Saturday, January 21, 2023

Sigrid Undset, The Winding Road


Opening Passage: From The Wild Orchid, which is the first part of this two-volume novel:

Paul was one of the last wave of passengers--those who came at a trot through the gloomy station without stopping at the newsstand. They slackened speed on seeing the train standing peacefully in the sunshine at the outer platform, puffing clouds of steam into the bright spring sky. (p. 3)

Summary: Paul Selmer is raised in a Protestant family in Norway prior to the First World War. What 'Protestant' means in practice varies quite a bit; he has members of his family who are active in the State Church, but the Lutheranism of the Church of Norway is liberalizing and to some extent secularizing quite rapidly. His mother, Julie Selmer, however, was a freethinking atheist, who spent her life making her own choices on the basis of her own judgment and largely doing so successfully; she is reasonably well-to-do, owns her own business, and has the freedom and means largely to do as she pleases. Paul is raised without his father -- one of the ways in which Norway is secularizing is the increasing availability of divorce, and he only really gets to know his father later. Paul is pushed by his mother along a freethinking path, not because she's very rigid or indoctrinating, but because, as part of her freethinking is that she is rather free-spoken, there's never any doubt at any moment what her preferences are, and that is a steady and effective pressure in a boy's life, knowing that if you go off in a given direction you will gravely direction, your mother won't stop you but will gravely disapprove and never stop disapproving. Nonetheless, Julie Selmer is destined to be disappointed. None of her children will rise to what she hopes for them, they will all by her standards marry badly and foolishly, and the lives they lead will end up being the kind of lives she has looked down on her whole life. Her daughter will become interested in Lutheranism -- one suspects primarily as a social thing, originally -- and marry a Lutheran pastor, of a fairly liberal sort but of whose mediocre intelligence and bureacratic-functionariness Julie Selmer will not approve. One of her sons, Hans, will become a doctor but struggle with addiction all his life. But it is Paul, the child who was originally most like her, very intelligent (Julie Selmer's freethinking view of the world puts a lot of value on intelligence) and willing to think for himself, who will disappoint her most.

Paul, although freethinking himself, is very uneasy with the morals of the society around him, both the liberal Lutheran respectability and the freethinking tolerance of relationships and acts of which previous generations would have disapproved. He is not impressed by the results of either. This has for some time already the beginning of a crack between his mother's freethinking and his own, one that would on its own inevitably have become very wide, even if Paul's life did not eventually take the turn it does. He will have a talent for both geology and writing and has a promising future as an academic, but eventually goes into business instead. He begins a relationship with Lucy, a woman not particularly remarkable for intelligence, and she becomes his mistress; Julie doesn't exactly dislike Lucy herself, but she pretty clearly thinks that Paul could do better.

But the big thing that will lead Paul to disappoint his mother is that he thinks for himself, and having a different background from her does not think the same way she does. He has never himself had a religion, he is an atheist who has never believed in God, and the result is that, unlike almost of all of Lutheran Norway, he doesn't have any particular problem with Catholics. They are somewhat less familiar to him than Lutherans, but this just increases his interest when he has an opportunity to board for a while with a Catholic family, because it's relatively new. There's a distinctive culture to it. Catholics are tolerated but looked down on as weird and uneducated and cliquish, and by the standards of Lutheran Norway, they often are. Being a Norwegian Catholic in the early twentieth century is not easy. You are relatively isolated. If you want to study your faith beyond basic catechesis, you have to read about it in French or English or Latin, because very few Catholic works had been translated into Norwegian. This in itself makes Catholicism seem even more foreign and un-Norwegian. But, while not initially attracted to Catholicism itself, he finds he really likes a few of the Catholics that he meets. The Catholic theology and philosophy that he reads (and, since Paul is able to read Latin, English, and French, his reading of such even casually extends much further than that of almost all Catholics who are not priests or nuns) seems less complacent than the Lutheranism he had known more about. He finds he's already partly in agreement with at least some Catholic moral views, and even when not, he finds it still has something to be said for it, not least because Paul's big problem with the society around him is that it treats lightly things he has never really felt should be treated lightly, whereas the Catholics don't treat such things lightly. All these things slowly add up, with the result that Paul eventually converts and becomes Catholic, the single most baffling thing you can become in Lutheran Norway in the early twentieth century.

