Monday, June 15, 2020

The enchanted novels of Sigrid Undset and Marly Youmans

About a year ago I read The Wreath (1920), the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s 14th century Norwegian domestic epic Kristin Lavransdatter.  Last month, I read The Wife (1921).  Maybe in a year I will read The Cross (1922) and finish up.

Our headstrong heroine Kristin married the man she loved at the end of the first novel.  For much of this novel, she manages her household, raises her children, and fights with her husband.  Maybe ten years pass.

I finally saw, in the first third of the novel, why Kristin Lavransdatter became, soon after its first English translation, a cult novel in the United States, a book that women passed from hand to hand.  Who in English in the 1920s, or for that matter much later, was writing so directly about difficult childbirths, or sexual conflicts between spouses, or simply the anxieties of moving to – taking over, managing – a new household for the first time?  These are ordinary problems, experienced by millions of young women who were not medieval Norwegians, and Undset writes about them clearly and without melodrama.

Maybe I also saw why the novel has receded, even with Tiina Nunnally fine recent translation.  Now there are lots of novels and films that tell these stories.

Undset’s best artistic move is to accumulate elements of more or less ordinary life into an extraordinary scene.  In The Wreath, the great scene was the long, complex wedding at the end of the novel.  This time, in The Wife, there were two, the death and funeral of Kristin’s father at the end of Part II, and Kristin’s pilgrimage, expiating her sins from the first novel, that ends Part I.  I was not surprised to learn that Undset readers still travel to St. Olav’s shrine in Trondheim to re-create Kristin’s pilgrimage – not the real pilgrimage, but the fictional one, which is kind of funny.  But it’s a beautiful, powerful sequence.  Undset’s prose is often quite plain, with occasional hints of bestsellerism, but the big, climatic scenes are artful.

Part III of The Wife turns into more of a Walter Scott novel, about Kristin’s husband’s political schemes, and did not seem that special.

Undset’s fictional, historical world is enchanted, in the sense that it is not disenchanted.  Religion, God, and darker things exist in this world, in the mentality and behavior of the characters.  By chance, I read a contemporary exercise in enchantment almost alongside Undset, Marly Youmans’s new novel Charis in the World of Wonders (2020), where the enchantment is visible in the title.

“For this is the world of wonders, an enchanted place of dreams, portents, and prodigies” – that’s the end of the first paragraph, when poor Charis, a young Puritan woman in New England, is awakened to spend the first long chapter fleeing catastrophe.  She spends the rest of the novel rebuilding a life, until she has to – chooses to – flee again.

The world’s “wonders” are its mysteries, whether beautiful or terrifying or in some other category, since the phrase is specifically evoked when Charis sees a moose, and I have trouble calling a moose beautiful; no trouble calling them wonders:

He lowered his head, crowned with new nubs of antlers, and began to lip at the foliage under the trees.  His breath ruttled as he blew outward and sent the plants to trembling. (216)

The voice, the action, and the ethos of the novel are all from the perspective of not just Charis’s faith, but her view of the world, a difficult thing to capture.  It is tricky. since no one at the time would write a first person account with so much dialogue, detail, or action.  The idea is to get close to the mentality of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the symbolic world, but not the form or the language.  Well, to some degree, the language.  Youmans borrows period language, wonderful archaic words, many of which we should return to use.  Nabbity, nattle, naughty-pack, nazzle, niffle-naffle, nightwalking, nittle.  The novel ends with a twelve-page glossary that I found readable and pleasurable on its own.  And I do not remember one time when I needed to turn to the glossary, since the vocabulary was always clear enough in context (e.g., ruttled up above).  The glossary is a bonus.

I should note that Youmans is a Friend of the Blog.  Marly, what a time to publish a novel!


  1. I had a friend (born around 1965) whose mother was reading Undset while she was pregnant and who got named Kristin as a consequence. Otherwise the family was Irish, with normal Irish names in it.

    I read it in the old translation a long time ago, & loved it then. The third volume gets increasingly dark as I remember...

  2. Excellent, that is just the kind of anecdotage I was talking about. These books had a powerful effect on some people.

    "Increasingly dark" sounds good to me. There have to be a lot more deaths, until the final one.