Sunday, October 30, 2011

Beyond Kristin Lavransdatter

The Catholic Church is under attack. Secularists control political power and public opinion. Traditional marriage is being undermined. Terror is on the loose, violence swift and unpredictable. Sin hangs heavy over the culture.

Sound like today? 

In fact, this is the situation in 13th-century Norway, the setting for The Master of Hestviken, a four-book work completed in 1927 by Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882–1949). Most famous for her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, completed five years before, Undset (pictured above) won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The English translation of The Master of Hestviken by Arthur Chater is dated alongside Tiina Nunnally’s award-winning translation of Kristin. Chater’s dialog is faux-Shakespearean. (“A goodly weapon you have there, my Olav. This is an heirloom, I trow?”) But don’t let that deter you. Based on The Axe, the first of the four books, which I finished yesterday, The Master is powerful, relevant stuff, with jaw-dropping character development and story-telling. It also seems to take several steps beyond Kristin Lavransdatter, as Undset the novelist develops.

For all that, it has taken me three years to get past Kristin. As a newly minted Catholic, I was wowed by it when I read it in 2008–2009. I reviewed it for my first blog, “Why I Am Catholic,” and reposted that review recently at Goodreads. I did not pick up The Master until now, partly because of the Chater translation and partly because I didn’t think anything, certainly not anything by the same author, could match my first great Catholic novel–reading experience.

As I put The Axe aside, my hopes are high for The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger, the last three volumes in the Master tetralogy.

Without divulging plot details, let me note a few things that have struck me so far, then get on with my reading:
  • While Kristin was very much a woman’s story and her husband, Erland, seen largely through her eyes, The Axe splits its perspective equally between Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter and her foster brother Olav Audunsson, to whom she is betrothed as a child. The first half of The Axe is told from Olav’s POV, the second half from Ingunn’s. 
  • At least in this first volume (I won’t be surprised if this changes), Olav, not Ingunn, is the most richly drawn character. While he is hardly free from sin (he makes bloody use of that Axe, and another one besides), his moral judgments are more complex than those of Ingunn, who, when the going gets tough, mostly vacillates between fantasy and despair.
  • Undset’s descriptions of nature, around the fjords of Norway, are as stunning as they are detailed. They often reflect the inner state of her characters or portend their actions. As two characters set out on a fateful walk into the night, the darkness is portentous: “Although the night was so clear, it was darker over the land than was usual at this time of year—meadows and cornfields and groves were still soaked from the storm earlier in the day; a cold, damp mist was rising everywhere. Over the water floated thin wisps of brownish smoke, but all the bonfires had now died down, save one which blazed fiercely on a headland far away and threw its reflection like a narrow, glowing blade upon the steel-blue water.” (Admittedly, Chater’s English prose goes down better than his dialog.)
  • Devout Catholic figures provide the ethical ballast for the wayward central characters, particularly for Olav, who relies on both Bishop Torfinn (soon exiled by the secularists) and good friend Ardvin, a widower who dreams of the ordained life. 
  • The interplay of Church law and secular law, God and Caesar, in medieval Norway is brilliantly explained by Undset. The moral hero of the piece, Ardvin, finds himself “crushed between the two laws.”
  • At the climax of the story, Ingunn wails, “Tainted I am!” This gives away nothing, except that the message of The Axe is clear and consistent from first page to last: We are all tainted by sin. Given that Ingunn’s parents’ marriage was itself tainted, Ingunn’s own sin is original
How we deal with original sin is the point of it all. The Axe shows us a Catholic, Olav, trying hard to be Christian while immersed in the sex, love, violence, and intrigue of daily human life. As the wonderfully named monk Asbjörn All-Fat says to him, “It is an easy matter, Olav, to be a good Christian so long as God asks no more of you than to hear sweet singing in church. . . . A man’s faith is put to the test on the day God’s will is not his.”

Sigrid Undset’s story may be 800 years old, but I can relate.

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