52 Poems, Week 15: Upon a House Shaken By the Land Agitation (Yeats)
52 Poems, Week 16: World-Telegram (John Berryman)

Sunday Night Journal, April 15, 2018

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:



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Apparently Undset's first ambition was to be a painter, rather than a writer. At least, that's what it says in a review of a volume of her correspondence with Dea Hedberg, begun in 1898 when she was 16 and continued for 42 years.

I'd never heard of Undset (I don't know how that happened!). Her books sound very interesting, and so I just ordered The Wreath from the library. I can't imagine getting more joy out of reading her than I do from Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but I'll let you know--eventually a few things are in line ahead of this, but I should get started soon.

I'll be interested in hearing what you think, Reuben. There are two translations of Kristin, Archer-Scott from the '30s and Nunnaly from 2005 or so. I read the older one (obviously, if it was 30 years ago). The title The Wreath indicates you're getting the Nunnaly one--it's The Bridal Wreath in the other. Reportedly they're very different. The Archer translation is done in a deliberately archaic-sounding English. I find it very effective, but it's said to be less faithful to Undset's voice than Nunnaly's. I'll probably read Nunnaly's eventually. It's not all that high on my list but it's definitely there. The Archer translation of Master is the only one available.

Thanks, Paul. Not at all surprising there. That correspondence could be interesting. I'd like to know more about her. I think she lived experiences similar to some of those she writes about, at least in Kristin.

I think painting was Waugh's first ambition, too. A few other writers are in the back of my mind on this, but right now can't think of them. Need another cup of that coffee everyone is talking about in the other thread -- it's early morning here in NZ. :)

much of the drama of the story is driven by the conflict between the moral vision of the Church, rooted in mercy, repentance, and forgiveness, and the traditional moral vision of the Scandanavian people, rooted in honour, reputation, and vengeance.

We have been discussing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (we read Tolkien's translation) in the C. S. Lewis Society meetings and this from Craig's blog really reminds me of our conversations about the Sir Gawain if only you substitute "chivalric code" for "Scandanavian people."

I'm just getting to read all this because I wouldn't let myself start until I finished my taxes. I just ate lunch. Augh!


It's almost a little funny at times, because the clergy are of the same culture, so you get sort of a "Yeah, you killed the guy, and who can blame you? But still, you have to confess and do penance."


Chesterton was an art school drop-out. I sometimes think of that when reading his descriptions of landscapes.

"Yeah, you killed the guy, and who can blame you? But still, you have to confess and do penance." There's a bit of that with duelling in the 17th century. Some confessors took it really seriously, but others not so much. And at least one monk died in a duel.

I love that picture. I want that license plate.


I actually considered for a moment hanging around to see what kind of person the car belonged to. It's somewhat beat-up. For some reason I pictured a young woman in her 20s, post-teen-age but not very old, not having a very easy time in life but determined to keep plugging, not pitying herself and not very tolerant of others' self-pity.

My decidedly anecdotal impression is that more writers are would-be painters than would-be musicians.

Apologies to anyone who tried to get to the blog last night and was unable. TypePad was doing some kind of maintenance and was off the air for at least a couple of hours I think. It was scheduled and I should have warned people here.

I'm going to sue for emotional distress. I may have to get an animal for comfort.


I have two. Take your pick. Or take both.

This is supposed to help me, not you.


I hope NRO takes Williamson back. On the GLOP podcast last week (Goldberg, Long, Podhoretz), Goldberg said very cautiously that he was optimistic NR would give him his job back. I hope all the NRO articles criticizing the Atlantic's decision are also indirectly urging the editors to re-hire him.

Pius XII reminded us that when we talk about the 'truth' of the Scriptures, its important to consider what genre the authors thought they were writing in. Otherwise its impossible to guess the authors' intention, and thus impossible to know what they meant by their words. Satire is one of the hardest genres to 'read'. And yet, most of Twitter is brutally sarcastic, much is sardonic, and much of it is generically satirical. In normal life, very very few people who are not drunk speak as most people do on Twitter.

Williamson responded to Cooke's question about legal penalties for women who have abortions with 'hang them'. Generically, on twitter, that is sardonic satire. Everyone who hangs out on twitter knows this at some level. I have a colleague, a professor so innocent that he is not on facebook or twitter or instagram. I told him the Williamson story. My friend was a bit shocked to learn that my favourite journalist had suggested hanging women who have had abortions! Only someone as innocent as that could imagine for thirty seconds that that was the actual meaning of Williamson's words. All the others, including all of Williamson's accusers, who grasp the genre of Twitter, know perfectly well that it was a black joke.

