Marta Oulie
by Sigrid Undset,
translated by Tiina Nunnally, with an introduction by Jane Smiley.
University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Paperback, 128 pages, $16.

Marta Oulie opens with the confession, “I have been unfaithful to my husband.” So it comes as no surprise that the novel depicts a woman’s sexual awakening: the obsessive thoughts of him, the thrill at his touch. “I suddenly felt scared and didn’t dare look at the scrap of chest visible below his throat, but then couldn’t resist glancing at it.”

What might be more surprising is that this is the sensual passion of a virgin for the man who will become her husband. Like Sigrid Undset’s best-known novel, Kristin Lavransdattera trilogy set in the fourteenth century and published in the 1920s—this earlier and much slimmer book, in its first English translation since publication in 1907, depicts a marriage of untutored hearts. The match is made by Eros, the laughing god; with time his laughter turns from delight to mockery. Both Marta and her husband Otto must discover whether they can submit to a gentler god while they still have time.

The book is written as a diary. As it opens, the affair, with Marta’s cousin and Otto’s close friend Henrik, has been over for some time; and Otto is dying. He has left the family home in order to convalesce, but when you start coughing up blood in a novel of the 1900s you are probably not long for this world.

Marta lives in her own head. Otto’s absence from the household isn’t good for her. Without him she has the solitude that allows her to reflect (and therefore write the diary), but her reflections trap her in her own guilt and confusion. She acknowledges that she’s a ruminant, a brooder, someone too concerned with her image of herself. Partly this self-centered mindset is an attempt to preserve some sense of self in a world that attempts to define her as an appendage of her husband and children: “In the end I would undoubtedly be reduced to nothing more than one of the entries in Otto Oulie’s thick catalog of blessings.”

The affair wasn’t nearly as passionate as the wedding. Marta recalls it—perhaps with a bitterness she didn’t have at the time—as more about her own self-image than about any love or desire for Henrik as a person. They create a private world in which Marta can share her judgments of her husband and her marriage. Henrik becomes a way of acting out her neediness and disappointment.

In some ways Marta Oulie anticipates Kristin. Undset, in Tiina Nunnally’s new translation, masterfully depicts a woman’s first experience of romantic love and her tender passion for her children. Like Kristin, this earlier book concerns the long years after the marriage: the way the spouses discover what they should already have known about one another, and the way these discoveries can seem like betrayals. (“We keep learning all our lives—but God help us what we learn.”) Undset was herself never-married and childless when she wrote Marta, which makes her characteristic tenderness-without-sentiment all the more striking. Take this blunt passage, which echoes the feelings of many mothers:

When I was a young girl I always thought that being a mother must be the greatest thing in the world. I thought it was so marvelous that when it happened to me, I could hardly believe it. When I was expecting Einar, I felt so overwhelmed that I was almost ashamed, because it really was as though there was nothing else in the world. The child I was carrying filled my thoughts night and day. I was determined to take it all very sensibly and naturally—good Lord, it’s what happens to every female, after all. Yet I also dreaded it terribly. I wanted it so much, with every fiber of my being, even if I had to die.

Marta expresses the insecurities of motherhood as well as its joys: “Although I love my children as dearly as any mother does, and although I think that I’ve loved them with such warmth and kept watch over every little development of their lives, there are still so many details that Otto noticed before I did, traits peculiar to each of them that he called to my attention.”

Undset is also attuned to the moments when the natural world seems to mimic one’s own mood. The early parts of the book, depicting Marta and Otto’s early romance and the first days of their marriage, are filled with sledding in the snowlight, blueberry brambles, and clearings where “cowberries blushed red on old gray tree stumps.”

The book doesn’t feel entirely modern. I was startled when Marta mentioned Otto running the lawnmower like any suburban dad, because Marta’s concerns are still so similar to fourteenth-century Kristin’s. Yes, she joins organizations to discuss women’s rights; yes, she has a job as a teacher; but these are simply the ways Marta lives out the eternal struggle between a woman’s individuality and her iconic roles as wife and mother. Her life, like Kristin’s, is shaped by early marriage, frequent pregnancy, and the threat of early death from disease. Her world is much less violent than Kristin’s—there are no rape threats here, no swords and spurting blood. (And no escaped leopards. Marta is a domestic drama, not a carnival of souls.) But Kristin would recognize Marta as easily as she’d recognize the Madonna.

The only relationship Kristin wouldn’t recognize is Marta’s relationship with God. Marta’s religious doubts are far more cynical than Kristin’s cycle of penitence, distraction, judgment, and penitence again. In fact, Marta may suffer from the privatization of penance. Both Kristin and especially her husband Erlend are serial public penitents, who live by the line I first read in Agatha Christie: “‘Take what you want and pay for it,’ says God.” They sin often, but accept the suffering and humiliation that come to them as a result; and their willingness to accept the consequences make their sins cleaner, less ingrown and infected than Marta’s. We’re all alone in the confessional of our own hearts; but Kristin and Erlend are a little less alone with their sins, because their social world gives them a way to demonstrate repentance and receive forgiveness.

Marta, by contrast, thinks, “Now I understand why a criminal confesses, and why Catholic women become addicted to confession.… Good Lord, now I go around thinking about confessing to someone.” From the beginning of the novel she keeps thinking that she’s finally learned her lesson: “In the past I was always shocked when I read books that claimed a woman could be happy only if she devoted herself completely to another person. Now I say yes and amen to that, as I do to all the hackneyed and worn-down truths that I rebelled against in my youth.” But like Charles Foster Kane, Marta Oulie needs more than one lesson—and she’s going to get more than one lesson.

She has a desire for some sort of sacrifice, some way of living out both penance and gratitude: “Just as we are conceived and born from the lives of others, we must sustain our daily lives with what we receive from others. And we must pay for it by giving of ourselves every single day.” And yet as a basically atheist modern woman, Marta must live out this self-gift alone, without even acknowledgment from God. Little wonder she finds it hard to sustain.

There’s a heaviness to Marta that makes her slender book a bit of a slog compared to the absorbing Kristin Lavransdatter. She’s isolated, trapped in the little courtroom of her skull, whereas Kristin always feels embedded in a public world of church and community. Marta is shadowed by something in herself, some lightlessness for which she lacks even a name. Kristin’s world was full of weirdness and mystery: flickering shadows in which fairies, old gods, angels, and saints might dwell. Under the electric lights all these shadows scattered—except, it turns out, the shadow in the self. 

Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith (Ave Maria Press 2014).She blogs at Patheos and is a freelance writer and speaker in Washington, DC, writing for publications including The American Conservative, Commonweal, and the Weekly Standard.