Telling truth and lies with the Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize
Who is your favorite Catholic novelist? A number of America editors and contributors over the years have answered that question with a surprising name — or at least one that might surprise us in 2022: Sigrid Undset. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, Undset was a leading figure of the Norwegian intelligentsia in the 1920s and 1930s. When she fled to the United States after the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940, she became a frequent contributor to American literary and political journals, including America.
Former editor Drew Christiansen, SJ, put Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy “near the top of my list of all-time favorites”. Former literary editor Raymond Schroth, SJ, remembers his father reading Kristin Lavransdatter aloud to her mother while she was knitting in the evening. After entering the Jesuits years later, he discovered that the trilogy “was a favorite among Jesuit seminarians in the late 1950s, perhaps because for many, still teenagers, it was a rare romantic experience” . Reverend Robert E. Lauder, a frequent film and book critic for America for many years argued that Kristin Lavransdatter “is the greatest Catholic novel ever written.”
Former editor Drew Christiansen, SJ, put Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy “near the top of my list of all-time favorites”.
Born in 1882 in Kalundborg, Denmark, Sigrid Undset moved to Norway with her family when she was two years old and grew up in Oslo (then known as Kristiania), the capital of Norway. She published her first novel at 25; his stark descriptions of women’s life in the city (including tales of adultery) made him something of a pioneering author in the years before World War I. His conversion to Catholicism in 1924 caused a sensation in a strongly Lutheran Norway, especially since the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter enjoyed success at home and abroad. Shortly after the publication of the third volume of this trilogy in 1927, she received the Nobel Prize.
The chairman of the Nobel committee noted that Undset was that rare notice among Nobel Prize recipients: she received the award “while still in the prime of life, a tribute paid to a poetic genius whose roots must be in a great and well-ordered mind”.
Settling in Brooklyn Heights after fleeing the Nazis in Norway (where her son was killed in action), Undset began speaking and writing against totalitarianism and against Hitler and Stalin, including in Americawhere she met longtime publisher John LaFarge, SJ In June 1942, America printed a lecture she had given at the “Gallery of Living Catholic Authors” in New York the previous month, on “Truth and Fiction”.
Sigrid Undset: “Revolt, betrayal, denial or indifference, laziness, laziness – which of us has not been guilty of one or more or all of these sins at one time or another?”
Undset began with a bit of wisdom that “an old Norwegian farmer’s wife once passed on to me, for the principle on which she had been brought up and had in turn brought up a large family of well-to-do men and women. : “Never tell a lie.” And don’t tell the truth unless it’s necessary. “” (Those surprised by such a spicy start would not have read Undset’s first novel, the opening line of which was “I’ve been unfaithful to my husband.”)
Undset wanted to make a point about fiction, a word often used “as if fiction were the opposite of fact. Certain types of fiction are, of course. But even that kind of fiction doesn’t have to be the opposite of the truth,” she said. “Facts must be true, but they are not truths, just as wooden boxes, fence posts, doors or tables are not woods, the society of living and growing trees hence wooden tools come from.” Likewise, true fiction “must necessarily deal with facts, but its main concern must be the truths behind the facts – the wild mountains from which were extracted the tame stones of the pavement and the cultivated stone of statuary, the living woods who produced the materials for sawmills and carpentry shops and the pulp for the million tons of paper we use or misuse.
“For the Catholic writer,” Undset continued, “the whole world of facts and truths behind facts will appear in relation to the Ultimate Origin from which all emanates.” Returning to her opening adage, she reminded her audience to never lie and to “tell the truths you must. Even if they are sinister, absurd, shocking. After all, we Catholics should recognize what a shocking undertaking human life is. Our race has been revolting against its Creator since the dawn of time. Rebellion, betrayal, denial or indifference, laziness, laziness – which of us has not been guilty of one or more or all of these sins at one time or another? »
But remember also, she says, “You must also tell other more encouraging truths: about the grace of God and the effort of souls strong and loyal, or weak but trusting, and also about the natural virtues of man created in the Image of God, an image that is very difficult to erase entirely.
In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to notify digital subscribers of some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.
Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:
Paul Farmer, Graham Greene and the politics of liberation
Myles Connolly has a question: Why are Catholic writers so boring?
The author you probably never considered Irish: John Steinbeck
Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life
For John Cheever, “basic facts” had nothing to do with a good story.
James T. Keane