A Novelist of Moral Power and Passion: A Profile of Sigrid Undset

Article excerpt

Seventy years ago, Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in literature, principally for two masterworks--a trilogy and a tetralogy--set in early fourteenth-century Norway. These two novels, running to well over twelve hundred pages apiece, established the 43-year-old author's fame and fortune throughout the world. Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken (the Norwegian version was titled Olav Audunsson i Hestviken) were translated into more than seventeen languages. In the United States, the novels have never been out of print.

Vintage Books, a division of Random House, has recently reissued the two works with handsome new covers, and Penguin Classics has commissioned a new translation of Kristin Lavransdatter, the first volume of which appeared in bookstores earlier this year. This spring Penguin Classics also published Gunnar's Daughter, a quite extraordinary short novel long out of print; set in the eleventh century, it was written when Undset was a 26-year-old office worker.

What is so memorable about Undset's two major works is how--apart from her remarkable talent in re-creating a remote period of history--she makes the characters' problems and dramas immediate and believable in terms comprehensible to every modem reader. Although her novels are set centuries ago, she relates no major historic events and introduces no historical figures, preferring instead to concentrate on the lives of individuals responding to the changing face of society. She is concerned with how people assume moral responsibility for their acts and lives. Her treatment of family values, loyalty to the community, respect for religion, and full cognizance of the power of passion make the novels appropriate reading for our age.

Norway in the early years of the fourteenth century was at last emerging from millennia of paganism. The violent blood laws of Viking times had been the rule of the land. With Christianity came laws for ordering society and religious precepts to be hewn to, but people were not always willing to accept these relatively new restraints on their conduct. So it is with Undset's eponymous heroine, Kristin Lavransdatter: a proud, spoiled, headstrong young woman who defies her beloved father and the church to wed an older man with whom--driven by overwhelming passion--she has been carrying on an illicit affair.

Kristin's sense of guilt about lying to her father, the church, and her community, about being married as a virgin bride when she knows she is pregnant, settles a cloud on her relationship with her husband, Erlend. The saga begins in volume one, The Bridal Wreath, and extends and develops in the remaining two volumes, The Mistress of Husaby and The Cross. Erlend, a bold, courageous warrior, has little interest in taking over the management of the vast estate he has inherited. It falls to young Kristin, pregnant and inexperienced, to learn the substantial task of running the estate and administering to the needs of the many people dependent on Erlend. She is well aware of the responsibility to make the property prosper so as to pass it along to the next generation.

In the second volume, Kristin brings forth her sons--seven in all. Only the birth of the first is described and in exceedingly graphic, vivid terms. These are the years that mark the couple's growing estrangement, as Kristin devotes ever more time to her sons and their heritage. Undset displays consummate talent in describing mother-child relationships. Never does she slip over the edge into sentimentality; at all times, Undset is a singularly tough-minded writer, who could nonetheless write with both passion and compassion.

Erlend, restless and bored with life as a wealthy landowner, becomes involved in a dangerous conspiracy to set a new king on the throne and thus separate the crowns of Norway and Sweden. The attempt fails. Erlend is captured and tortured, but he refuses to give the names of any of the other nobles involved in the plot. …