Sigrid Undset’s Marta Oulie & Goodreads Gladiators

 

Sigrid Undset Marta Oulie 31vrQ2hXW6L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Sigrid  Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, is best known for her brilliant historical trilogy, Kristin Lavrandsatter, and The Master of Hestviken tetralogy.  I recently reread Kristin Lavransdatter, one of my favorite books of all time.  (I wrote about it here.)

I just read Sigrid Undset’s breathtaking novella, Marta Oulie (1907), her first published book, available in a new translation by Tina Nunnally.

Told in the form of a diary, this beautifully-written novella is the story of Marta Oulie, a woman crushed with guilt because she has been unfaithful to her husband, Otto.  He is dying of tuberculosis in a sanatorium, and his letters bore her, another cause for guilt.  He knows nothing about her affair with Henrik, her cousin and his business partner.  He always asks about their youngest daughter, Ase, his favorite child, but she is actually Henrik’s child.

She knows it would shatter him to learn the truth.  She has to bear the burden of her guilt.

I know only his life would be destroyed so thoroughly that nothing would be left of it.  Where would he turns with such a boundless, appalling grievance?  The fact that we betrayed him, while he himself was so faithful, painfully faithful in every way.  Ever since we were married, I’ve seen how he lives for his home, for me and the children–as if we were his creditors, and it was our right to take every hour that he could spare and every ore he earned.

Marta Oulie is reminiscent of Tolstoy’s early story, Family Happiness, a predecessor of Anna Karenina.

tolstoy family happiness 1c94ec11a4834908724063c680f68249In both stories, a marriage begins happily, but becomes boring to the women.  Both heroines (Marta and Tolstoy’s Masha) tire of their constricted lives. Marta, a teacher, is restless. She was very much in love with Otto when they married, but after her second child she needed something else.

I think it actually began as a kind of weariness.  I had become sated with happiness.  I’ve read somewhere that happiness is always the same. And it was.

This is a powerful allusion to the opening of Anna Karenina :  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  And it certainly foreshadows the tragedy of Undset’s plot.

Happiness can turn into unhappiness very quickly.The heroine of Marta shifts speedily from the mere flirtatiousness of Masha in Family Happiness to the infidelity of Anna Karenina. Otto, a successful if not very bright businessman,  is annoyed when she returns to teaching after the birth of their second child.  He wants her at home, where it can be seen that he supports her financially, and he also objects to her spending time at  women’s clubs where she discusses, among other things, women’s rights.  She does not want to be reduced to “nothing more than one of the entries” in her husband’s “catalog of blessings.”

Her affair with Henrik began because she noticed he was attracted to her.  He says he has been in love with her since childhood.  Of course they break it off eventually, but Otto’s illness is a heavy price to pay.  Not only does she realize that Otto is a good man as he lies dying but frantically realizes she is losing the protection of a man.  Otto converts to a dramatic form of Christianity before he dies; Marta cannot believe. What will her future be without Otto?

This book is billed as “a novel of betrayal,” but it is actually a “novella of betrayal” (just so you’ll know! ).  It is a perfect little book.  Not my favorite Undset, but one i’ll reread.

GOODREADS GLADIATORS & KINGSLEY AMIS

kingsley amis the old devils vintage 41c1d74LerL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ I know, I know:  you don’t expect me to wrtie about Goodreads.  I trashed it at this blog once. But I am now a full-fledged gladiator of the consumer culture.  “We who are about to read salute you!”

Some of the reviews are great, others absurdly brash.  What do I enjoy?  The star ratings. I disapprove, but they’re so much fun! Sigrid Undset’s Marta Oulie?   I gave it 5 stars out of 5. Kristin Lavransdatter?  5 stars.  D. E. Stevenson’s Katherine Wentworth?  5 stars.  Laura Caspary’s Bedelia?  5 stars.

I gave everything 5 stars!

Until…

amis_the-old-devils-fcx-700pxI gave 4 stars to Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils.

And now I’m guilt-racked.

I haven’t blogged about Amis’s brilliant Booker Prize-winning novel because I didn’t enjoy it much.  It’s not that it’s not a perfect book:  it is!  But Bookerish?  I’m not sure.   I was in the mood for another satiric Lucky Jim. and naturally he did not write the same book over and over.

In the short, sharp-edged novel, The Old Devils, Amis portrays a group of elderly couples in Wales whose lives are disrupted when their friend Alun Weaver, a self-promoting Welsh poet,  returns from England to retire. His cronies, who spend their days drinking hard, have their own problems (constipation, nightmares, not being able to reach down to cut their own toenails), and are not impressed by Alun.  In fact, they disapprove of his schmoozing with reporters.

