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.
In 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
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!
I 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 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)