Anna Nordlund. Scandinavian Studies. Volume 76, Issue 2. Summer 2004.
Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) is generally considered one of Sweden’s few world-famous and canonical novelists. During her lifetime she was enormously popular and became the most widely translated Swedish author of her time. Working as an elementary school teacher, Lagerlöf made her literary debut in 1891 with the novel Göstd Berlings saga [The Story of Gösta Berling]. In a literary career spanning four decades, Lagerlöfcreated subsequent mastetpieces 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 Löwensköldstrilqgin (1925-1928) [The Löwensköld Cycle].
Lagerlöf 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 Lagerlöf was increasingly considered a national icon, a beloved “Great Storyteller.” Residing at her Marbacka estate in Värmland, she received enormous attention from the emerging new culture industry. The success of Swedish silent cinema relied on Lagerlöf adaptations; the radio broadcasted Lagerlöf readings and interviews; and newsreels and magazine cover stories portrayed her life at Marbacka. Due to the popularity of works such as Gösta Berlings saga and Kejsarn av Portugallien, Lagerlöf’s Värmland, both real and imagined, became a kind of theme-park tourist destination from the early century onward.
Despite her fame and success, however, Selma Lagerlöf’s status as an important artist within the literary canon has always been problematic. Her artistic appropriation of local legends and the folklore of Värmland into her narratives contributed to her reputation as the “Great Storyteller.” A captive of her public persona, Lagerlöf 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 Lagerlöf 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 Lagerlöfs lesser-known 1918 anti-war novel Bannlyst (1918) [literally "banned" but translated as The Outcast], this article examines how Selma Lagerlöf’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 Lagerlofs oeuvre since her literary debut in 1891. Bannlyst can serve as a kind of mise-en-abyme of the entire Lagerlöf 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. ö 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 Lagerlöf’s debut work, Gösta Berling Saga, written almost thirty years earlier had shaped the critical and public image of Lagerlöf that has problematized and haunted the reception of her works to this day.
From her literary debut on, Lagerlöf has resisted being categorized within contemporary literary movements. Gösta 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 18705 and the ’80s (most prominently Anne Charlotte Leffler, Alfhild Agrell, Amalie Skram, and Victoria Benedictsson), Gösta 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 Gösta 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 Renässans (1889) [Renaissance] and Pepitas bröllop (1890) [Pepita's Wedding] proclaimed a revival of beauty and imagination. Gösta 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, Gösta Berlings saga upheld the idea of female artistic passivity. 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 Lagerlöf was appropriated to fit the new literary ideals of the 18905. Heidenstam and Levertin immediately attributed to Lagerlöf 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. On reading Gösta Berlings saga, Levertin immediately realized that Selma Lagerlöfwas 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 Lagerlöf’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.
Selma Lagerlöf herself, however, was highly aware of her originality and artistry as a passage from a letter to her mother suggests:
Ser mamma jag bar en förfärligt stark tro på snillet inom mig;, hur skulle jag annan kunna skrifva och ge ut något. Jag tror allt att detta är den bästa bok, somfinns på svenska, och när man talar omfel i den och att jag skall bli bättre kan jag ej rätt första 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)
With Gösta Berlings saga, Lagerlöf 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 att berätta er, endast det, som är gammalt och nästan glömdt. Sägner har jag frän barnkammaren, dar de små sutto på pallar kring sagoberätterskan med det hvita håret; eller fräan stockeiden i stugan, där drängar och torpare sutto och språkade medan ängan rykte fräan deras våta kläder, och de drogo knifvar ur läderslidan vid halsen för att breda ut smör på tjockt, mjukt bröd; eller frän salen, där gamle herrar sutto i vaggande gungstolar och lifvade af den ånganae toddyn, talade om flydda tider. (Lagerlöf, Gösta 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 Gösta Berlings saga was identified with an inherent naïveté of the “storyteller” Selma Lagerlöf. Never again, however, did Lagerlöf make use of such an explicit narrator-character directly addressing readers with many exclamations and apostrophes. But she did further develop other innovations in Gösta Berlings saga such as alternating mythical and realistic functions within the same narrative, mixing magical explanations with logical reason, turning narrative progression into allegory (mostly about maturation, human love, and the meaning of art and religion), and continual personification of landscape and nature, emotions and things. All of these narrative strategies alluded to “primitive” storytelling and distanced Lagerlöf from notions of “modernity.”
In 1902, when Lagerlöf herself autobiographically wrote about the creation of Gösta Berlings saga, she chose the title “En saga om en saga” [A Story About a Story] thus anthropomorphizing the tale itself as a symbol of creativity. Generally, this tale or saga has been used as a source of biographical evidence to demonstrate the influence of cultural history and the tradition of storytelling in the rural province of Värmland where Lagerlöf had her roots. Thus “En saga om en saga” confirmed that Costa Berlings saga was partially inspired by stories and memories from the writer’s childhood in Värmland. But in “En saga om en saga,” Lagerlöf also emphasized that Gösta Berlings saga could not have resulted merely by imitating traditional tales and storytelling. The anthropomorphism of the saga becomes a symbol of a powerful creative entity that the writer must dare to understand and master. This process of inspiration and artistic creation is described as a return to an inner point of pain, and complicated psychological processes, states of mind, visions, and dreams are formed into symbols in many of her works.
Selma Lagerlöf was continuously associated with tales and storytelling and consistently portrayed as the great storyteller of the 1890s, in contrast to August Strindberg, Hjalmar Söderberg, and Hjalmar Bergman-her male contemporaries-who are usually pictured as more independent of literary movements and epochs. The years following 1910 have often been described as a period of decline in Lagerlöf’s creativity. Yet during that time, she reclaimed some of the powerful emotions of her debut work but with sharper humor and a more revealing view of contemporary times, human interactions, and patriarchy.
The years of the war were a long period of silence in Lagerlöf’s regular production. The few short stories that she published and the surviving sketches of stories express a creative crisis and the onset of doubt. There is a constant searching for a narrative voice that could speak up against the war. In her 1916 short story “Dimman” [The Fog], Lagerlöf condemns the main character “den fridsammc”-the peace-keeper-who, possibly ironically echoing neutral Sweden, expresses a desire to continue his life unaffected by the Great War raging:
Låt mig verka på det sätt, som är mitt eget, syssla med ting, som jag kan sköta! Låt mig slippa att som en sinnesrubbad löpa kring landet för att söka ställa till rätta det, som jag inte är man till att behärska! (Troll 180)
Let me work in the way, which is my own, do things that I can take care of! Let me be excused from being a mentally deranged individual running around the country trying to put things in order that I am not able to master!
But the price for such willful isolation and self-deceit is high. Later in the same story, the character describes himself as being surrounded by “köld och mörker och tystnad och förstening och förslöande töcken” (Troll 183) [cold and darkness and silence and petrification and a haze which makes one apathetic]. It is not this creature wishing for a peaceful existence who finds mercy in the eyes of God, but a mad woman constantly reminding him and others about the atrocities of the war: “Blodet flyter som vatten i dikena. Likhögarna ligger på åkern, stora som halmstackar. Ja, ja, ja, hjälp de krigförandel” (Troll 175) [The blood flows like water in the ditches. The piles of bodies are on the field, big like haystacks. Yes, yes, yes, help the soldiers!]. In the sketch “Ödekyrkan” [The Church Ruin] written in 1914, the ruin of a church becomes the symbol for Lagerlöf’s creative paralysis. In misery over lost creative powers, the narrator compares herself to the ruin: “Jag har varit en lekare och en gycklare, men ur min själ framgår inte mer varken gyckel cller lek. Min själ har blivit som du, stum, utan klockor, utan sång” (169) [I have been a minstrel and a jester, but out of my soul no more jesting or playing will emerge. My soul has become like you, mute, without bells, without song].
Throughout the war years, Lagerlöf was constantly aware that some voices of protest-particularly from the women’s suffrage and anti-war movements-were stifled or censured while simultaneously often being regarded as naïve and inconsequential. In the peace movement’s protests, she saw women taking a politicized responsibility for human life, but personally she declined to take part actively. She saw their efforts as vanity. To the great disappointment of many intellectual women-such as Ellen Key and Elin Wägner-Lagerlöf refused to get involved in the Forci expedition in 1916, which hosted an international peace congress in Stockholm. The participating women from all over the world ended up splitting into antagonistic fractions, and the congress was judged a failure. Contrary to her colleagues Key and Wagner (as well as to the preceding generation of female authors),Lagerlöf always kept her distance from official political rhetoric. She rarely gave speeches in any other form than allegorical stories. Thus once again “the storyteller” as a public persona was enforced by Lagerlöf’s own use of an aestheticized political idiom. During the war years, Lagerlöf began to doubt the effectiveness of her authorial image although she still remained reluctant to embrace a more conventionally political discourse.8 However, not to speak up against the war would mean letting her feelings die and letting the inspiration disappear. A poem, probably written in February 1918, when she had started to work on Bannlyst, laments the separation of body and soul during the years of war and the loss of inspiration. The poem describes how the soul and body are once again fused when the author to whom they belong has come to terms with not being a realist in her approach to the atrocities of war.
Over the course of a few months, Selma Lagerlöf completed the new novel. Bannlyst might be considered Selma Lagerlöf’s most disturbing work. The narrative intersects two contradictory understandings of reality: one mimetic and the other supernatural as represented by the characters Edvard Rhånge and Lotta Hedman. A view of the world as a normative objective representation is challenged by magical interpolations. Excessive displays of emotion are laid out side by side with realistic, goal-oriented narratives in order to function as a manifesto against the war. The thought behind Bannlyst was to create a new taboo. If people could be made to feel the same feelings of disgust toward the killing of living people in war as toward the eating of dead human flesh, then all wars might be avoided.
The complex narrative chiefly spans the years between 1909 and 1916 and takes place for the most part in a rural fishing community in the rocky skerries of the Swedish west coast as well as in rural parts of the inland. The hero of the novel, Sven Elversson, an English gentleman in his late twenties, has returned to his native Sweden after a British polar expedition. His English parents had adopted him when he was nine years old but have now rejected him after rumors spread that Sven and his crcwmates, shipwrecked and starving in the Arctic, ate the flesh of a dead comrade. Wishing to hide from the world, Sven returns to his biological parents, Joel and Thala, farmers on the island of Grimön on the west coast. Denounced during a church service and banned by the local minister Edvard Rhånge, Sven becomes an object of fear and disgust among the local population. Rhånge’s beautiful, young wife Sigrun befriends the ostracized Sven on the basis of their mutual loneliness and estrangement. Unable to overcome his social banishment and secretly in love with Sigrun, Sven leaves the island community and resettles with his parents on a cursed, abandoned farm, Hånger, in the inland forests.
Six years later, in 1915, Sven accidentally meets Sigrun’s childhood friend, Lotta Hedman, during a train journey. A poor and simple young woman born in Lappland, Lotta has the powerful, visionary gift of supernatural second sight. Lotta is on her way south to comfort Sigrun in her disastrous marriage. Through Lotta Hedman’s revelatory, mystically-tinged monologue, Sven learns of the generational curse on the Hanger men, a race of dangerous, troll-like men whose ancestor murdered a minister. Rhånge, his name a disguised anagram for Hanger, carries the curse. But by becoming a minister and abandoning his family farm Hanger, he has tried to escape. Lotta had prophetically and bitterly opposed Sigrun’s marriage to this darkly handsome pastor. Helping fake Sigrun’s death, Lotta assists her in escaping her life with Rhånge. During her desperate flight, Sigrun coincidentally finds refuge at Sven’s farm. The following spring Sigrun confesses in a letter to Rhånge that she is alive and living at Hanger. After pursuing her there, Rhånge surreptitiously witnesses Sigrun revealing her passionate love for Sven but resists his primal urge to kill Sven and leaves the lovers in peace thus finally breaking his hereditary curse. In the novel’s concluding chapters, thousands of corpses from the 1916 Battle of the North Sea are found floating along the Swedish coastline. Sven’s brother Ung-Joel and other fishermen who cursed Sven for cannibalism are traumatized by this horrific sight. Along with Rhånge, the community finally understands killing in war as the far greater taboo and asks Sven’s forgiveness. A confessional letter found on one of the corpses absolves Sven of the accusation of cannibalism before he dies, and Rhånge and Sigrun recommit to their marriage at the novel’s conclusion.
Bannlyst’s intention of creating a new taboo ended up being modified and defanged in the final version. Lagerlof’s influential friends Valborg Olander and Sophie Elkan were so upset by the banned hero Sven Elversson’s cannibalistic crime, that Lagerlöf finally surrendered to their advice. In the last moment, she modified the idea of the novel by deleting the word “äckel” [disgust] wherever she could and adding to the plot the letter in which Sven’s dead comrade confirms that Sven is not guilty of the cannibalism the others in the polar expedition committed. Also, Lagerlöf hesitated over whether to have Sigrun return to her husband after her adulterous affair or to leave her and Sven in a more open ending. The author desperately wanted to get this book published. Bannlyst finally reached Swedish bookstores in the middle of December, only a little more than a month after the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
Partly because of Lagerlöf’s last-minute changes to the novel, the contemporary critics did not find the cannibalism theme powerful enough for the allegory of Bannlyst to work effectively. Most of the critics who wrote about Lagerlöf’s intended meaning for the book-countering human disgust toward cannibalism with the killing of living human flesh in war-found this juxtaposition ineffective. Critics complained that in real life the cannibalism of which Sven is accused would not have caused the disgust in others that it does in the novel. The majority of contemporary reviewers focused on the novel’s love story as a plot device barely holding the narrative together. Most critics found the composition too weak and the plot too banal, sentimental, and melodramatic. The majority also found it overly moralistic, which hindered a psychologically convincing picture of Sven Elvcrsson, the hero of the novel.
In addition to the novel’s messages of love and morality, the critics emphasized the fairy tale tone of the story and underscored Lagerlöf’s reputation as a divinely-gifted storyteller. Most critics praised her initial choice of writing a novel against the war but considered the result proof that Selma Lagerlöf was too much of a “storyteller” to master the consequential contemporary realism they wanted to see in the composition. Several reviews read like miniature dramas in which the critics themselves struggle between resisting the novel intellectually and surrendering to it emotionally. Many wrote about something indefinable and unexplainable in the work that nonetheless seized them. That the evocation of this feeling could be Lagerlöfs own very conscious aesthetics was not discerned, but it was rather perceived as the result of “feminine” moral indignation and a religious world view. With one possible exception (Ellen Kleman in the women’s magazine Hertha January 1919), all significant reviewers of Bannlyst were male and thus reinforced a gendered repression of a conscious artistic agency.
In the first substantial biography of Lagerlöf (1928), the German professor Walter Berendsohn dismissed any aesthetized political message in Lagerlöf’s body of work. Radier, he pointed out that her handling of contemporary issues such as the Great War in Bannlyst, Socialism versus Catholicism in Antikrists mirakler, and ecstatic religious sects in Jerusalem were all serious subjects beyond Lagerlöf’s ability because of her (in his view) essentially optimistic and banal outlook on life (Berendsohn 300). Thus Berendsohn portrayed Selma Lagerlöf’s philosophy of life as intellectually too naïve to artistically engage and master the difficult themes chosen for her 1918 anti-war novel.
The Marxist critic Stellan Arvidson gave the first unrestricted positive evaluation of Bannlyst in his monograph Selma Lagerläf (1932). Arvidson argued that Bannlyst had been held in contempt because critics had not been able to recognize a vital integration of intellectual and political ideas within Lagerlöf’s fictional universe. Yet his analysis primarily emphasized her works’ ethical content and, like his critical precursors, Arvidson reductively focused on “feminine” compassion and Christian love within Lagerlöf’s production.
Elin Wagner, herself a renowned author and the second woman after Lagerlöf to be offered a chair in the Swedish Academy (1944), published her two volume (and still definitive) biography Selma Lagerlöf in 1941 and 1943. Wagner’s own memories of the women’s movement during the First World War and her return to a spiritual world view in the years following the war all contributed to her depiction of Lagerlof’s war years. Wägner—in 1941 the same age as Lagerlöf when she wrote Bannlyst—compassionately depicted the sixty-year-old Lagerlöf’s inner life during the years of the war. Toward the motifs and creative formation of Bannlyst, however, Wägner showed only limited interest. Only the character of Lotta Hedman really captured her attention. The biographer suggested that, through Lotta Hedman and her visions, Lagerlöf autobiographically unmasked her creative process as a particular ability to mediate visions of the past with an objective validity. This process conformed well to Wägner’s own beliefs—as presented in her co-feminist book Väckarklocka, (1941) [Alarm Clock]—that the truths and wisdom of life could be revealed in an ancient and hidden past.
It was not until the 1950s that Swedish academic studies of Selma Lagerlöf began to appear just as women also began entering the universities for graduate studies in greater numbers. The 19505 in Swedish academic criticism also saw the beginning of more formalist approaches to literature although historicism still prevailed. Staffan Björck’s Romanens formvärld (1953) [The Formal World of the Novel] is an influential formal study of narrative techniques in the novel. His study resulted in an influential model of what would characterize a successful twentieth-century novel: a unified narrative perspective, an invisible and omniscient narrator, concrete and precise descriptions, authenticity in scenic composition, and psychological credibility. He opposed indirect and retrospective narration, such as narrative ellipses and gaps, departures from compositional unity and balance, and overuse of allegory and anthropomorphism and dismissively identified Lagerlöf as guilty of violating his rules for effective narration when occasionally mentioning her work. Bannlyst is among the novels Björck most strongly criticizes. According to Björck, Lagerlöf’s use of indirect narration undoubtedly damages the overall narrative (259). Demonstrating a bias toward male authors, however, Björck nonetheless appreciated continuously shifting narrative perspectives in Hjalmar Bergman’s Dansen på Frötjärn [The Dance on Frötjärn] and Eyvind Johnson’s Olof-tetralogy.
During the 1950s as well, the increasing number of women at Swedish universities arguably heightened the interest in female authors. Naturally, Selma Lagerlöf was a perfect choice for women wanting to write about women; she was the woman with the highest status in the Swedish literary canon and was still comparatively under-examined and under-appreciated. This first wave of Lagerlöf scholars set out to show that Lagerlöf was a modern writer fully aware of her artistry and concerned with contemporary matters. Making the case for Selma Lagerlöf within a male literary tradition also helped establish the female academic within the male university tradition from which preceding generations of women had been for the most part excluded. Between 1950 and 1970, Lagerlöf was the only female author on whom women academics chose to write their dissertations.16 One of these women was Ulla-Britta Lagerroth, who in 1963 was only the fourth woman to complete a Ph.D. in literary history at the University of Lund with her published dissertation Körkarlen och Bannlyst: Motiv- och idéstudier i Selma Lagerlöfs 10-talsdiktning [The Phantom Carriage and Banned: A Study of Motifs and Ideas in Selma Lagerlöf's Works 1910-20], the most exhaustive study on Bannlyst to date. Lagerroth undertook a range of approaches : a historical-biographical contextualization, a formal evaluation, a test of psychological realism, and finally a biographical reading of the novel’s allegorical power.
Like Arvidson, Lagerroth stated that Selma Lagerlöf wrote novels of ideas in the spirit of the Scandinavian Modern Breakthrough of the 1870s and the ’80s. But Lagerroth also asserted that Lagerlöf kept up with her own time. According to Lagerroth, the novels written between 1910 and 1920 were a response to the renewed demands of young writers and young critics for greater realism and social engagement in literature as well as a reaction to growing criticism that Lagerlöf’s storytelling lacked self-awareness, political engagement, and artistic refinement. Throughout her dissertation, Lagerroth pointed to Lagerlof’s extensive reading in literature and philosophy and her wide knowledge of the Western canon. In her aesthetic evaluation of the novel, however, Lagerroth shared Björck’s opinion that Selma Lagerlöf’s predilection for indirect narration in many cases was more artificial than artful. Lagerroth considered Bannlyst an artistic failure because motifs and ideas were never fully integrated with each other. Another reason Lagerroth deemed Lagerlöf’s novel a failure aesthetically was that the ethical development of the characters lacked psychological credibility. Despite these criticisms, Lagerroth attempted to valorize the allegorical power of the text. She read Lotta Hedman as a modern-day Biblical prophetess, who also represented the author’s alter ego. Lagerroth linked the suspension of Lotta’s supernatural visions after she meets Rhånge to Lagerlöf’s own creative crisis and silence during the war and equated Lotta Hedman’s religious ecstasy with Lagerlöfs poetic writing, which Lagerroth then vaguely positioned as Lagerlöf’s powerful artistic means to stir the unconscious.
Studies on Lagerlöf drastically tapered off in the late 1960s. It was not until the 1980s that a new era opened that focused critical attention on Lagerlöf’s textual modernity and slowly displaced traditional positivism with hermeneutics and semiotics. Lagerlöf scholarship was influenced principally by Bakhtin’s aesthetics of the polyphonic novel and Lacan’s as well as Kristeva’s notions of the imaginary and the symbolic. Within Swedish aeademia, however, these new approaches to literary studies were long considered suspect and “unscientific” due to deeply rooted positivist values, is This attitude also marked the academic reception of Birgitta Holm’s book Selma Lagerlöf och ursprungets roman (1984) [Selma Lagerlöf and the novel of origin]. Holm’s book was the first to apply modem psychoanalysis to Lagerlöf’s novels in an attempt to understand Lagerlöf’s entire literary project as a developing oeuvre, not unlike a psychoanalytical process. Thus Holm’s interpretations were based on the poetics of the literary corpus-a poetics of the culturally repressed maternal with a representation of Lagerlöf’s creative power at its core. According to Holm’s Kristevean analysis based on the view that the redemption of women is linked to the production of meaning, the disgust—or abjection—invoked in Bannlyst could reveal the consequences of the repression of the maternal body or the semiotic pole in the language of modern culture and thus show a need for a re-examination of modern society and its boundaries and taboos. Holm read the four main characters as symbolic formations and, thus, further developed the symbolic reading of Lagerlöf’s creative works that Ulla-Britta Lagerroth suggested with reference to Lotta Hedman. In Holm’s analysis, Lotta Hedman became the actual symbol for an aesthetics of the repressed maternity. On the one hand, Holm’s systematic reading of Lagerlöf’s entire corpus as a psychoanalytical process pointed to emotional states evoked when reading Lagerlöf as well as to complex layers of symbols in the work. On the other hand, her reading of Bannlyst tightly linked Lagerlöf to Holm’s own ideological agenda of proving Kristeva’s theories concerning the semiotic and symbolic poles of language and the subject as cultural matters of fact used by Lagerlöf in a conscious and politicized way.
In contrast to Holm’s book, Henrik Wivel’s Snödrottningen: En bok om Selma Lagerlöf och kärleken (1991) [The Snow Queen: A Book about Selma Lagerlöf and Love] was enthusiastically received in the academic world as well as in the Swedish media. A Danish cultural journalist, Wivel elegantly synthesized observations that during the 1970s and ’80s had opened Selma Lagerlöf’s work to close readings inspired by Bakhtin’s notion of polyphony, feminist criticism, and psychoanalytical and metapoctic processes. However, despite using recent theoretical models, Wivel’s results remained traditionally psycho-biographical and furthermore traditionally patronizing. At its core, Wivel’s Snödrottningen conveyed a female author writing to compensate for an unhealthy lack of a love life. Male critics were also the book’s most enthusiastic readers.
Lagerlöf’s willingness to see holiness awakened through a meeting with the dead and to connect the taboo of cannibalism to that of war became in Wivel’s interpretation a confirmation of a psychological pathology in Selma Lagerlöf. Making use of eloquent but tenuous metaphors, he wrote about Bannlyst as Lagerlöf’s “likbesiktning av sin egen döda kropp” (248, 261, 257, 274, 281) [post-mortem examination of her own dead body]. Thus Wivel’s psycho-biographical interpretation of Bannlyst focused on how the creation of the novel was compensatory and confirmed that Lagerlöf was an “isjungfru” [ice maiden], the general thesis of his book. In the final analysis, Wivel reinscribed what Scandinavia’s most important literary critic, Georg Brandes, wrote about Lagerlöf’s representations of love in his influential review of Gösta Berlings saga in Politiken in 1893:
Men helt igennem føler man, at Fortællerinden er en ugift Dame, for hvem et stort Omraade af Livet, selv af Livet i Värmland og Drømmeland, er en lukket Bog, eller som idetmindste vil og maa behandle det saadan. Erotiken optager en mætig plads i hendes “Saga.” Der er rig pan Bortførelser og Kys, og den indeholder mangen en veltalende og inderlig Hymne til Eros, men Hymnen er uden Gnist og Kyssene uden Ild og Bortførelserne sker vel i Firspring paa Slæde over Sneen ved Nattetid, men Favntagene er kolde som Sneen og Natten. (Samlede Skrifter 3:17)
One feels throughout that the author is an unmarried woman, for whom a great deal of life, even life in Värmland and in Dreamland, is a closed book or at least has to be treated thus. Eroticism assumes an important place in her “Saga.” It is rich in abductions and kisses, and it contains many well articulated and intense songs to Eros, but the hymn lacks a spark, and the kisses lack fire, and the abduction is carried out four-in-hand in a sleigh over snow at night, but the embraces are as cold as the snow and the night.
Admittedly, Bannlyst is not one of Lagerlöf’s greatest artistic creations. Critics have long struggled with evaluating its eclectic, disparate elements and with its apparent lack of narrative cohesion; they have been unwilling, moreover, to read the novel’s “unclassical” narrative eclecticism and uneven mixture of generic elements as the product of fully conscious artistic choices and creative engagement that in turn undermine mimetic conventions of narrative realism.
Bannlyst is a savage allegorical critique of Sweden’s position vis-à-vis the great powers during the First World War and of failures of perception in the representations of the waging of war. But Swedish critics who have engaged the work as a “peace” novel have tended to dismiss its apparently superficial moral outrage at humanity’s inability to prevent mass killing and destruction.
Their eyes pecked out by seagulls, the thousands of floating corpses from the Battle of the North Sea that wash ashore near the novel’s end bring home the reality of the war to Sweden itself and horrifically shatter any self-satisfied national sense of purity, moral neutrality, and unwillingness to “see.” The novel’s anti-nationalist, anti-isolationist allegory cannot only be read as Lagerlöf’s attempt to voice her outrage at the horrors of modern war and at Swedish indifference and blindness but require attention to her attempt to break out of the box of genteel national romantic writing in which she had been long confined. Within the framework of aesthetic values based on thematic and narrative coherence, Bannlyst has been dismissed, but it should be read as Lagerlöf’s creative re-engagement that undermines the mimetic conventions of narrative realism. Bannlyst raises concerns about the nature of reality and its apparent failures to represent the corporeal perceptions of war and mirrors Lagerlöf’s own struggle with wishing to live in ignorance of the atrocities of the war while also wishing to use her artistry to fight against them.
At the beginning of the novel, Sven, the Swedish born outsider who has been a member of an English expedition, brings some kind of horrible contagion back with him to the Swedish homeland. Minister Rhånge’s initial attempt to accept Sven parallels Sweden’s official declaration of neutrality on 3 August 1914. Significantly, the 1906 government had legislated against anti-militarism, and conservative politicians as well as King Gustav v and his German wife Queen Viktoria made no secret of their support for Germany, at the time closely allied to Sweden historically as well as economically and culturally. When the war broke out on 2 August 1914, the country was divided between the conservatives’ pro-German claims for “active neutrality” (that is “neutrality” regarding Germany as the more innocent party) and more liberal, labor-oriented entente-friendly claims for “real neutrality” (that is “neutrality” regarding Germany as the aggressor). The first sermon that Rhånge delivers demonstrates how the “real neutrality” Rhånge had proclaimed in having Sven’s parents accept their son’s return after the rumors of his cannibalism now turns to “active neutrality.” Rhånge accepts Sven’s existence in the county when he is living with his parents on a remote island but would never accept him as an active parishioner. Sven is condemned by the church just as any English intervention in Sweden’s affairs would have been, but the German provocation inherent in the invasion of Belgium had great support among the majority of the Swedish upper-class (see Franzén 133, 138). With Rhånge’s condemnation of Sven in church, the parishioners start mistreating him in the name of disgust. But Sven proves to be more gracious and righteous than any of them. After condemning Sven, Rhånge’s spiritual charisma gradually fades. He falls into rages and periods of depression before he finally realizes that he must renegotiate his beliefs in spiritual powers and taboos. Two competing discourses of narrative consciousness clash within the novel: rationalist realism represented by the authoritarian Lutheran minister Rhånge and uncontained supernaturalism represented by the repressed servant girl Lotta Hedman.
Lotta Hedman’s supernatural sight appears as a cultural corrective. A prophetess from the rural north of Sweden, Lotta’s haunted visions, irrational compulsions, and public oratorical outbursts configure her as a kind of madwoman-outsider. Her initial appearance on the train a third of the way through the novel signals a disorientingly abrupt change in the text’s tone and direction. Dressed in black, shy and inhibited, she nonetheless directs a rapid-fire, half-mad, half-rhapsodic monologue to a fellow passenger-Sven-that slowly attracts the attention of the other passengers as well. When she finally finishes her proclamations of the end of the world after the Great War, she starts talking about her love for Sigrun and her belief-confirmed in supernatural sights-that Rhånge is capable of killing Sigrun’s soul.
Later when Lotta has helped Sigrun escape from her raging husband by pretending to have died from a contagious infection, Lotta involuntarily experiences a literal astral projection during which she leaves her body and witnesses the world from high in space. As a result of the proximity of the uncanny real and magical vision, Sigrun’s escape from her husband leads to Sven’s house. This reunion ultimately releases Rhånge from his curse. He sees Sigrun and Sven’s declared love, and in the grip of intense sensations and emotions, he manages to turn away from killing Sven out of hatred and jealousy. He thus also regains his spiritual powers, which sanction Sigrun to love and live with Sven. They, thus, are now able to see through and even work against traditional thinking.
Och med förvåning tänkte han på detta, som hade frälst honom, ty det var inte bans kärlek och inte hans ämbete, utan det var tanken på livets höghet och helighet. Den tanken, som hade vuxit upp med långsam växt ur Sven Elverssons olycksöde och nu stod där fast och klar och fullmogen. (309)
And he looked back, marvelling, at the thing which had saved him; for it was not his love, nor his priestly office, but the thought of the sacredness and majesty of life. A thought that had grown up slowly out of Sven Elversson’s ill-fate and now stood firm and clear in its maturity. (252)
Lotta’s presence, voice, and vision constantly threaten the novel’s realist conventions and narrative stability. She is the consistently uncontainable and destabilizing element in this fictional universe, one whose excessive inner visions and prophetic powers keep exploding outward and keep creating unexpected dislocations on the levels of plot and formal coherence.
As noted earlier, in 1918 critics of Bannlyst struggled with resisting the novel intellectually and surrendering to it emotionally while at the same time hinting at something indefinable and inexplicable in the work that nonetheless seized them. While much subsequent criticism of the novel has focused on its inadequacies and its dissatisfying hybridity, most critics have dismissed the affective mysteries at its core, its strange, emotional allure.
The first chapter itself-in which Sven’s father prepares his mother for the fact that their long-lost son Sven will come back as a contaminated creature-illustrates how two narrative discourses will intersect in this novel.
Mannen, som tyckte om att höra sin egen röst och lade sina ord väl, utbredde sig för hustrun över en artikel, som han nyss hade läst i en tidning. Hustrun hörde på honom med inte alltfär spänd uppmärksamhet.
“Ack, den Joel, den Joel,” tänkte hon, “att han kan få ut så mycken lärdom ur ett sådant där tidningsblad! Han har verkligen ett märkvärdigt gott huvud. Det är bara synd, att han inte är i stånd att göra något bruk av det för sin och min räkning, utan bara för andras.” (Bannlyst 7-8)
Joel was a man who enjoyed hearing his own voice, and delivered his words with care. Just now he was giving his wife at some length the contents of an article he had read in the paper. The little woman listened, but her thoughts were not following very closely. “Eh,” she thought to herself, “he’s a wonderful head has Joel, to be sure. How he can get all that out of a bit print in a newspaper…. Pity he can’t put his learning to some use for us both, instead of others.” (3)
While the husband retells an anonymous newspaper story about North-Pole explorers, his wife’s thoughts wander off in directions other than the husband intended. She pays attention to how witty he is, how nicely he constructs his speech-just like a preacher-but how useless that gift has been for their day-to-day life. Not until her husband makes a connection to a dream he has had and introduces the name of their lost son, Sven, does she see how the story told in the newspaper relates to her own life.
