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Nonprofit publishing: an interview with Ian Giles

Credit: Canva

Ian Giles lives in Edinburgh and is a commercial and literary translator of the Scandinavian languages. He is the current Chair of the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association (SELTA) and a frequent contributor to Swedish Book Review. Ian’s PhD focused on who published and read translated Scandinavian fiction in the UK during the 20th and early 21st centuries, and the roles of the various agents involved in this process continue to engage him. Ian is also Treasurer of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies, itself a small, charitable publisher.

The following interview took place between Ian Giles (IG) and Cath Jenkins, representing Norvik Press (CJ), over Zoom during July 2021. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

CJ: Norvik describes itself as a nonprofit publisher. What is the difference between nonprofit and not-for-profit?

IG: Well, I suppose the easy way to distinguish between the two is that nonprofit Norvik Press would very much like to make a profit – and doesn’t! Therein lies the rub: a not-for-profit doesn’t actually need to make a profit, whether it’s because of deep-pocketed benefactors, or because it’s a charitable endeavour. Whereas nonprofit Norvik is operating on a shoestring, with the aim of at least being cost-neutral. It costs money to publish each new thing, so you sort of drip-feed your publications out. Whereas something like Dalkey Archive Press, there’s a regular explosion of titles.

Norvik Press has a longevity to it, which means that you want to ensure that decisions that you make are decisions that you can live with in the long run. When you’ve got smaller, newer publishers, for instance, whether they’re nonprofit or not-for-profit, when they’re in startup mode (and we all have a startup mode at some point, when I started as a translator I was more like a startup than I am now!), they can do what they want, they don’t know whether they’ll still be doing this in thirty years’ time. And so the decisions they make now aren’t made with an eye towards the long-term, and I think that’s a problem.

I went to an interesting conference earlier this year, about translating minority literatures, at the University of Nottingham. The keynote was Ondřej Vimr, and he did a very interesting lecture about how these days in publishing – as in all areas of work life, but especially in publishing – everything happens quicker. We know that everything happens quicker, ask Norvik Press how long it took to publish a book in 1988…! Where people would have taken a risk before, because they had time to figure out whether they could take the risk, now they just turn it down, because you can’t afford to take a risk. And so I think the Norvik ‘grown-up’ approach is nice. There can come a maturity, with the limitation of means, that can lead to probably better-than-average decisions, because you have your binding principles of ‘can’t go bust’. And indeed, in a way, it helps that Norvik has, and has had, a paid assistant for a long time in one shape or another because it often focuses minds, that there’s a need to pay someone’s salary, however modest that is. Whereas if you or I were just our own imprint, digging into our own pocket, ultimately we can be like ‘Well, I can eat nothing but cereal for six months!’, or ‘What does it matter if I stick it all on a credit card!’ And it does make a difference.

Norvik Press has a longevity to it, which means that you want to ensure that decisions that you make are decisions that you can live with in the long run

CJ: In terms of the general direction of nonprofit publishing, do you see focusing the mind as something that might help us prepare for the future?

IG: I mean it’s always that. Sometimes I’m very cynical about this. I think if you’re at the rock-face of the industry, all the words blend into one and sometimes I go, ‘Why do we translate anything?!’ In a world of infinite possibilities, the likelihood is that something you translate from Language A into English has probably been written in English already, or someone is having the idea right now, nothing’s ever original. And so, to move beyond that, you have to be less cynical, but you also need to identify what is worthwhile, about the thing you’re translating. Publishing is an incredibly subjective, taste-based industry. Often, as a thought exercise, I try to think ‘What other industries are there in which this is the case?’, possibly restaurants and food, but you know, the role of an acquiring editor is incredibly important and ultimately we’re not saying that acquiring editors are somehow much, much smarter or somehow much, much more erudite than your average citizen. We’re really saying that through circumstances, they’re a taste-maker. With small publishers, what you can end up with is strokes of genius because on the one hand, they might read something and they might have great taste and they might go ‘This is the book that we must have’. But just as love can feel like love, but sometimes it is not love, I think equally you can go ‘This is the book, we must have this book!’, and then it just takes a second person to say, ‘It’s okay…’ and the purse-strings are not loosened. I think stuff coming out at the end good, is more important than it just coming out.

