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Speaking the Painful Truth


Sigrid Undset, for my money, is the greatest woman novelist who ever lived.

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undset987Sigrid Undset

The two women were finally alone.  The room was spartan, with a single wooden bed, a desk, some schoolbooks, fishing tackle kept in a corner, and a couple of skiing poles.  A photograph was mounted on the wall, of two tanned young men in a skiff, with the spires of Stockholm in the background.  It was a boy's room, but the boy had left home to join the Swedish army.  It was May, 1940. 

"Sigrid," said her friend Alice, "I have bad news for you."  She had given Sigrid a day to rest from her journey across the mountains from Norway, in a truck packed so tight with soldiers and refugees, Sigrid — a middle-aged woman with some heft to her, and a countenance that looked as if she would brook no foolishness — had to sit on the lap of one of the men.  The atmosphere in the truck had been tense, with Swedish boys expressing their eagerness to fight alongside the Norwegians against the Nazi invaders, and elder men telling them to shut up.  News from the war front was also unrelievedly bad.  Hitler had overrun Belgium and the Netherlands, and the German armies were pushing on toward Paris, the jeweled queen of European civilization.

"Please, tell me quickly," said Sigrid.  She had had three children.  One, a daughter, had died as a very young woman.  Her sons Anders and Hans were still in Norway.  The elder, Anders, had a commission as captain in the Norwegian army. 

"Your son Anders fell in the fighting at Segelstad bridge.  He was brave, Sigrid, so brave," said Alice, trembling.  Sigrid, however, set her face like flint.  Of Hans, they still knew nothing.  A few days later they received a visit from a soldier who had been under Anders' command.  The Norwegians had tried to make the Nazi advance northward as costly as possible, taking positions near bridges and mountain passes, and holding off hundreds of Germans with handfuls of men and a few machine guns here and there.  Had Norway been made ready for the assault — had there not been Nazi toadies like Quisling in the highest positions in government — Hitler would have regretted sending Germans into that nation of strong, self-reliant, upright, and brave men and women.

"And Anders, you know," said the soldier, "was so incomparably kind." The word he used was snill. Sigrid Undset said that the word was untranslatable.  It named a virtue — kindness — but with a quiet manner, undemonstrative, reserved; not burdening your victim with your goodness.

Hans arrived shortly after, and he and his mother continued on their flight to freedom, from Sweden to Moscow, from Moscow by a nine-day train ride to Vladivostok, from there to Korea and imperial Japan, from Japan via the Grover S. Cleveland to San Francisco. 

Who she was   

Sigrid Undset, for my money, is the greatest woman novelist who ever lived.  Unlike George Eliot, one of her two chief competitors for that distinction, she does not rely upon the structure of Christian morality without the Christian Faith.  In her stories set in modern times, Undset shows how frail that morality must be, unless we recognize our personal frailty and our desperate need for the grace of Christ.  Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) had lost the Methodist faith she was brought up in; Undset had gained the Catholic Faith she was not brought up in. 

Unlike George Eliot, one of her two chief competitors for that distinction, she does not rely upon the structure of Christian morality without the Christian Faith.

Unlike Jane Austen, her other competitor, she was not the comfortably stationed daughter of an Anglican clergyman, who could therefore take faith for granted and write about Christian morals and manners in the England of her time.  Undset, when she entered the Catholic Church, knew she was entering into two thousand years of history, and so her greatest works, the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter and the tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, are set in medieval Norway, Catholic but still with remnants of the old pagan ways.  They are national in the best sense: they celebrate the difficult virtues of her people and the beauty of a forbidding land, with its summer so wondrous yet so heart-breakingly short, its wildflowers, its mountains and fiords and ravines, its lonely lichen-topped outcrops of rock, its sudden green valleys, and its brave men wresting the means of life from the rich and cold and dangerous seas. 

