Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sigrid Undset's THE WILD ORCHID

Wow, does it seem criminal that this book, and its sequel, The Burning Bush, seem to be out of print, at least in English. I know Sigrid Undset is best known for her great sprawling historical fiction (Kristin Lavransdatter, The Master of Hestviken, etc) but she didn't just get a Nobel for being the Dorothy Dunnett of Scandanavia, you guys.*

The Wild Orchid is little read now, I suspect, because its theme is very much out of fashion. It is, at bottom, the first half of a novel of conversion, specifically conversion to Catholicism, which was just re-establishing itself as a valid, legal religion in Undset's native Norway during her lifetime. As such, it's perhaps more than a little autobiographical, this book, in spirit if not in fact. Undset herself converted to Catholicsm as an adult, after years and years of dwelling emotionally and mentally in the pre-Lutheran Norway of her most famous novels.

About a third of the way through the book, she presents what I think must have been her own feelings about her decision in a nutshell, as her protagonist witnesses a historic event, somewhat bemused:
"If one could only reach out with one's soul and come in contact with an invisible one -- who would help one to a deeper or higher vision of all that was irritating and disturbing, to look past the stupidity and platitudes and ridiculous expressions, into what was valuable in those one associated with, a common charity, a common vow which bound one to them."
Hell, it's enough to make me miss organized religion myself!

But a religious journey isn't the only thing that's going on here; The Wild Orchid, first volume of a two part novel published as The Winding Road (the second book, The Burning Bush, is one I'm planning to read very soon, if not indeed right away. We all know what a fickle reader I've become) is also a portrait of its age, the turn of the last century (ca. 1905 as the novel opens), that is, perhaps startlingly, not all that unfamiliar to a 21st century reader.

Paul Seller is the child of divorced parents. His father remarried a blowsily bourgeois woman for whom Paul has no respect, preferring his own mother, Julie, who is a distractingly awesome character that surely any son would prefer to a fussy, conventionally motherly showoff like Paul's stepmother. Julie, finding herself divorced with four children to raise, cheerfully struck off for the country, found a nice plot of land, built herself a house and furnished it very simply, and set about planting and raising crops and carpentering and turning herself to all sorts of other traditionally masculine tasks, never once, it seems regretting not having a man about the house to whom she didn't herself give birth. Oh, I would gladly read a novel just about Julie Selmer! But as it is, she merely serves as background, as the early example of womanhood against whom Paul will compare other women, to their detriment; more importantly, as establishing Paul's starting position of regarding religion as a quaint folly of days gone by, not to be taken at all seriously.

At times The Wild Orchid, in its long passages of dialogue between its hero and various avatars of Catholocism, chiefly a woman of his own age whom he has known since childhood who grew up in the faith that  he only ever observed from the outside, reads almost like a religious tract as the woman holds forth for pages and pages about the necessary role dogma plays in human society and how non-Catholics are always more interested in the one priest who breaks his vows than in the 200 who uphold them and how it wasn't really the Church that burned heretics but Society. A reader with zero skin in that game, as I am, is challenged to read through such passages with patience and sympathy, but it's good to make that effort once in a while, no?

And that effort is quite often rewarded, in this book, for it is still Sigrid Undset after all, which means lovely prose and an infectious love and enjoyment of her native land, its seascapes and wildflowers and saeders and farms and little towns and pieces of folk art and buildings old and new, which she shares with her characters and thereby with her readers. I now want to visit Norway almost as much as I want to visit Iceland. Fjord.

*Though really, chronologically, I suppose Dorothy Dunnett was kind of the Sigrid Undset of Scotland?

**It's pretty hard not to think of Scotland's current efforts to secede from the United Kingdom, reading about this. I don't think Scotland will offer to take on, say, Prince Andrew to be their replacement king the way Norway took Hakon, though.

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