Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset’s celebrated trilogy of novels set in fourteenth-century Norway, runs over one thousand pages in the old three-in-one Knopf hardcover I’d picked up secondhand, and I chose to read it slowly, lugging the hefty, handsome volume everywhere. This was more than twenty years ago. One of its themes is the stubborn power of magic—the bewitching allure of pagan practices in a society that had officially but not wholeheartedly embraced Christianity—and the trilogy did seem to work magical effects: it drew elderly women to me.
While memory tells me that this must have happened seven or eight times, probably it was more like five. The encounters were much of a piece. An older woman sitting beside me on the subway, or waiting behind me in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or having lunch at a nearby table, would cross the boundary separating strangers in order to volunteer that she, too, had once read Kristin Lavransdatter—a remark accompanied by that glazed glow which comes from a distant but enduring pleasure.
Early in the trilogy a moment arrives that is emblematic of Undset’s ambitions and designs. For the first time in her life the heroine, Kristin Lavransdatter, age seven, leaves the valley that has heretofore circumscribed her existence. A new sort of panorama beckons and beguiles:
There were forest-clad mountain slopes below her in all directions; her valley was no more than a hollow between the enormous mountains, and the neighboring valleys were even smaller hollows…. Kristin had thought that if she came up over the crest of her home mountains, she would be able to look down on another village like their own, with farms and houses, and she had such a strange feeling when she saw what a great distance there was between places where people lived.
The revelation is geographical for Kristin but temporal for the reader, who also is to be granted a breathtaking new vista, as a world many centuries old emerges with crystalline clarity. Indeed, the book’s deepest pleasures may be retrocessive. The trilogy advances with a relentless forward motion, following Kristin methodically—almost ploddingly—from the age of seven until her death, at about fifty, from the Black Death. But the reader’s greatest thrill is the rearward one of feeling tugged back into a half-pagan world where local spirits still inhabit the streams and cairns and shadowy forests. The trilogy sets us in an earlier age that looks back, uneasily, on a still earlier age.
Kristin Lavransdatter was a publishing phenomenon. My own edition was the seventeenth printing—an elaborate clothbound hardcover published in 1973, a half-century after the trilogy first appeared in English. It was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, where its striking success elicited an unprecedented testimonial: “We consider it the best book our judges have ever selected and it has been better received by…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.
Copyright © 2005 by Brad Leithauser