the time Kristin is gracefully approaching death, the book takes on a transcendent, almost religious quality — and even if you’re not a believer, the power of Kristin’s faith in God and her hope to feel his purpose in her life when he remains silent will still be moving.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a complicated, dense novel that will surely cause your attention to flag here and there. (All of the political stuff may necessitate either skimming or frequent treks to Wikipedia, unless you happen to be an expert on medieval Norwegian lines of succession.) But when I first read it, over several months in 2019, I was deeply touched and strangely comforted by its portrayal of one woman making a life in a world that would rather toss her off its back.

Is Kristin Lavransdatter perfect? No. It’s still one of the greatest books I’ve ever read.

The use of natural imagery in Kristin Lavransdatter is stunning

First things first: If you’re going to read this book, be sure to seek out the translation by Tiina Nunnally, which she completed between 1997 and 2000. Kristin Lavransdatter’s reputation flagged in English-speaking countries for decades because the only translation available was sprinkled with archaic medievalisms — thees and thous and shalts. Nunnally’s translation restores a groundedness to the story. It no longer feels like it takes place in some imagined world, but in this one.

As someone who grew up in the church and struggled with what that meant for my womanhood, I was an easy mark for Kristin. But I found it remarkable how Undset, a devout Christian, is careful to not let Kristin become too pious for words. Kristin strives to be the best person she can be, but she’s also felled by temptation and sin, particularly when it comes to Erlend, the man who coaxes her out of a safe engagement and into his arms. She shouldn’t sleep with him. She really shouldn’t. But even in the 1300s, in an age of marriages arranged for political and economic gain, the heart wants what it wants.

What makes Undset and Kristin’s devoutness bearable lies in how the author pulls back from her main character to reveal how other characters see her. Notably, each of the three books that comprise the whole ends from the point of view of one of the many men important to Kristin, the author forcing us to see her protagonist through their eyes.

Kristin is headstrong and impetuous, and it’s intoxicating to spend time inside her head. But she has a bad habit of ignoring the feelings of those around her in her quest for piety. And every time you might think Undset has lost track of just how self-righteous Kristin has become, another character chews her out. (My favorite sequence in the whole book comes when Kristin and Erlend, long married and sick of each other, finally have it out and say how they really feel.)

But Undset is also interested in how impossible it is to lead anything close to a sinless, blameless life. Kristin tries her whole life to make up for her early dalliances with Erlend. She does better than just about anybody else could do, but she can never make it up to the God she longs to hear from, a God who does not seem to speak. Life, then, becomes a mystery to her and to all the people she loves — a confusing, too-brief mirage that never brings one any closer to meaning.

Unless it does. Throughout Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset steps back from the human drama of the story to reveal the natural world continuing apace all around her characters. Rich descriptions of deep forests, of roaring ocean waves, and of stony fjords fill the book, and there is a hushed reverence for them. If God will not speak to Kristin, perhaps he will be present in this terrifying and empty wilderness. When the Black Death arrives late in the book, it’s almost a relief — nature finally lays its cards on the table, revealing God’s handiwork of beauty intermingled with peril.

That sounds like a lot, and it is. But Kristin Lavransdatter is also frequently funny and incredibly smart about family dynamics. The romance between Kristin and Erlend is genuinely sexy in places, while the scenes where internecine politics finally burst into unexpected bouts of action are much more pulse-pounding than you’d expect for a book that also contains prolonged explanations of how to properly manage a farm in medieval Norway.

There may be better times than right now to read a long book about God’s disinterest in humanity in general (and one woman in particular) that ends with a lengthy section set during the deadliest plague in human history. But there are few better times than right now to lose yourself in a long book that not only tries to tell a gripping story but also resurrects some bygone world and one of the women who lived in it. By the time you finish Kristin Lavransdatter, you might find yourself thinking of Kristin as a friend — an incredibly irritating, self-involved friend, but a friend nevertheless.

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