Corpses, Curses, and Cannibalism: Containment and Excess in Selma Lagerlof's Bannlyst and Its Reception

By Nordlund, Anna | Scandinavian Studies, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

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. …

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