Sigrid Undset: A Study In Christian Realism, by A.H. Winsnes, translated by P.G. Foote
I must admit that this book is likely one that few of my readers will care about to any great degree, unless they happen to be Norwegian or fond of literature from 20th century Catholic novelists and polemicists. Admittedly, I heard about the subject of this biography from some relatively recent reading from a Catholic author who considered Undset to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Having never heard of her before, although being interested in Norway’s writing and culture , I was definitely intrigued. For the most part, this book certainly met my own interest, although it was a dry read about an obscure writer and it was not the sort of book I see as being widely or often read, even if it was enjoyable and worthwhile for me to read given my many and somewhat odd areas of interest. Suffice it to say that if you want to know about the personal life and ideological and patriotic conditions that dramatically shaped Undset’s life and work, this book will give you plenty of food for thought and reflection.
In about 200 pages the author manages to give a comprehensive account of the life and writing of a very obscure writer–at least to contemporary American audiences. After a foreword and introduction, the author spends some time talking about the childhood and youth of Sigrid Undset (1), which included a sick father and somewhat isolated mother–her father died when she was eleven and the experience dramatically shaped her life. After that the author talks about the author’s dreams of happiness, her work as a secretary and her early writing (2). This moves into her marriage to a divorced painter who had three children from her first marriage (they would have three before her entrance into the Catholic Church automatically annulled her marriage) and her time spent in Italy and writing some of her earlier novels (3). A period of taking stock then followed where the author engaged in some controversies involving gender politics (4). The author then discusses the author’s fateful period of discovering Christianity and becoming one of Norway’s most prominent Catholics engaged in polemical writing against various Lutherans (5). The author then discusses Undset’s writing about the Middle Ages, including three novels that I hope to read soon that remain in print today (6). The author talks about Undset’s writing between the wars (7), her new novels of contemporary life (7), and her anti-Nazi writings which led to her exile after the Nazi invasion (8) before the writer talks about Undset’s return to the future and her last few years of life (9), closing with an appendix with a list of translations of Undset’s work in English.
There are at least a few aspects of Undset’s writing that are definitely worth thinking about. For one, the author’s religious commitments had clear consequences not only on her personal life but also involved her in the culture wars against socialism, feminism, and fascism. Undset was a writer who blended powerful fiction in a Norwegian realist tradition with able efforts in polemical writing that remain worthwhile even today, although they are likely hard to find. Undset appears to have been a person of considerable energy and talent and education, but she does not appear to have been an easy person to get along with. Many writers, especially those who take the past seriously and have a taste for fierce invective, tend to find themselves involved in frequent debates and wound the sensitive feelings of others, and it appears that the writings of this book’s subject definitely did that. Since it is unlikely that there will be many more (perhaps not any more) English language biographies of the subject, if you have an interest in the writings of Sigrid Undset and happen to speak English, this is a worthwhile place to go, dry as it is.
 See, for example: