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||Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf (1858-1940)|
Swedish novelist, who in 1909 became the first woman writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lagerlöf's work is deeply rooted in Nordic legends, history, and her childhood's Värmland. She turned away from the dominating realistic movement and wrote in a romantic and imaginative manner about the peasant life and landscape of Northern Sweden. Her great neoromantic rival was Verner von Heidenstam, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1916. Lagerlöf's internationally best-known book is the fairy tale Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (1906-07, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils).
"Nils had grown so giddy that it was a long time before he came to himself. The winds howled and beat against him, and the rustle of feathers and swaying of wings sounded like a great storm. Thirteen geese flew around him, flapping their wings and honking. They danced before his eyes and they buzzed in his ears. He didn't know whether they were flying high or low or in what direction they were travelling..." (from The Wonderful Adventures of Nils)
Selma Lagerlöf was born in Mårbacka, in the province of Värmland in southern Sweden, where she grew up in the little family estate. Selma was the fifth of six children. Her father, Erik Gustav Lagerlöf, was a retired army officer. Louise Wallroth, her mother, came from a family of clergymen. Lagerlöf was tutored at home by her father and grandmother. In the care of her paternal grandmother, she heard fairy tales and legends, stories about the glorious past of the great estates in the Värmland region, a world of cavaliers, sleighing parties, and superstitions. Lagerlöf's childhoom home was sold in the 1880s, when her father died and money was needed to settle his debts. The writer bought it back in 1904.
Lagerlöf studied at the Royal Women's Superior Training Academy in Stockholm, graduating as a teacher in 1882. From 1885 to 1895 she worked at a girl's school at Landskrona. While teaching, she began writing a novel, the first chapters of The Story of Gösta Berling, which she sent to a literary contest, sponsored by the magazine Idun. Lagerlöf was awarded a prize, and was offered a publishing contract for the whole book.
Supported financially by her lifelong friend Baroness Sophie Aldesparre, Lagerlöf completed her first novel, Gösta Berlings saga (The Story of Gösta Berling), which came out in 1891. The book sold poorly. After Georg Brandes wrote a positive review of the Danish translation in 1893, the work became a part of the Swedish Romantic revival of the 1890s. In the episodic tale, set in Värmland in the 1830s, an estate is run to wrack and ruin by a group of adventurers, "cavaliers of Ekeby," in accordance with the plan of the evil Sintram. Among the twelve gallant and reckless cavaliers is the young Gösta, a pastor. "Before her knelt Gösta Berling. He had a face compassionate as a poet's and bold as a soldier's. His eyes were deep, glowing with wit and genius; they invited. He was supple and full of strength, fiery and intriguing." Gösta's magnetic personality inevitably draws people to him. Due to his drinking habits, he loses his parish. Eventually he marries the Countess Elisabeth, whose husband has divorced her. Through Elisabeth's influence and his own efforts, he is able to find peace in his life.
Osynliga länkar (1894, Invisible Links), a collection of short stories, gained an immediate success. However, in the literary circles of fin-de-siècle, Lagerlöf's reputation was affected by Oscar Levertin's dismissal of her as "just" a teller of fairy tales. With a fellowship granted by King Oscar and financial assistance from the Swedish Academy, Lagerlöf devoted herself entirely to writing. She settled in Falun, where she spent most of her life.
All her life, Lagerlöf had close ties to other women. She wrote more than 2,500 letters to her intimate friends. In 1894 Lagerlöf met a fellow writer Sophie Elkan (1853-1921), who became her lifelong companion. Elkan had lost her husband and little daughter ten years earlier. Ever since then she had dressed in all black in mourning. Lagerlöf's letters to Elkan, Du lär mig att bli fri, were published in 1993. Her biography Lagerlöf left unfinished at the time of her own death. Valborg Olander (1861-1943), whom Lagerlöf met in 1902, supported her work in different ways.
After travels in Italy and Sicily with Elkin, Lagerlöf published Antikrists mirakler (1897, The Miracles of Antichrists), a socialist novel about Sicily; Lagerlöf herself viewed the work as an artistic failure. A journey to Egypt and Palestine (1899-1900) inspired Jerusalem I. I Dalarne (1901) and Jerusalem II. I det heliga landet (1902), critically acclaimed works, which established her fame as the foremost Swedish novelist. The collection of stories, set in the 1890s, tells about the disruptive effects of a religious revival on a traditional rural community in the province of Dalecarlia. The title refers to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for which the land of an old peasant family, the Ingmars of Ingmarson, is finally sold at an auction by one member of the family. Another Ingmar, however, renounces his fiancée and marries a rich woman in order to save the farm. En herrgårdssägen (1899, From a Swedish Homestead) was excursion in the world of psychoanalysis.
