Norwegian blues and a Balzacian tale

October 10, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

L’âge heureux (Den lykkelige alder) / Simonsen (1908) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949).

undset_age_heureuxI’m back in English, that’s probably a relief for you! –or not since I make less grammar mistakes in French. I bought L’âge heureux / Simonsen by Sigrid Undset on a whim, I don’t remember when or where. It sounded interesting; I didn’t know the writer and wanted to give it a try. Then Edith from Edith’s Miscellany wrote a review of Jenny by the same Sigrid Undset and that moved L’âge heureux / Simonsen on top of the TBR. And now you’re reading a billet about these two short-stories.

L’âge heureux. (Happy days)

There’s a famous quote from Paul Nizan which says « J’avais vingt-ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie. » (“I was twenty. I will not let anybody say it’s the best period of life”) That’s L’âge heureux in a nutshell.

When the book opens, Uni, an eighteen year old young woman accompanies her aunt Mrs Iversen and her cousins to the family house. The house was once in the country, is now in the suburbs of Christiana. Uni’s parents are dead and buried in the local cemetery. She’s about to start a new life in Christiana and she dreams to be an actress.

After this brief introduction to her circumstances, we follow Uni who is now working in an office, living in a boarding house and dating Christian. The young man is an industrial designer and although he has a decent job, he cannot afford to marry Uni and support her with his current income. He’s working hard to get a promotion while Uni goes to auditions to try to have a role in a play. Uni has a friend Charlotte who still lives with her mother and siblings; she’s an aspiring poet and feels all the angst that goes along with the status.

Undset describes the difficulty of being a young woman in the Norwegian middle class of that time. Uni and Charlotte are poor. They aspire to be artists and they need to work to make a living. Uni hates her job at the office. Charlotte resents her still living with her family and it irritates her so much that she becomes mean to her family. She’s ashamed of it and at the same time, she cannot help it. Uni has difficulties knowing what she wants and what she wants to do with her life, what she expects from it. She reminded me of Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, without the mental breakdown. Charlotte suffers from writing anxiety, struggling to find her poetic voice and feeling everything deeply, absorbing pain like a sponge:

J’aimerais travailler avec tous ces petits mots usés que les hommes emploient indifféremment, avec lesquels ils se blessent, qu’ils échangent dans une caresse, qu’ils murmurent dans un moment de détresse ou de joie… I’d like to work with all these little worn-out words that men use with indifference. Words with which they hurt each other, words that they exchange in a caress or murmur in a moment of anxiety or joy…

A tall order and she’s intelligent enough to know she might not live up to her own expectations.

Uni is torn between her strong attraction to theatre and her love for Christian. She wants to be an actress and would feel cheated if she didn’t have the opportunity to try that life. She would resent the person who would stand up against this possibility. Christian is too clever to be that person. He thus supports her choice of career.

Je voudrais que tu me comprennes bien, Uni, que tu sois sûre que je n’ai aucune arrière-pensée quand je t’encourage à suivre ta vocation. Je te jure que c’est vrai. Et si parfois je proteste, je voudrais que tu n’y fasses même pas attention. C’est sans importance, c’est simplement que j’ai des idées démodées, je me suis fait une certaine idée du mariage et j’y tiens…Maintenant que tu as vu mon père…Mais je ne veux pas t’imposer une vie qui ne te convient pas. Il n’en est pas question. Uni, I would like you to understand and be certain that I don’t have an ulterior motive when I encourage you to follow your calling. I swear it is true. And if I protest sometimes, I’d like you to not pay attention to it. It doesn’t matter; it’s just that I have old fashioned ideas, that I have a certain imagine of marriage and that I hold on to it…Now that you’ve met my father….But I don’t want to impose on you a life that you don’t want. It is out of the question.

Christian acknowledges with his brain that she has a right to have a career, to make her own choices but his guts struggle with the idea because it goes against his education. It is hard to change something you’ve learnt to be a truth from your young age. I think it’s very interesting that Sigrid Undset voices the difficulties of changing the ingrained vision of women. In a sense, Christian reminds me of Barfoot in The Odd Women by George Gissing. He’s in favour of Uni’s emancipation and he recognises her right to have her dreams and her aspirations. At the same time, he caresses the idea of a traditional wife, although he doesn’t say it openly. When Uni’s career as an actress starts, he’s faithful to his promise though and remains supportive.

Incidentally, like in The Odd Women or in L’argent by Zola, we see characters who love each other but can’t get married because the man doesn’t earn enough to support a wife and a family. Great-Britain, France, Norway, it was a common situation in Europe.

L’âge heureux gives a voice to young women before WWI whose talent and intelligence was wasted because their society didn’t have a place for them to blossom.

Ses mots, ses cris de révolte, ce n’étaient que les plaintes de toutes les jeunes filles désirant le bonheur mais dont la route est irrémédiablement barrée ; c’étaient les paroles que l’on prononce lorsque le monde vous piétine et vous force à rester dans l’obscurité, soit que l’on tourne mal, soit que, travailleuse honnête, on s’épuise toute la journée dans un bureau pour rentrer le soir, seule, dans une horrible pension ; c’était les expressions de fatigue que l’on ressent, au fond, après avoir été fiancée des années à un homme que l’on aime, et que les convenances se dressent contre vos aspirations ; ou les mots qu’on lance quand on prend sa famille en haine, qu’on bafoue sa mère, qu’on se dispute avec ses frères et sœurs : parents qui vous sont chers pourtant, mais à vivre si nombreux dans un petit logement, les heurts se multiplient. Hers words, her fits of revolt were only the cries of all young girls seeking for happiness but whose way was irremediably blocked. It was the words one says when the world tramples on you, forces you to remain in the shadows either because one turns out badly or because, although hard-working and honest, one wastes themselves in an office only to come back at night, alone, exhausted to a dreadful boarding house. It was the expression of weariness that one feels, in the end, when, after being engaged to a man one has loved for years, propriety stands against one’s aspirations. It was also the words one throws away when one takes an immense dislike to one’s family, when one ridicules their mother, fights with their siblings although one cares about their parents. But to live so numerous in such small lodgings can only multiply conflicts.

L’âge heureux is a plea for a better life for young women and its ending shows how powerful society was. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but it might be included in an omnibus edition of Undset’s works. It’s worth a try. Now…


If L’âge heureux is a tale of its time, Simonsen has Balzacian accents, and readers of Balzac will understand why. Simonsen is an ageing man who just got fired from his job. Again. He lives with Olga, who is an at-home dressmaker. She’s a lot younger than him. They are not married and have a daughter, Svanhild. Simonsen has also a son, Sigurd, from a previous marriage. Sigurd helps his father finding jobs when he loses one and he’s getting impatient and embarrassed by his father’s way of life. The man is unable to keep a job, lives in sin with a woman Sigurd considers from an inferior social class..

In this novella, we see life through Simonsen’s eyes. Although he is flawed (he knows he should marry Olga, he feels ashamed of losing his job again), the reader understands why Olga keeps him around. He’s nice, generous and he loves his daughter.

It’s a Balzacian tale because Sigurd and his greedy wife will do anything in their power to get rid of the embarrassing old man. And that’s all I’ll say about this short story. I’ve seen it’s been translated into English, you can track it down if you’re intrigued.

I enjoyed these two novellas and I find Undset’s style really attractive. Both novellas or short-stories picture middle-class in Christiana at the beginning of the century. Both show that society rules are stronger than individuals. I’m interested in reading Jenny but I’m not so inclined to try her historical novels set in the Middle-Ages. (I’m not particularly fascinated by this very religious period of history) and I’m not sure I want to discover her works after she converted to Catholicism. But these novellas I warmly recommend.

  1. October 11, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    I’m so pleased you mention this author. I’m not familiar enough with Scandinavian authors and had never heard about her before but I’ll add her name to the list of people I need to track down and read. I really enjoyed your review of The Odd Women, by the way.
    What you say of these two novellas makes me think of Zsigmond Móricz, a Hungarian author who lived at pretty much the same time as Undset. He’s not very much translated but two of his books, Captive Lion (exists in English) and L’Épouse rebelle (exists in French) pick up similar themes with, it seems, a fairly similar style.


    • October 11, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      I didn’t know her either. She’s a Nobel Prize winner. Jenny sounds good as well.
      Thanks for your comment about The Odd Women, it’s a novel I really recommend.

      I checked out Zsigmond Móricz; I’ve never heard of him but I’ve liked the Hungarian books I’ve read. “A Hungarian Schnitzler”, wow, sounds promising. On the TBR it goes. Hungary in the 1930s. I’m curious about it after readin Les Confessions d’un bourgeois de S. Marai.


  2. October 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I’m with you when it comes to reading the historic stuff but Kristin Lavransdatter has an excellent reputation. There’s a film version of it too, so I thought I’d try the film version first and go from there.


    • October 11, 2013 at 9:19 pm

      Kristin Lavransdatter is in 1001 books you must read before you die. I’ve read it’s good and it’s available in French. But still, I’m not inclined to read it.


      • October 12, 2013 at 6:37 pm

        Me neither. I’m sure it’s great etc etc but I really doubt I’d like it. Funny how a book might not appeal whereas a film version of it does. I’ll have to think about that.