> Only someone as innocent as that could imagine for thirty seconds that that was the actual meaning of Williamson's words. All the others, including all of Williamson's accusers, who grasp the genre of Twitter, know perfectly well that it was a black joke.

No, it wasn't just a joke. He talked about it at length in a podcast, and discussed it with Goldberg. From the Friedersdorf piece:

> “Specifically, the subject of one of Kevin’s most controversial tweets was also a centerpiece of a podcast discussion in which Kevin explained his views on the subject of the death penalty and abortion. The language he used in this podcast—and in my conversations with him in recent days—made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views.”

And then there is Alex Jones apparently being sued by Sandy Hook parents. He has been saying for years that it never happened.

"In normal life, very very few people who are not drunk speak as most people do on Twitter."

This is funny!

That's a quote from Goldberg, isn't it? Friedersdorf adds more information and seems to be sincerely trying to treat Williamson fairly, making what he (KW) actually thinks more precise and somewhat less outrageous than his strongest critics say. But still, if he (CF) is correct, it wasn't just a joke (which was what I also assumed when I first heard of this).

Williamson *is* a provocateur. It's almost inconceivable that he doesn't mean to be. He's also extremely interesting and generally enjoyable to read. But although I wish the Atlantic had kept him on I don't entirely blame them. The reality of present-day debate is that you are going to be cast into outer darkness if you go too far outside of acceptable liberal views on certain questions. Many women who've had abortions fly into a rage when the morality of it is questioned. I can't really blame Goldberg for not wanting to have on board a writer who has vigorously poked that hornet's nest, especially as he may well have a hornet or two already on his staff. I mean, you can take the anti-abortion side without taking that particular view, which is rare-to-vanishing in the anti-abortion movement.

All that said, The Atlantic would have been a far more interesting publication with Williamson. I would have read it more often than I now do (not very).

And I would like to see KW back at NR, too. I hope he isn't driven out into the wilderness like John Derbyshire was. He was another provocateur who provocated one step too far. I disagree with him vehemently on many questions but he was almost always interesting.

Janet, you would receive the greatest comfort of all: the knowledge that you had done a good deed.

My 10:38 comment was cross-posted with Stu--the question about the quote was to Joel.

Yes, that is funny about Twitter & drunk people. Though some people really do try to talk seriously on it. I don't know why you would do that in a medium obviously designed for quick remarks. The same sort of thing is true of Facebook but maybe to a lesser degree.

Once KW was at the Atlantic and being questioned by the editor about it, of course he had to speak as if his sardonic remarks on Twitter were intended literally. If he didn't do that his life as a writer would have been essentially over, because his words could no longer be his own. He had to say 'I meant it literally' or spend the rest of his time at the Atlantic self-censoring.

But as KW himself explained elsewhere, he is against the death penalty. And hanging doesn't exist as a legal punishment in the United States, so far as I know. So his original words on Twitter must be taken within the genre of black satire. That's not the same thing as 'it was a joke'

It wasn't just Twitter, though. I was not aware of any of this until it hit the fan, and am only taking the word of people like Friedersdorf, but my overall impression is that it was somewhere between satirical and serious, which is probably not a good place to plant a flag on such a controversial topic. Seems clear enough that he was not actually proposing something that he thought should be implemented. But at the same time he was agreeing with the logic of the view that abortion should be treated like other forms of homicide.

As to it being beyond Twitter, I'm guessing its on Mad Dogs and Englishmen? I have not been able to find the podcast. On GLOP, Stephen Long said that Richocet had decided to honour KW by putting the offending podcast on the top of their slate. He said it was taking thousands of hits. I cannot find it.

Charles Cooke is KW's sparring partner number on Mad Dogs. He is an atheist and he's not pro-life. He was baiting his friend, KW, on Twitter, and said, 'if you think abortion is murder, do you think it should be treated legally like homicide?' KW is his friend, so he was not baiting him in a bad way. He was teasing him, seeing what he would say. Im not sure but I think he may have said, 'should women who have abortions go to the electric chair?' KW responded in the same bantering way, 'no I have hanging more in mind'. This is clearly a satirical response. KW cannot say no - in that sense, Cooke had trapped him. But these guys are pals and its a friendly exchange. So KW responds by upping the ante, and says 'hanging'.