'"Och Ingmar," sade hon, "du skall bli präst, inte sant, du? Eller om du inte kan bli präst, så skall du åtminstone bli skollläräre. Det finns så mycket av mörkrets ondska att strida emot."' (from Jerusalem)
In her short stories Lagerlöf often blurred the border between dreams and reality. Sometimes she borrowed elements from or fairy tales or Victorian supernatural fiction. En saga om en saga och andra sagor (1908) includes one of Lagerlöf's most anthologized religious fables, 'The Legend of the Christmas Rose.'
In 'Old Agneta' a woman lives alone in a cottage on the edge of a broad glacier. In the solitude of the mountains, she starts to talk to herself. She feels that she is already frozen with the cold and her empty life, and wants to die because nobody needs her. A monk comes to her and shows that she is not alone - the mist and fog of the snow-covered mountain are in reality a host of lost souls. Agneta burns candles in her cottage for the ghosts, who are attracted by their light and warmth. "Where would the souls of the departed find a refuge from the boundless cold of Death, if the old ones here on earth did not throw open their hearts to them?" She is happy because she knows that she is needed. After she dies, the mountain is lit by the ghosts with tiny yellow flames.
Lagerlöf's most popular children's book is The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, which was partly inspired by Rudyard Kipling's animal stories. The work was commissioned by the Primary School Board as an aid to the teaching of Swedish geography; Lagerlöf's effort proved to be more lasting than Heidenstam's Swedish history for schoolchildren. The two-volume story tells of a fourteen-year old boy, Nils Holgersson, the son of poor farmers, whose chief delight is to eat and sleep, and "after that – he liked best to make mischief." Because of his selfish naughtiness, Nils is transformed to elf-size by an angry tomte (gnome). He jumps on the back of the farm's gander, who joins a flock flying north, to Lapland. On his travels the length and breath of Sweden with the wild geese, Nils learns unselfishness from his companions. Though the strong moral tone of the tale is somewhat outdated, its plea to respect Nature is today even more urgent.
Looking at the Swedish way of life from the air and on the ground, Lagerlöf gives her readers much information about her native country, its geography, history, and its mythological past. When the Japanese novelist Oe went to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, he said that in his youth he had read the book many times, and felt that he knew Sweden already. Another admirer of the book in his childhood was the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994). "For many, many years I reread this book at least once a year," he confessed in Unended Quest (1974), "and in the course of time I probably read everything by Selma Lagerlöf more than once."
Fantasy is an important part in many of Lagerlöf stories and novels. Körkarlen (1912, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness) was based on a legend alleging that the last man to die on New Year's Eve must drive Death's cart during the coming year. In the frame of a supernatural story Lagerlöf dealt with social problems. With its multiple flashbacks and ghost appearances, Victor Sjöström's movie adaptation of from 1921 is considered with its dramatic effects one of the greatest Swedish film classics The cinematographer Julius Jaenzon (pseudonym J Julius) had experimented with double exposure and flasback for The Kiss of Death (1917) and Sir Arne's Treasure (1919). Speaking of this film, Sjöström said: "The exteriors were filmed in the evening, by artifical light . . . First the background was photographed. The the same strip of film went once again through the camera; then the ghosts were taken against a neutral, dark backing . . . Sometimes the strip of film had to pass four times through the camera for different takes of the same scene. We were proud of the ghosts' consistency. They were actually not flat and misty. As a result of artful lighting, they had become three-dimensional in their spirituality." (Making Pictures: A Century of European Cinematography, 2003, pp. 164-165)
In 1914 Lagerlöf was appointed a member of the Swedish Academy. During World War I, which paralyzed her creativity, she wrote little; Kejsarn av Portugallien (1914, The Emperor of Portugallia), a story of truth, lies, and fantasies, is often mentioned as her last great achievement. The pacifist novel Bannlyst (1918, The Outcast) dealt with the evils caused by the war. In 1917, Lagerlöf approached the director Viktor Sjöström and Svenska Bio with the suggestion that they produce films of her novels. Mauritz Stiller, who directed Herr Arnes pengar (1919, Sir Arne's Treasure), a ghost story, and Gunnar Hedes saga (1923, The Blizzard), decided to use in the Gösta Berling film unknown actors; one of them was Greta Gustafsson, better know as Greta Garbo. The premiere of the first part was on March 10, 1924, in Röda Kvarn. It was an enormous cultural event, attended by Swedish, French, English, German, and even American celebrities. The second part premiered seven days later. Although the reviews were mediocre, Gösta Berlings saga was a financial success. Lagerlöf herself considered Stiller's adaptation cheap and sensational. For making the film, Garbo was paid $600.
