Wednesday, September 16, 2009

14: Gosta Berling's Saga

Selma Lagerlöf, Gösta Berling’s Saga

Who is Gösta Berling?

He is the eponymous main character of this saga. He is a disgraced priest who is taken in by the Lady of Ekeby, a rich patroness who supports 12 cavaliers. Of these 12 cavaliers, who excel at idling, drinking, and carousing, Gösta Berling is the charismatic leader.

One late wintry night, as the 12 cavaliers are drinking in their room in the cavalier’s wing of the great house at Ekeby, a thirteenth joins their table. He’s dark and shadowy and is either the devil or Death himself. He tells the 12 cavaliers that he is there to renew his contract with the Lady of Ekeby; in return for being the Lady of Ekeby and the owner of a great many mills and foundries, she offers him one soul a year – the soul of a cavalier. For in fact, one cavalier does seem to die every year and this circumstantial fact, along with a few other tales of bygone woes, convince the cavaliers of the veracity of the dark stranger claiming to be Death or the devil. They make a pact with him to let them manage the great estate of Ekeby for a year and, if they act honourably during that year, Death would take the soul of an evil man in the neighbourhood or, otherwise, he would take all twelve of their souls.

The next day, at a feast, the agreement is surprisingly brought about. The Lady of Ekeby is driven out of her house to live as a beggar and the cavaliers are given management of Ekeby. Gösta Berling and his comrades take this to be a sign that the devil had spoken true and plan to live an honourable year. Thus begins Gösta Berling’s Saga.

This book had so many feast and balls; all that the cavaliers do is feast, play music, make merry, and carry off a different rich, beautiful woman of the neighbourhood after every ball. Each chapter is a little story and they are beautifully woven together with wonderful foreshadowing. Things that appear innocuously in one little episode forebode disaster in a later one. The rather slow Count Henrik is tricked and manipulated into taking cavalier’s side against his wife in a completely innocent episode. Later, in a more sinister episode, he takes his mother’s side against his wife out of the same slowness and susceptibility to being cajoled. The peculiarities that Lagerlöf brings to light in her characters are never forgotten and always recalled for a closer examination of its effects.

After reading so many episodes of Gösta Berling, I am still at a loss as to what kind of person he really is. Is he some mythical, happy creature, skilled at partying or is he a deep, reflective kind of man? Would Tonio Kröger like him, as one of the fair ones who lived in the world and would never understand poor poet Tonio? Or would Tonio scoff at Gösta as one of his fellows, poetic souls exiled from reality? There are episodes to support both sides but my main impression is that I, the reader, was flooded by so many examples of his actions, which ought to reflect his character better than words of description, that I was overwhelmed and failed to arrive at any conclusion at what kind of hero or anti-hero Gösta is. Nevertheless, I still really liked the book and its fantastical tale that makes magic out of snow, wolves and ice and injects romanticism into a Swedish countryside.

In 1909, Selma Lagerlof was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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