The contrast between Sigrid Undsers love of country and the pranked-up nationalism of Hitler and his blustering warmongers could not be greater.  She despised the Nazis.  Other people, not nearly enough, saw their evil; Undset saw also their stupidity and their cowardly ingratitude.  For among the invading German soldiers, the Norwegians recognized quite a few whom they had taken into their homes as little boys, back in the famine years after the First World War.  She was outspoken about it, and so she, like Dietrich von Hildebrand in Austria, was on the first page of the Nazi list of people to be murdered.

Wherever she went, Sigrid Undset tried to find what virtues she could in the peoples she encountered.  Germans, alas, were the exception.  She had to fight her hardest to treat that people with forbearance.  For her, the essence of the German spirit was expressed in the terrifying fable of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The "hero" took his vengeance against the ungrateful people of Hamelin by turning their children essentially into rats, marching all to their death.  I forgive the mother of a fallen son her anger.

Undset held out hope for the great successor of European civilization, the United States.  Even if Europe should fall (she was writing in 1941), the United States would carry the torch of that civilization's commitment to brotherhood, equality, and democracy, understood as the natural flowering of the Christian Faith. 

Return to the future

That's the name of the book that describes her trek from Norway to the United States.  It also describes her hope for the world.  The future must be a return: a recovery of the Christian Faith in nations that had lost it, and a flourishing of the human good that man experiences as one of the blessings of that faith.

Should Germany be defeated, the victors must resist with all their might the temptations of hatred and vengeance.  How hard that would be, Undset shows us in her own person.  But, she says, "hatred and thirst for revenge are sterile passions."  They engender nothing.  They only destroy.  "The most miserable poverty, the most unthinkable filth and squalor, the indescribable stench of refuse and decomposition which I saw and smelled everywhere in Soviet Russia are surely the fruit of the acceptance by Russia's revolutionary heroes of a hate-consumed old German Jewish writer named Karl Marx and their identification of their future goals with his dreams of revenge against everything that happened to awaken his enmity."

The Faith — uncornpromised, uncontaminated with the current prevailing ideologies — gave Sigrid Undset eyes, and heart, and a pen to write words as if etched in stone by fire.

Undset was no sentimentalist.  It is true, she was a woman with a woman's eye for the delicate and the beautiful; she is fond of describing flowers, handsome dress, lovely hair; the fine straw-roofed houses of even the poor in Japan; the tasteful Japanese temples; the reverent ceremonies of prayer she witnessed from the worshipers of Shinto.  She has a woman's scorn for the garish, grubby, slipshod, and gross: nine days on a Russian train with no running water and no flush toilets; Soviet stores with nothing to sell; water that had to be boiled before you could drink it; Soviet officials content to bury themselves and their petitioners under a mountain of paper.  Totalitarian systems fail on their own miserable terms: they deliver poverty instead of wealth, confusion instead of order, misery instead of happiness, family dissolution rather than strength, dependence rather than self-reliance, cowardice rather than courage. 

So much the more should the West return to its roots in the Christian Faith. That Faith is not an ideology, but the antidote to ideology.  It tells the truth about God and man.

Nowadays we construct social policies as if God were irrelevant, and as if everything that the wisest pagans had to say about man, and likewise the Christian Gospels that soar beyond the pagans, could be dispensed with.  Yet we pretend that, if we were alive in Germany during the time of Hitler, we would not have gone along with the popular wave of the future, as the Nazis styled themselves.  No, we'd have seen through it.  Quisling did not.  Knut Hansen, like Undset a Nobel laureate, did not.  Undset did.  The Faith — uncornpromised, uncontaminated with the current prevailing ideologies — gave Sigrid Undset eyes, and heart, and a pen to write words as if etched in stone by fire.

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Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Speaking the Painful Truth." Magnificat (October, 2017).

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The Author


Anthony Esolen is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts and serves on the Catholic Resource Education Center's advisory board. His newest book is "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." You can read his new Substack magazine at Word and Song, which in addition to free content will have podcasts and poetry readings for subscribers.

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