Friday, July 5, 2019

Jenny by Sigrid Undset

Norwegian meet-the-parents nightmare
Winner of the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, Norwegian author Sigrid Undset is best known for her trilogy about medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, which I have not yet read. I have an interest in the works of some of Undset’s contemporaries in Scandinavian literature and wanted to give one of her books a try. I settled on her 1911 novel Jenny simply because it was the easiest to get my hands on in English.

I must admit when I first started reading Jenny I absolutely hated it. The novel opens on a group of five Norwegian friends, all artists, who are living, studying, and working in Rome. These five annoying bohemian hipsters engage in extensive inane conversations on topics like buying jewelry, but mostly they verbosely psychoanalyze themselves and each other. Like a throwback to so many Victorian-era novels of all nations, the very mention of an ancient Roman bridge or fountain is supposed to lend depth to these tedious proceedings. Despite the fact that this is a novel about artists, very little of it is actually about art. Helge Gram, who has just arrived in Rome, is the naive, just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck newcomer to this social circle. He falls in love with another member of the group, Jenny Winge, and somehow convinces her to fall in love with him.

The novel improves considerably once the characters return to Norway. After their engagement, Jenny goes to meet Helge’s family at their home. She soon learns that Helge has a very domineering mother, of whom the rest of the family lives in fear, although if anyone should point that out Helge immediately rises to his mother’s defense. Helge’s father is a more sympathetic sort, and he also at one time harbored artistic inclinations, so on the basis of that common ground Jenny begins to spend time with him. Mr. Gram requests that Jenny not tell Mrs. Gram about their meetings, which really puts Jenny in an odd position of having to keep secrets from her future mother-in-law. The disturbing dynamic between Mr. Gram, Mrs. Gram, and Helge inspires second thoughts about her engagement as Jenny is repeatedly asked to construct a web of lies to tiptoe around each family member’s delicate feelings. This is just the beginning, however, as this uncomfortable meet-the-parents scenario escalates to unforeseen repercussions that challenge credibility.

As the story progresses, the reader becomes more intimately familiar with Jenny and more engaged in the life of this well-drawn character. Unfortunately, she is the only likeable character in a book where almost everyone is at least annoying and some are downright creepy. The story eventually morphs into a feminist narrative, examining gender roles and a woman’s right to live independently and determine her own fate, whether financial, romantic, or sexual. One wants to like the book for this reason, but it just gets so bogged down with overly lengthy philosophical discussions about love. The feminist subject matter deserves a more realistic telling, but the characters are too busy behaving like tragic heroes in an opera. Undset should be commended for handling touchy subject matter that was no doubt controversial for 1911, but the way it is handled will likely fail to satisfy the readers of a century later.

Given that much of Jenny is concerned with issues of womanhood, it is probable that a female reader might get more out of this novel than this male reader did. Ultimately the book delivers some quite memorable scenes, but the memories it leaves aren’t exactly fond ones.

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