Sigrid Undset, Contrarian


Edited by Tim Page.  New translations by Tiina Nunnally.  406 pp.  

South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press.  $30.


She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, the third – and still the most recent – Norwegian to do so. (The others were Knut Hamsun and Björnstjerne Björnson.) Her medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdattar found a wide American readership in the 1920’s;  two decades later, a lecture tour in the United States made her one of the more high-profile of wartime literary exiles.

     Yet since her death in 1949 Americans have heard little about Sigrid Undset. Tim Page wants to change that. Page, the biographer of another long-neglected novelist, Dawn Powell, was led to Undset by a list of Powell’s favorite books, on which Undset’s Jenny (1911) was, he writes, the only title that ”drew a complete blank.” He hunted down the novel – long out of print in English – and found himself sharing Powell’s admiration. The result: The Unknown Sigrid Undset, which consists of Jenny, two short stories, and some 50 pages of letters from Undset to her longtime Swedish pen pal Andrea (Dea) Hedberg.

     In one of those letters, Undset, at 18, writes to Dea: ”Life is glorious – whether or not it holds happiness for you or for me.” Alas, for the young Undset, it held little. At 11, she lost her father, an archeologist, to a wasting disease that had ravaged him for years; at 16, after graduating from a commercial college, she took a dreary office job to support her financially strapped mother and two sisters. (She stayed 10 years.) Through most of her 20’s she remained a quiet homebody, dutiful and disciplined, whose chief pleasure was reading and whose only real friend was Dea in far-off Stockholm.

     Then everything changed – utterly. In 1907, Undset published a novel, Fru Marta Oulie, whose opening sentence alone – ”I have been unfaithful to my husband” – was enough to make it a succès de scandale in puritanical Norway. Other novels followed; and in 1909, able to earn a living from them, Undset gave notice and settled in Rome. There she made friends – mostly Scandinavian artists – and took a lover, Anders Svarstad, a Norwegian painter who divorced his wife to wed Undset. This brief and sudden period of freedom and flowering, apparently the happiest of her life, forms the background of Jenny, which appeared in 1911.

     After her marriage, Undset returned to Norway – and duty. While Svarstad painted, she kept house, raised five children (three of them from his previous marriage) and wrote Kristin Lavransdattar, which combines a sensitive exploration of the human heart with a sweepingly imaginative treatment of Norwegian history. In Norway the novel became an instant classic; in English-speaking countries, however, the book failed to survive its bestsellerdom, owing mainly, one suspects, to the execrable translation, which is crammed with hoary medievalisms (”come a-wooing,” ”methinks”) that have no basis in the original. Thankfully, Kristin Lavransdattar has recently become available in a lucid, scrupulous English version by Tiina Nunnally, whose equally fine new rendering of Jenny’is the centerpiece of The Unknown Sigrid Undset.

Reading Jenny, one understands Powell’s – and Page’s – enthusiasm nearly at once. The novel opens with color and verve, setting us down in Rome amid a lively group of young resident Norwegians. Everyone and everything leaps off the page, wonderfully alive: the heroine, a gifted, vivacious painter named Jenny Winge; her friends, romantic egoists all, bursting with youthful energy, creativity, and ambition; the misfit in the bunch, a gauche, unassuming new arrival named Helge Gram, who has recently fled the nest and yearns to live; and the Eternal City itself, its streets, weather and faces richly evoked by Undset’s painterly descriptions.

     This first section of the novel abounds in light, life, love. Helge falls for Jenny; after some hesitation she apparently finds herself reciprocating his feelings; they become engaged. Undset’s masterly depiction of Jenny’s evolving emotions makes one realize that one is in the presence of an acute observer of the way lovers behave with, think about and react to each other. (No wonder one Norwegian critical study of Undset bears the title Giving Love a Language.) The pair return to Norway; but Jenny’s joy yields to doubt when her prospective mother-in-law proves to be a tyrant and her fiancé a spineless mama’s boy. She drops him – only to succumb to the advances of his even wimpier father, Gert, a failed artist.  

     From there on, it’s all downhill, and not only for Jenny. Undset, the virtuoso analyst of love, serves up too much of a good thing here as our heroine obsesses endlessly over son and father. How, one wonders, did the vibrant, self-assured Jenny so quickly become an emotional wreck? How can she stand the maudlin, self-pitying Gert, who incessantly addresses her as ”little girl” and ”child?” One longs to see her chatting it up at an art opening; instead she dwindles before our eyes, concluding that she succumbed to both men only because nobody else ever wanted her. But how can this be? (Wouldn’t the men in Rome have crawled all over her?)

     If these developments make little psychological sense, it’s because Undset is manipulating events to make an ideological point: that an unwed woman who eschews celibacy is crossing nature’s line, and will reap nature’s punishment. Paradoxically, Undset was at once her nation’s most conspicuous violator of traditional sex roles and (in a series of notorious antifeminist jeremiads) their most vocal champion; in Jenny she plainly means to show that even extremely strong, virtuous and intelligent women can fall – and that even the meekest of men can be the instruments of their doom.

     Fine; the problem is that Jenny’s decline just doesn’t convince. It feels forced – as if the author, far from showing things as they are, were herself meting out punishment. Adding to the bleakness of the novel’s vision are Undset’s highly calculated narrative choices: while leaping over Jenny’s periods of happiness, she records the ensuing sorrow and remorse in merciless detail. (It is odd to recall that this dark novel derives from her life’s happiest chapter.)

     Undset’s sexual politics, which Page’s otherwise useful introduction omits, also flavors the two stories included here. In ”Thjodolf,” a stoic, self-sacrificing young wife named Helene adopts a baby only to invite devastating loss and betrayal; delicate character portrayal combines here with expert heartstring-pulling worthy of an old movie tearjerker. ”Simonsen,” meanwhile, depicts an aging loser whose affection for his mistress and daughter proves in the end to be merely sentimental. There is no responsibility in Simonsen; and it is his shallowness of feeling – in contrast to Jenny and Helene’s capacity for self-lacerating emotional attachment – that is his salvation. (In Undset, love destroys women, never men.) Presented in deft 1950’s translations by Naomi Walford, neither of these stories would seem out of place in an anthology of classic short fiction.

     The letters Page has selected, which were written between 1900 and 1913, show that Undset came early to her seriousness about her art – and to her sexual philosophy. At 19, she slams the feminists of her day with the asperity of a Camille Paglia, underscoring the ineradicable nature of sex differences (”most marriages run aground because the two people have tried to know each other too well”) and nostalgically recalling the ”glorious days of the women’s movement” – that is, the 19th century.

     What to make of this trailblazing contrarian who, recoiling from what she saw as groupthink, expressed her fierce individuality by sneering at women’s rights and preaching the gospel of male as protector? ”Nearly filled with hate for her own sex” is one biographer’s blunt verdict.  Yet one suspects Undset had simply seen so much of reality, so early, that any hint of idealism enraged her; perhaps she had been too hurt by life to dare to hope (though in 1924, drawn once again to Rome, she celebrated the annulment of her marriage by becoming that rarest of things in Scandinavia, a Catholic). She is, one might say, rather like Norway itself, its soul – half Viking, half Christian – torn between bold adventure and stark self-denial. In any event, she was an uncommonly fine writer of fiction. Tim Page and Tiina Nunnally deserve much credit for delivering her from her long and undeserved American obscurity.