"Providence" follows "Vows," the first volume in the Nobel-Prize-winning Sigrid Undset's tetrology, "Olav Audunsson," set in the 13th century and published in Norwegian in 1925 and 1927. The books, translated into English soon after as "The Master of Hestviken," are now being re-translated by Tiina Nunnally, bringing the same clarity and sparkle she brought to Undset's "Kristin Lavransdatter."
"Providence" contends with the ramifications of the bitter legacy left by "Vows": a disputed betrothal, two murders — one admitted, one not — exile, seduction turned to rape, and attempted suicide. It opens with Olav returning to his estate, Hestviken, with Ingunn, his childhood sweetheart, now wife, and, gallingly, mother of another man's child.
Ingunn has left her infant son, Eirik, to be raised by a peasant woman, an expedient that preys on her mind. Once a blithesome, headstrong girl, she buckles under adversity. She suffers miscarriages and an infant death, considering the tragedies punishment for abandoning her son. Wracked by guilt and lacking fortitude, she becomes an infirm, peevish, jealous burden on Olav. Except intermittently, theirs is not a happy home.
Though Olav has married Ingunn out of a felt duty to protect her, it enrages him every time he thinks of what he considers her betrayal. Nonetheless, deep in his inalterable being, he loves her and in an attempt to heal her agony, he brings Eirik to live with them. For the sake of their honor, he claims that the boy is theirs, conceived before they were able to marry legally.
This adds to the novel's great mesh of conundrums: His unconfessed second murder put him at odds with both Christian strictures and Norse codes of honor; furthermore, in Eirik, he has put a cuckoo in the nest, disinheriting any natural son he might have, or if none, his nearest kin, the legitimate future heirs to the estate. It is an unforgivable offense in a society founded in blood duty.
This is a hard, grueling novel, especially as it follows Ingunn's volatile moods from moments of happiness and calm to frenzies of guilt, shame, sorrow, and regret. But it is also engrossing in its many side stories, its astute excavation of character and the wiles of motivation, and its brilliant evocation of the natural world. If the novel has a theme, it revolves around the problem of happiness and the place of fortitude.
Olav sees that his wife and the family she came from did not know how to endure hardship, how to live without happiness: "For them, misfortune was like a poison. ... They held on until they could vomit it up again, but then they died." Not so, Olav. Unlike his wife, he "was created in such a way that he could survive even without happiness."
He accepts that, happy or not, he loves Ingunn and will protect her. The story will continue for two further volumes and we hope — and almost dare to expect — that his courage and compassion will be rewarded.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
Olav Audunssøn, II: Providence
By: Sigrid Undset; translated by Tiina Nunnally.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 280 pages, $17.95.