- Sigrid Undset: Chronicler of Norway
Mitzi Brunsdale's Sigrid Undset: Chronicler of Norway is a brief introduction to the life and works of Sigrid Undset, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 for her depictions of medieval Norway. Brunsdale's book is the first treatment of Undset to appear in English in almost twenty years and is intended for an undergraduate, junior college, or public library audience. The book contains an introductory outline of major literary and historical developments in the past two thousand years in Norway, a description of Undset's works with plot summaries and relevant biographical information, a concluding evaluation of Undset's literary achievements, a three-part appended chronology including milestones in Undset's life, and an annotated bibliography.
Providing information about Old Norse culture ought to make Undset's most famous novels, Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, more accessible to the reader. However Brunsdale's indiscriminate and often inaccurate inclusion of background material will likely cause confusion. Although the author insists that Undset's works are anchored in a mixture of pagan and Christian tradition, [End Page 843] she does not explain why we ought to consider the use made of this tradition by Undset, a Catholic convert who held extreme religious convictions, as necessarily representative of Norwegians in general. Furthermore the inaccuracies contained in the first chapter limit its usefulness to the reader. For example, "northern" is incorrectly substituted for "nordic;" terms such as "aesir," "lendermaend" and "berserker" are left undefined and untranslated, and Brunsdale mistakenly refers to the thirteenth-century Njal's Saga as a "novel."
Brunsdale intrudes editorially especially when she interlaces descriptions of Undset's work with demonstrations of their relevance to modern society. In her discussion of Undset's attitudes toward sexuality, feminism, and woman's role in society, Brunsdale informs us that Undset sympathized with "women's lot" because "she came to know it all too well herself." Sexuality is defined as "that ennobling and bedevilling [sic] mystery of life," and Undset's understanding of the "feminine role" (female perhaps?) is attributed to her "having lived it to an intense degree." Although Brunsdale is not writing for an exclusively academic audience, she is nonetheless unjustified in employing such prosaic diction. Brunsdale in effect congratulates Undset for being postfeminist before most of her contemporaries had even become feminist.
The causes of Undset's anti-German sentiment, which is amply documented by Brunsdale, might have been examined less simplistically. Undset's works were enormously successful in Germany, yet they were eventually banned; her anti-German feelings predate World War Two, yet she published essays in German for the German public. These contradictions are neither untangled nor evaluated in chronological perspective. Also missing is a detailed description of how Undset came to receive a Nobel Prize. The names of the other candidates in 1928 and any political considerations that affected the outcome ought to have been included.
Professor Brunsdale's work shows signs of haste and indifferent editing that sometimes result in unnecessary repetition and incoherence. An unclear contrast of Novalis' aesthetic theories to those associated with Scandinavian national romanticism unfortunately occurs twice. There are abundant factual and grammatical errors, and Brunsdale often uses words so imprecisely as to render parts of her analysis unintelligible. It is particularly regrettable that dates provided in the third appendix are cited incorrectly in the body of the text. The author owes much to Carl Bayerschmidt's biography of Undset (Sigrid Undset, [Twayne, 1970]); after examining both works and their respective bibliographies, the reader is unable to state with any certainty what Brunsdale has contributed to the scholarship on Undset. [End Page 844]