Monday, January 18, 2010

Two by Undset: Part 1

The beginning of the semester is always a nice time for leisure reading. I'm not yet bogged down with classes and in the mood for more meditative pursuits. I have been reading two works by Sigrid Undset (you may recall my earlier post on her masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter). The first is her tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, and the second is her biography of Catherine of Siena, recently republished by Ignatius Press.

I actually re-read The Master of Hestviken, which is composed of the four books The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger. I really can't do justice to the plot of this epic novel in a blog post - and it really is epic in the best sense of the word, as Undset was inspired by the old Norse sagas. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, the novel is set in medieval Norway, and is roughly contemporaneous to Kristin (a young Lavrans Bjorgulfson makes a cameo appearance towards the end of The Snake Pit). The main characters are Olav Audunsson, the eponymous heir of Hestviken, and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, his foster sister. Olav and Ingunn are betrothed as children and raised as brother and sister. When they grow into teenagers and succumb to temptation, they naively expect that their eventual marriage will shield them from the consequences. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The family intrigues come fast and heavy as Olav rashly kills a relative of Ingunn's and is forced to go into exile. When he returns to find that Ingunn has been seduced and borne an illegitimate child, he kills her seducer, and for complicated reasons, finds himself unable to confess the sin for many years.

This book is nothing short of depressing, in all honesty. Things never really improve for Olav and Ingunn after the sins of their youth. Just when you think it is impossible for them to make their lives worse, it gets worse, without fail - and they usually do it to themselves. In Kristin, Undset deals with the reality that there is no "happily ever after" and she makes that even more bleakly clear in The Master of Hestviken. Even after Olav secures his ancestral manor and marries Ingunn, she suffers ill health and dozens of miscarriages, dying after years as an invalid. He raises Eirik, her illegitimate son, as his own, alternately trying to do penance for murdering the child's father and hating the boy for not being his own blood. In the end, it is Eirik who resolves the conflict of his parents' sins, but only after following his own crooked path.

Reading this description probably doesn't induce you to read the book - but there is so much more to it than the bald list of Olav's endless sufferings. The love between Olav and Ingunn is beautifully described. Almost like Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, their childhood affinity grew into a love that has so shaped them that they cannot imagine life without each other. (Olav even begs Ingunn to come back to him after she dies, a scene which should be familiar to readers of WH.) In spite of all Ingunn's failings, Olav shows an amazing selflessness towards her which raises them above Cathy and Heathcliff's animal passion. Later, as Olav realizes the gravity of his sin and struggles to confess, we are treated to inner monologues that perfectly describe the crushing weight of sin and the pain of separation from God. It is a book well worth reading - not "leisure reading" but a novel that will help you grow spiritually. There aren't many books I can truly say that of.

After typing up this lengthy post on The Master of Hestviken, I realized that Catherine of Siena really deserves its own post. I will follow up in a day or two.

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