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Authors: Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter

BOOK: Kristin Lavransdatter
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Table of Contents
SIGRID UNDSET was born in Denmark in 1882, the eldest daughter of a Norwegian father and a Danish mother, and moved with her family to Oslo two years later. She published her first novel,
Fru Marta Oulie
Mrs. Marta Oulie
) in 1907 and her second book,
Den lykkelige alder
The Happy Age
), in 1908. The following year she published her first work set in the Middle Ages,
Fortællingen om Viga-Ljot og Vigdis
(later translated into English under the title
Gunnar’s Daughter
and now available in Penguin Classics). More novels and stories followed, including
(1911, first translated 1920),
Fattige skjæbner
Fates of the Poor
, 1912),
, 1914),
Splinten av troldspeilet
(translated in part as
Images in a Mirror
, 1917), and
De kloge jomfruer
The Wise Virgins
, 1918). In 1920 Undset published the first volume of
Kristin Lavransdatter
, the medieval trilogy that would become her most famous work.
The Wreath
) was followed by
The Wife
) in 1921 and
The Cross
) in 1922. Beginning in 1925 she published the four-volume
Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken
(translated into English under the title
The Master of Hestviken
), also set in the Middle Ages. In 1928 Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature. During the 1930s she published several more novels, notably the autobiographical
Elleve aar
(translated as
The Longest Years
, 1934). She was also a prolific essayist on subjects ranging from Scandinavian history and literature to the Catholic Church (to which she became a convert in 1924) and politics. During the Nazi occupation of Norway, Undset lived as a refugee in New York City. She returned home in 1945 and lived in Lillehammer until her death in 1949.
TIINA NUNNALLY has translated all three volumes of
Kristin Lavransdatter
for Penguin Classics. She won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize for the third volume,
The Cross.
Her translations of the first and second volumes,
The Wreath
The Wife
, were finalists for the PEN Center USA West Translation Award, and
The Wife
was also a finalist for the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. Her other translations include Hans Christian Andersen’s
Fairy Tales
; Undset’s
; Per Olov Enquist’s
The Royal Physician’s Visit
(Independent Foreign Fiction Prize); Peter Høeg’s
Smilla’s Sense of Snow
(Lewis Galantière Prize given by the American Translators Association); Jens Peter Jacobsen’s
Niels Lyhne
(PEN Center USA West Translation Award); and Tove Ditlevsen’s
Early Spring
(American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize). Also the author of three novels,
, and
Fate of Ravens
, Nunnally holds an M.A. in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
BRAD LEITHAUSER is the author of several novels, including
Darlington’s Fall
A Few Corrections
The Friends of Freeland
, and
Equal Distance
, as well as poetry and essays. His work appears regularly in
The New York Review of Books
, his awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, and he is Emily Dickinson Lecturer in the Humanities at Mount Holyoke College, where he teaches courses in writing and literature.
To request Penguin Readers Guides by mail
(while supplies last), please call (800) 778-6425
or e-mail [email protected].
To access Penguin Readers Guides online,
visit our Web site at
Published by the Penguin Group
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80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
This edition first published in Penguin Books 2005
Translation and notes copyright © Tiina Nunnally, 1997, 1999, 2000
Introduction copyright © Brad Leithauser, 2005 All rights reserved
The Wreath
The Wife
, and
The Cross
are published in individual volumes by Penguin Books.
These works were originally published in Norwegian by H. Aschehoug & Company, Oslo:
The Wreath
under the title
in 1920;
The Wife
in 1921; and
The Cross
in 1922.
Mr. Leithauser’s introduction first appeared in
The New York Reviw of Books
Undset, Sigrid, 1882-1949.
[Kristin Lavransdatter. English]
Kristin Lavransdatter / Sigrid Undset ; translated with notes by Tiina Nunnally ;
introduction by Brad Leithauser.
p. cm.
Originally published as 3 separate works: New York : Penguin Books, 1997-2000.
Contents: 1. The wreath—2. The wife—3. The cross.
eISBN: 9781101230565
I. Nunnally, Tiina, 1952- II. Title.
PT8950.U5K713 2005
839.82’372—dc 2005048941
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MY FIRST FORAY into the world of
Kristin Lavransdatter
, the Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset’s celebrated trilogy of novels set in fourteenth-century Norway, turned out to be a reading experience like no other. I’m thinking here less of the books themselves (though these were an unexpected delight, a convincing twentieth-century evocation of medieval Norway) than of the personal encounters the books fostered.
The trilogy 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, for weeks on end, lugging the hefty, handsome volume everywhere I went. 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.
Memory tells me that this must have happened seven or eight times, but probably it was more like four. In any event, the encounters were much of a piece. An older woman sitting by me on the subway, or waiting beside 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 special glow which comes at the recollection of a distant but enduring pleasure.
Early in the trilogy arrives a moment emblematic of Undset’s over-arching ambitions and designs. For the first time in her life our 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 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. The trilogy 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 our subscribers than any other book.”
Continuously in print for three-quarters of a century,
Kristin Lavransdatter
is today that rarity of foreign twentieth-century novels: one with competing translations available. Still, it plainly hasn’t captivated later generations as it once did. Though Undset may well be, even now, the best-known modern Scandinavian novelist in the United States, she has been little embraced by academia (which has overlooked Scandinavia generally, apart from its play wrights), and the trilogy is perhaps gradually moving, in the language of the blurb, from “beloved masterpiece” to “cult classic.” When, in 2001, Steerforth Press brought out
The Unknown Sigrid Undset
, a collection that presented both Undset’s wonderful early book
—a novel set in modern Rome—and a sampling of her letters, its title raised the question whether there is a “known” Undset in this country.
BOOK: Kristin Lavransdatter
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