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Review: The Saga of Gosta Berling by Selma Lagerlof

SELMA Lagerlof was the first woman and the first Swedish author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Saga of Gosta Berling, first published in Sweden in 1891 and now available in the first English translation for more than 100 years, remains her most famous work.

Described by its new publishers as a Swedish Gone With the Wind, it was made into a silent film in 1924, starring Greta Garbo, and boasts what has been claimed as one of the most famous opening lines in Scandinavian literature: "At long last the minister stood in the pulpit."

The priest in question is the eponymous Gosta Berling, who has been forced to step down from his office for excessive drinking, though, looking down at the congregation, he can't help thinking "he was precisely the kind of minister they deserved. They drank, all of them. Why should he alone restrain himself?"

It's not as if he doesn't have good reason to hit the bottle. "Had anyone seen the parsonage where he had to live? Wasn't liquor a necessity to keep your courage up, when rain and drifting snow swept in through cracked windowpanes, when the poorly tended earth wouldn't yield bread enough to keep hunger at bay?"

Judging any translation without knowing the book in the original is an impossible task. All one can do is respond to it as any other piece of writing, and in that respect those early pages are typical of the effortlessly bleak, black humour and operatic melodrama to come, as Gosta, "lord of 10,000 kisses and 13,000 love letters", makes his way, defrocked, self-pitying and lustful, to a bizarre, remote country estate, where he passes the following year in a series of grandiose, impossibly romantic set pieces.

There is nothing in the slightest bit naturalistic about Lagerlof's imagination here. All is Gothic exaggeration; most characters are larger than fiction, let alone life; conversations consist mainly of one extravagant soliloquy after another. ("You splendid man. I was in a bottomless misery, and you have transformed it into a paradise.")

Delight in the rushing torrent of words, or else be drowned, would be the best advice. Once you surrender yourself to the style -- and Paul Norlen's translation is breezily readable, for all the book's peculiarities -- the whole experience is a delight. The novel may ultimately never add up to more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are so sumptuous that all is forgiven.

What remains when the book is closed is a vivid sense of the timeless comic absurdity of human behaviour (if it were to be made into a film today, the task of portraying Gosta's antics would definitely be more suited to Pedro Almodovar than Ingmar Bergman), and the even more timeless intensity of the northern landscape.

"Now it's a matter of life and death," cries Anna, an early love of Gosta's, as their sleigh is surrounded by wolves, "howling with hunger and blood-thirst", and she wonders if travellers the next day will find their "torn-apart limbs on the trampled, bloody snow". It's no country for cowards or weaklings. "This was life," Anna thinks, "rushing along over sparkling snow, defying wild animals and people."

To me, that's the key sentence. It sums up perfectly the joyous delight in the raw immediacy of things, which runs throughout Lagerlof's writing.

First Swede to win the Nobel Prize? First woman? It doesn't matter in the end. The only question is, does the book stand up on its own terms? In that respect, the answer is a resounding yes. Lagerlof wrote many novels. More translations soon? Here's hoping.

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