Archive for January 4th, 2023

Is Sigrid Undset underappreciated? Ted Gioia makes the case (and includes diagrams, too).

Wednesday, January 4th, 2023
It’s complicated. The author in 1928.

How Sigrid Undset Went from Secretary at an Engineering Firm to Nobel Prize Winner over at The Honest Broker on Substack. Ted Gioia explains why he’s reviewing a “100-year-old book that almost nobody reads.” And 1,200 pages (over three volumes) at that. He also explains how the Danish-Norwegian writer (1882-1949) went from being a secretary to a Nobelist, during a time when cutting such a career path was less common than it is today. He includes diagrams, too:

Romance fiction may delight, but it rarely surprises us—after the first chapter, you can almost predict everything that’s going to happen. They will soon train AI how to churn out these stories. In fact, it may already be happening, judging by some recent offerings on the streaming platforms.

But nothing is more tired and predictable than the medieval romance. This type of story has been a literary dead end for hundreds of years—so much so that Cervantes was already mocking it when he wrote Don Quixote (1605), the ultimate send-off of the genre. And to be honest, the medieval romance had mostly exhausted its narrow range of devices a century before Cervantes made fun of its clichés.

We all know the formula. It requires a bold knight and a lovely, highborn lady, passionate love, and high adventure—with sword fights and secret rendezvous along the way. But the incidents are so predictable, and the emotions so stylized that whatever reality that might have set these stories in motion in the Middle Ages has long been lost to us. Instead we have stick figures, faux Lancelots and Guineveres, perhaps suitable for parody (along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) but lacking in any psychological depth or plausibility.

That’s where Sigrid Undset enters the picture, and shakes everything up. Not only did she return to the medieval romance in the twentieth century in this epic work, published between 1920 and 1922, but she somehow reverses a thousand years of morbidity, bringing a long dead genre back to life.

He goes on to describe how deeply screwed-up and intense the characters are, and how the reader is begging them to reform or at least be reasonable. No dice.

The Honest Broker. (Photo: Dave Shafer)

Religion plays a large and recurring role in the plot, and we have some hope, or even expectation, that her main character will achieve a degree of saintliness. But few things are rarer than saints walking the earth—even in a spiritually-charged novel—and the tiny steps Kristin Lavransdatter makes toward a beautiful life, are almost always preceded or followed by stumbles, and occasionally complete reversals. Our hopes for her are never dashed, at least not completely, yet neither are they gratified by larger-than-life triumphs.

Yet we do well to remember that actual life, as we experience it, does not follow the narrative structure of a Netflix miniseries. And Undset’s seeming stubbornness in withholding expected cadences merely increases the verisimilitude of her finished work.

In fact, this novel is all the truer to its author’s worldview for its post-Edenic complexities. And perhaps all the more potent in its impact on readers, who may recognize themselves in its pages for the simple reason that Sigrid Undset does away with medieval figureheads and saintly lives. In this way, she somehow presents tales from the distant past that seem uncannily like the celebrity stories of our own time—but the resemblance is to the messy affairs from private lives (Kanye and Kim, Amber and Depp, etc.), and not the stylized formulas the stars present on screen.

Read the whole thing here.