More than one hundred years ago, a Norwegian woman by the name of Sigrid Undset writes her first novel titled Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal. It is a story about a woman who betrays her husband by having an affair with his best friend. In the early 1900s, this kind of novel was scandalous and did not make it to publication until many years later. The story is written in first person, mostly through letters and journal entries.
Sigrid Undset’s life as a writer was met with various challenges, in part due to her conversion to Catholicism, in a country whose citizens were primarily either Lutheran or Atheist.
As I read the entries, I am struck by the emotions that she describes by the act of confession, whether in journal form or in the form of oral confession with the privacy of a screen inside a church, between one soul and her priest. In both cases, the satisfying release of burden which allows the soul to then continue on her journey, unencumbered.
Reading this novel, I feel immediately connected to the protagonist who is writing her letters and expressing her deepest needs, fears and wishes. A character created by a woman in Norway in the early 1900s. There exists between myself and this character, a resonance that bridges the divide of so many years and such difference circumstances. This is the joy of reading, the connection between humans across continents and centuries. And while the words I read are those of a character, they are a depth of the author funneled through her character. I want to know more about Sigrid with each paragraph that I read of Marta Oullie.
While Sigrid’s first novel does not get immediately published by the Danish House to whom she submits the work, many years later she would win a Nobel Prize for another work titled: Kristin Lavransdatter; a book set in the Middle Ages of Norway with a vast array of characters that brought to the page the time period when one found a cross over from Paganism to Christianity and the harsh realities of the Black Death; mid 1300s. Within those pages, we find a rich tapestry of characters that forms an incredible saga of Norwegian history. Within that prize, the committee also acknowledged Sigrid’s first piece of work.
During WW II, Sigrid fled to Sweden and then New York City. She had been known for her outspoken criticism against Hitler, so she felt it best to seek safer shores. Sigrid experienced many tragedies in her lifetime, including the death of two children. Her life and her writing have me enthralled.
I remember as a teenager, with my own mother hailing from Norway, that there was excitement in gifting me with the three volume collection of Kristin Lavransdatter. Back then, I had felt it a very long read and a bit dry in places. I did not have the patience for it then. Now, I am intrigued and want to get my hands on all of Sigrid’s writings, to find her within the pages. To have a chance to get to know her better.
Sigrid Undset inspires me to press on in my own writing and in my readings a continuing education. I long to read more, classics, history and biographies. To spend time learning and most of all learning to write better. I am so grateful for the bold and courageous writers in the past that have laid the path for those of us in the present to embrace our own passions, and push onward to better heights.
Who do you carry close to your heart in your own reading world that offers inspiration and ignites your passion?