KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER (1922); By Sigrid Undset

WHEN I WAS about 14, I began to read the more obscure books in my parents' library. Kristin Lavransdatter was one of those. It is a very long novel, actually a trilogy, about medieval Norway, for which Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Famous opening sentences of famous books are, if not all alike, an invitation to go on. If one were on the other hand to collect preposterous opening sentences, then that which opened Kristin is to be treasured:

"When the lands and goods of Ivar Gjesling, the younger, of Sundbu, were divided after his death in 1306, his lands of Sil of Gulbrandsdal fell to his daughter Ragnfrid and her husband Lavrans Bjorgulfson."

The next sentence is even more daunting, rather as if the translator had left certain passages in their original Norse. This is a book of very difficult names.

But no book I had ever read held me so. It was not a matter of great writing, because the translation was done, quite intentionally, in archaic English by Charles Archer, who with his brother William had put Ibsen into English. The appeal was its grand romantic nature, the astonishing evocation of the medieval world and the modernity or timelessness of the central themes.

Sigrid Undset, born in 1882, was the daughter of a Norwegian archeologist and historian. Her mother was Danish. Undset began writing before the First World War, mainly on contemporary themes based on her own experiences as an office clerk. She then took what had become the abiding interests of her life and put them back into a remote and heroic past. She was an ardent convert to Catholicism (though not formally so until the mid-1920s), a feminist and a nationalist. She was unquestionably influenced by the European psychological movements so prominent in her youth. Her private life was unexceptional. She married an artist, had several children and separated from her husband at the height of her literary career. After Kristin Lavransdatter she wrote an even longer medieval epic, The Master of Hestviken. Thereafter her work was quite miscellaneous: religious essays, childrens' stories, patriotic writing during the Second World War.

ALTHOUGH Kristin has generally remained in print since it was published more than 60 years ago, its purely literary reputation has probably declined. Perhaps it was never very high in spite of the Nobel Prize. Nonetheless Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken are among the very few really successful, convincing historical novels. That success is all the greater because the setting is so remote in time and place, yet so certain and rich in detail. Nor has the trilogy lost its modernity. Quite simply Kristin is the love story of a young woman who meets a handsome gallant at a fair, is seduced by him and marries in the reasonable expectation that he is and always will be what he first seemed. Thereafter it is the relentless story of his self-destruction, not through any grand disaster (though he does foolishly try to overthrow the king) but through the most ordinary failures of men as lovers and husbands, sons and fathers. Undset would have us see some of this as the results of sin and pride, for this is a very religious book, but also as the very nature of men. But this is not quite a story of a heroic woman and weak men. Rather it is about Kristin's rather normal behavior being continually confounded by the disappointing ways of her husband, most of their sons, even her father (though her mother comes off quite poorly too). The book is humorless, except for some peculiar but historically well-founded incidents that seemed funny to me a long time ago -- a sword and axe fight when one of the high sheriff's men hears his wife denounced as a troll. Undset's vision, wrote her great Danish contemporary Isak Dinesen, is "like a great landscape under continuous bad weather." Most certainly that was Sigrid Undset's point.

The commentary in a recent paperback edition of Kristin suggests that Undset, in moving to Catholicism and her medieval novels, turned her back on the liberalism and feminism of her youth. Quite the contrary I think. She went forward in those areas, even if in a way different from her secular youth. It is her particular view of feminism that is not to everyone's taste, containing as it does the difficult mixture of a natural sexuality and an obsession with sin, a certainty of the superiority of women with a devotion to a male-dominated church. But then the convent sisters in the story are at least the moral and intellectual equals of the priests and brothers, and in any case Kristin herself surpasses them all in faith, hope, love and good sense.

It is really enough to read Kristin Lavransdatter as a great chronicle, and a convincing one. If the human landscape is under a cloud, the natural one is brightly described as are the clothes, manners and customs and political scene of the kingdom of Norway. The country was largely at peace during the time of this novel (1310-1350), and Undset has given us practically our only detailed account of a very unusual sort of medieval society: a free and independent people, popular assemblies, the rule of law, a native clergy and hierarchy. Most of the castles and great churches of medieval Norway were destroyed as long ago as the 16th century. But it is no small monument that remains in this grand book.

(Note on Availability: in hardback by Knopf, the original American publisher; and in a recent three-volume paperback set, by Bantam -- all with the original excellent historical and other explanatory notes.)