Most conversion novels strongly emphasize that conversion is by personal connection. There are personal connections that do play a role in Paul's conversion, but in fact he lives in a situation in which personal connection on its own cannot possibly do much in the way of converting someone. Paul finds that the Catholics he knows and likes tend to be people who, while unapologetic about their Catholicism, are not particularly inclined to push for his conversion -- he's actually at one point rather disappointed by the fact that the priest he talks to goes out of his way not to press Paul to convert. Undset is famous for her novels of character, and her skill at depicting characters is put to excellent use here, but this is a novel of ideas, and Paul's conversion is one that takes place not primarily by personal connection, which serves mostly as an occasion rather than a cause, but by ideas. We tend to live in an age that disparages idea-conversions as too cerebral and in some ways not even real, but this is absurd. The primary danger of idea-conversions in particular is that you try to join not the Church but your Idea of the Church, and this idealized Catholicism always creates severe disappointment when you have to deal with flesh-and-blood Catholics. But this is not a problem for Paul; growing up freethinking in a Lutheran Norway in which there is something low class and gauche about just being Catholic, it's practically impossible for him to idealize the Catholic Church. Converting, even if entirely through ideas, is not a superficial conversion for a genuine man of ideas, and Paul is moreover sacrificing a lot by joining, and therefore converts with perhaps fewer illusions than most.

The Wandering Road, in its two volumes, The Wild Orchid and The Burning Bush, was published in the aftermath of Undset winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I actually wonder if part of the point of the book is that winning the Nobel gave her an opportunity to publish a book she probably would have had difficulty publishing otherwise. Undset's own parents were atheists, although her mother attended church as European atheists sometimes do, for the social community. She was if, anything, even more uneasy and concerned about the morals of the society around her, which even as an atheist she found cold and dehumanizing. It was an age in which people flirted with eugenics, of which Undset was always suspicious, and the humanism that reigned was based on the idea that the value of a human being consisted in intelligence and force of will -- an approach that, if one follows through with it consistently, gets you to the view that a lot of people don't really matter much, because a lot of people are weak and a lot of people are not very intelligent. Her conversion also had to be quite idea-based, because there wasn't much else to base it on. I don't think Paul Selmer is secretly Sigrid Undset (Undset seems to have been, for lack of a better word, wilder than Paul Selmer ever is, and Undset's thinking-through of the faith is entangled both in her broadly humanist interest in Rome and her literary interest in Norwegian sagas, which is a rather different path from Paul's); but I do think that Undset is attempting to capture in the novel, in a way that her contemporaries might possibly understand, both why one might be attracted to the Catholic Church and (particularly in The Burning Bush) what it is to be a Catholic in secularizing Lutheran Norway, in which everything Catholic was fragmentary and, while there wasn't much active persecution of Catholics anymore, a Catholic faced at every turn longstanding cultural prejudices against Catholicism. (One of the humorous patterns in the book is that once Paul converts to Catholicism, people start assuming that he must be having money problems even when he isn't, because of course all Catholics are, the Catholic community being filled with grifters and mooches; and that, despite the fact that a World War is disrupting the economy everywhere, that any particular money difficulty he does have must be due to his being Catholic.)

