For the first time Marta Oulie, the first published novel by acclaimed Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, has been translated into English.
Undset, who is best known for her later work, the three-volume Kristin Lavransdatter, had not yet converted to the Catholic faith when she penned Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal at the age of 24; but already she was probing into the hearts and minds of women.
I first became aware of Undset’s work when Deal Hudson, former editor of Crisis Magazine, listed her among the great Catholic writers–along with notables including Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, and Flannery O’Connor. She was a student and an admirer of another famous convert, Jacques Maritain.
I remember reading Kristin Lavransdatter and feeling, despite its strong content (which included a rape), that it was like a cleansing shower. Hudson wrote about her:
The same spiritual intelligence that gives the trilogy a potency to convert the lives of its readers is found throughout her other writings.
Marta Oulie is written in the form of a diary, in which a young wife and mother reveals that she has committed adultery, entering into an affair with her cousin. “I have been unfaithful to my husband,” she begins her story. Marta seems self-absorbed, both in her decision to engage in a sexual relationship, and then in how lost and unworthy it made her feel. She knew that her husband Otto, had he known of the affair, would have been greatly hurt; yet it was Marta’s feelings, not his, that drove her to finally turn away from the young man who loved her and who would have married her.
A novel is a work of the imagination; but it also draws upon the experience and the inner resources of the author. Undset’s own life seemed to mirror her protagonists’; like Marta and Kristin, she was restless in her marriage (which eventually ended in divorce). Preoccupation with self is a recurring theme in her characters’ lives, and her own introspective yearnings fuel the character studies in her novels.
Sigrid Undset had a life-long interest in how women were regarded by the culture in which they lived. Her novel Jenny is about a woman painter who, as a result of romantic crises, believes that she is wasting her life, and who finally commits suicide. In Vagren, Undset writes about a woman who succeeds in saving both herself and her love from a serious matrimonial crisis, finally creating a secure family.
Following her conversation to the Catholic faith at age 42, she drew inspiration from strong Catholic women. This is evident in her acclaimed biography of Catherine of Siena.