Women in Translation Month is almost over, but we couldn’t let it pass without celebrating the woman whose shadow looms large over our catalogue, and the women and men who have translated her work: Selma Lagerlöf.
For a limited time only, we’re offering ten Lagerlöf masterpieces for £100. Read on for more details…
To date, Norvik Press has published ten of Lagerlöf’s works in English translation [click here to download the series leaflet]:
A Manor House Tale: a psychological novella and a folk tale in which two young and damaged people redeem each other.
Banished: infused with the visceral horrors of the First World War, Banished is a tale of love, loneliness, and the extremes of human morality. Read an extract here.
The Phantom Carriage: an atmospheric ghost story and a cautionary tale of the effects of tuberculosis and alcoholism, famously adapted to film by the great Swedish director Victor Sjöström.
Lord Arne’s Silver: from a 16th-century killing unfolds a tale of retribution, love and betrayal.
Mårbacka: part memoir, part mischievous satire set on Lagerlöf’s childhood estate. Read an extract from Mårbacka in English here.
The Löwensköld Trilogy: Lagerlöf’s last work of fiction, the trilogy follows several generations of a cursed family and explores destiny, evil, motherhood, and many other themes along the way. The trilogy consists of three volumes: The Löwensköld Ring, Charlotte Löwensköld, and Anna Svärd.
Purchased individually, all eleven paperbacks (including the two paperback volumes of Nils Holgersson) cost a total of £135 (plus P&P). Until 14 September 2018, we are offering a limited number of complete sets of eleven paperbacks at the discounted price of £100 (plus P&P). This special price is only available on orders placed directly with Norvik Press, not through book stores or online. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to place your order. First come, first served – available only while stocks last!
In August we celebrate Women in Translation Month. In addition to publishing many female authors over half of Norvik publications are translated by women. Some recently published examples of both excellent writing and translation by women include Suzanne Brøgger’s essay collection A Fighting Pig’s Too Tough to Eattranslated by Marina Allemano, Selma Lagerlöf’s Banished translated by Linda Schenck and Vigdis Hjorth’s A House in Norwaytranslated by Charlotte Barslund.
To celebrate the work of women in translation Norvik is offering blog readers a 10% discount on works by female authors published by Norvik on orders submitted by the end of August 2018. Browse our catalogue here and email your order directly to email@example.com, quoting the discount code WOMEN IN TRANSLATION. Please note that this offer only applies to orders emailed directly to Norvik, and cannot be used for purchases in bookshops or online.
In June 2011, Norvik Press published Lord Arne’s Silver, The Phantom Carriage and The Löwensköld Ring, three short novels by the world-renowned author Selma Lagerlöf. It was the start of an exciting and, for us, very gratifying project – the Lagerlöf in English Series – which has turned into twelve books so far. The translations are done by Linda Schenck, Peter Graves and Sarah Death, all experienced and prize-winning translators from Swedish to English. In addition to the substantial job of translating a Nobel Prize winner, Schenck, Graves and Death have also contributed with their own translators’ afterwords in their respective translations. These chapters make for an intriguing read about different aspects of translating each particular book and give in-depth information about Lagerlöf’s work. Furthermore, each book is introduced by an exciting and informative preface written by the late Helena Forsås-Scott, the pioneering mind behind the series.
What happens to an individual who is rejected by society? What happens to a society that eventually realises the living are more important than the dead, and that it is suffering a crisis of values and priorities? What does war do to us and to our outlook on the world? Selma Lagerlöf struggled with these issues throughout World War I and experienced a mental block in writing about them. Then she found an opening and produced a thought-provoking tale of love, death and survival that grapples with moral dilemmas as relevant today as they were a century ago.
The Emperor of Portugallia
For poverty-stricken farm labourer Jan, the birth of his daughter Klara gives life a new meaning; his devotion to her develops into an obsession that excludes all else. We are taken from the miracle of a new-born child and a father’s love for his baby girl into a fantasy world emerging as a result of extreme external pressures, in which Jan creates for himself the role of Emperor of Portugallia. Yet this seemingly mad world generates surprising insights and support. Described as ‘perhaps the most private of Selma Lagerlöf’s books’, the novel takes us deep into a father-daughter relationship that carries the seeds of tragedy within it almost from the start.
