Sigrid Undset’s The Axe, the First Volume of The Master of Hestviken

the master of hestviken undset 983079

We were at the Waffle House when an artist friend recommended Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian writer who won the Nobel for Literature. Between teaching and studies I had little leisure in graduate school, and I laughingly wondered if Undset (1882-1949) might be too modern for a reader who spent her days with the Presocratics, Cicero, and Bradley’s Arnold.  He teased me because I was a fiction junkie who crawled into bed every night at eight with Dickens or Mrs. Gaskell.  He thought I needed to venture beyond the nineteenth century in my reading.  He was a wild artist.

Sigrid Undset, 1928

Sigrid Undset, 1928

Summer came, and I was free, if exhausted.  Bleary-eyed and insomniac, I found a copy of Undset’s trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, at a used bookstore.  I  felt a special bond with Kristin, a brilliant and practical but troubled Catholic heroine in the Middle Ages.  These gorgeously-written novels, The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, published in the 1920s, chronicle Kristin’s life from childhood through old age.  Kristin’s difficulties with many different kinds of love (filial, marital, maternal, religious) resonate with so many of us.  In 1928 Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature, “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages,” says the Nobel Prize website.

After a recent rereading of Kristin, I wanted to go back immediately and start it again.  But I decided instead to reread Undset’s tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken, also set in medieval Norway.  It is stunning, though its characters are less sympathetic.

Originally published between 1925 and 1927, it follows the fortunes of Olav Audunsson and Ingunn Steinfinssdatter.  In The Axe, the first volume, they are betrothed as children at a banquet.  But the loves and crimes of Ingunn’s parents, Steinfinn and Ingebjorg, rock the future for the next generation and threaten to obstruct the marriage. The entire family is living in a kind of Golden Age paradise and blissfully ignorant of what lies in store for them.  Ingunn, a tomboy, plays outdoors with her brothers and Olav (Stienfinn’s foster son) while her lovely younger sister prefers the duties and pursuits of women.

undset set masterThen violence interrupts their idyll.  Year ago, when Steinfinn fell in love with Ingebjorg, she was already betrothed to Mattias.  When Ingebjorg’s father rejects  Steinfinn’s suit because of this betrothal, Steinfinn  didn’t take the rejection seriously and the next year “abducted” the willing Ingjborg.  The two lived as if married, but could not legally marry, even though they had children.   When Ingbjorg was pregnant with her third child, the Queen intervened so the couple could marry..  But seven years later, Mattias, the man  originally betrothed to Ingebjorg, invaded their house with an armed band of man and took his revenge, tying up naked Steinfinn and holding Ingebjorg on his lap.  He stops just short of rape.

As you can imagine, violence brings more violence.  Steinfinn eventually takes revenge, and before his death there is a question of whether the children  are really betrothed: Steinfinns suggests it was a joke as a party.  But Olav and Ingunn are already lovers and feel quite desperate.  They consult the bishop, who is on their side, but then hot-headed Olav kills a man in the bishop’s house and is exiled.  Later the bishop is exiled.  Then Ingunn is sent to live with her aunt and spends her days caring for her beloved grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s.  But this is no life for her, and she simply spends years waiting for Olav.  Everyone agrees that he will returne once he is absolved, and then they will be married .

the axe undset new edition 51gayU-j-9L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Neither character is as likable as Kristin Lavransdatter or her noble slacker husband Erlend, but I do feel a special sympathy for Ingunn.  Here is a young woman with nothing to do, who lacks the talents and skills of Kristin.  She spends her days dreamily sewing and fantasizing about weddings and imagining being a mother of many children.  Finally her aunt takes her to a wedding.

At the great wedding she had been made to wear bright-colored clothes, a silver belt, and floating hair. At the time she had only been shy and confused.  But it left its mark in her.  When she was back in her grandmother’s room at Berg, new images floated before her mind–she saw herself walking with Olav, jewelled and glorious–it might be in the palace of some foreign king; this seemed to compensate for all these years she had sat in the corner.

Poor Ingunn!  She is completely, tragically powerless, a woman who needs to be married to fulfill herself.  Not at all like Kristin, but then few are.  She  flirts with a young scribe she met at a wedding.  Then he date-rapes her and she is broken.  Her pregnancy changes her relationship with Olaf, who is a decent man, but there is a double standard here.    This is a feminist novel:  Undset portrays the tragedy of a woman who has few rights and no control over her future.

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.


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!


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)

Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter

Charles Archer's translation of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Charles Archer’s translation of Kristin Lavransdatter.

I recently finished The Cross, the third volume of Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter.  

It took me a year to reread this stunning trilogy, set in fourteenth-century Norway.  Unset is a brilliant storyteller, and every sentence shines with pictorial detail and psychological insights.  And even now, decades after my first read, I fall into the book and  become Kristin, the heroine. There is no separation of myself from the text.   As I get older, this is particularly true with the last volume, The Cross.

These gorgeously-written novels, The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, chronicle the life of a medieval woman and her experience of love:  filial love, intense friendship, passionate first love, sex, a tumultuous marriage, maternal love, charity, religion, and spiritual love. And as life goes on, Kristin becomes aware that her greatest sin, pre-marital sex with the handsome older slacker, Erlend, has shaped her unhappiness and the fates of her sons.  (Yes, pre-marital sex was a sin, particularly because Kristin was already betrothed to someone else, and Erlend had lived with a married woman for 10 years and had two children).