Their hard-drinking wives also”know’ Alun a little too well.  But this story of old people drinking together is amusing , because of his perfect characterizations and honest sketches of the indignity of aging.  Charlieo has panic attacks and nightmares but shoots straight from the hip when it comes to criticism of Alun’s work; Dorothy is always drunk and ranting about New Zealand, where her daughter lives, but her old friends put up with her; Peter, an unhappily married fat man who had an affair long ago with Alun’s wife, Rhiannon, still loves her; and Rhiannon, my favorite character in any Kingsley book, is both charming and kind.  Honestly, if we could all be that kind and charming.  And as good-looking!  The novel rolls along easily but…

Why CAN’T I give it four stars? It’s not my favorite, and the average rating is 3.35.  But I just can’t do it.  IT’S  THE FORMER SCHOOLMARM IN ME. My professors would be spinning in their graves if they saw Goodreads. Thank you for the liberal arts education, by the way.   The average Goodreads rating for The Old Devils  is 3.35–a C!  I have to laugh… and if I’m going to be a Goodreads Gladiator I must change my four-star rating to a five in the pursuit of fairness!  Let’s face it:  whether or not I enjoyed it, it is brilliant book.

Here’s a synopsis of the Goodreads page (sans consumer reviews).  Sorry, it doesn’t allow me to copy the page with stars and images for some reason.  But it looks sort of like this.

the-old-devils amisThe Old Devils by Kingsley Amis, John Banville (Introduction)
3.35 · Rating Details · 1,989 Ratings · 143 Reviews
Age has done everything except mellow the characters in Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, which turns its humane and ironic gaze on a group of Welsh married couples who have been spending their golden years—when “all of a sudden the evening starts starting after breakfast”—nattering, complaining, reminiscing, and, above all, drinking. This more or less orderly social world i …more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published October 2nd 2012 by NYRB Classics (first published 1986)

6 thoughts on “Sigrid Undset’s Marta Oulie & Goodreads Gladiators

  1. I get twitchy about start ratings – I only use them on LibraryThing but it’s very rare I give 5 stars because that has to be something special. Usually I stick at 4 for something I’ve *really* enjoyed – but it’s very difficult because these things are so subjective!

    • Oh, it’s so silly, because the stars mean something different to everybody! Every book I finish deserves a 5, or I abandon it. That said, there are a lot of average books out there.

  2. I just started following Goodreads regularly two weeks or so ago. It is great fun and I intended to blog about it but I am afraid of hurting the feelinngs of friends who practise seriously the site. I have a big problem with the stars and ratings. I have a big problems with the reviews – but I have the same with bloggers’ reviews -well, some of them -. I have big problems with the fact that Amazon is owning the site and that books are sponsored.
    BUT …
    It is great fun to write short scathing reviews.
    Now, about these books.
    I only read “Lucky Jim” during my “academic novels” binge. I did not find Amis the most feminist of writers but I like his sardonic voice. Your reading this other novel induces me toadd it to my wish list.
    I like the comparison of Undset’s novella with the two Tolstoys, probably because I like connections! Your description of the Tolstoy’s short stories leads me to another addition to my wish list.
    I should NOT read your reviews!!!

    • Oh, there are lots of good reviewers at Goodreads. You have to sift. It’s an enjoyable site, though it takes a while.

      Yes, Undset directly alludes to Tolstoy!

  3. I think I belong to good-reads, but left off going to the site long ago, and probably forget my password. I found the reviews didn’t tell me anything about the book I might want to know — the language was so cliched. It was like Rotten Tomatoes which seems to me a tautological site. Movies are made to please the kind of person that writes on Rotten Tomatoes so the words mean they reached the ball park of this taste or they didn’t. I do sometimes see a review there that has content so I suppose if I persisted on good-reads I would.

    When I look at Undset’s book and read your probably accurate analysis and sense of the experience I wonder who gave the book that subtitle: a novel of betrayal. It’s a false framing that blames the woman. One problem with Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy as narrator has set up the story so Anna ends up smashed, utterly punished. His fiction is greater than his conscious “message” to us, but this unsympathetic design makes the book for me an anti-feminist one. Rather like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As you tell it, Undset’s book is about a woman where her relationship with her partner or husband is a deep disappointment to her so she makes up for this by teaching and going out with other friends. Why not? Why should she deprive herself on top of this unfulfilling relationship? Maybe she should not have had an affair because he would regard that as an unforgivable betrayal, but it’s chance that made her pregnant. She has kept the secret. What’s more she gave him a son this way whom he loves. My guess is some editor or publisher insisted on that label and readers often don’t think for themselves.

    I know of a woman in real life whose life resembles this woman only 1) her husband did not mind her job and friends; and 2) she did not get pregnant by the lover. Nonetheless the rest is accurate enough. She did her duty by this husband, gave what she had, didn’t leave him. When he was ill for a long time and died, she nursed him. Did she not betray him because by chance she didn’t get pregnant? In fact she didn’t betray him at all, nor did the heroine of Undset’s book. Neither is to blame. The thing in life is not to blame, not to judge, not to say anything was a punishment because that’s not why things happen.

    • Yes, it’s a consumer site. You have to sift through it. Actually Undset protdrays Marta Oulie as a very sympathetic character, telling everything to her diary: she is a feminist who works while she’s married! It was published in 1907 and she lives, unlike Madame Bovary and Anna K!

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