‘Marta Oulie’ by Sigrid Undset – Unfaithful in Christiania

‘Marta Oulie’ by Sigrid Undset  (1907) – 112 pages   Translated by Tina Nunnally

Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset


The first sentence in ‘Marta Oulie’ by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset is “I have been unfaithful to my husband.”  It happens, even back in 1902 when this novel takes place.  This is a personal painful account, written in diary form, of one woman’s coming to terms with her adultery.  Not only has she been unfaithful; her youngest daughter is not her husband’s child.

The Marta Oulie diary entries start a couple of years after her affair with Henrik, her husband Otto’s partner and her first cousin.  Now Otto, the husband, is in a sanitarium suffering from consumption, and she feels tremendous guilt.   She relates her story up to this point.

She had always been good in school and achieved academic success while young.  Then she meets Otto in her early twenties, and they fall in love and get married.  He is practical, simple-minded, optimistic, and good at business, and soon they have three children.  She is a school teacher, but Otto convinces her to stay home with the children.  That is when she becomes dissatisfied.  Otto must travel to London on business for a few months.  Otto has charged his partner Henrik to look after Marta and the family, so Henrik hangs around the house.  You can guess the rest.

18778004 This first novel by Sigrid Undset was a success de scandal in Norway when it was first published in 1907. This intimate realistic story of an unfaithful wife is much different from Undset’s most famous work, ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’, which is a historical trilogy about Scandinavia in medieval times. ‘Marta Oulie’ had never been translated before this new edition by the University of Minnesota Press.

Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928.  She was a vehement anti-Nazi and had to go into exile to the United States during World War II.  She returned to Norway after the war.

I was surprised and delighted to find out that Tim Page, the critic who almost single-handedly rescued Dawn Powell out of the ash heaps of literary history, has also taken up the work of Sigrid Undset.  He discovered that one of Dawn Powell’s favorite books was the novel ‘Jenny’ by Undset, and then he put together a collection called ‘The Unknown Undset’.

12425s So there are two sides to Sigrid Undset, the historical novelist of the medieval and the daring scandalous contemporary novelist.  Yet her historical novels speak in an intense realistic voice of the continuing problems of living, and her intimate contemporary novels put the modern problems of living into an objective framework.   I have read both sides of her work and believe Sigrid Undset is a valuable novelist who still speaks to us today.

‘Marta Oulie’ is an intense novel and a quick memorable way to become familiar with the work of Sigrid Undset.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Der Roman Marta Oulie der Literaturnobelpreisträgerin Sigrid Undset wurde ebenfalls auf einem englischsprachigen Blog vorgestellt, und zwar bei Tony’s Book World. […]


  2. It sounds very good. I read this and added it straight to my Amazon wishlist (it’s where I keep track of stuff I plan to buy later, they’re very useful for that).

    I wonder how it would read against Soderberg’s Doctor Glas?


  3. Hi Max,
    ‘Dr. Glas’ – that is one I really must read.
    ‘Marta Oulie’ seems to me in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman (even though it was written before Bergman) or Ibsen or Strindberg of dealing with these racy matters in an upfront prosaic way. That seems to be the Scandinavian way. As for the new Norwegian wunderkind, Karl Ove Knausgaard, I don’t see him as part of this tradition. I don’t see much in Knausgaard beyond self-promotion.


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