The property of Mårbacka in Värmland was where Selma Lagerlöf grew up, immersed in a tradition of storytelling. Financial difficulties led to the loss of the house, but Lagerlöf was later able to buy it back, rebuild it and make it the centre of her world. The book Mårbacka, the first part of a trilogy written in 1922–32, can be read as many different things: memoir, fictionalised autobiography, even part of Lagerlöf’s myth-making about her own successful career as an author. It is part social and family history, part mischievous satire in the guise of innocent, first-person child narration, part declaration of filial love.
The Löwensköld Ring
The Löwensköld Ring is the first volume of a trilogy originally published between 1925 and 1928. In addition to being a disturbing saga of revenge from beyond the grave, it is a tale of courageous, persistent women, with interesting narrative twists and a permeating sense of ambiguity. The potent ring of the title brings suffering and violent death in its wake and its spell continues from one generation to the next, as well as into the two subsequent novels in the trilogy. The Löwensköld trilogy was Lagerlöf’s last work of pure fiction, and is now considered a masterpiece.
A curse rests on the Löwensköld family, as narrated in The Löwensköld Ring. Charlotte Löwensköld is the tale of the following generations, a story of psychological insight and social commentary, and of the complexities of a mother-son relationship. Charlotte is in love with Karl-Arthur – both have some Löwensköld blood. Their young love is ill-fated; each goes on to marry another. How we make our life ‘choices’ and what evil forces can be at play around us is beautifully and ironically depicted by Selma Lagerlöf, who was in her sixties when she wrote this tour de force with the lightest imaginable touch.
The curse on the Löwensköld family comes to fruition in unexpected ways in this final volume of the Löwensköld cycle. Anna Svärd is also very much a novel of women’s struggle toward finding fulfilment. The Löwensköld Ring resonates with ‘beggars cannot be choosers’ in relation to what a poor woman can expect in life, while Charlotte Löwensköld moves toward women having some choices. In Anna Svärd the eponymous protagonist takes full and impressive control of her own life and destiny. The question of motherhood and the fates of the children with whom the characters engage is another theme. The reader goes on to follow Charlotte, Karl-Artur, Thea and their families, familiar from the previous volume, through this compact novel as it moves relentlessly toward a chilling dénouement.
A Manor House Tale
Written in 1899, Selma Lagerlöf’s novella A Manor House Tale is at one and the same time a complex psychological novel and a folk tale, a love story and a Gothic melodrama. It crosses genre boundaries and locates itself in a borderland between reality and fantasy, madness and sanity, darkness and light, possession and loss, life and death. Lagerlöf’s two young characters, Gunnar and Ingrid, the one driven to madness by the horrific death of his goats in a blizzard, the other falling into a death-like trance as a result of the absence of familial warmth, rescue each other from their psychological underworlds and return to an everyday world that is now enhanced by the victory of goodness and love.
Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden: The Complete Volume
Starting life as a commissioned school reader designed to present the geography of Sweden to nine-year-olds, this absorbing tale quickly won the international fame and popularity it still enjoys over a century later. The story of the naughty boy who climbs on the gander’s back and is then carried the length of the country, learning both geography and good behaviour as he goes, has captivated adults and children alike, as well as inspiring film-makers and illustrators. The elegance of the present translation – the first full translation into English – is beautifully complemented by the illustrations specially created for the volume.
The Phantom Carriage
Written in 1912, Selma Lagerlöf’s The Phantom Carriage is a powerful combination of ghost story and social realism, partly played out among the slums and partly in the transitional sphere between life and death. The vengeful and alcoholic David Holm is led to atonement and salvation by the love of a dying Salvation Army slum sister under the guidance of the driver of the death-cart that gathers in the souls of the dying poor. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, The Phantom Carriage remained one of Lagerlöf’s own favourites, and Victor Sjöström’s 1920 film version of the story is one of the greatest achievements of the Swedish silent cinema.
Lord Arne’s Silver
An economical and haunting tale, published in book form in 1904 and set in the sixteenth century on the snowbound west coast of Sweden, Lord Arne’s Silver is a classic from the pen of an author consummately skilled in the deployment of narrative power and ambivalence. A story of robbery and murder, retribution, love and betrayal plays out against the backdrop of the stalwart fishing community of the archipelago. Young Elsalill, sole survivor of the mass killing in the home of rich cleric Lord Arne, becomes a pawn in dangerous games both earthly and supernatural. As the deep-frozen sea stops the murderers escaping, sacrifice and atonement are the price that has to be paid.
Bannlyst is one of Selma Lagerlöf’s most thought-provoking works, and the latest addition to our Lagerlöf in English series, translated by Linda Schenk as Banished.
Lagerlöf was a hugely popular writer in her time, but the publication of Bannlyst in 1918 cost her a great deal of anxiety for two reasons. First of all, she had been suffering from a writer’s block that made it harder for her than usual to be creative and finish her project; and secondly, the theme of her new novel was highly controversial. Because of the time in which this novel was written, namely during World War 1, and the fact that Lagerlöf was a committed pacifist, she wanted to write something to raise the public’s morale. Her aim was to make people aware of the double standard existing in war times that allows killing to be viewed as permissible and let death trump the value of life. War is terrible and should not be glorified. So to make her point, Lagerlöf wrote a story about a polar expedition gone awry and about cannibalism. Is eating a dead man in order to preserve life the worst thing you can do?
Banished is split into three parts, each of which concerns matters of life and death. The first part is about the hero of the story, the explorer Sven Elvesson, and his dilemma as to whether to consume the corpse of his companion or become a corpse himself. His past follows him back to his home village on Grimsön, where he faces judgement and aversion when the truth about what happened during the polar expedition is revealed. The second part of the novel concerns the abusive marriage of the beautiful Sigrun and the local minister Edvard Rhånge. Edvard’s poisonous jealousy is harmful, and Sigrun needs to be cunning and wilful in her struggle for survival and freedom. In the third and final part, the people of Grimsö are forced to open their eyes to reality as they encounter a myriad of dead sailors in the sea after the Battle of Jutland. It is one of the book’s most memorable passages and can be counted among the most powerful literary responses to war in the twentieth century. Read an extract here.
Banished is a thematic heavyweight that unfortunately never seems to lose its relevance. We do not have to look far nowadays to find the glorification of war. Lagerlöf encourages us to take a stand against heinous acts of violence and killing and teaches us that human life is sacrosanct.
It has been a long wait for a new translation of The Emperor of Portugallia but now it is here, to delight Selma Lagerlöf fans old and new. Translated by Peter Graves, it is the latest addition to our ‘Lagerlöf in English’ series, which was launched in 2011 with the aim of making the works of Selma Lagerlöf readily available to English-language readers in new, top-quality translations. Previously published titles in the series include: The Löwensköld Ring (2011), The Phantom Carriage (2011), Lord Arne’s Silver (2011), Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden (2013), A Manor House Tale (2015), Charlotte Löwensköld (2015), Mårbacka (2016) and Anna Svärd (2016).
The Emperor of Portugallia is a tale of the bond between parents and children; of the expectations that lie in the roles of the different family members and the conflicted feelings tied to these. The main character of the novel, who adopts the title Emperor of Portugalla as he later descends into madness, is Jan, a poor farm labourer. He becomes a father at quite a late age and, rather to his surprise, finds himself thrilled and overwhelmed with love for his baby daughter. His daughter Klara is a wilful and clever child, and their bond grows stronger as she grows older. When she reaches the age of 17, Jan finds himself in huge debt through no fault of his own, and Klara offers to help by going to the big city, Stockholm, to work and earn the money the family desperately needs. Klara leaves, and so does Jan’s sanity. He creates a fantasy world for himself; a world where his alter ego the Emperor of Portugallia resides with the Empress Klara. Despite the seeming madness of this world, it functions as a cradle of support for Jan and provides surprising insight.
This novel has been described as perhaps the most private of Selma Lagerlöf’s books. At the core of the story, we find the relationship of father and daughter – a theme Lageröf frequently returns to in her works. For this particular tragic novel, the theme led her to consider ‘a Swedish King Lear’ as a possible title. The Emperor of Portugallia, then, is a novel that explores the family and the rights and duties in the relationship between parents and children. It has been described as ‘a sermon on the fourth commandment’ – ‘Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God has commanded thee’.
Selma Lagerlöf was a popular writer during her lifetime, and when Kejsarn av Portugallien was published in 1914, it was quickly translated into an array of languages. In fact, translations of Lagerlöf’s works exist in close to fifty languages. Most of her novels were translated into English during her lifetime. But the interrelations between nations and cultures change over time, and the same is true of language and of approaches to translation. That is why it is important to renew translations and inject new life into old classics over the course of time. Each Norvik Lagerlöf volume has a ‘Translator’s Afterword’ in which a range of issues encountered by the translator can be highlighted – an aspect of the volumes that also adds to their usefulness in teaching.
