THE LAUREATE: Selma Lagerlöf was born in Mårbacka, Värmland, Sweden, in 1858. She was born with a hip injury, and thus spent much of her time listening to her grandmother’s stories and reading. She taught at a girls’ school, during which time she began writing Gösta Berling’s Saga. She sent the first few chapters to a literary magazine and won a contest, thereby receiving money to support herself enough to finish the novel. Using that money and grants from the Swedish crown, she traveled and was inspired to write several other novels, including Jerusalem. She won the Nobel Prize in 1909 and was elected to the Swedish academy in 1914, thus making her the only laureate member of the Academy that I don’t suspect nepotism from. During World War II, she sent her Nobel and Academy medals to the Finnish government to help them, and she helped Nelly Sachs, co-laureate in 1966, escape to asylum in Stockholm in 1940.
WHAT I’M READING: The aforementioned Gösta Berling’s Saga, which I spent a fair amount of time looking for.
REVIEW: For a first novel, Gosta Berling’s Saga is excellent. It would be excellent in any other place in a writer’s body of work, too. It is clear that Selma Lagerlof had had long practice with telling stories and was quite learned in Swedish folktales. At least in Gosta Berling’s Saga, she has a very amiable voice. The story itself has an interesting construction. It centers around Gosta Berling, a disgraced priest who is brought into the cavaliers at Ekeby, which appears to be a sort of pension that the Major’s wife of Ekeby paid out for interesting old men to have a little dignity before they died. After Gosta is brought into the company, the devil, who might or might not have actually been the evil old forge owner Sintram, or maybe it was definitely Sintram but he might or might not have actually been the devil, came into the cavaliers’ hall and essentially sold it to them for one year. Broadly speaking, the novel is a partial account of that year, but it is much more than that. The lives of many of those who live around Ekeby are described; a cavalier who was a genius inventor, only he came across the spirit of the forest and she blessed/cursed him to create great works, but each only once; the countess who travels the world, only to return and spurn the cavalier who has waited for her; the captain who, returning from an unjust imprisonment, is rejected by his wife and wanders about the countryside, preaching a simple faith and performing miracles. Overall, Lagerlof is recreating an era, both historical and folkloric. She does this with a purpose “the soul is ever hungering. It cannot live on vanity and frivolity alone. If it gets no other nourishment, it tears to pieces, like a wild animal, first others, then itself. That is the meaning of this saga.”
Over the year we spend with the cavaliers in charge of Ekeby, they spend most of their time on pranks, dancing and balls. The Major’s wife had been an iron mistress, overseeing every detail of her seven foundries personally (see what I did there?). While she was in charge, the region around the Lofven Lake was busy and prosperous. Under the cavaliers, the old breakwater fails and the mills are destroyed, the seven foundries, all for legitimate, partying-related reasons, fail to produce a single pound of iron, at least one marriage is dissolved, the harvest is a disaster and the peasants use their seed-grain for gin. Fortunately, finally, the cavaliers nut up and begin the hard work of undoing the damage their dissolution has caused.
RECOMMENDED: Absolutely. Selma Lagerlof also wrote two more books of primarily folktale material: The Adventures of Nils and the Further Adventures of Nils. They are free in English on Google books.
WHAT’S NEXT: Rudolf Eucken talks to us about Socialism.