Olav Audunssøn -IV – Winter by Sigrid Undset and translated by Tiina Nunnally

Review by Deborah K. Frontiera

It is a bit sad to reach the end of Sigrid Undset’s epic, Olav Audunssøn, with the fourth subtitled Winter. For readers not familiar with Undset’s work, do not be afraid to start with this one. The author includes enough backstory so a reader does not feel “lost”, and she provides a list of characters and their relationships to each other right at the start. This reviewer was especially glad of that since it has been a year since reading the previous one, and her copies of the others were not available to familiarize herself with them again when the new one arrived. Tiina Nunnally’s excellent translation once again takes readers into the scenes, working with meaning and intent rather than a literal translation. It’s always wonderful to delve into a superbly written classic that is character-driven, rather than a fast-paced, quick-page-turning read one flies through so quickly that one can’t savor the words.

It is the “winter” of Olav’s life; his children are grown, and he ponders his past and whether he has lived a good life. He knows his weaknesses (he was not the best father to his children or husband to his wife, who was never well and passed away in the second volume), and his unconfessed sins burden him. Son Eirik returns home with a friend who takes a shine to daughter Cecelia. Olav doesn’t like that Cecelia also is drawn to friend Jorund, who is in legal trouble at the time. What father wants to see his little girl grown enough to have young men court her? He also disapproves of Eirik’s wild-side lifestyle. Still, he accepts Jorund into his home and reconciles with his son. Olav sends Jorund away once his legal troubles are over and marries Cecelia to another man from a well-known stable family. In a major flip, Eirik becomes a monk. Thinking all is settled in his life and his children doing well, Olav thinks he can relax and die a happy old man. Not to be. The monastery rejects Eirik right before the end of his novice year, and Cecelia’s marriage is far from the fairytale Olav wanted for her. Each of them, filled with doubts and self-loathing, must come to terms with their own situations, creating in-depth subplots and points of view.

Readers go from “everything is fine” to “nothing is right in the world”, which was the reality of life in the middle-ages, is today, and always will be! Throughout, readers see wonderfully accurate descriptions of life in the Middle Ages—church, faith, births, deaths, betrothals, weddings, and monastic life with all the elaborate traditions of the time. Readers live the characters’ lives with them. For example, here is a short part of the scene in the beginning of the novel when Eirik arrives home:

“His father emerged from the main hall, followed by his sister. Olav wore his sabbath attire, an ankle-length green cotehardie with a silver belt around the waist. Straight-backed and dignified, he stepped forward to greet his son. Olav was freshly shaven, and he had combed his hair, making it billow so beautifully around his rugged stone-gray face with bloodshot, pale gray eyes. His hair had now turned an icy gray, with stark yellowish-white patches in the soft waves of his locks. Eiric had always imagined that God the Almighty looked much like his father.” (pg. 19)

Olav’s inner conflict comes through in his thoughts, comparing what others think of him to what he thinks of himself before after Eirik has joined the monastery and Cecelia has begun her marriage:

“Everyone knew he [Olav] could have wielded power over them [friends, neighbors, servants] if he wished to do so. H possessed great wealth, and his children had turned out so well they brought him both honor and joy. In the difficult years he had never complained of his sorrow to anyone, and in the good times no one had ever seen him display arrogance toward others. The earthly world, at least, had never been able to entice him. Now he could do what his heart had been urging him to do all these years. He would fall at the feet of the Crucified Christ and confess. He had lived all this time in a secret battle with God, and now he would drop to his knees before Him, vanquished.” (pg. 108)

But life gets in the way for several more years and when Olav finally approaches the Bishop in Oslo to make his confession, he has a stroke and loses his ability to speak before the Bishop has time to see him. His son and daughter rise to the occasion to care for him. The theme of contentment, if not true happiness, comes through strongly as the family must search for a different way to be reconciled. It is this intense focus on universal themes of humanity that drew this reviewer in from the start along with vivid descriptions too numerous to quote in a review. While this classic is not a “page-turner”, one does want to keep reading, and when the end is reached, there’s an oh-it’s-over feeling and an, “I think I should go back and read this or that scene again.” Or maybe reread the entire book (or the other three volumes) to find insights missed the first time around.

Olav Audunsson Winter
By Sigrid Undset and translated by Tiina Nunnally
ISBN 978-1-5179-1541-4, University of Minnesota Press for release Oct. 24, 2023; paperback $17.95


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.