Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sigrid Undset in Four Pages

Today, while wasting time on social networks, I discovered that there is a Tweeter, alias Marcel Proust (@prousttweet), who is translating Proust's entire 7-volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past, into “a series of spontaneous daily tweets.” This is cool.

For one thing, it will save me the trouble of finishing Remembrance, all 3000± pages of it. I’ve tried, three times.

For another, it suggests a parallel project, to boil down the 7-volume work of Sigrid Undset over which I am currently obsessing: Kristin Lavransdatter (3 vols) and The Master of Hestviken (4 vols).

But Undset has already done it.

There is a passage near the beginning of In the Wilderness, third of the volumes in The Master of Hestviken, that sums up so much of what’s beautiful and magical in Undset’s writing. Let me set it up for you.

Olav Audunsson is a sinner plagued by guilt. No big spoilers here: In the first two volumes, The Axe and The Snake Pit, Olav has murdered two men for love. Now his love is dead, and he is left with the memory of his sin. So he undertakes a geographic cure, leaving his troubles at home in Hestviken and setting off on a trading voyage to London. Here, early one morning, he attends Mass at a church still under construction by the historically new Dominican order. (Master is set in the late 13th century, less than a century after St. Dominic’s death.)

At this Mass in London, Olav, the sinner, last seen mired in The Snake Pit, experiences an extraordinary grace. Oddly, the Mass, with its “sacred body of our Lord, wrapt in the humble garment of the bread,” triggers memory in very much the way a madeleine triggers memory in Proust’s hero, Marcel.

Olav’s memory begins to wake up under the influence of the Latin liturgy, which “had a somewhat different sound from that of Norwegians, but not so much so that he could not recognize the passages proper to the saint of the day.” Today, we may think of the Latin Mass as old-fashioned and even, to our uncultured ears, mind-numbing. But for Olav, in the 13th century, it was a universal language he could recognize anywhere—and it was a language with an edge to it, capable of piercing his heart:

Gladium—Olav had always thought that word sounded so finely. And he saw that it could not be otherwise: when God Himself descended into the world of men and appeared as a man among men, it had to be, not peace, but a sword. For God could not intend to be as a sorcerer who puts man’s will to sleep; He must needs come with a war-cry: for or against Me! God’s peace—that must be like the peace that comes when the raging of the storm is past and the fight has been fought out—as indeed Saint John the Evangelist had seen in his visions . . .

As the Mass continues in London, Olav remembers “his mornings in the church at Hamar” alongside his wonderfully named friend Asbjörn All-fat. It was so cold in the Norse church, “he could see the priest’s breath as white vapour against the red flames of the two candles on the altar.” He remembers his heart being “filled to the brim with a deep, solemn joy,” he recalls feeling “safely in harbour—after his long, rough voyage through the tempest of his own and other men’s uncurbed passions.” Then comes a remarkable metaphor of memory, in which Olav thinks of his heart as a tarn, or mountain pool:

His heart was surely as turbid as the tarn north in the woods, when on the melting of the snows all the grey and rapid streams had emptied themselves into it. And no sooner had it cleared a little after the flood than the spruce forest round its banks came out and powdered the brown bog-water with yellow. But here at the foot of the altar he felt the Spirit of God as a cleansing wind—the mawkish pollen was blown away: once more his life would be bright and open as the tarn, reflecting the sheer blue and the sun and the clouds on their passage across the sky.

That was long ago, however, and Olav is aware of his age and of the way he has become encrusted by sin and guilt. He thinks:

“Lord, Lord—’tis long ago! I am no more a young man. But even in autumn, when the ice has already begun to form around the rocks, and the tarn is choked with withered reeds and green scum—even then Thou canst send a wind that breaks up the half-formed ice and sweeps the surface clean so that it lies still and bright and blue for a while—before winter comes and imprisons it in ice.”

These thoughts were scarcely formed, but the images haunted Olav as he knelt with bowed head and a corner of his cloak held up before his face. Everything was present to his memory, nothing would he attempt to deny. Nevertheless he was calm, full of confidence. 

Now the sacrament—

Now the little mass bell rang; the priest bowed low over the altar table, kneeling. Now he rose again, holding aloft in his hands the sacred body of our Lord, wrapt in the humble garment of the bread.

Olav looked up and worshipped: “My Lord and my God!”

Whether he would or would not, never could his heart cease to love God, he now knew. . . . 

This last sentence is awkwardly translated. I read Whether he would or not to mean Whether he willed it or not, whether he made the conscious intention or wish or not. But the point is clear and beautiful as the tarn blown clean by the breath of God:

No matter how deep a hole of sin and guilt we have dug for ourselves, the Father is always ready to welcome us at His table, and our heart itself can never stop loving Him.

Here in four short pages is everything that moves me about Sigrid Undset’s novels: the evocation of Christian life in another era; the poetic descriptions of nature, especially as metaphors for the movements of the human heart; and the unflagging nostalgia of man for God, no matter how far from Home the man has traveled.

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