Back in 1916, Velma Swanston Howard was responsible for the English translation of Kejsarn of Portugallien. She was an American of Swedish origin and by far the most prolific early translator of Lagerlöf’s works; many of her translations have been repeatedly republished up to the present day. Without her work and dedication, Lagerlöf’s novels might not have been available to English readers. But language inevitably evolves, and it was high time for a new English version of this moving classic. We hope you will enjoy it!
We’ve come to that time of the year where the only sensible thing to do is to snuggle up under a blanket in the biggest, comfiest chair you can find, and get yourself something hot to drink and a good book. Well, we don’t do blankets, but we can help with the book part! At Norvik, we’ve put together a seasonal recommended reading list of our treasures fit for winter. These are perfect as stocking fillers for friends and family, or why not treat yourself for a few hours in that comfy chair during what the Swedes call mellandagarna (the days between Christmas and New Year)? Click on the link in each title below to visit our website for more information on the books, and how to buy.
This spirited and at times sinister novel ensnares the reader in a tangled encounter between modern-day Scandinavia and the ancient world of myth. In the 1980s, a hardworking Icelandic businesswoman and her teenage daughter Dís, who has been arrested for apparently committing a strange and senseless robbery, are unwittingly drawn into a ritual-bound world of goddesses, sacrificial priests, golden thrones and kings-in-waiting. It is said that Gunnlöth was seduced by Odin so he could win the ‘mead’ of poetry from her, but is that really true, and why was Dís summoned to their world?
Wilfred – alias Little Lord – is a privileged young man growing up in upper-class society in Kristiania (now Oslo) during the halcyon days before the First World War. Beneath the strikingly well-adjusted surface, however, runs a darker current; he is haunted by the sudden death of his father and driven to escape the stifling care of his mother for risky adventures in Kristiania’s criminal underworld. The two sides of his personality must be kept separate, but the strain of living a double life threatens breakdown and catastrophe. This best-selling novel by Johan Borgen, one of Norway’s most talented twentieth-century writers, is also an evocative study of a vanished age of biplanes, variety shows, and Viennese psychiatry.
29 January 1912. In a train compartment in Ogden, Utah, a Danish author was found unconscious. The 54-year-old Herman Bang was en route from New York to San Francisco as part of a round-the-world reading tour. It was a poignant end for a man whose life had been spent on the move. Having fled his birthplace on the island of Als ahead of the Prussian advance of 1864, he was later hounded out of Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna and Prague by homophobic laws and hostility to his uncompromising social critique as journalist, novelist, actor and dramaturge. Dorrit Willumsen re-works Bang’s life story in a series of compelling flashbacks that unfold during his last fateful train ride across the USA. Along the way, we are transported to an audience in St Petersburg with the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, to a lovers’ nest in a flea-ridden Prague boarding house, to the newsrooms and variety theatres of fin-de-siècle Copenhagen, and to a Norwegian mountainside, where Claude Monet has come to paint snow and lauds Bang’s writing as literary impressionism.
A richly-illustrated one-volume hardback edition of Selma Lagerlöf’s classic tale. This novel started out as a commissioned school reader designed to present the geography of Sweden to nine-year-olds, but Lagerlöf’s work quickly won international fame and popularity, which it still enjoys over a century later. It is a fantastic story of a naughty boy who climbs on the back of a gander and is then carried the length of the country, learning both geography and good behaviour as he goes. It is a story of Sweden, where every province has its tale and out of the many fantasies, a diverse country emerges; a country of the great and the grand, majestic nature and lords and ladies, but also a country of farmers and fishers, goose-herds and Sami, miners and loggers, and of animals – rats and eagles and elk, foxes and geese and all the other creatures who are part of the life cycle of the land.
A House in Norway tells the story of Alma, a divorced textile artist who makes a living from weaving standards for trade unions and marching bands. She lives alone in an old villa, and rents out an apartment in her house to supplement her income. She is overjoyed to be given a more creative assignment, to design a tapestry for an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Norway, but soon finds that it is a much more daunting task than she had anticipated. Meanwhile, a Polish family moves into her apartment, and their activities become a challenge to her unconscious assumptions and her self-image as a good feminist and an open-minded liberal. Is it possible to reconcile the desire to be tolerant and altruistic with the imperative need for creative and personal space?
