Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Sigrid_Undset_youngHow does one write a brief reflection on such a large work? Kristin Lavransdatter is the 1100-page, three-volume masterpiece of Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), a Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. This novel follows the life of a girl growing up in 14th century Norway. Without giving away nearly anything of the plot, I want to highlight a few of the elements that make this novel excellent.

The interior life of a woman. A friend of mine once said, “If you want to understand women, you need to read this book!” I have consequently been told by female readers of the book that this is an overstatement, and yet they also back up the authenticity of Undset’s portrayal of Kristin. Continue reading

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

moscowI just finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The novel becomes dramatic within the first few pages, though it takes 100 or so more before it arrives at the central drama of the book.

He includes so many details of the moral life and illustrates them well: habits, virtues and vices; passions, joy, sorrow, anger; jealousy, bitterness, regret; emotions quick and enduring, reasonable and ungrounded; friendships and family relations; men and women, children and parents; the effects of work and of play; faith and doubt, divine and human faith, superstition, ritual; the importance of place, home; thought, intellectual ambition, intellectual despair; contradiction among persons, contradiction within oneself, contradiction with society; death and birth; money, luxury, necessity; the tension between physical beauty and moral goodness.

But when I finished the book, I was disappointed by how it ended. It seems it could have ended the same way much sooner, and it wouldn’t have made a great difference. (I would contrast this with Middlemarch by George Eliot, where I don’t think the novel could have ended anywhere else than where it actually ended.) I could say more about his approach to religion, which I found quite true to reality at the beginning, but a bit superficial and moralizing by the end. Beyond anything, Tolstoy excels at showing the effects of sin, both internally and externally, and in the effect it has on others. Perhaps I did not like the later parts of the book because he does this too well.

[This book is #9 on my Classics List.]