Favorite single line from The Saga of Gösta Berling:
Then he set up this organ, which had such strange tones, whose dreadful bassoon stop intermittently bursts forth in the middle of a peaceful hymn – no one knows why or how – and causes the children to cry in church on Christmas morning. (Ch. 13, 193)
This organ builder was once loved by Mamsell Marie, whose name gives the chapter its title. Mamsell Marie now sews quilts and curtains, and is adopted by Countess Märta, one of the novel’s villains – I have finally reached a character who matters for the plot. The monstrous Countess cruelly mimics and mocks Marie. Countess Elisabet, her daughter-in-law and the most important female character in the book, takes pity on Marie.
I am just saying that the organ that makes children cry, an invention worthy of Hoffmann, is pretty distant from the story as such, as is much of the text of The Saga of Gösta Berling. This chapter begins:
Silence, by all means, silence!
There is a buzzing over my head. It must be a bumblebee flying around. No, just be quiet! Such an aroma! As sure as I’m alive, if it isn’t southernwood and lavender and birdcherry and lilac and narcissus. It is a glory to sense this on a gray autumn evening in the heart of the city. (190)
And this goes on for a while, just the narrator thinking about plants and an old story, which she then tells, as she has been doing all along. A narrator like this is designed to test the patience of many readers. I found her to be full of surprises.
A few chapters later, that wicked mother-in-law is cursed by a witch so that the magpies – I guess I can skip the horrible details.
No one had a more bitter life. Can anyone keep from pitying her? (Ch. 19, 248)
In a later chapter, one of the cavaliers is given a gift by a wood nymph – “’hereafter shall you with your two hands be able to execute whatever work of art you wish, but only one of each type’” (Ch. 33, 353), for example “a wagon that moved by itself” and wings that allow him to fly. This gift also turns out to be a curse, more due to the temperament of the cavalier than the ill will of the nymph.
The book ends with the return of that bumblebee, an expansion of Selma Lagerlöf’s meaning. “[T]he legends swarm around you like the bees of summer,” she writes, which leads her to one more little story, or joke, really, about the “giant bees of the imagination” and their difficulty in entering “the beehive of reality.” Her strange novel is meant to help.