Kerstin Ekman’s wonderful poem Childhood is presented here as a dual language English/Swedish publication illustrated with original photographs provided by the author. Kerstin Ekman is primarily known as a novelist, but she has occasionally turned to free verse, especially when the subject is autobiographical. In 1993-1994, Swedish TV 1 conducted a series of talks with prominent writers under the rubric ‘Seven Boys and Seven Girls’. In place of an ordinary interview, Kerstin Ekman read aloud Barndom (Childhood). The prose passages are quotations from Ekman’s 1988 novel Rövarna i Skuleskogen (The Forest of Hours).
Also by Kerstin Ekman is the novel The Angel House, in which Ekman provides an alternative, subversive history of the community in which she grew up. It is a story that stretches through a century, told through the perspective of the generation of women living in those times:
A giant had a washbowl which he set down in the forest at the base of a moraine. It was made of granite and deeply indented, and he filled it with clear, amber water which looked like solidified resin when the sun shone on it on a summer’s afternoon.
In winter, the top layer of the water froze into a lid and the entire bowl went very still, just like the forest around it. Then, down at its deepest point, a pattern of stripes and dashes would move. A pike, if there had been one, would have seen that it was not broken lengths of hollow reed swaying there but thousands of his brothers the perch, sluggishly and cautiously changing positions.
Across the top of the lid spun a rope-covered ball and after it, heavy but fast, skated men with clubs in their hands. They were dressed in black knee breeches and grey woollen sweaters. About half of them had black, peaked caps with both earflaps turned up and kept in place with two thin shoelaces knotted on top of their heads.
Half had red knitted hats with tassels. Sometimes one of the ones in peaked caps went whizzing off with long blade strokes, feet inclining inwards, guiding the ball in front of him with his club. If a tassel-hat got in his way, both of them would go crashing onto the rough ice near the shore, flattening the broken reeds and sending ice and coarse snow spraying round their metal blades.
Round the edge of the Giant’s Washbowl, people stood watching, virtually all men, coming so far out of town. But Ingrid Eriksson was standing there too. She stood there every winter Sunday, whenever there was a match on.
For further reading in the New Year, watch out for the brilliant Pobeda, coming very soon.
Finally, we’d like to wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas!
We are happy to announce that Mårbacka has been longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This novel by Selma Lagerlöf (originally published in 1922) was translated by Sarah Death and published by Norvik Press in 2016. We are thrilled that the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation is shedding light on more female voices, as the new prize aims to increase the translations of female international authors and thus make them more accessible to a British and Irish readership.
If you have not read Mårbacka, it is the story of Lagerlöf’s childhood at their family farm Mårbacka in Värmland. It is a warm and personal pseudo-autobiography; Lagerlöf writes about true stories from her upbringing, but she does so with her recognisable artistic pen. The novel is written in a naïve style as the story unfolds through a young Selma. Nonetheless, it contains a dual complexity because the wiser, more grown-up author lets the reader be aware of things that the child Selma herself cannot know. As Sarah Death puts it in her afterword: ‘In many ways [Lagerlöf’s] portrayal of her childhood in Mårbacka is bathed in a rosy glow, but she hints at the shadows (…).’ This proved to be a recipe for success, and when it was first published, Mårbacka won the heart of the reading audience like none of Lagerlöf’s work had done before.
We at Norvik Press are very happy that Lagerlöf is still a relevant voice. We love her authorship and have published many translations of her works. Our forthcoming titles in the series are The Emperor of Portugallia [Kejsarn av Portugallien] and Banished [Bannlyst].
It was an enthusiastic and well versed audience that assembled to celebrate the launch of Norvik Press’ two new publications, the latest additions to the “Lagerlöf in English” series; Anna Svärd and Mårbacka. The translators, Linda Schenck and Sarah Death, were in attendance, joined by Janet Garton, director and co-founder of Norvik Press.
The panel was chaired by Professor John Mullan, the Acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, UCL, who was most entertaining in making the panel very accessible for those less familiar with the work of Norvik Press and of Selma Lagerlöf. The book launch also served as a celebration of Norvik Press’ 30th anniversary, its first book having been published back in 1986.
The panel presented to us Anna Svärd, the final volume of Lagerlöf’s Löwensköld Ring trilogy and originally published in 1928, translated by Linda Schenck, who explained the enduring appeal of Lagerlöf’s works. She described Anna Svärd, and Lagerlöf’s works in general, as being “mischievious” and at the same time “very serious”, and pointed out that Selma Lagerlöf’s continuing appeal is evident as we are witnessing somewhat of a “Lagerlöf renaissance”. There was discussion about the need for a re-translation of Lagerlöf’s works, to continue to bring these novels into the English speaking world, even if the funding for such a project could be hard to come by.
