Coronavirus is worse than the plague. I don’t mean literally; I mean from our perspective. This is the plague we know. This is the plague we cannot quite understand. This is the plague that has fragmented our world. And much of what we know about the plague is from novels like Camus’s The Plague and the Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s The Cross, the third novel in her Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. We never thought such an untreatable virus would happen here.
There are more cases of Covid-19 every day. And so we practice social distancing, and wash our hands till they’re chapped. And yet who would think coronavirus threatens on a lovely spring day? The sun is shining, the weather is mild, and the dogs are having the time of their life, because they’re going on walks constantly. The dog parks are closed, because dog parks mean A GATHERING OF DOGS. (And humans, too, that’s the problem.). But it is a pleasure to see the dogs on their leisurely walks.
I am not reading about the plague, though I am thinking about getting a dog. (Pet adoptions are up.) Still, I highly recommend Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Unset’s masterpiece, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. Set in the Middle Ages, this Norwegian bildungsroman takes us from Kristin’s childhood in the 14th century to her death in the plague era. Undset’s lyrical style subtly mimics certain cadences of medieval lit, especially in Charles Archer’s 1920s translation. The 1990s translation by Tina Nunnallly is in more modern English. I have read and enjoyed both.
The first two books, The Wreath and The Wife (in Archer’s translation they are called The Bridal Wreath and The Wife of Husaby), tell the story of Kristin’s forbidden love affair with Erlend, an elegant but careless man of noble family, and their difficult marriage, because Erlend has a bad reputation after living for 10 years with a married woman, has neglected his estate, and been generally indiscreet, especially in politics. And Kristin, who is constantly pregnant and ill, must restore and run the estate. She suffers much in her marriage, but her religion saves her.
We don’t get to the plague until the third book, The Cross, when Kristin, who has become increasingly religious since her marriage, goes on a pilgrimage. She is in a convent when the plague strikes, and she and the nuns are exposed as they care for the sick.
Here is a particularly dark passage. Don’t read this if you’re not up to it!
Death and horror and suffering seemed to push people into a world without time. No more than a few weeks had passed, if the days were to be counted, and yet it already seemed as if the world that had existed before the plague and death began wandering naked through the land had disappeared from everyone’s memory… It was as if no living soul dared to hold on to the memory that life and the progression of workdays had once seemed close, while death was far away; nor was anyone capable of imagining that things might be that way again, if all human beings did not perish.
My recommendation is that you read the first books of Kristin Lavransdatter and save The Cross for later–might as well wait till after the virus!