From a Vintage Car Week to a Springtime Revival for Selma Lagerlöf
by Birgitta Holm
translated and with an introduction and reading list by Sarah Death and Linda Schenck
Birgitta Holm caused a stir in Swedish literary criticism in 1981 when she published her groundbreaking study of another leading woman writer, Fredrika Bremer och den borgerliga romanens födelse (Fredrika Bremer and the birth of the middle-class novel). In an area of scholarship where traditional biographical methods had long reigned supreme, she went on to give Lagerlöf the same innovative, psychoanalytical treatment in Selma Lagerlöf och ursprungets roman (Selma Lagerlöf and the novel of origins), 1984. Fast forward to December 2022, when the Swedish Broadcasting Company televised a new two-part documentary about Selma Lagerlöf, and various other Lagerlöf-related programmes from their archives were also made available. This renewed attention to Lagerlöf inspired Holm, emerita professor of comparative literature and career-long Lagerlöf enthusiast, to write this article. It was originally published in Dagens nyheter on 9 February 2023.
Something changed in Sweden after this recent Lagerlöf documentary. In Norway, Knut Hamsun has always been hard currency, in part because of his controversial sympathies for Hitler and Germany during the war. In any case, he excites his readers. One year I found myself sharing a bench with a gang of Norwegian vintage car buffs during the annual Värmland arts week. (The arts week and the international vintage car week always overlap in Sunne, near to where Selma Lagerlöf was born and died. Sunne is close to the Norwegian border). I was taking a short break from the succession of Lagerlöf seminars.
I had only just begun to explain what brought me to Sunne when a lively discussion broke out about these Norwegians’ own Hamsun. Hamsun and Lagerlöf have numerous parallels: same lifespan, both pioneers of fiction, both Nobel laureates in literature, both deeply beloved by their contemporary readers. In Norway, however, Hamsun’s status has remained high, while Selma Lagerlöf, a dominant presence during her lifetime, faded rapidly from view in Sweden. Any reader wishing to explore the scope of her reputation would do well to read the recently published volume based on letters she received from her readers, Lagerlöfs läsare (Lagerlöf’s readers) edited by literature scholars Jenny Bergenmar and Maria Karlsson.
Today, however, an upswing may be underway. Not only are the media suddenly brimming with Selma Lagerlöf – for example more than 350,000 viewers tuned in during a twenty-four-hour live televised relay reading of Gösta Berlings saga (The Saga of Gösta Berling). I also note that Lagerlöf is the subject of much conversation, and that large numbers of devoted Lagerlöf readers are coming out of the closet. And about time, one might say. This recent documentary, made by Kristina Lindström and Ulrika Nulty, was also strikingly successful at clarifying what a universal genius Selma Lagerlöf remains.
At the same time, this may raise my only possible objection. Selma Lagerlöf herself chose to lie low in the public debate. ‘My writing, you know, is my only passion,’ she wrote in an early letter to her patron Sophie Adlersparre. Her ‘only’ passion, with ‘only’ in italics. Although the acrobats who balance gracefully throughout the documentary must be meant as a metaphor for that statement, the agility of Lagerlöf’s creativity did not really receive its full due. The matter of how she is able to exert such force over our senses has been and remains elusive.
Among the television reruns made available in the wake of the new documentary, one particularly caught my attention, another documentary. This one was made by the Swedish Broadcasting Company in 1958 to celebrate the centenary of Selma Lagerlöf’s birth. At the time, Sweden had only had television programmes for the public for about two years. The celebratory documentary was aired only once and I was not among the small number of people in Sweden who had access to television in 1958. The film was made by Hasse Lagerkvist, who credited Lagerlöf scholar Gunnar Ahlström as literary advisor.
A single narrator holds the reins. The film begins and ends with the subject of creativity, and it is an absolutely perfect presentation of Selma Lagerlöf’s literary arc. Most of the material shown consists of the books themselves, their covers and illustrations, giving the viewer a sense of holding them one at a time as they were published. The excerpts are read by Selma Lagerlöf herself, who demonstrates the enormous span of pitch and tempo she mastered and the brilliant storyteller she was. The first of these is ‘En saga om en saga’ (‘A Saga about a Saga’), her short story describing the huge leap she took with her pioneering work, The Saga of Gösta Berling. And here – remember this was in 1958 – the narrator’s voice firmly rejects the widely held preconception of Selma Lagerlöf as nothing but some old-fashioned storytelling grandma. The author of Gösta Berling was an artist of her times and knew precisely what she was doing.
The only ‘expert voice’ quoted is that of author Harry Martinson, who is featured reading parts of his poem ‘Vildgåsresan’ (‘The wild goose chase’), an excellent depiction of how Lagerlöf merged poetry with classroom geography. Gunnar Ahlström’s research specialty was Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden), and if I were to level any criticism at this old documentary, it would be that after Nils Holgersson it seems to lose some interest in Selma Lagerlöf’s books. Kejsarn av Portugallien (The Emperor of Portugallia), that masterpiece of masterpieces, receives hardly a mention. The rest of the film is a quick overview of Lagerlöf’s route to fame, from honorary doctorate to Nobel Laureate to member of the Swedish Academy, with the menacing rumble of two world wars in the background.
The conclusion is stunningly beautiful. Two readings by Selma Lagerlöf on the theme of parting. The first is from the end of The Saga of Gösta Berling, where the author bids farewell to her characters. Her role is that of fictional narrator and her modulation is literary. But shining through the reading there is also that special relationship, that unique bond between the creative writer and her creations. The second is a radio talk given by Selma Lagerlöf when she was not far from death. It is a farewell from her own mouth. I do not think I ever heard it before and I was both moved and surprised.
When Selma Lagerlöf reads her own stories, she often tones down their tremendous emotional charge. She chooses instead to emphasize their rapid forward momentum. In the radio talk we hear pathos; there are moments when we almost think we are listening to Sara Lidman in full swing. But it is the creative process that lies at the heart of it. The fact that she has been a creator. That something will remain with us and continue to move us.
I cannot help thinking that our sphere of interest has shifted since 1958. Back then, inspired fiction, imagination and immersion in other waters were interesting enough in themselves. Now it is identification, spectacular travels and external events that draw us in. In some very particular sense, it felt as if a documentary celebrating the centenary of our venerable national writer’s birth and intended for the emerging popular medium of television, was also a venture into advanced literary criticism. I am referring to Antikrists Mirakler (Miracles of the Antichrist), that ‘second book’ which is generally considered so fateful. For Selma Lagerlöf, it was doubly so. She had resigned her teaching post to concentrate on being an author. Her life pretty much depended on it, and what she needed was both to capture a market and to consolidate her position as a producer of quality writing. For the latter, she opted to try her hand as a writer of ideas: Miracles of the Antichrist deals with the conflict between socialism and Christianity.
In the centenary documentary she reads words that she wrote in 1936 about the genesis of the novel. ‘In a really good novel, events should emerge naturally, fictional characters should live their own lives, speak their own language, so that all one has to do is write down what they say.’ She did not view Miracles of the Antichrist as that sort of book nor, consequently, does the documentary. I was struck by the choice of this failed attempt for a centenary programme. But I was also struck by it for another reason, namely that she wrote her own self-criticism far earlier, and it is much more devastating. This was what provided me with a way into a more thrilling, hidden side of Selma Lagerlöf.
Selma Lagerlöf’s language is literary in nature. She does not write in a spirit of enquiry, she does not debate, she turns even her Nobel Prize speech into an opportunity for storytelling. In Miracles of the Antichrist she felt that her characters were being dragged along rather than left to live their own lives. She smuggles a disguised reference to this struggle into En herrgårdssägen (A Manor House Tale), the novel that followed Miracles of the Antichrist. The hero of the earlier novel is Gaetano, a Sicilian. In A Manor House Tale, the novel’s course of events is encapsulated in what proves to be the downfall of Gunnar Hede: the project of the great goat drive – somewhere inside Selma Lagerlöf there is a Harpo Marx who can make a pun out of the Swedish word for goat (get) and the name Gaetano. Hede needs money and he has the idea of buying a large number of goats at a market in the north and driving them to a market much further south, where they will fetch double the price.
The expedition turns into mass slaughter. In the deep expanse of the Seventy-Mile Forest, snowfall catches the herders unawares. The goats can find nothing to eat and soon they are incapable of making progress through the growing drifts. Hede tries everything. He tries to kick the snow aside to reveal the grass, he tries to carry the goats, he tries striking and beating them and even dragging them: ‘He grabbed them by the horns and dragged them onwards and they let themselves be dragged, but they did not take a single step for themselves.’