The wild orchid of the title of the first volume symbolizes the emptiness of earthly loves -- the wild orchid being a plant that has an impressive name but, while a pretty flower in a way, is not really impressive. The burning bush of the title of the second volume symbolizes divine love. There is the love, genuine enough, between Paul and Lucy; but that ends abruptly not long after they become engaged, for reasons that Paul doesn't learn until much later. Paul afterward kind of falls into a marriage with another woman, Björg, which is affectionate enough and leads to several children, but becomes uneasy when Paul converts and begins breaking down after they lose a child. Björg, like Lucy, is not a particularly intelligent woman, and in fact is almost childlike, and Paul comes to conclude that he was unjust toward her in marrying her; he was not entirely free of the culture around him and he had taken her lightly in doing so. But his connection with his children is quite close, particularly as they start picking up his Catholicism. One of Paul's great temptations will be a third woman, Ruth, a woman of both beauty and intelligence, with whom he could almost certainly have an enjoyable life, whom he interacts with at a time when Björg is off finding herself, as we would say. But Paul is Catholic, and both adultery and divorce are out of the question. And Lucy, the old flame, will come back again, in need of his help, and that brings temptations of a different sort.

One of Paul's childhood friends, Randi, became a nun; she is one of the few and limited personal connections. At the very end she has a comment that I think captures what the book is trying to show in general:

"...The great matter is, that we still have with us all there was of good in our old life, only that we possess it in a new way -- all the past that is worth continuing to possess." She laughed softly. "Even one's habits, good and bad -- I don't mean simply that they continue to stick to one like a plague, a daily reminder of one's own imperfection. As for instance when I notice how difficult it is for me to be fond of those of my sisters whom I don't particularly like. But what I mean is that those things about us which are a part of ourselves and used to be our faults -- we find that they are still a part of our being, but they're transformed into something else, which" -- she made a gesture with her hands -- "forms the outline of us. In such a way that we understand we shall continue to be ourselves for all eternity...." (BB, p. 385)

I found the book fascinating in many ways. But then, I too, like Paul Selmer, am a man of ideas; by which I don't mean merely that I am an academic or fulfill some kind of role as an intellectual, since I don't think that most academics or most people who might be called intellectuals are people of ideas in quite this way. It's difficult actually to convey what I mean, beyond pointing to a character like Paul Selmer or, more symbolically, the Secretary in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday; but perhaps one might suggest it by saying that mundane interactions are but the tip of an iceberg that is mostly thought, or that most of life is thought. I once joked that while other people have ideas, I have hurricanes of ideas; but the joke was true. When I was a boy I was fascinated by the story of Solomon, and prayed to have wisdom like Solomon's; I once joked at another time that it was probably the most foolish thing I've done in my life, proof that you should be careful what you pray for, because ever since I have been so overwhelmed with ideas, I don't know what to do with them. It was a joke, but it's a joke because it's somewhat true. As the Secretary says, my brain is a bomb; it must expand. As with the Secretary, my whole life is the First Day of Creation, dividing the light from the darkness. And my own conversion, while not devoid of personal connections, was a conversion of ideas, like stepping into a universe that was finally big enough to think about. Writing all this, I throw up my hands, because I have no idea if what I am trying to convey is actually being conveyed, or if it just all sounds weird or pompous. Regardless, this is not a common personality type, even among very intelligent people. My variety of it is different from Paul's, but I understood his perspective completely, all the way through. How well would other people do so? Undset is no doubt more skilled at making it relatable than I am, but I know from experience that that's a large chasm to cross. I don't know how well readers of other personality types would be able to relate to Paul. But I can vouch for his realism.

Favorite Passage: From The Burning Bush:

Then there was the sheriff. Just as he was going to ring up he remembered what Lucy had said -- she couldn't get an answer from there. No, of course, he was at Fosser at his parents'-in-law -- it was today, the golden wedding --

From far away he heard dance music and the buzz of voices, as he waited with the receiver to his ear -- someone had gone to find the sheriff.

"-- you, sheriff? This is Paul Selmer. I'm speaking from Aamot's house. I find I've killed a man." (pp. 356-357)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended


Sigrid Undset, The Wild Orchid, Chater, tr., Cluny Classics, Preservation Books (Providence, RI: 2019).

Sigrid Undset, The Burning Bush, Chater, tr., Cluny Classics, Preservation Books (Providence, RI: 2019).

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