Mårbacka, translated by Sarah Death and originally published in 1922, is the first of another of Lagerlöf’s trilogies, and is a work of “autofiction”, as the translator herself put it; a fictionalised account of Selma Lagerlöf’s childhood in her family home, told through the innocent eyes of a young Selma herself.
These new publications are two additions to a large collection of translated books published by Norvik Press, set up to raise awareness for the “overlooked classics”, as Janet Garton described them, of Scandinavian literature, whether contemporary or not. The panel joked about how Norvik Press had not been immune to the Nordic Noir trend, having recently published the crime fiction title Walpurgis Tide by Faroese writer Jógvan Isaksen.
Janet Garton also mentioned how the publishing house was now made up of an all-female team, which is somewhat refreshing and perhaps accounts for the prevalence of female writers in the list of Norvik Press’ publications. Overall, there was a feeling that Norvik Press was still succeeding in what it set out to do, and these new publications show that, even at 30, Norvik Press is indeed still going strong.
Anna Svärd, the latest addition to Norvik Press’s “Lagerlöf in English” series, is the third and final volume of what is known as the Löwensköld Ring trilogy. The characters from Charlotte Löwensköld, the second book in the trilogy, reappear in this novel, and the curse that has rested upon the Löwenskölds relating to the eponymous ring comes to fulfillment. Anna Svärd focuses on what makes a relationship, and what creates or destroys a family.
As if by design, but in fact entirely by coincidence, the Västanå Theatre group, which performs in Värmland every summer, often but not always putting on bright, musical renditions of Lagerlöf works, will be performing The Löwensköld Ring (Löwensköldska ringen) this summer, beginning on midsummer day and continuing into the autumn.
The story of the Löwensköld family, its secrets and its complications, is both a fine portrait of late nineteenth-century life in Värmland and astonishingly topical in its insights into human behavior, not least gender roles. These were late Lagerlöf works, in fact the last strictly fictional books she wrote, and they reflect a mature and perceptive writer.
For anyone traveling around Sweden this summer, even a non-Swedish speaker, reading the books (or even just the first volume, which I understand will be the focus of the play) in English would surely make it entirely possible to enjoy the performance which, although in Swedish, will be so full of song and dance and excitement that the language might seem almost irrelevant.
This slideshow, although not from this summer’s performance which hasn’t yet opened, gives a good idea of what Västanå’s plays are like. They are performed in a wonderful old barn called Berättarladan, or “Storyteller’s Barn”, beautifully situated just next to the lovely Rottneros Park, well worth a visit, and not far from Selma Lagerlöf’s home Mårbacka, where visitors to the house and grounds can anticipate Norvik’s soon-to-be published translation, by Sarah Death, of Lagerlöf’s somewhat fictionalized memoir of the same name: Wishing all readers and visitors to Sweden a full and satisfying summer.
Linda Schenck, translator
Anna Svärd by Selma Lagerlöf and translated from Swedish by Linda Schenck.
Now available at all good bookstores.
Norvik Press is looking forward to the forthcoming publication of our translation of Selma Lagerlöf’s Mårbacka. Here is a little about the background to Mårbacka and a preview of a chapter from the book.
The property of Mårbacka in the Swedish province of Värmland went through several incarnations. It was a fairly modest farmhouse when Selma Lagerlöf was growing up there, becoming immersed at her grandmother’s knee in the storytelling that was to be such a central aspect of her own life. Financial difficulties led to the family’s loss of the house, but Lagerlöf, by then an established writer, was later able to buy it back, rebuild it and make it the centre of her world.
Today, the house and gardens at Mårbacka are open to the public in the summer months and attract visitors from all over the world. In the Mårbacka shop they can purchase translations of her work, including titles from the Norvik Press ‘Lagerlöf in English’ series.
Details of all Norvik’s Lagerlöf titles can be found here > Read about today’s Mårbacka >
The book Mårbacka, the first part of a trilogy written in 1922-32, can be read as many different things: memoir, fictionalised autobiography, even as part of Selma Lagerlöf’s myth-making about her own successful career as an author. Soon to be available from Norvik Press in my new translation, it is part family history, part ethnography and folklore, part mischievous satire in the guise of innocent, child’s-eye narration, part declaration of filial love. Above all it is a testimony to the love that the place and its stories and people inspired in Lagerlöf and her nearest and dearest. Its power of attraction can clearly be seen in the taster chapter below, a draft extract from the section at the very heart of the book, ‘Old Buildings and Old People’.
In this season of Nobel Prizes, Norvik Press gratefuly acknowledges funding from the Swedish Academy for the translation of Mårbacka and several of our other Lagerlöf titles. The author herself won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909. We also thank the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation and the Barbro Osher Foundation for recent grants to the Lagerlöf project.
THE RAISED STOREHOUSE
All the old folk on the farm declared with one voice that the building next in age after the stone huts was the old raised storehouse. But it was not built there by the first permanent resident; it had surely come into existence some hundred years after his time, when Mårbacka was turned into a proper farm.
The farmers living there then had presumably put up a raised storehouse as soon as they could, because it was expected that a farm of any importance would have one.
At any rate, it was an extremely modest example of its kind. It was supported on low posts with no form of decoration. The door was low, so you had to stoop to enter. But the lock and key were all the bigger by comparison. They would not have been out of place in a prison.
The storehouse had no windows, only some little openings with shutters. In summer, when they wanted the windows open, they used screens of twigs to keep out the flies. They wove the thin twigs into a lattice, until they had a square big enough to fill the window. Not much light found its way through the gaps, but at least it was not completely dark.
The storehouse had two storeys, and the upper one was much better appointed than the lower. That must have been where the farmers kept their most treasured possessions once upon a time.
It was likely that the storehouse was just the same in Lieutenant Lagerlöf’s time as it had been originally. It might have had a new roof, but other than that it had been left in peace. The staircase was not replaced, even though the steps were so narrow that you could scarcely get your foot on them, and the window openings remained unglazed.
The place looked magnificent in autumn. On the lower floor there were big bins full of freshly milled flour. Beside them stood two vats, full to the brim with pieces of meat and bacon in brine. Alongside these were ranged tubs and buckets of different types of sausage – pork, beef and potato – made after that autumn’s slaughter. Tucked in the corner were a barrel of herring, a cask of salted laveret, another of vendace and usually a firkin of salmon, too; in addition to this there would be pots of salted beans and salted spinach and firkins of yellow and green peas.
On the upper floor stood great tubs of butter, which had been filled over the summer and were to be saved for the winter. Cheeses were ranged in long rows on shelves above the window openings and aged smoked hams hung from the ceiling. The homegrown hops were kept in a sack as big as a bolster, and malted grain in another. A whole year’s supplies were assembled there.
In the food store it was the housekeeper who ruled the roost. The food store was hers, and its key was seldom entrusted to anyone else. Miss Lovisa Lagerlöf might be allowed to preside over the pantry and the milk store, but the housekeeper preferred to go to the storehouse herself.
It was she who reigned over all the proper cooking, too. Making jams and cordials and baking biscuits could be left under Miss Lovisa’s supervision, but if there was a joint to be roasted or cheese to be made or crispbread to be baked, then it was the old housekeeper who would take the lead.
The little ones at Mårbacka had a huge amount of love and unlimited respect for her. In fact it was quite possible that they considered her the person of the highest standing on the whole farm.
After all, the children could observe that whenever relatives came to visit, they would immediately go out into the kitchen to say hello to the housekeeper, and whenever anything of note happened in the family, Lieutenant Lagerlöf would call her in and tell her about it, and when Daniel and Johan were going back to school each new year and autumn, they were always told to go and bid the housekeeper goodbye.
The children also heard strangers say that Mrs Lagerlöf was very fortunate to have such a faithful servant in her kitchen. Nothing in her charge was ever overlooked or neglected.
Nowhere, moreover, was there such Christmas beer, such crispbread and such good cooking to be had as at Mårbacka, and everyone agreed that this was all thanks to the old housekeeper.
So it was no surprise that the children considered her the mainstay of everything. They firmly believed that without the housekeeper, everything would go wrong at Mårbacka.
But one day, little Anna Lagerlöf discovered a secret she found really alarming. She could not bear it alone, but had to tell her sister Selma that she had overheard two of the maids talking as if the housekeeper were married and had a husband.
There is no describing how much this troubled the two little girls. For if the housekeeper was married and had a husband, they could not be at all sure of keeping her at Mårbacka, could they?
How would it be for their mother, who relied so much on her excellent help? And how would it be for them, accustomed as they were to her giving them some tasty little treat each time they went into the kitchen? And how would it be for the whole farm?
It was vital that they find out the truth of the matter. They agreed to ask Nanny Maja, the new nurserymaid, if the housekeeper could possibly be married.
Well, Nanny Maja knew the whole story. She had heard it from her mother, who had been in service at Mårbacka at the very time it all happened.
It was the honest truth, though until then the children had never heard a word about the housekeeper’s marriage. And her husband was alive and living in Karlstad, where he was a carpenter. So he was not even conveniently dead.
And this was supposedly how it came about: when the lieutenant and his brother went off to school in Karlstad, old Mrs Lagerlöf sent with them her faithful housekeeper Maja Persdotter, to take care of the boys and cook their meals. There in the town she made the acquaintance of a carpenter, who proposed to her.
And Nanny Maja’s mother said that the spring the housekeeper came home and told her mistress she was getting married, the old lady was downcast and fearful, for she realised she would be losing her greatest treasure. ‘And what sort of husband are you to marry, Maja?’ she enquired. ‘Do you know him to be a good man?’
Oh yes, she had assured herself of that. He was a master carpenter with his own workshop and his own house. He had put his home in order so that they could marry at once, and he would make the best of husbands.
‘But how can you possibly feel at home there, in the barren streets of a town,’ said old Mrs Lagerlöf, ‘as someone who has spent her whole life in the countryside?’
Oh, that did not worry her either. Things would be so good for her from now on. She would be able to live such an easy life and would not have to bake or brew but could simply go to the market and buy everything she needed at home for the housekeeping.
When old Mrs Lagerlöf heard her talking like that she realised the housekeeper had been seized by the urge to get married and there was nothing to do but prepare for the wedding. And the wedding was held at Mårbacka, the bridegroom came and appeared to be a wise and able fellow, and the day after the wedding he travelled to Karlstad with his bride.
But a fortnight later, or perhaps it was scarcely even that long, Mrs Lagerlöf took up the key to the food store to go out and carve some ham for the evening meal. And she never took up that storehouse key without thinking of Maja Persdotter and wondering how she was getting on. ‘If only I had not sent her to Karlstad, then she would not have met the carpenter,’ she thought, ‘and I would still have my excellent assistant and would not need to run to the food store twenty times a day, as I have to now.’
Just as she was about to enter the storehouse, she happened to glance towards the avenue and the road, for there was an unobstructed view in those days. And she was rooted to the spot, for who should be approaching beneath the birches but someone so like Maja Persdotter, her faithful helpmeet and servant ever since her young days, that the storehouse key fell from her hand.
The nearer the stranger came, the more her doubt faded. And when the woman stopped in front of her and said ‘Good evening, ma’am,’ she could not but believe her own eyes.
‘Why, it’s you, Maja Persdotter!’ she said. ‘Whatever are you doing here? Have you not got a fine husband?’
‘He does nothing but drink,’ replied the housekeeper. ‘He’s been drunk every day since we got married. He drinks the pure alcohol he uses for his work. Such a ne’er-do-well is too much to bear.’
‘But I imagined you would have nothing to do but go to the market and buy everything you needed and be spared all that work?’ said Mrs Lagerlöf.
‘Honoured mistress, I promise to coddle and care for you, if only you’ll let me return home again,’ said the housekeeper. ‘I’ve been longing to come back to Mårbacka day and night.’
‘Come in then, so we can talk to your master about this,’ said the old lady, and she was so happy by this point that there were tears in her eyes. ‘And by the grace of God we shall never again be parted in this life,’ she added.
And so it proved. The housekeeper stayed at Mårbacka. Her husband must have realised that it was not worth trying to coax her back. He never came to get her, but let her stay where she was. She removed her wedding ring from her finger and put it in her clothes chest, and the matter was never spoken of again.
Lieutenant Lagerlöf’s young daughters should have been reassured once they heard all this, but they remained anxious for a long time afterwards. After all, with the carpenter still being alive, what was to stop him turning up one day to order his wife back? And whenever they found themselves by the storehouse where they had an unobstructed view up to the road, they always expected to see him coming. Nanny Maja had told them that if he came and demanded his wife back, she would have to go with him.
They did not really know how old the housekeeper was. She had forgotten what year she was born and the date recorded in the church registers was said to be wrong. Now she was over seventy, but the carpenter might want her back with him even so, outstanding woman that she was.