Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Selma Lagerlöf’s "giant bees of the imagination"

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.


  1. Okay, Tom, I finally have to ask: How do you come across and decide to read these obscure texts? I have this imagined scene in which you roam through the darkest bowels of a library, find some neglected books that have rarely been checked out by anyone, and then set about reading them. Of course, my imagined scene must be entirely wrong.

  2. In the case of this specific book, I reject the premise. Lagerlöf is a Nobel Prize winner, and the novel was published, or maybe reissued, as a Penguin Classic in 2009. So it is not all that neglected.

    Having said that, I did read a library copy that I plucked from a shelf in the library's dark bowels - the lights had motion sensors, so it was well lit while I was there, unless I stood still too long. Right next to this book sat the neglected Lagerlöf books, the translations from decades ago. I rejected those for the better known, newer book.

    I have another answer. In this post I said something like "I dunno, Selma Lagerlöf, really?" and a couple of commenters said "No, she's good, really, try her!" So that's really how it started, after which came, eventually, the dark bowels of the library.

    Not the darkest, I guess. But pretty dark.

  3. Interesting! You now have me thinking more about Nobel winners that I've not read. Perhaps I should remedy that oversight. However, now that I see "dark bowels" repeated, I confess: that is a foul metaphor for the library's hidden corners.

  4. I'll outsource this one to Marguerite Yourcenar:

    There are few great novelists. Great women novelists are even rarer. Before the 19th. Century there's a single unique and admirable exception to this rule: Murasaki Shikibu, surely one of the best novelists in the world, who lived in Japan during the eleventh century. About all the other great women novelists belong to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The list includes at most a dozen names. Surprisingly enough, most of them wrote in English or in some Scandinavian language. Among these women of the highest talent, in my opinion, none of them is a greater writer than Selma Lagerlof. In any case, she is the only one who constantly rises to the level of epic poetry and myth.

    In Gosta Berling's Saga we find characters of an epic scale. A drinker, a gambler and a libertine, Gosta, the renegade pastor, the tramp who sold for some cheap gin to drink the wheat bags a poor young girl had trusted to him to watch over; Gosta, the superstitious ingrate who allowed his female protector to be expelled from Ekeby, accused of being a witch; Gosta, the hopeless romantic who dreams to die wrapped in the peace of the Finnish forests; Gosta, the seducer of all the beautiful women and the true love of none, until the day he marries an abandoned woman who needs his help.
    Side by side with Gosta we find the lady commander of Ekeby, with her pipe and her dirty mouth; sometimes dressed in satins and pearls to receive her guests at Christmas, sometimes guiding her ore trains in their navigation through the dangerous lake; she is one of the more commanding female characters the nineteenth century novel has produced. At one point she confides to a wayward young man who wanted to die, that her life too was hard and difficult just like his, and that she would have as many reasons to choose suicide as any tramp; at another scene she greets her mother while sitting at the table for dinner, her mother had come to reproach her behavior and both women proceed to insult each other, all the time they continue eating peacefully, while her guests, petrified, dare not say a word or touch their food.

  5. Holy cow! I sure didn't think the book was that good! What Yourcenar describes is, in fact, in the book. The "lady commander" is a fine character, that is certainly true. I will have to read more Lagerlöf with this encomium in mind.

    A Nobel Prize oriented project is an odd one, just because so many of the choices, the earlier ones, especially, have either receded from English or never had much presence in English at all. But it means there is lots of potential for discoveries.

  6. It really does sound strange, if weirdly fascinating. It was warmly recommended to me by a Swedish visitor a year or so ago, and I admit I'm currently feeling pleased that I didn't follow up on her tip -- but that praise from Yourcenar is a little weight on the other side.

    There were lots of Scandinavian elements in the novel I just finished -- Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter -- it has Vikings and everything! Maybe you should sneak it onto your list. :-)

  7. The back of the book, the Penguin Classics edition, says at the top, I kid you not, "The first new English translation in more than one hundred years of the Swedish Gone with the Wind." I think they just mean that it has continued to sell, but otherwise what a deception! This is explicitly a fantasy novel, full of folk tales and weird creatures. Yourcenar omits, I note, all of the fantastic stuff, say every other chapter.

    Having said that, you are right, the novel does have a kinship with the Dunnett book. I read your opening joke thinking "Why, this sounds a lot like an Icelandic saga!"