CJ: Yes, I agree it needs to be that mixture of passion and prudence.

IG: This is where publishing is weird again, isn’t it. Because everybody believes in the power of literature. Even if you find the book for you but you go ‘No, our list is full for the year’, or you check the piggybank and there is no chance, well then you’re not too upset. If another publisher comes along and goes, ‘Well, I’ll do that. It looks great’, you say, ‘Well, isn’t that nice that it all worked out’.

CJ: Yes! And adding to the weirdness: Brexit. Do you have any thoughts on the way that post-Brexit funding for publishing is going?

IG: It’s difficult. I was just having a look before we spoke at the article I wrote on small presses and funding in general [State Dependence: How ARE Britain’s Small Presses Translating Norwegian Literature Anyway?]. On the domestic front, it’s not a great time to be looking for money for the written word, especially if the written word has got something to do with abroad! The pandemic hasn’t helped, on the basis that money in the arts needs to be diverted elsewhere to more pressing things. Publishing has, on balance, got off pretty lightly really. In the context of what we do in Norway, interacting with the Nordics, things could be worse, because ultimately English is an important bridge language. But the ties between the Nordic countries and the UK are very strong, and not everyone is in the EU in the Nordics of course.

More generally, there’s a lot of stuff disappearing through the cracks in the funding world and the problem is that if you’re a small publisher that needs to apply for money to do everything, now the money isn’t there. Anybody who works in any industry where you rely on grant funding, always knows in the back of their mind that this is not a long-term guaranteed source of income and could go away at any time. But normally you hope that there will be a whisper of when that’s coming. I think Brexit has been, on the admin front, actually worse than people imagined, and the pandemic has added to that, because there’s a lot of personal lobbying that goes on in the publishing world that simply hasn’t been able to happen for the last eighteen months.

CJ: Yes, indeed, personal relationships are so important in small press publishing – relationships with embassies, in-person meetings, in-person conferences. As a nonprofit publisher, we’ve really missed these the past year. Particularly going to bookshops and handing out our catalogue, meeting booksellers face-to-face who are so supportive of presses like us… you can still build relationships over social media – we’ve been trying to do that – but nothing really replaces in-person recommendations and conversations.

IG: I think you’re right, I think it’s people. People do/say/buy things because their friends tell them to, I mean peer pressure is real, and one of the interesting realisations from my research is the discovery that in the world of publishing in particular, people mostly do things because their friends tell them to. Because if you were to examine most things that happen in publishing books, and to say ‘What’s the business case for this?’, well, there isn’t one. You tend to do what your friends tell you to do slightly more if they tell you in-person, and it feels like a genuine interaction with a friend, than you do online.

Since March last year I have been attempting to pitch a couple of books that I’ve got ready to go, and I don’t want to cold-pitch to people with a lecture on a slide deck; I want to slide into someone’s DMs in real life, with a glass of wine, and say ‘I was reading this really great book that I actually have translated, I’m not saying you should publish it, but I liked it. Why don’t you read it’. It’s the same with your relationship with booksellers, you don’t turn up and say ‘I need you to take twenty-five copies of Chitambo or I’m leaving’, what you say is ‘It might not be easy to sell this to everybody, but actually it’s really good. Try it’.

CJ: Yes, it’s all about genuine interactions for nonprofits! I suppose something that attempts to replicate that for the peri-pandemic era is the subscription model, where a press interacts with readers as supporters – on Patreon, for example – and in return readers receive hand-picked books.

IG: I think that’s the way everyone’s going, you can see the bandwagon, whether you jump on it or not, and it’s quite a good bandwagon, so if I weren’t on it, I would probably jump on. The great thing with say a subscription club, if you’ve got someone taking Norvik’s three titles for the year or whatever it is, if it’s at a pretty reasonable cost and they enjoy the book, then they tell other people about it, they buy copies to give as gifts. So I think it’s where small presses on a shoestring can set themselves apart. The key thing is to maintain some degree of humanity, a human touch. People should feel like they’re interacting with a knowledgeable friend.

CJ: I think the key word for me really is ‘human’. My favourite thing about our new website is that we have our Get to know us section, which we didn’t have before. So now it’s possible for you to go to our website and see our faces. I look awful in my photo! But, you know, these are the faces of the people who make Norvik Press happen, and readers can really get to know us.

IG: Yes, it’s to Norvik Press’s credit there that I think there’s an appeal to the fact that there are real people behind it, with other things on the go, beyond what you do for Norvik.

CJ: I think backstories are so important and fit really well with the whole publishing endeavour – storytelling!

IG: I think so, Norvik’s backstory is always very pleasing. There are books that simply should be available, and Norvik makes that happen, it is quite laudable. The Lagerlöf in English project was worthwhile, it was high time these were retranslated and reintroduced. But similarly publishing something like Vigdis Hjorth’s A House in Norway, it’s completely the opposite end, it’s a contemporary novel by a contemporary Norwegian writer. And that’s what people would use the word ‘curate’ for these days… and that’s what Norvik does, it curates a cool mix. The only comparison I’d make is to Archipelago Books – they also always seem to somehow have their finger on a pulse you didn’t know existed, or that you needed!

that’s what Norvik does, it curates a cool mix

CJ: Thank you so much Ian, this has been such an informative and inspiring conversation – it’s reminded me why we do what we do, really, and why we put up with the challenges of being a nonprofit, because there’s also the rewards – being able to do something that we’re passionate about.

IG: Honestly, I’m really pleased that Swedish Book Review, Norvik Press and Scandinavica all live on. If you had asked me three or four years ago, would all of these things still exist, I would not have been certain. It all boils down to funding and lots of hard work.

CJ: Definitely. Well, we have made it through what a pandemic has thrown at us so far, so hopefully we’ll be able to survive after this!

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Lobster Life book launch

Monday November 11th
17:30-19:00

1-19 Torrington Place
WC1E 7HB, London

Join us for the Norvik Press book launch of Erik Fosnes Hansen’s Lobster Life. This captivating and affectionate coming-of-age tale is narrated by Sedd, who as a high school student has decided to write his memoirs. He lives an isolated childhood in a grand Norwegian mountain hotel. Life at the hotel is not what it used to be; Norwegians have deserted the traditions of their native land, with its invigorating ski trips and lake-fresh trout, for charter tours to ‘the infernal south’. Sedd’s grandparents are fighting a losing battle to maintain standards at Fåvnesheim hotel, which has been in the family for generations, whilst the young Sedd observes developments with a keen eye for the absurd and a growing sense of unease that all is not well. He has his own demons too, as he tries to unearth the truth about his father, an Indian doctor who died as Sedd was conceived, and his mother, who was ‘taken by Time’ when he was a toddler and whom he remembers only as a foxy-red sheen in the air.

The event will feature a discussion with author Erik Fosnes Hansen and translator Janet Garton. This is followed by drinks and light refreshments.

Come join us for an evening of lively discussion on literature, translation and a bout of nostalgia for Norwegian mountain holidays.

Sign up for the event here

Read extract of Lobster Life

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Norvik’s Norwegian autumn

As the weather turns chillier, we’re delighted to bring you not one but two contemporary Norwegian novels. Curl up in your favourite chair and enjoy two of Norway’s most acclaimed authors, both translated into English by Janet Garton.

Heading for all good bookstores this October, Jan Kjærstad’s thought-provoking and subtle Berge weaves together the voices of three citizens, each affected in their own way by a heinous crime in the forest outside Oslo. Read a preview here.

