Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Unfashionable "Kristin Lavransdatter"

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Unfashionable "Kristin Lavransdatter"

Article excerpt

In Norway, works of critical excellence on Sigrid Undset continue to appear,(1) but elsewhere Undset scholarship and criticism remain sparse.(2) When she is mentioned at all, the author of Kristin Lavransdatter and Olav Audunsson is respected for her historical knowledge, her skill in recreating Norway's medieval past in physical and social detail, her seamless interweaving of fiction and history, and her psychological insight. But to literate lay readers she is no longer a major author; her narrative art seems old-fashioned, her prose readable but pedestrian, reading her an experience somewhere between mild appreciation and mild boredom. "Undset has no style."

Because she is more often ignored than assessed, the critical case against her is hard to document. A fair version of it might go something like this: Her novels are product and not process literature: the reader does not participate in the novels' progressive discoveries or experience them as being conscious of the difficulties of their own coming into being. They do not invite deconstruction into multiple meanings held in suspension. Their narrative shifts among authorial omniscience, characters' inner speech, and objective reporting do not mirror the shattered certainties and the bottomless self-reflexiveness of postmodernism. The truth value of their literary closure is doubtful. Their realism skirts anachronism: characters feel, think, and behave more like Undset's contemporaries than like people of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Freud is just offstage whenever these anguished souls scrutinize their sexuality. The comment by the author of a literary guidebook from the 1970s that Undset's imposing "modern psychology" on historical fiction has "enormous middlebrow possibilities" (Seymour-Smith, 1003-4) is patronizing but not inept. She was not a proto-postmodernist but a modern who presumed to write about life in medieval Norway. She did not conceive of history as a succession of caused, coherent developments that can be analyzed in terms of concepts and paradigms (Ronning 4-9, 53). Her medieval novels are above history and her vaunted "historical realism" a means to seducing the reader into accepting her antimodern biases (Ronning 50-1).

In cultural politics, Undset belongs with the neo-conservative inter-war writers, like Maritain in France and T. S. Eliot in England, who believed that the mother church could be an agent of social cohesion and heal the modern distemper. She thought of change and chance as given absolutes rather than premises for cynical despair and nihilism. With the erosion of individual responsibility and the reduction of ethics to a matter between the self and the human condition, guilt-burdened Kristin has turned into a closet masochist or a woman unaware of social victimization. Where in Kristin Lavransdatter, critics ask, is compassion with the poor and the oppressed, indignation with the hierarchical order, awareness of the class struggle, anger with the premium the patriarchy puts on female chastity? Undset's belief that a woman fulfills herself and finds happiness only as wife and mother--a belief apparently belied by her own career--makes recent feminist critics uncomfortable with her "inconsistent" views on gender roles (Bjorby). Her highbrow antisecularism has become elitism, or semi-mystical nostalgia, or rightist bigotry. Both as artist and as ideologue she belongs to a tradition which changing times have rendered not just obsolete but reactionary.

II

Listing the strengths of Kristin Lavransdatter will not make the novel fashionable. And it is unexciting labor to claim merit for the conventional and call great a work that comes late in a long line of works great in the same way. Apologetics must resort to banalities: the staples of Undset's craft are coherent narrative, plausible characters and events, recurrent themes and motifs, charged images, poignant ironies, and moral givens. …

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