Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal

By Sigrid Undset

Translated from the original Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally

(University of Minnesota Press 2014, Paperback $12.24)

By Michael Sobota

The Swedish Nobel Academy, in awarding Sigrid Undset the Nobel Prize in Literature (1928) described “her gift for depicting modern women sympathetically but with merciless truthfulness.”

Sigrid Undset wrote Marta Oulie when she was just 24. It was her first published novel. The opening line is “I have been unfaithful to my husband.” Undset, the author, was a single woman, never married. One can imagine the scandalous impact of that opening line in a novel published in 1907, in stoutly Lutheran Norway.

Marta Oulie is written in the form of a diary. The title character is married, has children and is separated from her husband because of his health. Otto had contracted tuberculosus and was away from the family in a sanatorium. They exchange letters while he is attempting to get cured. He was a good, kind, dull man. Marta, in her solitude, begins an affair with her husband’s business partner, Henrik. Henrik is married with a family of his own — making the affair even more scandalous. It is a grand, passionate romantic relationship and Marta becomes pregnant from Henrik.

Otto believes the resulting child, a daughter, is his and dotes on her from a distance. Eventually, Otto dies, never learning the truth and Marta faces a personal crisis. Henrik, seeing that Marta is now free, offers to divorce his wife and marry Marta.

Marta, however, is devastated by Otto’s death and blames herself for this life of shame and punishment. And the end of the novel, Marta rejects Henrik and resolves to live alone, caring for her children. She does not know what direction her life or her future will take, only that it is bleak.

Undset’s writing is vivid, engaging and fast moving. The diary form allows chapters to be short and drenched in emotion - where else would an “unfaithful” wife pour out her deepest thoughts? It is a remarkable depiction of both daily, family life and the intrusion and yielding to deep, physical passions. Upon publishing, the book was an immediate success.

Never before published in English, this translation by Tiina Nunnally is clear, stark and gripping. I recommend Marta Oulie for its insights about women entering the last century.

As a footnote, when Undset received her Nobel Prize, she was only the third woman to do so. Just this past year, Canada’s own Alice Munro won the Literature Prize, becoming the 13th woman out of 110 Nobel Prizes for Literature.

(Michael Sobota is a Thunder Bay-based writer.)

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