Sigrid Undset’s Olav Audunssøn: Crossroads

Book review

Olav Audunssøn: Crossroads is the third volume in Sigrid Undset’s Olav Audunssøn tetralogy.

Washington, D.C.

Olav Audunssøn: Crossroads is the third volume in Sigrid Undset’s Olav Audunssøn tetralogy. Although it can be read as a stand-alone novel, reading the two preceding volumes first might enrich the reader’s experience.

It is important to point out that this translation is by Tiina Nunnally, who also translated Undset’s best-known work, the Kristin Lavransdatter tetralogy. Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature for it in 1928, and Nunnally subsequently won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club translation prize for her translation of it, which was considered far superior to the previous one. Nunnally has translated many works of Norwegian literature and was awarded Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit in 2013 for her efforts on behalf of Norwegian literature abroad.

Before beginning this book, readers should definitely read Nunnally’s informative “Translator’s Note.”

Nunnally points out Undset’s “extraordinary ability to shift back and forth between meticulous descriptions of the physical world and intense portrayals of the private, interior life of those characters who figure most prominently in her novels.” She notes that “Nowhere does [Undset’s] deft balancing between the physical and the spiritual worlds present a greater challenge for the translator.”

She continues, noting that “Undset was an ardent gardener her entire life. In her books, she beautifully describes the flowers and trees native to particular areas of the Norwegian landscape. She is equally attentive to choosing birds and animals that will give the reader a realistic view of the natural world so familiar to her.”

Nunnally, therefore, had to learn the Latin names of the many birds and plants that abound throughout the book to learn what their names were in English. In addition, she had to know what all of these birds looked and sounded like. Also, she needed to find photographs of the flora to study so that she could match her translations to the “vivid imagery” of Undset.

Furthermore, she writes, she had “to pay considerable attention to Undset’s precise descriptions of the wind, the water, the clouds, the mountains, and the fields.” She also had to continue to study how buildings were constructed in medieval Norway and what kinds of household utensils were used. She also had to do more research on clothing and weaponry. In other words, she was extremely thorough and produced a translation that is truly faithful to the original work.

The Italians have a saying “traduttore, traditore,” which means translator, traitor. (It sounds better in Italian because the two words rhyme!) Translating a literary work is a demanding process, and Nunnally certainly rises to the challenge. She is not to be considered a traitor to Undset’s original Norwegian!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Sigrid Undset (1882–1949) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Her “Translator’s Note” is followed first by a most useful map that shows the important places in Norway and Sweden mentioned in the book and then by a “Genealogy and Kinship” page, necessary to help the reader navigate the numerous important characters in the book. A frequent complaint voiced by readers of books like this is confusion over names and places. No complaints to be made here!

Olav is the book’s protagonist, and, although the author writes about him in the third person, the reader knows what is going on in his mind. In fact, the story largely unfolds in Olav’s head. There is not much action in the book until toward the end when the Swedish invaders arrive to overthrow the Norwegian King Haakon and Olav springs to life.

Olav does not appear to be a very likeable man, perhaps because his life has not been easy. His parents died when he was young, and he was raised by a friend of his father’s whose daughter he was then required to marry. At the beginning of the novel, his wife, Ingunn, has just died and he is grieving. He soon decides, however, that it was not a happy marriage because his wife was always sick and a burden on him. They had two children, Eirik and Cecilia, and he pretty much ignores them, showing little affection for them. He also has an illegitimate son, Bjørn, who lives with his mother and is completely ignored by his father. He plods through his life and finds no real satisfaction until he comes alive when he becomes actively engaged in battle with the Swedes, assuming a leadership role for which he is greatly respected.

In this remarkable book, Undset gives a superb description of what life was like in medieval Norway, with well-defined characters from different levels of society.

The other books in the tetralogy are Olav Audunssøn (I): Vows, Olav Audunssøn (II): Providence, and Olav Audunssøn (IV): Winter. Volume III was published in 2022. Volume IV has not yet been released.

The names of the volumes in the previous translation, published in 1925–27, had different titles. They were The Axe (I): The Master of Hestviken, The Snake Pit (II): The Master of Hestviken, In The Wilderness (III): The Master of Hestviken, and Son Avenger(IV): The Master of Hestviken. The translations by Tiina Nunnally are, of course, the ones highly recommended.

Undset, Sigrid. Olav Audunssøn (III): Crossroads. 2022. (Trans. Tiina Nunnally). University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis. Available at major booksellers.

This article originally appeared in the December 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.