This debut novel of Selma Lagerlöf is an uncommon novel. Belonging to the genre of magical realism, the story is about one defrocked Lutheran minister by the name of Gösta Berling. While the plot is developed on Gösta’s life, the novel is not only about him. Using a rich set of characters, it also brings to life the general manner of living, morals, religious beliefs, myths, and superstitions of the people in Varmland, a rural county in Sweden.
Selma Lagerlöf was the first female to win the Nobel Prize for literature. And it is said that The Saga of Gösta Berling is what brought her to the attention of the Swedish Academy. If you read this unusual novel, you can understand why it was so. The setting takes the readers to the beautiful countryside of Varmland with its rich landscape, mountains, forests, and beautiful lakes. The story flows through different seasons and Selma beautifully captures the wintry frost, the rain, the summer heat, the dry colorful autumn. She also captures how people’s lives change according to the season; not only their way of life but also their moral thinking. In short, the novel is atmospheric and gives character to rural Sweden. This character Selma gives to the backdrop of the story is what makes it so enchanting. Personally, this sense of character is what captured me the most.
Selma’s approach to the story is quite attractive. Every chapter is in itself a story, while all the chapters are loosely held by one thread through Gösta’s story. Throughout the story, the influence of Swedish folklore, myths, and beliefs can be felt, and “the pact with the devil” is evidence of Selma’s Faustian influence. Thematically, the story is about redemption. Not only Gösta but most of the characters find their path to redemption, to purge their sins and clear their conscience in different degrees. This is a common theme that has graced many classics, so there is nothing unusual about it. But what makes it unusual in The Saga of Gösta Berling is how Selma has laced the theme into the story borrowing characteristics from both fantasy and reality. The whole story runs on a combined path of fantasy and reality making it an uncommon yet fascinating tale.
The writing is rich and poetic. Her flow of words takes the reader to a magical world, somewhere between the real and fantasy. It was such a lovely place to be. Her words are also thought-provoking, and I found myself pondering over them at length. The story is not altogether a happy one, but the melancholic tone had its own attraction.
I was skeptical at first after learning that the novel belongs to the genre of magical realism, being not too fond of the genre. But I soon forgot my preferences and was right immersed in the novel from the onset. With this beautiful creation, Selma took me through a fantastic reading escapade. For a long time, I won’t forget my lovely journey through the beautiful Swedish county of Varmland.