Olav Audunssøn IV: Winter

Univ. of Minnesota. Oct. 2023. 352p. tr. from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally. ISBN 9781517915414. pap. $17.95. F
Nunnally, whose lauded translation of the epic Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy in the 1990s helped to revive widespread interest in Nobel Prize–winning Norwegian author Undset (1882–1949), translates the final installment in Undset’s subsequent medieval Olav Audunssøn tetralogy. Undset’s own favorite among her works, this weighty saga transports readers to 13th-century Norway, where clannish Old Norse traditions vie with newly ascendant church doctrines, nowhere more poignantly than in the lifelong moral struggles of the title character. Betrothed in his youth to his adoptive sister Ingunn in the first installment, Vows, Olav’s fated and impetuously consummated marriage unleashes a tumultuous chain of trials, betrayals, and violence, with consequences destined to outlive their marriage. His happiness achieved at long last, Olav ultimately reaps the whirlwind in book two, Providence, followed by Crossroads, which delves into our antihero’s reckoning of his sins, as he falteringly seeks to set his own children on a better path. Having been roused to bloody combat with invaders from the North, in Winter, Olav enters his final season facing one battle which he can never win, as he strives for a grace that cannot be grasped, but only received with open hands from a merciful God. Brushing away the cobwebs of the slightly fusty, century-old British translation, Nunnally’s straightforward, unadorned telling makes for smooth reading, no small thing in an epic tetralogy that stretches to well over 1,000 pages.
VERDICT Inspired by the dire, fatalistic mores of the Norse sagas and Undset’s own devout Catholicism, her towering achievement is made less forbidding in Nunnally’s welcome new translation, which is very much in keeping with the novelist’s project of deromanticizing the past, resulting in a vivid, painstakingly researched historic re-creation, less akin to the lush swashbuckling of Dumas or Scott than to the harsh, immersive naturalism of Zola.
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