Sunday, April 14, 2019

Fortnightly Book, April 14

I have quite a bit going on the next two weeks, so I thought I'd pick something short, and that is Gunnar's Daughter, by Sigrid Undset.

The first, and always greatest, literary love of Sigrid Undset's life were the Icelandic sagas. She was introduced to Njal's Saga one day, and it changed her life. So when she started writing, she tried to write new sagas, something that would capture the spirit of the sagas in a way that would be more accessible to modern readers. She polished and polished, and in 1905 sent it in to be published, and received a rejection from the publisher that she should not try writing any more historical novels. She went on to write ordinary modern novels, which did well enough, but she didn't let go of the idea. She published Gunnar's Daughter in 1909 and Kristin Lavransdatter in 1921 and 1922, and finally in 1925 reworked her original attempt into The Master of Hestviken. Gunnar's Daughter, though a short work, made her major masterpieces possible by showing that it could be done.

Undset did not become Catholic until 1924. Gunnar's Daughter does not have the increasingly Catholic sensibility her later sagas do, but it does have the same interest in the clash between pagan and Christian views of the world. It takes place in Norway in the late tenth and early eleventh century; Christianity is only just on the scene, and is mostly regarded as a foreign weakness. Haakon the Good had tried and failed to introduce it to Viking society; Olaf Trygvasson has converted to Christianity but is mostly receiving resistance because of it; St. Olaf has not yet started his rocky career. Norway is still very much a pagan society, and it sees the Christian notions of mercy and humility and compassion as subversions of honor. The tale is told in saga style, but Undset is usually thought to have a modern movement in her sights, represented by the literary great of her day, Knut Hamsun, and the various volkish movements, which she saw as a return to the worst features of paganism. The story of Vigdis as she tries to navigate such a pagan world is a story of violence, and rape, and vengeance, and love irrecoverably blasted in its bloom by the frost.

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