Charles Archer's translation.

Charles Archer’s translation.

In The Bridal Wreath, the first volume, we first meet the rebellous, willful heroine.  She has an idyllic childhood, and is much loved by her father, Lavrans.  But at the age of 15 Kristin is unhappily betrothed to Simon, a  smart,but chubby and unattractive man chosen for her by her father.  She  begs Lavrans to send her to a convent for a year, partly because she is not attracted to Simon, and partly because she believes her sins have made her younger sister ill.  She has suffered the loss of her childhood friend, Arne, who  fought and was killed by a priest’s son who maligned her reputation: no one knows the priest’s son attempted to rape Kristin.  And people gossip about Kristin, and Arne’s mother blames her.  And so Lavrans allows Kristin to go to the convent, where, ironically, she and another girl are almost raped during a festival in town; they are saved by Erlend, a handsome aristocrat, and one of his friends, Munan.  Erlend seduces Kristin and they fall in love.  When Kristin begs Simon to break off the betrothal, he reluctantly agrees, though he is still in love with her.

But will Kristin and Erland be allowed to marry?  Erlend asks his aunt, Fru Aashild, to invite Kristin to her house.  She  ran away 20 years ago with a younger man, Herr Bjorn, after her husband’s death, and people have said that she murdered her husband and that she bewitched Bjorn.  She reluctantly decides to help Erlend.  But she is sorry for Lavrans and his wife.

She grew strangely heavy at heart when she saw that this child seemed to think not at all on the sorrow she would bring to her father and mother.  Yet I lived with Baard for more than 20 years in sorrow and torment, she thought.  Well, maybe ’tis so with all of us.  It seemed Kristin had not even seen how Ulvhild [Kristin’s sister] had fallen away this autumn–’tis little like, thought Aashild, that she will see her little sister any more.  But she said naught of this–the longer Kristin could hold to this mood of reckless gladness, the better it would be, no doubt.

Kristin gets her way, but is already pregnant when she and Erlend marry:  no one knows that except her mother, not even Erlend.

And then in The Mistress of Husaby, Kristin has to face Erlend’s faults. He is beautiful and noble, but also foolish and careless.  And when she and Erlend get off the boat and travel to his estate,  Husaby, she sees the manor house is a wreck and the farm a shambles.

Everywhere she had seen ill husbandry, when on the second day she went round with Erlend and looked over the manor and farm.  By the time the feasting was over, little would be left in barn and storehouse; the corn-bins were all but swept clean.  And she could not understand how Erlend could think to keep all the horses and so many cattle through the winter on the little hay and straw that was in the barns–of leaf-fodder there was not enough even for the sheep and goats.

Tina Nunnally's translation, Penguin 2005

Tina Nunnally’s translation, Penguin

Kristin takes over the management of the estate.    And she is constantly pregnant and sick for the next several years:  she has seven sons.  She and Erlend quarrel frequently.  She can barely hold things together.  The church is Kristin’s refuge, and Erlend’s brother, Gunner, a priest, one of her best friends.  And then Erlend is accused of treason.

The Cross is my favorite of the three.  This is obviously because I am older now, and  Kristin is older.    Erlend has lost his estate, and they have moved back to Kristin’s childhood home. Kristin is in charge.  As usual, he is a wastrel.  He hunts and parties while Kristin manages the farms and tries to train her sons to work on the farm. (She manages to train one.) Her youngest sister is unhappily married to Simon, who still loves Kristin.  And Kristin, with a strange mix of herbs, medicine, knowhow, and witchcraft, manages to save their son.

Unset writes brilliantly about marriage.  No one is happily married in this world.  Kristin’s parents were unhappy; she and Erlend are wretched.  They separate and he goes to live on a ramshackle  property he has inherited, and says he has had enough of the farmer’s life.  She truly loves him, and is horrified by how he is living; she visits once, and gets pregnant again, but he won’t come back.  And she needs a good life for her sons.  But because she is pregnant and Erlend isn’t living with her she faces accusations again.

A long section of The Cross is from Simon’s point of view.  He is so decent, so smart, and we all feel he deserved Kristin.  But Kristin knows she could never have loved Simon.  Her bond with Erlend cannot be broken, though it is a hellish one.  It is a paradox.

The Cross undset penguin 6219Characters die.  We mourn.  And finally, Kristin goes on the pilgrimage she has always wanted to take, and enters a convent.

How horrified I was by that when I was younger!  But I was always fascinated by the arc of Catholicism that defines this book.  Kristin needs beauty, she needs faith, and what she has is  struggle, illness, and pain. Monks and priests bring her books, spiritual help, and good conversation.  They are the most educated people of their day.  And the rules of Catholicism give a structure to the hard life in the Middle Ages.

Kristin is not so different from you and me, though she lives in different times.

Why should we care about Kristin, you ask. Well, she is us.  Different century, same experiences. As a teenager wants to buy expensive handmade purple shoes!  Loves to dance! Sneaks out of the convent!  Doesn’t want to marry the dependable guy!  And later there is marriage, multi-tasking, motherhood, religious pilgrimages, political and theological discussions, disappointments, separation–and do not let us forget the plague!

I love Charles Archer’s 1920s translations, which have a faint medieval tone, but a new modern translation by Tina Nunnally, published by Penguin (around 2000?), has been widely praised.  Nunnally’s translation of The Cross won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize in 2001.