Too Good to Be Forgotten – Nobel Prize Winner Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was always considered a Norwegian writer, but she was actually born in the Danish city of Kalundborg. Her father, Ingvald, was an archeologist and her mother, Anna Charlotte, was the daughter of an attorney. It is obvious that intellectually Sigrid was most influenced by her father as she developed a never dying fascination with the medieval history and mythology of Scandinavia. She may have resented her mother’s criticism of religion, but she was nevertheless influenced by her down-to-earth attitude to life.

Unfortunately Ingvald died, only forty years old, which was a financial catastrophe for the family which had moved to Norway. Anna Charlotte had to sell his collections of books which Sigrid later on tried to hunt down and buy. However, the financial situation of the family made it necessary for her to train and work as a secretary and she worked as such for ten years while reading and dreaming on her spare time. Also she started to write herself, but her first historical novel was turned down with the words that she lacked talent for writing about history. The first one she had published was the “Fru Marta Oulie” (1907) about an unfaithful wife which was a shocking subject for some critics. This contemporary novel was followed by a collection of short stories, “Den Lykkelige Alder” (1908), but it was the historical novel, “Fort√¶llingen om Viga-Ljot og Vigdis” (1909) which got her the government scholarship that made it possible for her to stop her job as a secretary and become a full-time writer.

After “Jenny” (1911) she traveled widely in Europe, but in 1912 she married the Norwegian painter Anders Castus Svarstad who had three children from his previous marriage. In 1919 they separated and she settled down with her mentally retarded daughter, Maren Charlotte, and two sons. This development went parallel with the shift in religion that she underwent. When she converted to Catholicism she also had her marriage annulled. Over the years she had moved from a more traditional feminism, wanting jobs and social equality for young women, but then she started to argue for women keeping their traditional place in the home and not leaving it for jobs or careers. When she converted she was adamant that this was the place for women and that they should not give it up no matter what.

Her most famous novel and the one which earned her the Nobel Prize is the trilogy “Kristin Lavransdottir” (1920-22) which depicts women’s life in Catholic Norway of the 13th and 14th centuries. Kristin is the beautiful and spoilt daughter of Lavrans, based on her late father, who is seduced by the handsome Erlend and marries him, thus ending up in a hate-love relationship which tears at both of them and which makes her bitter. They have many children and problems abound, but being the housewife Kristin is the strong pillar of the family. In the end she dies, reconciled with God, and even welcoming her death.

In this fictive, medieval character Sigrid Undset depicts her women ideal as the strong centre of the family and society. Women in her works are depicted as someone above men because they have an ability to bring order and save families by sacrificing all that the traditional feminist movement fought for, i.e. individual freedom. I would say that what has been seen as blatant reaction is turned upside down and used by her to lift women to a higher position that they find in our time.

She published many more books, but she also took part in historical events like e.g. the resistance against Nazism. The money she won with her Nobel Prize she gave away, part of it to a foundation for mentally challenged children. She also sold her Nobel Prize medal and gave the money to the relief effort for Finnish children. When Norway was ockupied by the Nazis she joined the Resistance, and as she was very outspoken against Germany she had to flee the country and not return until after the war. She lived in Brooklyn, New York, and made friends with e.g. Willa Cather whose writing I think she may have influenced.

After returning home to Norway she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav for her service to the country and for her distinguished literary work. She died in 1949 after having lost her mother, her daughter and her eldest son some ten years earlier.

Travel in India – A Journey Called Life

To travel is to willfully leap into the unknown – to give up the secured confines of home and wander into the exigencies of the world. This is true whether one journeys from home to a nearby town to see an event, or lose oneself in the sights and smells of a ‘Mela’ (fair), or to another continent in search of work. Over time, the world and its moralities seep into our lives and into our hearts. In doing so we come closer, howsoever marginally; to becoming – as the Greek philosopher Diogenes first called himself – a “citizen of the world”.

Predictably, travel arouses a swirl of responses in us. The world can either repel or inspire us in its reflections. But for a majority of travelers, travel forces their minds to think, to adapt, to reevaluate the prejudices and to gauge the responses in ways far removed from what they have been perceived to view. Travel in short is learning while on the move.

For many like me, the journey is always the destination – the essence of the short trip or the long journey always lies in the million ‘Chai’ (Tea) stops, the smiles or gurgling laughter of a baby, those impromptu romances between co-teen travelers, a lazy cow lying in the middle of the road and refusing to move, or a sudden downpour that hits the window panes and reduces the visibility to just a thin streak of light of a vehicle in the distance, in watching the green canopy of trees that welcomes every thoroughfarer with their arch, in washing my face and feet at a small gushing stream, in watching the outline of a small hillock from the distance, and sometimes, in just doing and thinking nothing at all…

Predictably, the idea of India as a traveler’s paradise – whether as a geographical or cultural space – is increasingly distorted in the minds of many. Many perceive travelling as the kind they see in Bollywood movies while the more privileged know more about Dubai or Venice than they do say about Bhubaneshwar or Shillong. Many parts of India are virtually foreign to many young minds, though no real fault of theirs. Who wants to ‘think’ about a Nizamabad when there is a jet plane taking off to Singapore? Our collective consciousness is slowly getting fragmented along the comfortable lines of global travel than the rustic feel of one’s soil.

Should this matter? Yes.

