by Janin Pisarek
Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) is probably one of Sweden’s most famous writers. Her contrasting works, influenced by the oral narrative tradition, belong to world literature. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature and was very involved in social and political life.
The early years
Lagerlöf spends a lot of time wrapped up in stories and books. On the one hand, she escapes from everyday life, in which she suffers more and more from the self-destructive tendencies of her beloved father. On the other hand, she falls ill with a mysterious paralysis of the legs during childhood. She sees positive things in it: “This disability forced me to sit still and look inside myself, and that is why I became a writer. If I had been healthy, I would probably have had to marry some factory manager. “1
Breaking new ground
After completing her studies in 1885, she gets a job as a teacher in a girls’ boarding school, where she spends the next ten years. In the same year her father died. The Mårbacka estate, the farm of her childhood, which had been passed down in the female line for three generations, had to be sold in 1890 due to high debts. The fear of losing her home and farm is something the author later addresses in several of her works.
In 1890 she won first prize in the Journal Idun with a manuscript on Gösta Berling. She is released from teaching for a year so that she can devote herself to writing.
The first publications
Only after her second book, Invisible Gangs, did she achieve her breakthrough in Sweden in 1894, and Gösta Berling also became a bestseller due to its long-forgotten modern, episodic form. With this success she is able to give up her job as a teacher in 1897 and live as a writer.
Her work Eine Herrenhofsage is published in 1898 as a collection of “novels and tales for the working people”. In 1899 follows The Queens of Kungahälla, which contains a number of legendary novellas.
In that year, she also met Valborg Olander (1861-1943), a politically committed professor of literature and student councillor, in her new home town of Falun, and a lifelong love affair developed. From Lagerlöf’s letters published later, it is clear that she assured both Sophie Elkan and Valborg Olander of her love (“kärlek”). But only to Olander does she obviously have a longing for physical tenderness.
Anne-Marie Lissel (*around 1920), the then 16-year-old secretary, later remembers how she always had to leave enough space when typing letters to Olander because Lagerlöf insisted on personal handwritten additions. It is also Olander who advises Lagerlöf and helps her edit manuscripts and handle correspondence.
Selma Lagerlöf achieved her greatest success with the epic-historical two-volume work Jerusalem, published in 1901 and 1902. In it she contrasts the wooded, hilly landscape of the province of Dalarna with the city of Jerusalem and describes the pilgrimage and emigration of a deeply religious peasant family from the Swedish province of Dalarna to Palestine.
Of success and failure
On 10 December 1909 Selma Lagerlöf is the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of King Gustav V (1858-1950). For many years the Nobel Prize committee had doubts about whether a writer of fairy tales and sagas, who mixed realistic and fantastic elements, could be awarded the most important literature prize.
At an auction she can buy back her old Mårbacka manor house and the land that belongs to it, and move in again. She is having a factory built there to provide work for the people in the area and improve the economic situation in the region. It will provide health, social and pension insurance for the 50 or so employees. However, the whole company, which starts off hopefully, turns out to be a financial disaster.
In 1911 the novel Liljecronas Heimat is published. The story is set in the same landscape as Gösta Berling, features well-known characters and forms the prequel to a chapter of the book published 20 years earlier. In the same year, Lagerlöf gives a highly acclaimed speech at an international women’s congress in Stockholm. The fact that a world-famous woman, Nobel Prize winner and landowner, who was denied the right to vote at that time, made the speech particularly explosive.
Another great success is the refined narrative The Carter of Death from 1912.
In “The Emperor of Portugallia” from 1914, Lagerlöf, like in Gösta Berling and Liljecrona’s Home, takes up the landscape and memories of her childhood. But romantic sagas and love affairs give way here to a realistic depiction of life, especially of the little people, many customs and traditions, and the processing of real people and events.
The turmoil of war
In 1922 the first of three autobiographical books is published. In Mårbacka. Memories from the youth lead the way from the landscape of Värmland and its myths to Stockholm as a place of modernity. The work also has this in common with the two autobiographies that appear later, Memoirs of a Child in 1930 and Diary of Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf in 1932.
In 1924 Gösta Berling’s film version with the then star actress Greta Garbo (1905-1990) in the leading role premiered and later became a box-office success. Ten other works by Lagerlöf are filmed.
Between 1925 and 1929 a trilogy is created, consisting of The General’s Ring, Charlotte Löwensköld and Anna, the girl from Dalarne. This work tells the interwoven story of a family. In 1928 Lagerlöf receives an honorary doctorate from the University of Greifswald.
From 1933 she supported Jews in their flight to Sweden. In 1939, the Jewish German-Swedish writer and later Nobel Prize winner for literature Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) and her mother are said to be among those whom Lagerlöf helps to leave Germany. Lagerlöf, over 80 years old, is already ill at the time, but Nelly Sachs’ escape with her mother succeeds. However, Lagerlöf does not live to see them enter Germany. She suffers a stroke and lies unconscious on her estate for the last few days. She dies on 16 March 1940 at the age of 81. It has been reported “that she was under the impression of the disastrous political turns of this war when she closed her eyes on 16 March 1940”.2
All of this is based on her extraordinary narrative skills, which in turn can be traced back to her childhood enriched by narrative traditions.
Lagerlöf thus leaves behind a potpourri of diverse stories about the country and its people with a strong tendency towards the fantastic, supernatural and magical. It thrives on the mystical infinite expanses of Scandinavia, elements of Swedish folklore and the simple and vivid language that reflects the enchanting diversity of the country.
In sagas, fairy tales and legends it tells of the mutual and fateful relationships between people, nature and its creatures.