“It’s so true!”
Last night I was sitting in a circle of friends, some former students, some colleagues, talking about life and the world. And one is both, Kate Harris, a former student and now my colleague. She offered those words about her reading of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. Her response intrigued me.
So true. To what? About what? To put it most simply: to the way life really is, to the way we really are. In a remarkable way, Undset understands us: our deeper motivations, the nuances of our hearts, our capacity for self-deception, our longing for grace.
Those who know me well know that for a long time I have been drawn into the wisdom of Walker Percy, the physician of the body who became a physician of the soul, writing essays in which he described the vocation of novelist as “a doctor of the soul.” (Neither he nor I believe in a dualist universe, or even of the human person as body and soul; life is more complicated than that, and we are.) What he meant was that the novelist is tasked with telling a story about human beings as they really are, about life as it really is.
Which is why he famously said, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” I am sure it was that that Kate saw in Sigrid Undset’s writing, as it is what I see too. For the last month I have been reading her tetralogy (four books), The Master of Hestviken, and yesterday finished book two, “The Snake Pit.” With what could only be called artful genius– she did win a Nobel Prize in literature –she tells a tale about 13th-century Scandinavian life which in almost every way is so far from our life, except that everything that matters is just the same. Because we are.
The truest truths are perennial, echoing across centuries and cultures, running in and out of every heart. I find that reading Undset is more like eating well. You have to be self-conscious, and choose to do so, but in the end it is good for me, body and soul. Every once-in-awhile I eat a donut. But mostly I eat multi-grain bagels. Books are like that. The ones that tell the truth about us, and about life, are good for us, nourishing our hearts and minds, nudging us to see ourselves more truthfully because they tell the truth about why we are, about who we are.