In a heterogeneous democracy like ours, where resources and geographies are vastly varied, where peoples, cultures, food, language change with every district – it is paramount that we see past our immediate environs. Our collective challenge is then — how do we offer, to the generations of Indians to recognize our collective destiny? Our soil and its manifold beauties. Lester Pearson, the late Canadian Prime Minister, said in his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture: “How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don’t know each other?” To him, and to all of us, knowledge of the other was to simplify, to get past the banal and to learn to treat each individual according to their character. And the best way to do this is to travel. To explicitly encourage personal explorations within India and make India more accessible.

Best Travel Writing – Top 10 Travel Novels

It’s hard to find great travel writing, but it’s out there. Part of the reason for this is that so much travel writing is also considered nature writing or narrative non-fiction. Part of the reason is that the field is so competitive because of a lot of good authors competing for a relatively small market space. But there is a wide array of great travel fiction out there, and here is my list of the best ten travel novels I’ve read over the past couple years.

10) Through Painted Deserts, by Donald Miller. This is one I actually found in the “Christian Non-Fiction” section, which can be unfair. There’s no question Miller is a Christian, but he’s a writer first and foremost, he’s not preachy, and his questioning of his own faith, of reasons for existence, of who and what he is or is becoming is reminiscent of the fantastic soul searching that came from the travel writing of the Beat generation. Miller’s account of his trip is great, going through the moments of beauty, the necessity of good road trip music, and admitting his moments of embarrassment and fear as freely as any other part of his journey.

9) Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald. The early reading of this book can be hard, because after the first few chapters there’s a lot of the Western perspective, the whining of living conditions and poverty, the type of scorn you don’t care to read from travel writing. I’m glad I read the rest, because like “Through Painted Deserts,” “Holy Cow” is about the author’s journey. Sarah evolves and changes chapter to chapter in front of you as she sheds the scornful nature of an atheist “too smart” to fall for superstition, and she opens up, traveling through India and sampling all the different religious beliefs and practices as she becomes a humble Theist who learns happiness, learns to grow, and learns that alien cultures can have a lot to offer the open traveler.

8) Into the Wild by John Krakauer. I first caught sight of this book at a Barnes and Noble on one of the feature tables. I was on winter break from Alaska and visiting family in Iowa. I picked up the book, sat down, and read the entire work in one sitting. Travel book, journalistic book, nature book, adventure book-whatever you call it, this is one heck of a read, and the debate this book causes is deep and passionate. As a wanderlust traveler, I understand the drive the main character feels, as an Alaskan, I understand the native perspective of irritation, of the lack of understanding that nature is brutal and especially Alaska needs to be respected as such.

7) Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux. Paul Theroux is at his best in “Dark Star Safar,” where his skills of observation and his dry wit are on full display. Paul takes readers the length of Africa via overcrowded rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, ferry, and train in a journey that is hard to forget. There are moments of beauty, but there are also many moments of misery and danger. This is a narration of Africa that goes beyond the skin deep to dare to look at the deeper core of what is often referred to as “The Dark Continent.”

6) Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, by William Least Heat-Moon. This is an auto-biographical travel journey taken by Heat-Mean in 1978. After separating from his wife and losing his job, Heat-Moon decided to take an extended road trip around the United States, sticking to “Blue Highways,” a term to refer to small out of the way roads connecting rural America (which were drawn in blue in the old Rand McNally atlases). So Heat-Moon outfits his van, named “Ghost Dancing” and takes off on a 3-month soul-searching tour of the United States. The book chronicles the 13,000 mile journey and the people he meets along the way, as he steers clear of cities and interstates, avoiding fast food and exploring local American culture on a journey that is just as amazing today as when he first took the journey.

5) The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson. There are tons of fantastic Bill Bryson books out there, and any one of them could hold this spot here. “The Lost Continent” is Bryson’s trip across America, visiting some common places (the grand canyon), but also exploring the back roads and looking for that familiarity that helps him remember home.

4) Wanderlust: Real-Life Tales of Adventures and Romance by Pico Iyer. Probably one of the best travel writing collections released in recent memory, this collection is under the name Pico Iyer, who helped to edit this collection. These stories come from the “Wanderlust” section of Salon.com and create a varied tapestry of travel writing that will keep the reader flipping from one writer to another.

3) A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. This is one of the all time modern classics in travel literature, as Peter Jenkins recalls the story of his 1973-1975 walk from New York to New Orleans. For many readers, this remains a rare travel book that grips you and keeps you. Known as a travel writer who will walk anywhere, including Alaska and China, Peter Jenkins says, “I started out searching for myself and my country and found both.” That sums up what travel writing should be all about.

2) Travels w/ Charlie by John Steinbeck. This was a novel that helped John Steinbeck win a Nobel Prize in Literature. “Travels with Charlie” is a fantastic travel narrative that gets to the heart of travel, the point of the trip, and the strange confrontation and realization that the places and people you remember are gone once you are. As he revisits the places of his youth that many of his books are based on, he realizes on seeing old friends that they’re as uncomfortable with him being back as he is with being there. A great story about travel, about home, about mourning lost history, about aging, and about America-this should be required reading for every high school student.

1) The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac. The beat generation was full of great travel narratives, and Jack Kerouac was the master of powerful, moving, passionate language that unfolded stories like few people have ever managed. While “On the Road” is the most often pointed to travel narrative by Kerouac, “The Dharma Bums” is a better book. Full of passion, interesting characters and stories, and the kind of passionate language and powerful prose that made the beat generation writers popular, this Kerouac book is extraordinary and deserving of its number one spot.