Lagerlöf devoted much time to women's causes in the 1920s. She published short stories, a biography of the Finnish author Zachris Topelius, and the Värmland trilogy about a gift from Karl XII, a ring, which haunts a family for generations, Löwensköldska ringen (1925, The General's Ring), Charlotte Löwensköld (1925), Anna Svärd (1928). Lagerlör's autobiography, Mårbacka (1922-1932), which comprised several volumes, was widely read in the 1930s; it was also translated into English, as many of her novels and short stories.
As World War II approached, Lagerlöf helped German intellectuals and artists to escape Nazi persecution. She managed to arrange a Swedish visa for the poet Nelly Sachs, and saved her from the death camp. When Finland fought against the Soviet aggression during the Winter War, Lagerlöf donated her gold Nobel Prize medal for fund-raising to help the struggling country. In the midst of her efforts to provide war relief to the blockaded population of Finland, she died of a stroke at her home on March 16, 1940.
For further reading: Selma Lagerlöf: Her Life and Work by W.A. Berendsohn (1931, preface by V. Sackville-West); Selma Lagerlöf by Stellan Arvidsson (1932); Selma Lagerlöf by A. Larsen (1936); Selma Lagerlöf I-II by Elin Wägner (1942-43); Mitt liv med Selma Lagerlöf by Ida Bäckman (1944); Selma Lagerlöf efter Gösta Berlings saga by Bengt Ek (1951); Fact and fiction in the autobiographical works of Selma Lagerlöf by Stientje de Vriesze (1958); Landskap och natur i Gösta Berlings saga by Gunnar Ahlström (1958); Livets stigar by Vivi Edström (1960); Körkaren och Bannlyst by U.B. Lagerroth (1963); Selma Lagerlöf den förargelseväckande by Nils Afzenius (1969); My Belief by H. Hesse (1974); Selma Lagerlöf by Vivi Bloom Edström (1984); Selma Lagerlöf och ursprungets roman by Birgitta Holm (1984); The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays by M. Yourcenar (1984); Selma Lagerlöfs litterära profil by Vivi Edstöm (1986); Selma Lagerlöf by Sven Delblanc (1986); Snödrottningen by Henrik Wivels (1988); Selma Lagerlöf: Her Works of Life by Henrik Wivel (1991); Den svenska litteraturhistorien by Göran Hägg (1996); The Literary Response of German-language Authors to Selma Lagerlöf by Jennifer Lynn Madler (1998); Sophie Elkan: hennes liv och vänskapen med Selma Lagerlöf by Eva Helen Ulvros (2001); En genialisk lek: kritik och överskridande i Selma Lagerlöfs tidiga författarskap by Lisbeth Stenberg (2001); Förvildade hjärtan: livets estetik och berättandets etik i Selma Lagerlöfs Gösta Berlings saga by Jenny Bergenmar (2003); I Selma Lagerlöfs värld: fjorton uppsatser, eds. Maria Karlsson and Louise Vinge (2005); Selma Lagerlöfs underbara resa genom den svenska litteraturhistorien 1891-1996 by Anna Nordlund (2005); Såsom ett barn: om Selma Lagerlöf: essäer, artiklar, recensioner & brev by Birger Haglund (2005); Selma Lagerlöf & Co: litteratursociologiska och textkritiska analyser by Petra Söderlund (2010); Kära syster!: jag tyckes hafva otur i allt: om Johan Lagerlöf och hans syster Selma by Torbjörn Sjöqvist (2010); Selma Lagerlöf by Dag Sebastian Ahlander (2011); Jordens dotter: Selma Lagerlöf och den tyska hembygdslitteraturen by Ann-Sofi Ljung Svensson (2011) - Suom.: Lagerlöfiltä on suomennettu myös Kootut teokset I-X. Lastenklassikon Peukaloisen retket villihanhien seurassa suomensi Juhani Aho. Kirjasta on otettu useita painoksia, kahdestoista ilmestyi vuonna 1995 Maija Karman kuvittamana. Selma Lagerlöf Award: 100 000 Swedish crowns, winners among others the writers Göran Palm, Göran Tunström (who has also depicted Värmland, especially Sunne, in his works), Kerstin Ekman, Stig Claesson, Sven Delblanc, Georg Henrik von Wright