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THE UNKNOWN SIGRID UNDSET Jenny and Other Works Edited by Tim Page Translation from the Danish by Tina Nunnally; Steerforth Press: 424 pp., $30

I DON'T WANT TO GO TO JAIL By Jimmy Breslin; Little, Brown: 320 pp., $24.95

GRANTA The Magazine of New Writing/74 Edited by Ian Jack; Granta Publications: 255 pp., $12.95

July 08, 2001

THE UNKNOWN SIGRID UNDSET Jenny and Other Works Edited by Tim Page Translation from the Danish by Tina Nunnally; Steerforth Press: 424 pp., $30

Sigrid Undset was born in Denmark in 1882 but grew up in Norway. In 1928, she won the Nobel Prize for her epic trilogy, "Kristin Lavransdatter," set in medieval Scandinavia. Her first novel, "Jenny" (1911), along with two stories and several letters, all written before the author was 30, are included in "The Unknown Sigrid Undset." "Jenny" and the letters are newly translated by Tina Nunnally, a sort of angel of Scandinavian literature. "Jenny" is the story of a young artist in Rome. Through Jenny's eyes, a reader is exposed to Undset's view of the lives young women led in her time: the wealthy young woman with bad nerves and too many choices, the unhappily married (a great theme of Undset's), the divorced, the schoolteacher and even, briefly, the deeply religious. None of these looks good. Undset's writing reminds this reader of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," though it is not a Norwegian story the way "Sister Carrie" is an American story. It is a novel about women ("if only women would be women--try to find themselves and try to live accordingly, and refuse either to compete with men or to let them decide what is eternally feminine or what they ought to do") and about men ("do you think any real men exist, or are they all just menfolk?"). The letters, beginning when Undset was 16, writing to a pen pal who remained her friend for life, shine with purpose and strangely clear intentions. In 1908, she explained her interest in marriage as a literary subject to her friend: "You ask why I'm interested in the marriage problem--I can't say that any 'problems' interest me, just people, and it's most often marriage that is a person's fate, at least for women."

I DON'T WANT TO GO TO JAIL By Jimmy Breslin; Little, Brown: 320 pp., $24.95

Fausti ("the Fist") Dellacava has two families--the Mafia, which he runs from a clubhouse in Greenwich Village, and his wife and children, who live in the townhouse on East 68th Street--and we're not even counting his other wife and children living in the suburbs. His nephew and namesake, little Fausti, grows up feeling proud of his uncle's power until he is old enough to want to trade that legacy in for a "legitimate" life. The good news about this novel is the absolute marriage of words and paper. Breslin's language, his way of creating characters by showing how they think through their language, his incessant noticing could not be reproduced in any other medium. "'You went over to see your whore,' an angry wife says to her cheating husband. She did not realize that she was insulting his second wife.... The Fist opened things up.... He hit her. Nice. She broke a big green glass soda bottle on the sink.... He said to Rosie tearfully, 'I'll never do it again.' 'No kidding,' Rosie said." The bad news is that Breslin is more infatuated with his character's power than he is with the ligaments of the story. He has Brando on the brain, and it seeps between the writer and his readers like blood beneath a bathroom door.

GRANTA The Magazine of New Writing/74 Edited by Ian Jack; Granta Publications: 255 pp., $12.95

The lead piece in Granta's summer issue is "Confessions of a Middle Aged Ecstasy Eater," a Thomas De Quincy-, Aldous Huxley-style confession of an addiction. It's not the addiction that makes the anonymous author squirm so prettily on the page; it's the fact that his son, after a few hair-raising decades, has settled down as his father's main supplier. "What is a mind," the author asks, "if not something to be messed with?" It occurs to me that this is the great function of our best literary journals: They should shake us up, challenge the principles guarding the gates of literary publishing, serve us tasty bits. This summer issue whets a particular appetite, international in style and subject. We read about the middle-aged ecstasy eater in one story and then we find an unpublished (the only unpublished) story of the late Penelope Fitzgerald. The pieces take us from Sweden to Peru to Iran to the Hasidic community in New York to Tasmania. The distinctions between nonfiction and fiction blur--as they seem to do in books these days. Nicholas Shakespeare, author of a biography of Bruce Chatwin, writes about his vacation from biography, one that turns into an archeological dig into his own ancestry. A.M. Homes creates a kind of jumpy story whose dominant metaphor is the brilliant green dots on a radar screen. David Feuer's story of his work as a psychiatrist among the Hasidim is a ray of light into that mysterious culture. This issue achieves the same sense of freedom and lack of intellectual boundaries as, well, the Internet. It inspires the internal search engine.

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