Sunday, January 8, 2017

Book Review: The Novels of Sigrid Unset

Sigrid Undset (1882–1949) was a Norwegian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Undset wrote several novels set in the 20th century, but the books that I am interested in are the older historical novels listed below:

  1. Gunnar's Daughter, Undset's first historical novel, published in 1909. This short novel (150 pages) is written in the style of the old Icelandic Sagas is set in Norway and Iceland during the 11th century. This is definitely not a fairytale story with a happy ending, but a true to life historical novel that explores all the foibles of human kind and the social codes that dominated this era, which often controlled peoples lives, much the way our own social codes control our lives today.
  2. The Master of Hestviken is a set of four volumes, published 1925-27, by the titles of The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger. Hestviken is a fictional farm in the Oslo fjord. Olav Audunssøn, the main protagonist in the story is guilt ridden because he secretly murdered his wife's lover. All his life he does not want to confess it to the Church in order to preserve his wife's infidelity and the true father of her son. Undset was converted to the Catholic Church and all the clergy in her novel are presented positively during this time of the Norwegian Civil War in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. In The Snake Pit, Kristin Lavaransdatter's parents make a short appearance. The four books are often sold bound together in a single volume, just under 1000 pages in the copy that I own.
  3. Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy written during 1920–22 by the titles of The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross. This is her most famous work and is "much admired for its historical and ethnological accuracy."  The three volumes follow the entire life of Kristin, a fictitious Norwegian woman from the 14th century. The novel is quite interesting from the complex relationships she has with her husband Erlend, her parents, the Church and other extended family relations. Like no other novel I have read this one really puts you into the life of the Norwegians of the Middle Ages. In 1995 The Wreath (the first book in the trilogy) was the basis for a film, Kristin Lavransdatter, directed by Liv Ullman. Although the film probably is not quite as historically accurate as the novel, it was a huge success in Norway and solidified Sigrid Unset and Kristin Lavransdatter as part of the Norwegian national identity. Some of the locations mentioned in the novel have been turned into historical sites. The location of much of the filming of Kristin Lavransdatter has been turned into a museum, the Jørundgard  Medieval Center.
The copy of Kristin Lavransdatter which I own is the older English translation made in the 1920's (published 1936), contains all three books in a single volume with over 1000 pages. However, there is a newer translation from 2005 that is claimed to be a better translation. I have to admit that reading the older translation there are some old English words that would be unfamiliar to modern readers.



Here are some links to help you learn more:

Here are links to amazon for the books mentioned in this blog. Both The Master of Hestviken and Kristin Lavransdatter shown here have all books in a single volume. The last item listed is the movie on DVD (with English subtitles) which may no longer be available. 



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