        • October 12, 2013 at 6:40 pm

          It’s the period in history. The 14thC does not interest me much. Plus, I think she had a another goal than writing good literature when she wrote it. I’m wary of books written to convey a message. (Though Gissing proves they can be very good)


          • October 13, 2013 at 12:41 am

            The film’s on my Netflix list, and creeping to the top, so I’ll let you know


            • October 13, 2013 at 9:44 pm

              Come back here and leave a comment. I’m curious. (It’s OOP in French anyway…)


  3. October 11, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    What you said about L’âge heureux reminds me a lot of Jenny which I reviewed on my blog as you kindly mentioned (Thanks!). The living conditions of women and their lack of opportunities in the conservative society of the early twentieth century seems to be a topic important to her.

    Simonsen too sounds like an interesting short story which could be very much in my line. I’ll surely look out for those works of Sigrid Undset. Her historical novels, however, don’t attract me anymore than you.


    • October 11, 2013 at 9:28 pm

      This seemed an important topic at this moment of her life. I’ve read her biography on Wikipedia, I’m not sure she had the same opinions after her conversion to Catholicism.

      Simonsen is worth reading as well. It’s a different kind of story but well-written.


      • October 13, 2013 at 10:50 am

        Yes, after her conversion to Catholicism she might have seen the world – and the life of women – in a different light. I’m not sure if I wish to discover which were her new points of view.


  4. October 12, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Glad to hear you like her. I’ve got books by her but remember, a few years back when Richard and the Wolves read her Kristin Lavransdatter they all hated it big time and that really put me off. I feel like trying her now. But KL is a huge book.


    • October 12, 2013 at 5:33 pm

      I’m not much interested in KL and the tale of a woman in the 14thC.
      Which ones do you have?
      I think you’d like L’âge heureux. Perhaps it’s available in German.


      • October 13, 2013 at 10:58 am

        I just checked. The German editions of Sigrid Undset’s books seem ALL to be out of print. I couldn’t even find an e-book of her in German, just some used copies on amazon. Incredible!


        • October 13, 2013 at 9:41 pm

          Most of her books are OOP in French too. My copy of L’âge heureux is a used copy. Nothing in ebooks.


  5. October 13, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    The theme of being unable to marry due to insufficient fiances is indeed common in literature. I am currently reading Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and it is a major issue in that work too.


    • October 13, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      It is a common theme.
      Call me a big softie, but from an individual point of view, it must have been awful. Imagine being genuinely in love with someone who loves you back and not being able to settle down and have a life together because the man doesn’t earn enough money to support a family.


  6. October 15, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Beautiful review, Emma! Both ‘L’âge heureux’ and ‘Simonsen’ look interesting in different ways. I will look for them. It is sad that the heroine of ‘L’âge heureux’ is stuck in a paradoxical conundrum. The Balzacian theme of ‘Simonsen’ also appeals to me.

    I first heard of Sigrid Undset when one of my friends, whose literary taste I admire very much, told me that Undset’s ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ was her alltime favourite book. I thought that I should read it sometime. I read the first part of it and liked it very much. I haven’t got into the second part yet (the book has three parts). Though it is set in the medieval era and is historical in some ways, I think it is more about a young woman who lives during that time, who wants to be free and live her life on her own terms – like getting married to the person she loves rather than to the person her parents find for her – which must have been quite difficult during that era. It is also about how, though the heroine loves her parents and her family, she still yearns for the freedom to shape her life in her own way. In many ways I see parallels between Kristin from that novel and Uni and Charlotte from ‘L’âge heureux’ – only the time period seems to be different. I must be in the minority though when it comes to Kristin Lavransdatter because I remember the readalong that Caroline has mentioned and I remember how the participants of the readalong didn’t like it that much. Eventhough ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ is beautiful (in my opinion, of course), its size is intimidating and that will always deter readers.


    • October 16, 2013 at 10:20 pm

      Thanks Vishy.

      I think my prejudice against K.L probably comes from trying to read The Emigrants by Vilhem Moberg. I liked the first volume but not enough to read the following ones.


  7. November 4, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    Christian sounds a very interesting, and credible, character.

    I wasn’t familiar with this author at all, and she sounds very interesting, so thanks for that. The trilogy sounds like quite a lot to kick off with, so I’ll take a look at Edith’s review of Jenny. A lot of KL seems to be translated, but I haven’t found the first novella here yet. Still, I’ll keep looking.


    • November 4, 2013 at 10:30 pm

      I liked this Christian a lot. He makes efforts to be modern and leave behind his education. That’s commendable.

      I didn’t know her either (and she’s a Nobel Prize winner!), I stumbled upon the book in a book store, was attracted to it because I like the publisher and the theme seemed interesting. That’s the point of brick-and-mortar book shops.

      I couldn’t find an English version of L’âge heureux. If you get lucky and find it online, can you leave the link in the comment section?


  8. November 4, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    I have a printout of your French review by the way. I’m working through it slowly. Expect a comment any month now…


    • November 4, 2013 at 10:32 pm

      Que la force soit avec toi. 🙂 Don’t hesitate to ask for help, if you need any.
      Tip: “manchot” means “one-armed” and not “penguin”


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