Because of a Book So Beautiful

Because of a Book So Beautiful August 18, 2009

Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in 1928 largely on the strength of her 1,100-page trilogy of Medieval Norwegian life, Kristin Lavransdatter. I recently read it for the first time on the recommendation of a friend in Communion & Liberation (CL). I have since recommended it to other friends and family. Most people don’t have the time for such a long read. Here’s my Letterman list explaining why I think you should make the time.

10. It starts out as a father-daughter story, and I am a sucker for father-daughter stories.

9. It is a work of fiction in which faith is central. Some would say faith is fiction, and therefore so what? But faith, as Fr. Giussani taught and as CL makes clear, is quite the contrary. Faith is founded in Fact.

8. Kristin lives in a world where family is central. If you want to understand what it is about the traditional family that the Catholic Church holds sacred, read what a binding force family was in Kristin’s world and then imagine how unhinged our world could be one day without it.

7. Kristin lives in a world where sin and its consequences are realities, and few in the novel are more sinful than Kristin. Through her experience, we can better appreciate the role of sin in our lives and our need for forgiveness.

6. Kristin’s devotion to her husband, despite his screaming failings, is deeply touching, and I say that as a husband with failings, some of them pretty loud, who could not have married a more forgiving woman. In fact (this is a corollary of sorts to #8), the depth of love in even the most troubled marriages in the novel is a testament to the enduring value of family.

5. The liturgical calendar alone is used to date events in the novel. A death never occurs on August 6. It happens “a week after St. Olav’s Day.” This, and countless other historical details, plunges the reader into a world as different and convincing as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

4. The latest English translation, by Tiina Nunnally, is an award-winner and makes the story go down easy, even though you need a program to keep the players straight. As in the Russian system of –oviches and –ovnas, most characters have surnames ending in –son or –datter honoring their fathers. Can you guess the name of Kristin’s father?

3. To elaborate on #10, Kristin’s father is a paragon of fatherhood. Undset was deeply devoted to her father, and that devotion shines through every page. Those of us who are fathers can only hope to be half the man Lavrans Bjorgulfson is. (If you’re still paying attention, you have the answer to #4.) There are models of motherhood here too.

2. Twice in the trilogy I wept openly for at least ten minutes—and not at the end, incidentally. I don’t think I’ve ever done that with any work of fiction. As events unfolded, I was astounded at the depth of even the secondary characters and of the secrets they had kept for hundreds of pages.

1. The end is a stunner, and as right as rain—worth every hour it took getting to.

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