The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit by Sigrid Undset (Vintage, 1926/1994)

Maybe I’m just Baader-Meinhofing, but I’ve seen numerous complaints of a lack of criticism of older work. It’s easy enough to find recommendations for contemporary books, even if they’re not huge bestsellers, but what if one is curious about an old used paperback?

Case in point: my copy of The Master of Hestviken (of which The Snake Pit is the second book of four) by Sigrid Undset. The spine is ragged, the colors are faded, and the back cover copy is vague. Its Wikipedia entrydoesn’t even have a plot summary.

Undset, though, is far from an unknown. She’s a Nobel laureate, she has a crater on Venus named after her, and her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatteris well-known; it was given a new English translation as recently as 2005.

The lack of love for The Master of Hestviken, then, is a mystery. It’s most recent translation appears to be from 1994. Maybe it’s the length of the book? It’s a tetralogy, compose of The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger. Confusingly, they have been printed separately, in pairs, or as a single book.

Or maybe the historical context makes the book seem daunting. It’s set in 13th-century Norway during a time of civil war, and while it’s not about the war, the flurry of faction names, rulers, and family connections can be difficult to keep track of.

But I’m here to dispel that worry. The Master of Hestviken, specifically The Snake Pit, is a human novel about failures, secrets, and the inability of speech to bridge the gap between intention and impact.

The book begins with Olav Audunsson’s assumption of the titular position as master of Hestviken, his ancestral estate. His wife, Ingunn Steinfinssdatter, soon joins him, and they set about turning the decaying estate into a family home.

However, both have secret serpents eating at their hearts. Ingunn had a son out of wedlock. The boy is the product of violent rape, but Ingunn is too ashamed to reveal that fact, not even to Olav. And Olav killed the man—in his mind, a seducer but nothing more—and bears the guilt of not confessing or reporting the murder, not even to Ingunn.

The process of learning to live together, then, becomes a slow, strange dance in which the married couple keep each other at an estranged distance buffered by secrets and lies. Events that loom huge in their minds, that inform everything they do, remain unknown outside of their heads, making their actions seem puzzling at best and incomprehensible at worst. And Olav and Ingunn both suffer.

Ingunn’s suffering is most obvious—she is literally wasting away. She and Olav try over and over to conceive a child, and each is stillborn or dies young. Ingunn feels bits of herself drift away with each failure, blaming herself and her body. She has weeping and fainting spells, she can’t concentrate, and she’s frequently sick. A reader might call it PTSD, but we have the benefit of modern medicine, and we know what Ingunn has been through. To the other characters in the book, though, not privy to the violence enacted by rapist Teit Hallsson, Ingunn is a weak and fay creature who can’t do what a wife is expected to do: bear children and keep house.

Olav’s suffering leads to social ills. The men he turns to—surrogate fathers from the church, his adopted family, and neighboring houses—all die or leave or misunderstand his needs as he tries to confess what he views as a damning sin. And so Olav closes up, too afraid of judgment to reveal what would most likely viewed as a blameless act on his part. His neighbors and extended family begin to view him as a dour and severe man, which only causes him to draw back even more.

This chorus of gloom and doom, the constant and naturalistic grinding away of the characters’ selves, is punctuated by selfless acts of love. They range from small concessions to life-changing ones—Ingunn’s continued attempts to cook, Olav’s adoption of Eirik (Ingunn’s daughter by Teit). But it’s difficult to know if these acts are enough—enough to show affection in spite of looming secrets, enough to balance out the misunderstandings of a tight-knit, newly Christian society?

The entire book is a push and pull between the consequences of speech (which is almost guaranteed to be misunderstood or tinged with anger and sadness due to the characters’ histories) and the consequences of silence.

For instance, upon returning home from a time at sea, Olav kills a lynx on their land. What follows is an exchange between Olav and Ingunn regarding how Olav treats Eirik:

“If you gave Eirik the fairest colt ever bred—with saddle of silver and bridle of gold—what would that serve, Olav, if you cannot alter your feelings—can never look at the boy without a grudge?”

“That is not true,” said Olav hotly. “You are heavy too, you sow of Satan”—he had got the lynx on his spear and hoisted it over his shoulder.

It’s a shocking moment where, for only a second, a reader has to wonder whether Olav is calling Ingunn a heavy sow. It replicates what Ingunn must feel, and even after she and the reader realize Olav is talking about the lynx, the wound of the perceived insult would linger.

Undset’s prose is terse and minimalist, drawing from the Norwegian and Icelandic sagas. Using such straightforward prose to explore the emotional depths of her protagonists leads to a formal echoing of the tensions between those protagonists. It’s like Virginia Woolf, if Virginia Woolf wrote about the consequences of late Medieval revenge slayings.

Undset’s place in the canonof literary writers, of saga-style writers, of Norwegian authorswas more than secure on the basis of Kristin Lavransdatter. The Master of Hestviken cements that place even further, and it has me hungry for her other works. It also makes me curious about that entire strata of authors who are less-than-household names in America but have earned a measure of success and recognition abroad. How much am I missing out on?

Who are your favorite authors that don’t get the recognition they deserve? And what are their lesser-known works that we should be reading?