Marveling at Norway’s monumental novelists.
Oslo’s long daylight fooled my internal clock; I stayed up unusually late reading. My husband, Harry, went exploring and texted back a picture of a statue: novelist Sigrid Undset.
The next day, we visited Undset (1882-1949). She stands in Stensparken, the neighborhood park near where she spent her youth. Alone on the slope, she’s just below a café, wading pool, and slightly shabby arts center. While we were there, an artist was painting a mural of books, and a couple was picnicking.
Unveiled in 1991, the life-size granite statue by Kjersti Wexelsen Goksoyr commands attention like an ancient upright stone or an abstract cenotaph. She’s severe, serene. I wished for flowers to lay at the feet of the 1928 Nobel laureate, vaguely recalling having read Kristin Lavransdatter years earlier.
The statue rated a cursory note in our guidebook; there was more hype for the circular concrete urinal Kjaerlighetskarusellen (1939) on the corner. The so-called Carousel of Love is a Cultural Heritage Site designated as such for its innovative “sanitary engineering” and nicknamed for its unofficial significance as a gay meeting place. (Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Norway until 1972.)
Overlooked the statue may seem, but Undset’s work and her life — including the dissolution of her marriage, caring for a disabled child, losing a son in WWII, her wartime resistance, and her conversion to Catholicism — remain well-known in her home country. Her epic family trilogy of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, has never been out of print. Strolling the grounds of the Akershus Fortress above Oslo’s harbor, we saw posters at the outdoor amphitheater announcing the coming attraction: “Kristin Lavransdatter, the Musical”!
When our daughter Rebecca arrived in Oslo, we introduced her to Undset before traveling by train past mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and fjords to Bergen. It’s said to rain 300 days a year there. Umbrellas up, we waded the steep cobbled streets, enjoying the defiantly colorful houses.
Rebecca and I dried off at home while Harry explored the Nordens neighborhood and discovered another novelist’s statue. We soon joined our statue hound to meet Amalie Skram (1846-1905), previously unknown to us.
Skram’s visage presides over a small plaza on Klostergaten. The life-size bronze (by Maya Refsum, unveiled in 1949) presents a determined woman: energetic, mid-stride. She’s fashionably dressed; a capelet flares behind her, and ruffles on the hem of her full-length skirt flutter.
The celebrated Norwegian feminist chronicled, challenged, and experienced many of the moral attitudes, prejudices, and double standards of her time. Born Berthe Amalie Alver in Bergen, she married due to financial duress. After a long psychiatric hospitalization, she divorced and moved to Oslo with two young sons and began writing under a pen name. Married again, this time to Asbjørn Oluf Erik Skram, she wrote, published, and established herself as Amalie Skram. She had a daughter, suffered another breakdown, and was institutionalized for years, still writing all the while. Her marriage was dissolved.
Skram knew her subject matter — the role of women, marriage, families, psychiatric hospitals — firsthand. The sturdy bronze figure seems to embody her literary victory over suffering; the little cape might be her wings.
We found a living memorial to the author in downtown Bergen. The Amalie Skram Hus (a community arts center) offers individuals self-identified as experiencing psychological difficulties free studio space and support for their creative work.
By the end of the trip, I’d blown through the bleak contemporary Scandi-novels loaded on my e-reader. At the airport, haunted by the statues, I searched for Undset and Skram. Kristin Lavransdatter easily queued up, click-click, a thousand pages loaded. Nothing to be had in English by Amalie Skram, however.
The flight, well, flew by as I read Undset. Once home, I couldn’t stop reading. For days. This wasn’t the ponderous book I’d remembered.
How was it different? It wasn’t just the easy-to-hold e-format, or the plain, beautiful translation by Tiina Nunnally. Perhaps it was enhanced by my own experience living and writing, by the benefit of age.
No matter. The book is magic. In it, Undset weaves a tapestry of medieval Norway, in every sense vivid. Best of all are her characters — no, her people. Their passions and responsibilities, yearnings and obligations, births and deaths are somehow universal and specific — what the best novels are made of. Lost in the book, I became a young teenager avoiding her homework. I hated finishing.
But, by then, Skram had arrived. I’d found nothing currently in print in English translation, nothing at the library. From the slim pickings on the big secondhand-book sites, I’d selected Lucie (1888), translated in 2001 by Katherine Hanson and Judith Messick.
Lucie is the story of the doomed marriage between a dancing girl and a lawyer. I read it quickly, and with regret and disappointment, seeing little nuance or depth in the characters. Sadly, these were stereotypes dramatizing a social problem. Rather than an engaged reader, I was a spectator, an audience for a revival of a dated costume drama.
Maybe, though, any book, any author, would suffer by immediately following Undset. Perhaps it would be a fairer comparison if I could find an English translation of Hellemyrsfolket (1887-98), Skram’s tetralogy about a family over four generations revered as a classic of Norwegian realism.
I’m sorry, but not because I didn’t care for Lucie. Some books you like, some you don’t. You see, I was captivated by the vigorous woman of the statue and her story. But sometimes when you fall in love, it doesn’t work out. Especially if you’re enchanted by a statue. Remember Pygmalion and Galatea.
Public statues hold power: to memorialize, to validate, to keep the stories of lives and work before us. We need more monuments to artists, to creativity, and especially to women authors. We need the invitations, introductions, and reminders monumental sculpture can offer.
[Photo by Harry Pskowski.]
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.