- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

The cover of "The Unknown Sigrid Undset" bears an arresting image. It is the delicate face of an exceptionally beautiful young woman, her slanted eyes suggestive of Nordic birth. She meets the viewer with a frank, calm gaze, her round face slightly tilted to one side. The photograph's sepia tone suggests, as do her hair and clothing, that she is not of our time and place. Indeed, as the book's title indicates, we do not know her.
Yet Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 and "Kristen Lavransdatter," her trilogy of novels set in medieval Norway, has remained in print and available in English translation since then. As editor Tim Page notes in the Introduction to this fine volume, "… unless a present-day English-speaking reader happens to be of Scandinavian descent, the Catholic faith, or unusually interested in world literature, the name of Sigrid Undset will likely draw a blank."
This situation, "lamentable" according to Mr. Page, has recently begun to correct itself. Undset is attracting scholarly attention in Norway and here, and "Kristen Lavransdatter" has just been reissued in a new, much improved translation. This book will surely contribute to this resurgence of interest; the novel, "Jenny," and the short stories and the letters it comprises reveal Undset to be a powerful chronicler of social conditions and an astute observer of human psychology, especially female. More urgently, though, we find her to be a passionate soul, fully aware of the pettiness and deception so characteristic of human relationships yet also able to describe our capacity for reverence, for appreciation of beauty and for love.
Mr. Page, The Washington Post's multitalented culture editor (he won a Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism in 1997), provides in his introduction a brief account of Undset's life. Born in 1882, she grew up in a stimulating environment where the distant past was a present reality. She learned Old Norse from her father, a well known archaeologist, who let her play with a terra-cotta horse that had been unearthed at Troy. But his early death reduced the family to poverty and at 16 Sigrid went to work as a secretary in Oslo. She hated the job but stayed there for 10 years. She worked steadily at her writing, too, and in 1909, having published two novels and a selection of short stories, she quit her job.
Undset received a government grant (part of what Mr. Page identifies as the Scandinavian countries' "honorable tradition of supporting their artists") and this allowed her to travel to Germany and to Rome, the setting for much of the action of "Jenny." There, she fell in love with a Norwegian painter, Anders Svarstad, a man in his 40s, married and with three children. After his difficult divorce, the couple married. They had three children, one of them severely retarded, and their household eventually included also Svarstad's children from his first marriage. But the relationship did not last, perhaps in part because Undset was experiencing a religious conversion. She and her husband separated in 1919. A few years later, the day after her marriage was formally annulled, Sigrid Undset was confirmed as a Roman Catholic.
The first volume of "Kristen Lavransdatter" was published in 1920 and was immediately popular. Undset's Nobel Prize was awarded for it and for the other works in which she evoked life in ancient Norway. She continued publishing throughout the 1930s, becoming "one of the most famous novelists in the world." During World War II (while Norway's other Nobel laureate, Knut Hamsun, was collaborating with the Germans), Undset fled to the United States, living for a time in Brooklyn Heights. In 1949 she died and was given a state funeral.
While "Jenny" has pride of place in the present volume, the letters with which it ends are a better place to begin this encounter with Undset. They were written to a Swedish friend between 1900, when Undset was 18, and 1913, when her first child was born, and have been selected to focus on Undset's growing sense of herself as a writer and artist. The teenager announced her "loathing for work, any sort of regular, routine work …" and identified her own artistic temperament, a "bitter, sad truth, which I have only recently dared admit to myself." She described her "contempt" for "the type of artistic temperament that produces nothing," for "those who are artists for their own sakes" but admitted that she herself "can no longer rein in my desire to dream."
The following year she related her excitement at having, for the first time, "a room of my own" which she could decorate as she pleased and where she could work undisturbed. The next year she began writing of her desire to be an artist, "a woman artist, and not a pen-wielding lady." She recorded the success of her early efforts and her "dread every time I start on a new work, because I want it to be better than the last one." By 1912 she announced her "enormous surprise" that "Jenny" was "one of the year's biggest successes and is now in its third printing."
Besides her artistic aspirations, the young Undset wrestled in her letters with feelings about men, marriage and family. She saw "a woman's courage and pride and fidelity and veracity" as "completely different from a man's, more personal … a woman's honor is understood to mean something purely personal, physical, a faithfulness to her own body or to the one who possesses it; while a man's is almost something external, conventional." She's interested in marriage, she wrote, because "it's most often marriage that is a person's fate, at least for women." She wrote that she assumed happy marriages must exist ("although I haven't seen any that I would call happy"); marriage, she felt "makes most women stupid, or they dilute their demands on life, on their husband and on themselves so much that they can scarcely be counted as human …"
In the later letters reprinted here, Undset alluded to her "sweetheart," telling of their marriage in Brussels and asking her friend whether she thinks it's "right to dress an infant in wool … next to the skin." The pregnant Undset thought perhaps linen would be more comfortable in the warm Italian climate where she was living and asked her friend, "What would you advise?"
"Jenny" treats similar concerns. The eponymous heroine is the heart of a group of Scandinavian artists living in Rome, a lovely 28-year-old, charming, talented and determined. She works hard at her painting but she also struggles with a longing for "a man whom she could love and who would love her; someone she could nestle close to …" When a gawky young Norwegian scholar, Helge Gram, is smitten with her, she falls in love with him; or at least, for a time, she thinks she does.
"Jenny" is a fine work in large part because of the subtlety and frankness of the portrayal of Jenny's feelings. When she first kisses Helge she doesn't love him at all but still senses that it's an important step (she has never kissed anyone before). And then " … lighthearted indifference and a sweet weariness had passed through her: Oh God, why be so ridiculously serious about the whole thing? And then she had done it. Why shouldn't she?" But each kiss leads her to deeper entanglement with Helge. She longs to give herself completely to him, yet she holds back, fearful but not quite understanding why.
Jenny is caught in a dilemma many women will recognize. Sexual attraction and the desire men feel to possess her come masquerading as love; they bring comfort but they also conflict with her sense of herself as an independent person with needs for both artistic expression and female fulfillment. Readers of both sexes will surely be moved and enriched by the book's exquisitely beautiful ending, a lyrical evocation of the reaction of the man, who had loved her without self interest and for herself, to losing her.
Mr. Page writes that " … if Undset means anything to a reader at all, it is likely that she means a great deal." That she was a gifted chronicler of her time and place is clear from these well crafted stories. But it is equally apparent that the beauty of this woman was not just in her lovely face but in her vibrant and truthful embrace of life. Readers who come to know her work in this book will see that and, most likely, find it bracing. They will want to know her better.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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