On Friday I finished reading The Master of Hestviken. On Saturday I had a conversation via text messages with a friend who had just finished Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. He asked whether I had any recommendation as to what to read next. I replied, "At the moment I don't think any novelist except Undset is really worth reading."
I'm sure that enthusiasm will fade at least to the extent that I'll be willing to grant merit to other writers. It already has, really. But still, right now, although I will prudently refrain from insisting that Undset is the greatest novelist of all time, I will say that I don't think there's anyone better.
Such comparisons are fundamentally frivolous, I know. How can one seriously say of two indisputably great but very different writers that one of them is in some absolute sense greater than the other? Consider even the Tolstoy-vs.-Dostoevsky contest: I think a fair judgment of the two leads us to back away from a verdict. As 19th century Russians given to long complex novels filled with ideas, they have a lot in common. Yet they are still so different that it seems an apple-and-oranges comparison.
I'm tempted right now to say that Undset is better than either of them, but I know that's an even more incommensurate comparison. However, I will say this: I enjoy reading Undset more than I enjoy either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. In Tolstoy's case I'm thinking of War and Peace, which I read fairly recently; I read Anna Karenina many years ago, over forty years, and don't remember it very clearly. Dostoevsky's narrative often seems somehow murky, in part because his characters seem crazed and remote. Tolstoy's is rambling and loose. But in reading Master I very rarely felt that I was engaged in a long slog and would be a little relieved when I got to the end, no matter how many interesting sights I'd seen along the way. The power of Undset's storytelling in the most elemental sense, the constant pull of wanting to know what will happen next, never really weakened for me.
Maybe this is partly a matter of focus. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset's other great work, Master is principally the life story of a single person, in this case a man named Olav Audunsson. It's been at least thirty years since I read Kristin and I don't remember it in detail, so I can't fairly compare the two, but I feel fairly safe in saying that Master is at least as good. Kristin seems to have the greater reputation, but I don't know why that should be so. Perhaps it's only because Kristin came first, and Master is fundamentally similar, even in length. Kristin is a trilogy and Master a tetralogy, but at least in the editions I have Kristin is actually a bit longer (both roughly a thousand pages).
Master, like Kristin, is set in medieval Norway, but a little earlier, and in the same region. (In fact Kristin's parents make a brief appearance in Master, as a young couple: Olav is already middle-aged at that point, and Kristin is not yet born.) One of the most impressive things about the book (both of them, actually), is the way Undset convinces us that we are getting a truly accurate and detailed picture of the way people lived and thought in Norway ca. 1200 A.D. If she was not a walking encyclopedia of lore about the details of daily life that period, she had an astonishingly fertile and audacious imagination.
That's part of the sheer technical accomplishment of this novel. Another is its scope. A few people may be the focus of the narrative, but the number of others involved in their lives is enormous. There is a vast network of kin, neighbors, servants, and lords, priests, and religious. And very few of these characterless place-holders; Undset also has the top-rank novelist's gift of making characters come alive in some mysterious way that's difficult to account for by analysis. And the story itself gradually assumes great complexity. I admit that i did not always follow or retain all the details, but all of this is maintained with apparent effortlessness. I suspect that anyone who challenged Undset on the internal consistency of the world she creates would probably be quickly shown where he was mistaken.
In a philosophical sense The Master of Hestviken is also more focused than, say, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. Both of those play with a number of big ideas--religious, ethical, political. These are not much present here. The emphasis is almost entirely on sin and redemption, which is the biggest idea and the greatest drama of all. Olav is a good and brave man, but at the center of his life is a secret and unconfessed sin which he believes he must keep that way for the benefit of those he loves and for whom he is responsible. There is an incident in Kristin Lavransdatter in which a man receives a minor wound, just a cut, which becomes infected and eventually kills him. (Someone dies in a similar way in Master as well, but it is a more serious wound to begin with.) Olav's spiritual life is similarly threatened by the infection of this sin.
It's appropriate that our word "doom" has roots in the Norse tongues. Early on it meant only a judgment or sentence, not necessarily a bad one, but our sense of it as meaning not just an end, but a bad end, is very appropriate to the atmosphere of this book. I don't think I'd read more than thirty or forty pages before I started to think "These poor people are headed for trouble"--these people being Olav and his wife-to-be, Ingunn Steinsfindatter. Nothing bad was happening to them; on the contrary, they were just discovering the sweetness of young love. Having been raised together, Olav as a foster child in Ingunn's family, and betrothed to each other while they were still children, they are taken completely by surprise when erotic and romantic emotions suddenly made themselves felt. Perhaps only because I had read Kristin and had some idea of what to expect, I trembled for them, a reaction which of course proved to be well justified.
I don't see any mention on Sigrid Undset's Wikipedia page that she practiced painting or drawing, but I'd be a little surprised if she didn't. She is certainly very, very concerned with physical description. It seems as though almost every page of this book includes a fairly detailed description of a place or a person or an object (she is almost amusingly precise in describing what people are wearing). Not having a very visual imagination, I often find these difficult to follow. And especially where people are concerned I don't really get a clear picture from descriptions of the shape of a nose or a chin, the spacing of eyes, etc. But all the visual details nevertheless have an effect, especially those involving the landscape to which the characters are very closely bound; these are very rich and create a strong impression, even if (for me at least) it's a somewhat vague one. I found myself wanting to visit Norway so that I could see what the place really looks like.
I also would like a map of the Hestviken manor--the word seems to mean not a house or houses but an entire estate--because I don't have a clear picture in my mind of its general layout with respect to certain natural features of the area. This is not Undset's fault, but I could use some help.
By the way, Google Translate tells me that in modern Norwegian anyway the word is pronounced "HestVEEken."
I haven't gone into any detail here about the story proper, partly to avoid spoiling it for those who haven't read the book. However, I'm going to allow spoilers in the comments. It's hard to discuss a book in any depth without that.
Craig Burrell had some good comments on Master at his blog a few years ago. There are spoilers.
I suppose anyone who's interested knows about the affair of Kevin Williamson vs. The Atlantic: he was hired away from National Review, published one column, and then was fired when some remarks he had made about abortion were publicized. This piece by Conor Friedersdorf, also at The Atlantic, and dissenting from the firing, is very, very good. I'm not being coy in saying that the remarks were merely "about abortion," but rather turning the floor over to Friedersdorf to describe in detail exactly what Williamson has said. The piece is long but very much worth reading if you care about the state of public debate. In case you don't want to go to that much trouble, here's something I want to pass on:
Word of Williamson’s hiring was greeted by some as if by mercenary opposition researchers determined to isolate the most outlying and offensive thoughts that he ever uttered, no matter how marginal to his years of journalistic work; to gleefully amplify them, sometimes in highly distorting ways, in a manner designed to stoke maximum upset and revulsion; and to frame them as if they said everything one needed to know about his character. To render him toxic was their purpose.
That mode was poison when reserved for cabinet nominees; it is poison when applied to journalistic hires; and it will be poison if, next week or year, it comes for you.
Not so long ago I would have said that I encounter that sort of thing every day on Facebook. I still do see it from time to time, but in recent months things have grown quieter. I think that's only because people grew sick of the fighting and withdrew, not because there has been any lessening of passion. Certainly the evidence is that in general the war of words via Twitter etc. is at least as intense as it ever was. It is vicious, an offense not simply against civility but against truth itself, and the people who do it seem to really get a thrill from it.
Seen in the parking lot at Piggly-Wiggly (affectionately know as The Pig) a few weeks ago: