It’s been a few weeks, I know – I’m afraid between moving home and just being generally busy, this one has felt like a slow burner. But now that it’s finished, I can say I’ve heartily enjoyed it!
‘Gosta Berling’ was first published in 1891 by the Swedish writer, Selma Lagerlof; in 1909 it contributed to her accolade as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize (wow!) Lagerlof herself was an interesting character – a homosexual suffragette, she certainly fitted the bill for the intriguing ‘creative type’. Her background – growing up surrounded by the fairytales of rural Sweden, as well as being consistently in the presence of strong female personas – has clearly coloured the plot of ‘Berling’ significantly.
The novel itself, as I said, is a joy to read. In particular, the anthropomorphism of all sorts of ordinarily inhuman concepts, from storms and lakes to woodlands, sleighs and wolves, is truly poetic. Again, the strength and prominence of female characters is also an encouraging quality, and not at all what I was expecting from the novel’s blurb (which led me to suspect this would be a story about Gosta Berling’s numerous nauseating conquests). Finally, the fragmented nature of the plot, although not wholly to be praised, kept the novel interesting and varied, with a multitude of characters and settings across Swedish Varmland.
This splintered style of story-telling, however, did have its weakness – a little like ‘The Elephant’s Journey’, it left me feeling at times like the novel had no focus. Indeed, more than once I found myself wondering what this has to do with Gosta or his immediate circle. On a more functional level, the translation (Paule Bancroft Flach), whilst mostly brilliant, fell short at times – I noticed repetition of particular adjectives and structures which didn’t feel entirely deliberate, rather a case of clunky errors. These were rare, though.
Overall, this is a whimsical and at times magical story which I would definitely recommend. It might not have you sat at the edge of your seat throughout, but its excitement peaks and dips much like real-life, and I think, despite the at times fantastical themes, this naturalism is what Lagerlof might have been aiming for.
Upcoming novel: ‘Kim’ by Rudyard Kipling
Image: ‘Sophie Elkan & Selma Lagerlöf’ retrieved from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selma_Lagerl%C3%B6f