Now, if the guess is correct that the conversation was later continued on Mad Dogs and Englishmen, its the same banter. Cooke has got KW in check, and KW is bluffing his way out by raising the ante.

Yes, he could have said something 'serious' like, 'there are three people involved in an abortion, the baby, its mother, and the abortionist and its the abortion-doctor who should be punished'. But the tone of his conversations with Cooke is always sparring and in some degree satirical. As I said before, that doesn't mean 'it was just a joke'. KW is taking responsibility for the seriousness of his beliefs, but in a dark and satiricial vein.

Later on, I believe at Hillsdale, he said that he is in fact against the death penalty. That tells you more about the genre of the conversations with Cooke.

Has anyone here actually heard the podcast?

No, I haven't. Have you read the Friedersdorf piece? There might be a path to it there. He links to another piece saying it has a lot of detail but I didn't follow it.

Your interpretation of the whole thing is quite plausible. But it's not just a flat-out joke and his opponents are not interested in understanding the nuances.

Thought experiment: if it had been obviously a joke, period, would things have turned out differently? I'm not sure they would have. Probably there were people on the Atlantic staff freaking out about him even before that stuff came to light.

Yes, I read the Friedersdorf piece. But I cannot find out for myself what KW said in the podcast. As I said, saying that the remarks belong to the genre of satire, and that KW is being sardonic, and that he is clearly not to be taken literally, is not the same as saying that 'it was a joke.' The genres of 'joke' and 'satire' are not identical.

I think it obviously was satirical, and the reason why they turned out as they did, and probably couldn't have turned out differently, is that people seem to reserve the right to take Twitter remarks at their literal face value on apparently random occasions.

On the Sigrid Undset part of your post (KW and all other political fools can go hang themselves as far as I care), I guess I really need to read this author. For years you and another friend have been talking about her, but 1000 pages always seems so daunting. I guess just purchase the first stand-alone Lavransdatter book and go from there. I won't waste any time defending Tolstoy, since he can aptly defend himself. :)

Commentary has just published a new article by Williamson: "A Liberal Democracy—Or a Militant One?"

Haven't read it because I've run out of my two or three freebies for the month.

The Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast of the conversation between Cooke and Williamson is here; the talk about abortion starts at around the 8:55 point. I listened to it and I'm really not sure Williamson was being sardonic.

Thanks, Marianne. No time to listen to it now. Probably won't be able to access the Commentary piece, either, for the same reason as you.

Stu, I was thinking you had read Kristin. The only reason I can think of that you might not like it is the antique language of the older translation. Which, as I said, I personally like a lot, but I can see how some people might find it annoying.

Actually, I thought when you wrote that, that I might want to find the older translation to read instead of the newer. Being a fan of 19th century English literature I rather enjoy that idiom.

Marianne, you are right. He was not being satirical or joking. really great discussion!

Interesting thought: would Christopher Hitchens be allowed to write for The Atlantic today?


I think he would, actually. I don't think his offenses against leftism were as egregious as Williamson's.

But wasn't Hitch against abortion?

I don't know, but if he was, I'd be surprised if he were as vehement as Williamson.

Hitchens seems to have thought the main thing was that we needed to be clear that abortion killed a human being, and that we had to take responsibility for that, but he wasn't vehemently against abortion. At least that's what I take away from this piece ("Fetal Distraction") he wrote in Vanity Fair.

I've never been able to decide which is worse, claiming that it's not killing, or admitting that it is, but that it's ok.

Good point.


In case anyone interested midses it - Willaimson’s own take on the fiasco


I am interested but it's subscribers-only.

I was able to get into the article via this link at RealClearPolitics: https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-the-twitter-mob-came-for-me-1524234850?shareToken=st32cbefb50dc04d58b3fedbc0460ee372&reflink=article_email_share

If that doesn't work for you, here's the RealClearPolitics page with the link:

I have a subscription. My sister gets the physical paer and I get the online

There won't be a Sunday Night Journal today. Maybe not this week at all. I'm traveling and thought I would have Wi-Fi but I don't. I only have net access via my phone.

Re Williamson's piece, I was able to read it. Most interesting. Thought I had commented about it but either I did it on the wrong post or I didn't actually click Post. Anyway thanks for the link.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)