Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
The next choice for this Booklover is a more stereotypical summer read than the previous work by Wole Soyinka entitled Civilian and Soldier. A work of fiction, Jenny, a novel by Sigrid Undset, is described in the inside flap of the book cover as “an important and courageous work, but some found it to be ‘immoral’.” The description continues with more enticement: “The novel tells the story of Jenny Winge, a Norwegian painter, who goes to Rome to seek artistic inspiration but ultimately betrays her own ambitions and ideals.” Jenny is included with other works, Thjodolf, Simonsen, a sampling of Undset’s personal letters, and an “Introduction” by Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize winner on staff at the Washington Post, in The Unknown Sigrid Undset. The inside flap of the book cover alerts the reader that Jenny is a new translation (2001) by Tiina Nunnally and this translation “captures the fresh, vivid style of Undset’s writing and restores passages omitted from the 1921 English version.” A comfortable chair, a little time, and soon I’m in Rome with Jenny who is trying to navigate the world, an artistic career, relationships, romance, and all the entanglements that come with this journey.
Sigrid Undset won the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages,” her work that is usually referenced with the award is Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy set in medieval Norway. (Jenny is not representative of this body of her work; rather this story comes from her early “realistic” period where she focused on women and love.)
Tim Page’s “Introduction” to The Unknown Sigrid Undset is in itself a delightful read. Right from the first paragraph his perspective is: “Still, unless a present-day English-speaking reader happens to be of Scandinavian descent, the Catholic faith, or unusually interested in world literature, the name Sigrid Undset will likely draw a blank.” (Sidebar personal bio: English-speaking, not Scandinavian, raised Catholic, interested in world literature — I guess I’m reading the right book.)
Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark in 1882. Her father, Ingvald, moved the family to Kristiania (Oslo) in 1884 where he accepted a post with the university museum. Her parents were keenly aware of her intellect and from an early age spent great effort in her intellectual cultivation. Discussions on history, politics, archaeology, and the Old Norse language were dynamic between father and daughter. This all came to an unfortunate end when her father succumbed to malaria when she was 11 years of age. The family struggled on a small state pension provided to widows. This struggle could be the reason behind Page’s description of Undset as a “quiet, dutiful, highly serious, and somewhat remote young woman whose closest companions where her books.” Not to be daunted by circumstance, she attended a commercial college and then took a secretarial position at Wisbech Electrical Company at the age of 16. She persevered for ten years at this job that she hated. During these ten years she must have been writing, for Page relates this interesting anecdote about her coworkers: “During one midmorning break she was heard chuckling over something she was reading. ‘It was a piece she had written herself,’ according to her first biographer, A.H. Winsnes. ‘She read it to the others. It was written with such ‘warmth and humor,’ say her colleagues, ‘that we could not help interrupting — Good Heavens! Why don’t you write instead of sitting in an office?’” I guess we know where this went…
Jenny begins with a young man, Helge, arriving in Rome. “At last, now at last there was one sight that was richer than all his dreams. And it was Rome. A wide plain of rooftops lay beneath him in the hollow of the valley, a jumble of roofs on buildings that were old and new, tall buildings and low buildings. They looked as if they had been put up quite haphazardly and as big as was needed at the time; only in a few places did the streets cut regular clefts through the mass of rooftops. And this whole world of disorderly lines that intersected each other at thousands of sharp angles lay rigid and motionless beneath the pale sky, in which an invisible sinking sun sporadically ignited a tiny rim of light on the edges of the clouds. The sun hung dreaming under a delicate, whitish mist, into which not a single spurting column of smoke blended, because there were no factory smokestacks in sight, and no smoke came from any of the comical little tin chimneys sticking up from the buildings. …And above everything hovered the church domes, a countless number of them. The magnificent gray dome far off in the distance, on the other side of the place where Helge caught a glimpse of the flowing river, that was the Basilica of St. Peter.” This poetic, rambling, travelogue description continues until Helge meets two young women, one of whom is Jenny. With the beauty only a wordsmith of Nobel caliper can ink, Undset leads the reader through a complex investigation of young romance combined with youthful career dreams and a touch of wanderlust. “ That’s the wonderful thing about going abroad — all influences of the people you happen to live with back home are suspended. You have to see things with your own eyes and think for yourself. And you realize that whatever you get out of the trip will depend entirely on you: what you’re capable of seeing and comprehending, and how you behave, and who you choose to have an effect on you. And you learn to understand that what you get out of life depends solely on yourself. Yes, a little on circumstances, of course, as you said before. But you find out how, in accordance with your own nature, you can most easily overcome or get around obstacles — both during your travels and in general. You discover that the worst difficulties you encounter are usually things you’ve brought on yourself.”
With that I will let you discover where Undset takes Jenny — it’s a page-turner.
Epilogue. Included at the end of The Unknown Sigrid Undset is a sampling of personal correspondence between Sigrid Undset and Andrea Dea Hedberg. (The translator’s note tells the story of this 40-year-old pen-pal relationship.) It began about the time Undset took the secretary job. She joined a Swedish pen-pal club and within a few months received her first letter from Dea. Dea was the same age, the daughter of a bookseller and an avid reader. In their letters they share their dreams of writing — Dea would pursue journalism. Their relationship was forged on paper as they only met in person a few times.
I’ll leave you with one small excerpt: “April 3, 1900. Dear Dea!” Undset begins this letter apologetic for not writing sooner; describes how the “very thought of the office makes me sick”; her “artist temperament” — “There’s nothing I have greater contempt for than artists…,” and how she struggles with her dreams to write — “Sometimes I want so much to write a book. The way I envision it in my mind, both the plot and the characters are good, but I’m afraid I’ll never have the skill to portray any of them — let alone be capable of writing it all down.” Twenty-eight years later, she had won the Nobel.