Corpses, Curses, and Cannibalism: Containment and Excess in Selma Lagerlof's Bannlyst and Its Reception
Nordlund, Anna, Scandinavian Studies
SELMA LAGERLOF (1858-1940) is generally considered one of Sweden's few world-famous and canonical novelists. Dung her lifetime she was enormously popular and became the most widely translated Swedish author of her time. Working as an elementary school teacher, Lagerlof made her literary debut in 1891 with the novel Gosta Berlings saga [The Story of Gosta Berling]. In a literary career spanning four decades, Lagerlof created subsequent masterpieces such as Jerusalem (1901-02), Nils Holgerssons underbara resa (1906-07) [The Wonderful Adventure of Nils], Kejsarn av Portugallien (1914) [The Emperor of Portugallia], and Lowenskoldstrilogin (1925-1928) [The Lowenskold Cycle].
Lagerlof was a highly esteemed public figure. In 1909, she became the first Swede and the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, and in 1914 she was the first woman to be elected to the exclusive group of eighteen authors and scholars comprising the Swedish Academy. Until her death in 1940 at the age of eighty-one, Selma Lagerlof was increasingly considered a national icon, a beloved "Great Storyteller." Residing at her Marbacka estate in Varmland, she received enormous attention from the emerging new culture industry. The success of Swedish silent cinema relied on Lagerlof adaptations; the radio broadcasted Lagerlof readings and interviews; and newsreels and magazine cover stories portrayed her life at Marbacka. Due to the popularity of works such as Gosta Berlings saga and Kejsarn av Portugallien, Lagerlof's Varmland, both real and imagined, became a kind of theme-park tourist destination from the early century onward.
Despite her fame and success, however, Selma Lagerlof's stares as an important artist within the literary canon has always been problematic. Her artistic appropriation of local legends and the folklore of Varmland into her narratives contributed to her reputation as the "Great Storyteller." A captive of her public persona, Lagerlof has often been read as drawing on mere inspiration and intuition while passively transmitting folkloristic narrative treasures hidden in the depths of the Swedish people. This patronizing myth of Lagerlof as a moralizing and entertaining "natural" storyteller obscured the conscious aesthetic and narrative experimentation of her works as well as their emotional depths and audacity.
By exploring issues of excess and containment in the compromised creation and critical reception of Lagerlof's lesser-known 1918 anti-war novel Bannlyst (1918) [literally "banned" but translated as The Outcast], (1) this article examines how Selma Lagerlof's literary project was initially conceived and has subsequently evolved in Swedish literary criticism during the twentieth century. The history of Bannlyst's reception illustrates how each interpretation and evaluation selects and reshapes features of the text in accordance with the critic's personal and political agenda and the gendered biases and blind spots of received academic practice. Using Bannlyst as a case study, one can illuminate the polarized discursive forces surrounding Lagerlof's oeuvre since her literary debut in 1891. Bannlyst can serve as a kind of mise-en-abyme of the entire Lagerlof canon as well as the legend surrounding the author by foregrounding its internal and external fault lines and contradictions, its courage and compromise, its narrative experimentation and self-censoring, its magical-realist audacity, and its "great storyteller" caution. Bannlyst represents an author at mid-life struggling to voice her outrage about the First World War yet refusing to be co-opted into the progressive women's anti-war movement. Before undertaking this examination of Bannlyst, however, it is crucial first to examine how Lagerlof's debut work, Gosta Berlings saga, written almost thirty years earlier had shaped the critical and public image of Lagerlof that has problematized and haunted the reception of her works to this day.
From her literary debut on, Lagerlof has resisted being categorized within contemporary literary movements. Gosta Berlings saga is an innovative work in which symbolist aesthetics linger between epics and poetry, reality and dream, and human experiences of extreme desperation and ecstasy. Rather than continuing in the naturalist, socially engaged tradition associated with contemporary Scandinavian female authors of the 1870s and the '80s (most prominently Anne Charlotte Leffler, Alfhild Agrell, Amalie Skram, and Victoria Benedictsson), Gosta Berlings saga helped pioneer in 1891 a new, symbolist, anti-realist direction in Swedish literature known as "nittitalismen" (the 1890s movement). The poets and critics Verner von Heidenstam and Oscar Levertin, together the main proponents of a neo-romantic and symbolist rejuvenation of Swedish literature, were also quick to realize that Gosta Berlings saga could be used to validate new literary ideals that broke with the realism of the preceding generation of women writers. Heidenstam's and Levertin's manifestos Renassans (1889) [Renaissance] and Pepitas brollop (1890) [Pepita's Wedding] proclaimed a revival of beauty and imagination. Gosta Berlings saga appealed because, unlike the work of feminist-naturalists, it did not throw the indignation roused by women's depiction of their daily experiences in the faces of these male readers. Instead, in their view, Gosta Berlings saga upheld the idea of female artistic passivity. (2) The realism of this preceding generation of female writers could thus be dismissed as tendentious and polemical literature written without intellect, wit, or artistic control. Thus these female authors were rhetorically co-opted from challenging the concepts of women basically being unfit for intellectual and artistic work. Likewise Selma Lagerlof was appropriated to fit the new literary ideals of the 1890s. Heidenstam and Levertin immediately attributed to Lagerlof a "feminine" unconsciousness of active artistic creation. The literary establishment constructed her reputation as that of a passive re-teller, but a reteller of considerably less radically charged material than that found in the portrayal of women's life experiences in the novels and dramas of the preceding decade. She was made into an intuitive storyteller of legends and tales. (3) On reading Gosta Berlings saga, Levertin immediately realized that Selma Lagerlof was an innovator in Swedish literature. However, in a letter to Heidenstam, he chose to characterize her as a little school-mistress, a little tiny one isolated and unconscious of the movements of her time. He underestimated Lagerlof's level of education and her aesthetic awareness by presupposing that as a woman and teacher she was inferior to the educated, cosmopolitan, and intellectual male contemporaries of her time. (4)
Selma Lagerlof herself, however, was highly aware of her originality and artistry as a passage from a letter to her mother suggests:
Ser mamma jag har en forfarligt stark tro pa snillet inom mig, hur skulle jag annars kunna skrifva och ge ut nagot. Jag tror allt att detta ar den basta bok, som finns pa svenska, och nar man talar om fel i den och att jag skall bli battre kan jag ej ratt forsta det. (23 Apr. 1891) You see, mother, I have a terribly strong belief in the genius inside me; how else could I write and publish anything? I believe that this is the best book yet in Swedish, and I cannot understand when people talk about its deficiencies and how I will improve. (Mammas 88) (5)
With Gosta Berlings saga, Lagerlof also broke with the ideals of nineteenth-century novelistic realism that had valorized narrative unity and the coherence of character traits. In her debut novel, the narrative perspectives are multiple and shifting. Although the narrative structure incorporates varying styles, an explicit present-tense narrator functions as the novel's organizing principle. Stories have been told by "de gamla" [the old ones] to the narrator, who once was a listening child, but who now herself has grown old and retells these stories for the young of her time:
O, sena tiders barn! Jag har ingenting nytt art beratta er, endast det, som ar gammalt och nastan glomdt. Sagner har jag fran barnkammaren, dar de sma sutto pa pallar kring sagoberatterskan med det hvita haret; eller fran stockelden i stugan, dar drangar och torpare sutto och sprakade medan angan rykte fran deras vata klader, och de drogo knifvar ur laderslidan vid halsen for att breda ut smor pa tjockt, mjukt brod; eller fran salen, dar gamle herrar sutto i vaggande gungstolar och lifvade af den angande toddyn, talade om flydda tider. (Lagerlof, Gosta 229) Oh, children of the present day! I have nothing new to tell you, only what is old and almost forgotten. I have legends from the nursery, where the little ones sat on low stools about the old nurse with her white hair, or from the log fire in the cottage, where the laborers sat and chatted, while the steam reeked from their wet clothes, and they drew knives from leather sheaths at their necks to spread butter on thick, soft bread, or from the hall where old men sat in their rocking-chairs, and, sheered by the steaming toddy, talked of old times. (199)
From the first critical response to the novel and beyond, the seeming simplicity of the narrator-character in Gosta Berlings saga was identified with an inherent naivete of the "storyteller" Selma Lagerlof. Never again, however, did Lagerlof make use of such an explicit narrator-character directly addressing readers with many exclamations and apostrophes. But she did further develop …
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Publication information: Article title: Corpses, Curses, and Cannibalism: Containment and Excess in Selma Lagerlof's Bannlyst and Its Reception. Contributors: Nordlund, Anna - Author. Journal title: Scandinavian Studies. Volume: 76. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2004. Page number: 181+. © 1999 Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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