Saturday, March 24, 2018

Sigrid Undset, Ida Elisabeth


Opening Passage:

As Ida Elisabeth walked the few steps from the door of the clinic to the taxi, she had a feeling that the night, which hung high over the town, was impenetrably dark and dense. The yellow light which fell upon the swept-up heaps of snow along the street seemed to leak out from under a heavy lid of darkness. On the opposite side of the street there were shop windows lighted up, but above them the house-fronts rose with only a feeble glimmer here and there behind drawn blinds. Down the middle of the street ran glittering tram-lines, and above them hung a row of pearly white electric lamps, shedding a bluish gleam on the darkness around them. The town lay as it were at the bottom of a cauldron; the white mountains surrounding it were just visible through the darkness, with little specks of light in the houses on their slope. But then came black night, abysmal and frost-bound. The stars must be shining, she guessed, but one could not see them down here in the lighted street. (p. 3)

Summary: I'm not sure exactly what it is, but this work struck me as an eminently Scandinavian novel. Obviously it takes place in Scandinavia, but I mean something rather more than that, in the sense that it depicts things Scandinavianly. Again, I am not really sure how to articulate my impression of this. I think, however, that those who don't have a sense of this will miss a lot of what is going on in this book.

The story takes place in Lutheran Norway in the early stages of the process of secularizing. It still has many of the customs and expectations of the Lutheran nineteenth-century, with its obsessions with respectability and its insistence that one's time and work were not just for oneself. People are expected to look after each other, and present a good family face to the world. But these customs and expectations are unraveling; people are doing the things that they used to, because they are the things they were raised to do. But the sap is receding from the branches of the tree; and it is unclear what will happen when the reasons for these things have disappeared entirely. There is a form of blatant egoism peeking out everywhere; it still often wears the garb of family and concern for the unfortunate, but people are well aware that these are hand-me-down clothes.

This is a novel without heroes or heroines. There are no villains, either, but there is no transcendence, no heroic nobility. Times are hard, and people are muddling through in the OK way that people muddle through. Ida Elisabeth herself has no ambition greater than what a "tolerant endurance" (p. 27). I think part of the Scandinavian-ness I mentioned lies in this: there's hardship enough to go around, and it doesn't usually look like anything is going to get better, and when it does start looking like it's going to get better this will often be an illusion, so the thing to do is not to bother much about it, and just focus on doing the things that need to be done, to be like a little Norwegian farm in the desolate winter, going on and on. One day the winter will win, but it hasn't yet, so the chores of the farm still need to be done. There is something very Norwegian about that.

Ida Elisabeth has made a bad marriage. Her husband, Frithjof, is not a bad man, per se, but he is a perpetual child, incapable of holding down a job, incapable of providing for their children, incapable of really thinking of anything in any other light than how it relates to himself. Their marriage will break down, and they will separate, and, eventually, divorce. She will find a man who brings her a bit of gladness, Tryggve, a lawyer who is everything Frithjof is not. But she has children, and that means her decisions can never just be about her.

A great many things come to an end in this novel, but Ida Elisabeth manages to fulfill her ambition: she endures, with a dogged kind of daring. I said there was no transcendence in the novel, but that does not mean that the novel has nothing to do with the transcendent. No one can endure like Ida Elisabeth and not come across flashes of things that suggest there might be more, somehow, and in some way. Ida Elisabeth herself is not very religious, and rebels against the notion of God Our Father, but the old Lutheran spirit is not dead around her; it still lingers in places, like remembering a time when you saw the world very differently. There is still something achingly threshold-like about death, as there always is. And children themselves, of course, while as difficult to deal with as any other human being, sometimes seem to put us face to face with more than we could have expected. But in the context of the world we are building, we are not seeing any of the whatever-it-may-be suggested in these ways. The stars must be shining, or so one guesses, but one cannot see them down here in the lighted street.

An interesting question is how the novel relates to Undset's own view. It is written during her Catholic period; the Lutheranism that haunts the novel is not the view she herself would defend. (The views she would defend are weird and dismissible in Lutheran Norway, and she knew that well enough because that was exactly how her views were treated when she converted.) There is plenty in the novel that suggests that it is not, in fact, surprising that the Lutheranism is breaking down the way it is, and in particular that it has left Lutherans with very little sense of how people are to relate to each other beyond family and following their conscience; it is by its nature un-catholic. As is said by one of the only two Catholic characters in the book (who appear very briefly, and only just to highlight the difference), many people become egotistical through family ties. As Ida Elisabeth herself says, everyone talks about following their conscience, but that seems to mean doing whatever they feel like doing. But family inevitably puts us face to face with some of the problems of that very egotism, and no one who is sufficiently thoughtful can be entirely comfortable with the notion of a perpetually approving conscience. Ida Elisabeth has no answer to it. In the world in which she lives, it is an insoluble problem. But the chores still need to be done, and the children still need to be raised. Whether you like it or not, there are things you still have to do.

Favorite Passage:

Perhaps in reality there were not so many people who are fond of children whatever they may be like. Ida Elisabeth had always thought it sounded rather schoolmistressy--sort of Borghild-Braatö-ish, when anyone claimed to be that. Children differ among themselves jsut as much as grown-up people, and those who see children as they are cannot possibly like all children, any more than they can like the whole of mankind. Decent people make certain allowances for all children, because they are children--can't get on by themselves, can't defend themselves, and often don't understand. But unless one believes oneself bound to love all mankind for some mystic or religious reason, one certainly has no cause to love all children either--that is, if one really knows something of children. (p. 313)

Recommendation: Recommended, because it is excellent, but as I noted above, I think fully getting the sense of the book will not be easy for most people.


Sigrid Undset, Ida Elisabeth: A Novel, Chater, tr. Ignatius Press (San Francisco, CA: 2011).

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