Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Unknown Sigrid Undset: Early Stirrings of Faith

This review of The Unknown Sigrid Undset: Jenny and Other Works (Steerforth Press 2001) has also been posted at Goodreads:

This is a thought-provoking collection of early work by Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928 for two epic works of historic fiction about Catholics in 14th century Norway. The three fictions gathered here are completely different. Written when Undset was in her 20s, all are set in modern Europe and their working-class characters are secular, on the surface anyway. Combined with early letters from Undset to Dea Forsberg, a Swedish pen pal, they add up to just what Tim Page's introduction says they do, “a 'portrait of the artist as a young woman' -- stretching, dreaming, trying on philosophies, scrutinizing herself and others, all the while feeling for her destiny as a writer."

All well and good. Except that we know where Undset was heading in the period 1910-1912, when all of these things were being written, including several of the letters.

She was traveling in Italy and falling in love with an older married man, who had three children already. She was heading into a marriage that ended unhappily, leaving Undset a single parent conscientiously caring for his three plus their three, a six-pack of his-and-theirs that included one severely retarded child. We know that Undset had her marriage annulled in 1924 and that she became a Catholic the following day, just as she was completing her first great Catholic epic, Kristin Lavransdatter, and setting to work on the second, The Master of Hestviken.

She was, then, a sort of Norwegian Dorothy Day -- a 1920s convert, a disappointed wife and committed mother, a passionate artist, and an engaged social activist. (Undset resisted the Nazis both from Norway before the war and from the USA after she had fled the German invasion of Norway in 1940.)

So rather than thinking about art or feminism, as Page and the publisher apparently want contemporary readers to do, I found myself thinking about destiny -- the forces that shaped and guided Undset's career -- and about grace. Because in "The Unknown Sigrid Undset," she sounds like a woman on the brink of conversion.

In an early letter to Dea, written in 1902 when she was 18, Undset disclaimed any traditional religious belief. "I was quite young," she wrote, "when I began to believe in people, in life as God. . . . Life, the eternal, was in everything, 'in suns, in violets,' I've never believed in any other eternity."

Ten years later, her fictional characters are no less irreligious. But God and religion, especially the Catholic religion, pop up everywhere, in Undset's descriptions and in her characters’ consciousness.

For example, "Jenny." A new translation of this short novel by Tiina Nunnally takes up two-thirds of the volume. Jenny is ensnared in the conflicting desires of a modern woman: to be independent, to be an artist, to be a mother, and to be loved and cherished by a man. Jenny does not deny its protagonist, a young Norwegian painter in her twenties, any of her humanity. Jenny feels every desire in her heart, and her desires tear her apart.

Oddly, Jenny and her fellow bohemians living in Rome, are frequently attracted to Catholic sites and symbols. Opening and ending scenes are set in St. Peter's Square. Jenny has "flirted with Catholicism." Another female character thinks "it would be good for me to become a Catholic." The group of friends go drinking, stay out all night, and then sit in on an early Mass together. Jenny, an artist, is especially sensitive to Catholic culture. In one scene, her consciousness fills with "Madonnas and Angels of the Annunciation" and memories of a "certain missal in the Library of San Marco" and "cloister Latin." Strange imagery for an author who previously disclaimed interest in traditional Christianity!

Perhaps most striking is the ending of a short story called "Simonsen," a tragic short portrait of an old working man down on his luck. Bounced out of another job, forced to leave his mistress and their beloved child, he takes the train alone to a country village where he will have to live and work alone, no longer able to support his little family. The story ends: "He wiped his eyes. There must be One Above who decided these things. That must be his consolation: that there was One who decided . . . ”

In another author's hands, this ending could be ironic. The communist author would laugh: Poor ignorant working man, lulled by dreams of an uncaring, nonexistent God! But Undset's tone is not ironic. Her portrait of Simonsen is tender and affectionate. We don't laugh; we feel for him, sympathize, agree!

The Catholic theologian Romano Guardini writes, “The pith of tragedy—in spite of all its sense of freedom and exaltation—is hopelessness.” These Undset stories are tragic and end tragically. But hope, or the promise of hope, seems to springs up in them here and there, as something like faith may already have been blooming in the author's heart.

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