Before this month I had only really read two Nobel Prize winning authors: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Rudyard Kipling. As of two days ago I can now count four. Still, not a very great number for one who professes an interest in literature. (Hey, they only started giving prizes in 1901 after all). Actually, it's worse than that. I didn't read any of the four because they received the Nobel Prize; I could care less. Besides being Nobelists, Both Selma Lagerlof and Sigrid Undset are Northern European authors. Again, I could probably count on two hands the books I've read from that part of the world. There are, however, more similarities than these between Lagerlof's Gosta Berling's Saga and The Bridal Wreath, first part of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset.
First similarity: they both have the the protagonist's name in the title. Ok, ok, I won't go into that much detail. The major characters themselves, however, are similar in ways and the theme of both stories is love. There is also in both the underlying attempt to understand the meaning of sin and not just its immediate consequences. Kristin Lavransdatter comes to the conclusion that, “much have I done already that I deemed once I dared not do because 'twas sin. But I saw not till now what sin brings with it—that we must tread others underfoot” (214). Turning to Selma Lagerlof, I never was sure if she sincerely meant what she had to say on this topic and others in her 1891 Gosta Berling's Saga.
Which brings me to one of those risky judgments on literature. Which of these two was best? I would say Kristin Laveransdatter although I have not read parts two and three and don't plan to surf over to Amazon immediately to order them. Yet if I found them at a thrift store I would buy them, which I can't say the same for of other books by the author of Gosta Berling (Yes, I already did pass up another Selma Lagerlof at a thrift store). The Swedish Lagerlof has an irritating style of musing on characters and events. This monologue with exclamation points makes up most of the book but it just sounded like filler to me. Plus, as I mentioned before, I could not always tell if she really believed what she was writing. The Norwegian Sigrid Undset, on the other hand, has (at least in translation) a good prose enriched with simple but detailed descriptions and smooth dialogue. Along with this superior style, Undset's presentation is both more realistic and, I think, more insightful.
Undset, Sigrid. Trans. Archer, Charles. Kristin Laveransdatter I: The Bridal Wreath. Alfred Knopf 1923. Vintage books 1987.