Tag Archives: Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset, the I.S.I., and I

I wrote an essay on Sigrid Undset for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s web site:

Like one of her own characters, Sigrid Undset followed her heart, confronted the consequences, and learned. Enabled by a government grant to live abroad, she began an affair in Rome with a married Norwegian painter, Anders Castus Svarstad. They married in 1912, after his divorce, and divorced in turn in 1919. By that time, they’d moved back to Norway, where their third child was born. Their second child, a daughter, was mentally handicapped. When Sigrid learned to her horror that Svarstad’s ex-wife had placed her children by him in an orphanage, Sigrid adopted them. One of these was also mentally handicapped. (Years later, when she received her Nobel Prize, she would donate the entire sum to children’s charities.)

Read the whole thing here.

‘Return to the Future,’ by Sigrid Undset

Pre-Christian pagans – Greeks and Romans and Nordic peoples, or redskins and Asiatic tribes – have usually conceived of the Golden Age as having been some time in the past. The present was hard, and the future was dark and full of menace. When the Christian Church began to speak and taught that God’s kingdom would come, it was in reality challenging people’s innermost convictions.

Inconstant and fickle as I am, I shall now contradict what I told you yesterday about blogging my way through The Conservative Mind. A small writing job came up which required me to bone up on Sigrid Undset, and I decided I needed to read an Undset book I’ve owned for a while but had not yet read – her 1942 war memoir, Return to the Future.

The original manuscript for Viking Legacy included a short passage from Undset, about the ancient piles of stones in Norway which have been cleared from the fields over the centuries. She declares them Norway’s “proudest monuments of antiquity” (my translation). Sadly, that passage (which I adored) was omitted from the final version. I didn’t realize, until I picked up Return to the Future, that it was the opening paragraph of that work.

In April 1940, as the Germans advanced northward in Norway, author Sigrid Undset left her home in Lillehammer in haste. She and her youngest son, Hans, fled with other refugees up to the coast at Molde, where they turned eastward toward the Swedish border, traveling at times on foot or on skis. It was only after their arrival in Sweden that they learned that her oldest son, Anders, an officer in the Norwegian army, had been killed in action. After a short stayover in Sweden, she and Hans took a Russian plane for a connection to the Trans-Siberian railroad.

The trip on the Trans-Siberian forms a large section of the book, and does not present an appealing picture. Even traveling first class, they found the accommodations (built under the Czars and badly maintained) filthy, the food terrible, the compartments stifling (you could not open the windows because of the soot, which got in anyway), and there was no running water. What she saw of the country revealed nothing but poverty, filth, and dull, lifeless faces. In spite of vaunted universal literacy, almost nobody read anything. The Catholic Undset saw in Russia everything she already suspected about Communism.

Arriving in Vladivostok, they take a steamer to Japan, and it’s a whole different world. Though like the rest of the world she is appalled by reports of Japanese atrocities in China, she can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the clothing and the architecture, the delicate politeness of the people (though they insist on ignoring her in favor of Hans, because he’s the male), and the cleanliness everywhere. Her description of the Japanese leg of her trip gives her the opportunity to meditate at length on the nature of politics and power, and how the West has – to some extent – brought the war on itself through treating non-westerners as if they were as materialistic as we are.

Her voyage ended in the United States, and she crossed our country by train, finally settling in Brooklyn. But the book ends before her arrival. One assumes it was brought out fairly quickly, as part of her campaign to promote the cause of the Norwegian government in exile.

Return to the Future was interesting, both for the first-hand account of Norway under attack, and for Undset’s thoughts about international politics, morality and war. She spends a lot of time on the historical sins of the Germans (she baldly declares Martin Luther a “psychopath,” but I forgive her). The sense of the title, as I understand it, is that the Nazi invasion had plunged Norway back into the dark past, and that in coming to America she was returning to the “future” to which she was accustomed. The implication is that America had an obligation to bring that future back for the victims of the war. I would rate the translation by Henriette C. K. Naeseth as adequate, though I flatter myself that I could have done better.