Friday, February 19, 2010

Sigrid Undset & Louisa May Alcott: A Pair of Entertaining Moralists

Having just finished The Snake Pit, I am awed, as usual, by Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner whose historical novels are still popular: particularly Kristin Lavransdatter, published in a new translation by Penguin a few years ago. I still have three of my original four volumes of The Master of Hestviken, purchased in the '70s at a used bookstore, run by a guy who wore fringed jacket and fringed boots (you know the type) who was always running next door to the coffeehouse. "I'll be right back." He wasn't overly friendly, but it was an excellent bookstore. He sort of peered at me when I bought his complete Undset collection: I read Kristin Lavransdatter first, then dashed back a few days later to buy The Master of Hestviken. Hanging around bookstores was my favorite thing, because I didn't sleep during my two years of graduate school (this is almost literally true). So I often treated myself to a luxurious stint at a used bookstore or the fantastic public library, which had a great veranda, and since it never got very cold (why did I leave the south?), we could sit outside three seasons of the year.

The Snake Pit is a tragic, fast-paced novel about a doomed marriage in the Middle Ages: I'm surprised by how closely I identify with the characters, since their lives are not at all like mine. Undset has a gift for pulling you into an absolutely compelling historical story, and forces you without pain to analyze the shaky moral axis on which the marriage of Olav and Ingunn stands. In the first volume, The Axe, the betrothed couple are separated for years while Olav follows his political leader into exile. When he returns, he finds that Ingunn has had a baby by another man, the result of a rape. Olav secretly kills him. So they marry and move to Hestviken with this sin on Olav's conscience. Ingunn worships him, but is anxious, because she is sickly and her babies all die. Finally Olav brings back her first baby, the offspring of the rape, whom they had left with a nurse. And then Ingunn finally has a reason to live, but her beauty fades, and she is constantly jealous. Olav feels tied to her--she is his only friend--but he also wishes he had a "normal" life, with a healthy wife. We empathize with both characters, but I especially feel for Ingunn: how many women were like her in history, fated to give birth again and again, and the infants die? The novel ends tragically. It is simply so compelling that I HAVE TO GO ON TO THE NEXT ONE RIGHT AWAY, In the Wilderness.

But I have also been reading An Old-Fashioned Girl, my favorite book by Louisa May Alcott. I know: everyone prefers Little Women, but An Old-Fashioned Girl holds up surprisingly well. I love Polly, the main character, a country girl with a sense of humor and a sensible attitude who spends the first half of the book on an extended visit to her sophisticated city friend. Far from a fashion plate, this brisk, charming heroine has inner resources and more skills than her friend, Fanny, who is sometimes ashamed of Polly's childish quality and simple clothes. But Polly has a good influence on everyone: she befriends Fanny's wild brother, Tom, sledding with him though other young ladies don't, and plays with the irritable younger sister, Maud. And because Polly is poor and has "morals," she has a different viewpoint on city life: she has had to share with her family, has had to think of others, and, though far from a saint, helps Fanny and her siblings see outside their narrow world. In the second part of the book, Polly gives music lessons and hangs out with artists. (I'm rereading that now.)

I truly recommend this.


melodious b. said...

An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite Alcott book too. Little Women actually comes in third, after Rose in Bloom. I know Jo March is supposed to be great and all, but I always feel like the whole book is about beating out her individuality.

Frisbee said...

I'm so fond of An Old-Fashioned Girl, but few seem to read it. Thank goodness there's another of us!

I'll have to try Rose in Bloom again.