It is appalling. But at the same time we realise how much Selma Lagerlöf has relished visiting a form of vengeance on herself in which every play on words, every correspondence between the two courses of events is so exquisite, so clever and so entertaining. If Sweden is now on its way to resembling the vintage car buffs’ bench in Sunne, then it will certainly be more in a Selma way than in a Hamsun fashion. As I see it, there will be times when we sit there together in shared emotional response to all the powerful passages that we have carried with us through life. And this will be interspersed with fiercely-fought contests in identifying the double meanings and triple meanings and quadruple meanings to be found throughout Selma Lagerlöf’s writing.
There will be no shortage of them, I assure you. If we spend even the briefest of periods examining her books through that particular lens, we find ourselves in a firework display. Meaning after meaning is set off, each cascade of colour succeeded by another before our eyes. The pyrotechnics are visible even in her youthful poem ‘Madame de Castro’ (1885), written for a reunion with her fellow students at the women’s teacher training college. The muse brought home by the fourteen-year-old ‘Selma’ in the poem is a girl of her own age from a circus, where her act involves dancing on eggs – portending a writer’s art with the rare ability of touching without crushing.
The fireworks continue with the same intensity all the way through to the author’s final book Dagbok för Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf), another work ostensibly portraying the fourteen-year-old Selma. The revelation of the author’s full name in the title is a witty signal of what we will find between the covers. The basic formula for her entire oeuvre lives on, but here in somewhat extended form. ‘Touching without crushing’ is displaced to refer to existence as a whole, and is linked to something that ‘Selma’ experiences after a visit to the morgue at the Karolinska Institute that is described in the diary, when she is standing in the drawing room in front of the painting of King Karl X Gustaf at Axel Oxenstierna’s deathbed. She has a sensation of light from the painting falling on the image she still has in her mind of the dead bodies in the morgue. I interpret this as follows: do not avert your eyes from the abyss of existence, but do not make yourself blind to the regal glow which attends it.
First published in February 2023 in Dagens nyheter (paywalled).
Selma Lagerlöf in English Translation
Below is a chronological list of translations of the Selma Lagerlöf works featured in the article. Some of the older translations are available as reissues and some are out of print. Norvik Press’s prizewinning ‘Lagerlöf in English’ series offers easy access to a range of her titles in new translations.
‘Madame de Castro. En ungdomsdikt’ (1885): first published in Sweden as late as 1984, this long poem has not yet been translated into English.
Gösta Berlings saga (1891): The Saga of Gösta Berling, translated by Paul Norlen, Penguin Classics, 2009.
Antikrists mirakler (1897): Miracles of the Antichrist, translated by Pauline Bancroft Flach, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1915. Available digitally at: digital.library.upenn.edu/women/lagerlof/miracles/miracles.html
En herrgårdssägen: A Manor House Tale (1899), translated by Peter Graves, Norvik Press, 2015.
Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (1906-07): Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden, translated by Peter Graves, Norvik Press, 2013.
‘En saga om en saga’ in En saga om en saga och andra sagor (1908): ‘The Girl from the Marsh Croft’ translated by Velma Swanson Howard 1910. Available digitally at: digital.library.upenn.edu/women/lagerlof/marsh/marsh.html
Kejsarn av Portugallien: The Emperor of Portugallia: (1914), translated by Peter Graves, Norvik 2017.
Dagbok för Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (1932): The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf, translated by Velma Swanston Howard, Doubleday, Doran, NY 1937; T. Werner Laurie Ltd, London, 1937.
Various older translations of Lagerlöf’s work into English are also available to download from: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/54615
Discover more about the author’s writing in Helena Forsås-Scott’s introduction, ‘Selma Lagerlöf and her Work’, at: litteraturbanken.se/presentationer/specialomraden/SelmaLagerlofAndHerWork.html
We are grateful to Birgitta Holm for granting permission to publish an adapted translation of this article, originally published in Dagens nyheter in February 2023.
Birgitta Holm is a literary scholar and writer. Her latest book is Vår ljusaste tragiker: Göran Tunströms textvärld (Our lightest tragedian: the textual world of Göran Tunström), Ellerströms, 2021.
Sarah Death is a translator and editor and lives in north Kent. She enjoys working on texts from a wide range of periods and genres. Her translations range from novels by Fredrika Bremer and Selma Lagerlöf via the letters of Tove Jansson to the latest part of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo franchise, The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons, written by Karin Smirnoff and due for publication in August 2023.
Linda Schenck is a native English speaker who has lived in Sweden for many years. Professionally, she worked as both a conference and court interpreter and a translator of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she devotes herself entirely to literary translation. In 2018, she received The Swedish Academy Award for Translation of Swedish Literature.