Hustrun kom fram till honom och överöste honom med frågor. – Var stod namnet? Vad var det, som han hade drömt? Var det möjligt, att det var fråga om deras Sven? Hon blev gäll i rösten, nästippen rodnade, och ögonen tårades. (11)
His wife came close to him and deluged him with questions: Where was the name? What was it he had dreamt? Was there really anything about their boy Sven? Her voice grew shrill, her nose flushed, and tears stood in her eyes. (6)
From now on the narrative moves in a new direction. Depersonalized facts about a failed North-Pole expedition fade away and a trauma in this woman’s life begins to unfold. The husband loses the narrative grip he took from the reality of the newspaper. He has to invent an alternate version-just as Lagerlöf always gives an alternative to a realistic picture of the world-to achieve the purpose he had set out. Only then does his wife begin to listen, and through his story, she is emotionally prepared to welcome her banished son back home.
With Bannlyst, Lagerlöf initially wanted to establish a taboo against war by focusing on the arbitrariness of modern civilization’s disgust with cannibalism as opposed to its acceptance of the intentional killing in military actions. Lagerlöf thus points in the same direction as the antrophologist Mary Douglas did almost fifty years later in her influential study of the rules of pollution and purity as approaches to the ordering symbolic patterning of both primitive and modern societies.
When waves of swollen corpses of young men float ashore after the Battle of the North Sea, people begin to reevaluate Sven’s crime. His brother Joel, a seaman who has encountered thousands of corpses floating at sea and is now sick with despair asks his forgiveness. Sven reminds him of the time he and his friends forced him to eat a serpent. With an eye-witness accuracy, Lagerlöf goes on to describe the sights Joel has witnessed:
Men nu började Ung-Joel berätta, hurusom han en av dagarna efter det stora Nordsjöslaget hade passerat Skagen och då hade sett de dödas härskaror flyta omkring på havsytan.
De hade inte legat utsträckta i vattnet, utan de hade hållits i upprätt ställning av sina korkvästar. Deras huvuden hade varit upplyfta ovan vattnet, så att man hade kunnat urskilja anletsdrag och uttryck.
Och Ung-Joel berättade, att ångaren hade gått fram i timtal genom tusenden och åter tusenden av döda. Hela havet hade varit betäckt av dem.
Han skildrade för brodern många fasans syner, som han hade sett, men det, som tycktes värst ha gripit honom, var, att alla de döda hade fått sina ögon uthackade av de otaliga skaror av måsar, som kretsade över dem. (315)
But now Ung-Joel began to tell how one day, after the great fight in the North Sea, he had come sailing round the Skaw, and had seen the hosts of the dead floating on the surface of the sea.
They did not lie flat on the water, but were held upright by their lifebelts, with heads above water, so their features could be seen.
And Ung-Joel told how the vessel had sailed for hours among the dead-thousands and thousands of dead. The sea was covered with them.
He described many terrible sights he had seen, but what seemed most terrible of all to him was that all those dead men had their eyes torn out by the innumerable seagulls that hovered about their heads. (257)
The communal disgust toward Sven is now redirected toward the corpses resulting from the battle and the prior taking of life. Bannlyst thus offers a new, more adequate perception of warfare than the conventional descriptions of the battles as a contest between the Germans and the British offered in contemporary newspaper reports. The two major national newspapers in Sweden at the time, the liberal Dagens Nyheter and the conservative Svenska Dagbladet, reported routinely on the war based on the propaganda from Berlin, London, Paris, and Amsterdam with conservative accounts giving considerable attention to Berlin and great sympathy to the Germans. The newspaper reports described hand-to-hand combat, shooting, shelling, or blasting as protection or defense of comrades and always in national-never individual-terms. Despite more or less successful attempts to create disgust and as a consequence a taboo against the ultimate result of warfare, Bannlyst is nonetheless also in parts a defanged compromise between a radical political allegory and a rather conventional melodramatic romance. Although the novel’s compromised, conventional resolution and its occasional hackneyed moments are evident weaknesses, its magical realist detours, its surreal moments of horror, witchcraft, and supernatural uncanniness deserve belated investigation and recognition. In constructing this novel, Lagerlöf negotiates a tortuous middle ground between sufficiently savage metaphors of outrage at the Great War (cannibalism, floating corpses, disgust, hereditary curses) and a fear of alienating her adoring public. This compromised novel expresses the author’s own dividedness-her frustrated sense of her own captivity and containment within a public persona and her intense desire to break out of those constraints as an artistic and political voice.