Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for virtual Undset-themed drinks on Friday, June 4, at 6 P.M. on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. For more details, visit our events page, or scroll down to the bottom of the article.
Photo: Erica MacLean.
The most common food in the medieval historical romance Kristin Lavransdatter, written by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), is oatmeal porridge, a dish I made elaborate perfection of during my children’s early years. The porridges in Undset’s book are good and nourishing but plain (though in one scene, a young Kristin eats hers with “thick cream” off her father’s spoon). Mine, on the other hand, were ridiculous. I blitzed half the oats in the baby-food blender before cooking. I tried different combinations of milk and water. I made fruit puree swirls. I had a two-year-old daughter, an infant son, and an office job, to which I fled every day in great relief to get a moment to myself and then struggled not to leak breast milk on my work clothes. My husband was unhelpful with the children. Childless people found my travails boring and embarrassing. I’d never thought being a woman mattered much, but suddenly it seemed to. I was miserable, and perfecting the oatmeal made me feel better.
Kristin Lavransdatter, which unfolds over the course of three volumes—The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross—is a woman’s story. It’s also a gripping read and an impressive feat of historical re-creation, which helped Undset win the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature. The epic’s structural and textual allusions are so numerous that, as the professor Sherrill Harbison dryly remarks in her introduction to The Cross, they “show no signs of being exhausted by scholars.” (She also—correctly, I feel—thinks the book is overlooked.) When writing Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset drew from sagas, ballads, Scandinavian oral tradition, and medieval texts of all types, notably the allegory Le roman de la rose, to tell the tale of a woman in the early fourteenth century, a time when society was changing for women, who takes her newish right to consent to her own marriage a step further and demands her own choice of husband. Not accidentally, Undset was writing in the 1920s, another time of rapid social change. Read More