Simple question today:
What book are you reading right now?
Me, well, I think the GoodReads widget on my blog is still working, in which case you should be able to see that I am reading Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset. I’ve read a lot of books by this author during the last year or so. I first read Kristin Lavransdatter some years ago, mostly because I read about it in my favourite Polish author’s – Małgorzata Musierowicz’s – books, because a lot of her female characters have read and like Kristin. I thoroughly enjoyed that book reading it for the first time, mostly because of Undset’s understanding and sensitive way of portraying people’s characters, inner lives etc. as well as the daily life of the characters (it’s a historical novel set in medieval Norway), and the strongly Scandinavian vibe generally, but also something else drew me to it that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Not much later, I came across The Master of Hestviken and enjoyed it even more mostly for the same reasons, and again primarily was drawn to it by something that I was not really able to name.
I’d always wanted to reread both of them, and possibly read her other books if I could get hold of any, but only actually did that last year, when I bought both of these books for my Mum. We had fully “converted” to Traditional Catholicism not long before last Christmas, started attending Traditional Latin Mass exclusively and all that, and I think that was what made me think of these books again, because Undset wrote both of them after converting to Catholicism, and she herself lived pre Vatican II, and so obviously did her medieval characters, and so when I started to attend Traditional Latin Mass more regularly, read Traditional Catholic books etc. it all starkly reminded me of Kristin and Olav (Olav is the main and title character of The Master of Hestviken). And so I thought that my Mum would really enjoy them, because of the TradCat flavour, and because my Mum likes old classics, as well as Scandinavian literature (Mika Valtari for example) and I thought she and Kristin and Olav would get along supremely well. And that turned out to be very much the case, because Mum says now that Kristin Lavransdatter is the book of her life (even despite a rather clunky Polish translation which really is a translation of the German translation and initially the clunkiness and weird pseudo-archaisms in it bothered my Mum, just as they did me). Olav took more time for her to develop a liking for, but I think that might be the case for a lot of people and I totally get it even though weirdly enough I had no such problem myself. To me, as a person, Olav is actually more interesting than Kristin, because Kristin, while an introvert, is shown more from the outside, like through her daily life, what she was doing, how everything was changing etc. and, compared to Olav, her personality isn’t as well-developed. My Mum initially disagreed with me and, again, I get why, ‘cause Olav is difficult to get to know in a way, but once she read the whole Master of Hestviken she agreed with me that, despite he’s in his own head most of the time (or imho precisely because of it), he has more of a character.
So anyway, I couldn’t just look at how my Mum was reading my two favourite books, I had to reread them myself too. And I have more time for reading than my mum and a more messed up sleep cycle so I finished both way before Mum was done with Kristin. And this time it was precisely the spiritual life of those people that grabbed my attention the most about those books, and their relationship with God, their religious customs, their thoughts about faith etc. Perhaps this was the thing that I initially was so drawn by but couldn’t quite specify, although I think there is still something more to those books that I can’t pinpoint. Further rereads are due, I guess. But yeah, this second time I enjoyed both of them even more, and noticed a lot more about them aside from just the external stuff which was what I mostly noticed when reading them for the first time.
Kristin and Olav only wetted my appetite further, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Sigrid Undset’s Gymnadenia (The Wild Orchid I guess it’s more commonly known as in English) series is in our blind library. I must have somehow not noticed it before because it was there way before I first read Kristin. It was weird because I was actually looking for The Wild Orchid all around the web before and it either hadn’t occurred to me to look in such an obvious place, or for some reason I didn’t see it there or something. So, even though the recording is very old and sound quality not overly enticing, and even though the narrators mispronounced most Norwegian words like people’s names or place names in both parts of the series as if they were French or German or something which drove me up the wall, I read the whole series. It is set in early 20th century so definitely feels very different than the other two books by her that I’d read. It tells the story of Paul Selmer and focuses in particular on his way to converting to Catholicism. It didn’t captivate me nearly as much as Kristin and Olav did, and really dragged in places, the first volume was particularly difficult to get through, I guess simply because Paul as a person and his life as such resonated with me less rather than because it was a worse book or something. But I found it very interesting nevertheless to see Paul’s transformation throughout the series and read about his various reflections relating to the Catholic faith, Mass, being Catholic etc. I thought that my ardent Mum would resonate with it even more, and again, I was right. She says that, even though it is obviously not really a religious book as such but just a work of fiction, it drew her closer to God and felt very spiritually enriching for her to read at that particular point in time when she read it.
And while I found The Wild Orchid in our library, I also found two other books by Undset, that is Jenny and a re-telling of the Arthurian legends but I’m not sure if the latter has been translated to English so no idea what it’s called in English. I believe both of these were written before her conversion, but to someone who knows that she eventually did, you can sort of read between the lines that she was having some sort of spiritual/existential breakthrough or something. Jenny was kind of disappointing, I don’t know, I guess I just expected it to be better than it actually was and didn’t really enjoy it all that very much, but it’s still worth reading by all means and I definitely don’t regret doing it. And the Arthurian legends, well I’m a Celtophile so… yeah, had a lot of fun reading it and seeing the whole thing from a bit of a different angle than the other Arthurian legends books that I’d read before show it. It was kind of weird and kind of funny though, considering that Sigrid Undset could overall definitely be classified as a Christian writer, that these legends are absolutely full of lust, murder and other similar obscenities and there’s a lot of focus on that, like reading it you’d think their lives consisted almost solely of adulterating, fighting/killing each other and drinking and it can make you feel kind of demoralised if you’re sensitive to such things. But there was still a lot of beauty in between and a lot of Christian accents, even though not as obvious as in Kristin or Olav.
Since then I’ve wanted to find some other of her books but had no luck, at least in Polish. Yet, I was able to find Undset’s aforementioned biography of Catherine of Siena in English on Audible, so I got it right away. Actually before I heard a sample on Audible, I thought that it was more of a fictionalised account of her life, since I’d only read fiction books by Undset before and was a bit surprised that it’s a proper biography, but I think it just shows that she was a really incredibly versatile writer. I am slowly finishing this book and I am really liking it because of how detailed it is. It isn’t just a biography like a lot of saints’ biographies that is written solely to inspire the faithful to follow her example, it actually shows in a very realistic way what sort of person she was overall, what her life must have looked like at the time when she lived, all the chaos going on at the time around the pope’s relocation from Rome to Avignon and the relationship between France and Rome etc. so that the reader can have a pretty detailed picture of everything, while at the same time it’s also quite obviously not just a historical book because, as a devout Christian herself, she also does focus a lot on the most important thing that is Catherine’s spiritual and mystical life so I’d say it’s a very edifying read at the same time and I feel sad for my Mum that she probably won’t be able to get hold of it anywhere in Polish unless some second-hand bookshop if she’s lucky. My dream is now that I could read her books in Norwegian one day, but for now the mere thought feels rather intimidating. 😀 Also, having read quite a few of her books by now, I am growing more and more curious of Sigrid Undset herself, as a person, and her life. I mean, I’m usually like that, when I read a book, or listen to music or anything like that, I quite automatically think about the individual behind it and what they must have been like to create that particular thing, but in this case I’m actually very seriously curious, and I wish someone wrote a thorough biography of her, but so far haven’t come across anything like that. Also these days I have another reason for being so much into her books. I’ve been praying for someone who is Norwegian, and I find it extremely encouraging and heartening in my efforts to know that such very deeply Christian books were born in Norway, and not very long ago at all, when Norway was already a largely secular country.
So, how about your current read(s)? 🙂