Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Arrested in Parody: The Performance of Erlend Nikulausson in Kristin Lavransdatter

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Arrested in Parody: The Performance of Erlend Nikulausson in Kristin Lavransdatter

Article excerpt

The hundredth anniversary of Sigrid Undset's debut as an author brought both insight and challenge to the perception of this celebrated Norwegian novelist. Leading up to the anniversary in 2007, the publication of the complete collection of Undset's essays (1) and a new biography (2) provided greater depth to our understanding of Undset's engagement in social and political debates of her day and a more penetrating lens through which to view Undset not only as a Norwegian author, but an author in exile in the United States during World War II. In addition to this greater scope and depth, however, a challenge in this anniversary year to the common view of Undset's trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter as a serious historical novel arose. In a 2007 Norwegian National Broadcasting interview, author Dag Solstad admitted that he had not read any of Undset's texts and had not made good on a promise some fifteen years earlier to read the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter. The interviewer challenged Solstad to read Kransen and to comment on the novel in a follow-up program. (3) Two years later, in a 2009 interview, Solstad responded first that he was impressed with Undset as a professional writer, but, "Jeg greier ikke a ta boleen helt alvorlig, nar alt kommer til alt" [I cannot manage to take the book entirely seriously when it comes down to it], and, more specifically, "Jeg tror ikke et oyeblikk pa at dette er middelalderkjaerlighet" (4) [I do not believe for a minute that this is medieval love]. (5)

While Solstad's statement is critical, perhaps provocative, it also is an invitation to readers to ask if Undset's trilogy indeed should be taken entirely seriously. I propose in this article that it should not but that the trilogy's departure from the accepted script of the medieval can be explored not as a fault of the work or its author, but as a purposeful construction, or, to use Linda Hutcheon's term, an "authorized transgression of norms" (74). The interpretation I present here shifts the focus from a measure of the novel's seriousness based on the degree to which it corresponds to a medieval "truth" and toward the intertextual dialog between codified texts and transgression of those texts. I consider the contentious space this dialog creates between texts as one that is carnivalesque in the Bakhtinian sense of laughter elicited from the challenge to authority and its dominant discourse. While I certainly do not suggest that Kristin Lavransdatter is a comic text, I argue that, more than one hundred years after the debut of the author and over eighty years since the publication of the complete trilogy, we open the text to the possibility of being not entirely serious. My interpretation investigates carnival laughter as it is performed most profoundly through the transgressions of Kristin's husband Erlend Nikulausson.

THE AMBIGUOUS ERLEND NIKULAUSSON: CHARMER AND VILLAIN

To be sure, the charming, romantic, seductive Erlend is one of the images cultivated in Kristin Lavransdatter. The Erlend we come to know in the first volume of the trilogy is handsome, agile, youthful, and speaks the language of love to perfection. But he is not an unambiguous character.

It is said that a woman from Bergen wrote to Sigrid Undset praising the charming Erlend Nikulausson that the author had created in Kristin Lavransdatter. The story goes that, instead of confirming die woman's positive view of Erlend, Undset responded curtly, "Kjaere Frue. Erlend er en skurk! Deres, Sigrid Undset" (Rieber-Mohn 9) [Dear Madam, Erlend is a scoundrel. Yours, Sigrid Undset]. A quite different assessment of Erlend from diat of the charmer is to be found in a commentary in a Danish newspaper from 1923. The writer pronounced Kristin Lavransdatter "en utryg Bog, hvor ingenting staar fast i det sjaelelige, men Personerne drives erotisk frem og tilbage efter Forholdene og Ojeblikkets Folelser" (P. Lauritsen 28) [an unsafe book, where nothing is anchored in the spiritual, rather the people are driven erotically back and forth according to the circumstances and the feelings of the moment]. …

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