Erik Fosnes Hansen’s Lobster Life captures the absurdities and tragedies of life in a country hotel on the brink of ruin. Like a latter-day Holden Caulfield, the orphaned Sedd reminds us that humans are a lot like lobsters: their vulnerable innards are not reliably protected by their hard shells. But struggle on we must, even if we lose a claw or two along the way. Click here to read a preview, or find Lobster Life in all good bookstores, or via norvikpress.com.

Find more information on both novels in our Norwegian Autumn leaflet:

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Påskekrim

Scandinavia – a cold, bleak place with cold, bleak weather and cold, bleak people. A place to escape from. As well as the perfect setting for gruesome crimes. And where better to capture this foul ambience than in a hair-raising page-turner? Nordic noir has been a welcome escape route for many Scandinavians over the decades. Crime fiction makes up a large percentage of the total sales in Scandinavia and often tops the best-seller lists.

And once a year crime fiction turns into an elevated form of its own – påskekrim. It is something particularly Norwegian and a very specific type of crime fiction, namely the crime fiction read during Easter – påske – holidays. These crime novels are often published in order to reach the shelves just before the holidays, and they often tell stories set at Easter time. Påskekrim is a long-standing tradition for Norwegians when they head for their mountain cabins. Then they pack their little ryggsekks full of påske essentials, such as oranges, kvikk lunsjes, skis and ski poles, traditional board games and – most importantly – crime novels. Why? In order to scare themselves properly up there in the lonely mountains? The wind howls through the cracks of their old-style, wooden cabins which are only dimly lit by candlelight and an open fire, and each time any of them need to use the loo they have to risk death (by nature or at the hands of the violent murderers they have just read about) by staggering out into the nothingness to try to feel their way to the utedo. This life is highly appealing to Norwegians. They think it is the quintessential representation of hygge, and påskekrim plays a crucial part. 

The reason why the term påskekrim exists is because of a specific crime novel published in 1923: Bergenstoget plyndret i natt! The translation of the title reads ‘The Train to Bergen robbed last night’. It takes place around Easter time and was published at Easter. It was written by two young, aspiring authors who were later to become some of Norway’s best known writers, Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie. Grieg’s brother, Harald Grieg, was the head of Norway’s biggest publishing house, Gyldendal. He decided to run a campaign to promote the novel on the front pages of all the important newspapers in the country. So the public got quite a shock when they woke up to the alarming headline of the book title – with only a small, almost invisible indication underneath that it was an advert!

So whether you are going all-out Scandi and heading for the mountains, or prefer to stay at home tucked underneath a blanket, Easter time is the perfect time to escape into the mysterious bleak world of crime fiction.

Norvik Press crime novels

Murder in the Dark sports a winning combination of engaging crime narrative and cool, unsentimental appraisal of Scandinavian society (as seen through the eyes of its shabby, unconventional anti-hero). There are elements of the book which now seem quite as relevant as when they were written, and like all the most accomplished writing in the Nordic Noir field, there is an acute and well-observed sense of place throughout the novel. The descriptions of Copenhagen channel the poetic sensibility which is the author’s own: “Copenhagen is at its most beautiful when seen out of a taxi at midnight, right at that magical moment when one day dies and another is born, and the printing presses are buzzing with the morning newspapers”.

Two British environmental activists are discovered dead amongst the whale corpses after a whale-kill in Tórshavn. The detective Hannis Martinsson is asked to investigate by a representative of the organisation Guardians of the Sea – who shortly afterwards is killed when his private plane crashes. Suspicion falls on Faroese hunters, angry at persistent interference in their traditional whale hunt; but the investigation leads Martinsson to a much larger group of international vested interests, and the discovery of a plot which could devastate the whole country.

And for a different kind of whodunnit, why not try

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: Charlotte Löwensköld and Anna Swärd. The Löwensköld trilogy was her last work of pure fiction, and is now considered a masterpiece.

Lastly, a future translation to look forward to

Written by Kristin Lorentsen

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Celebration of a Man of Nature and a Most Loved Poet

Hans Børli is a Norwegian national treasure. Often pictured in his lumberjack gear or knitwear, he radiates comfort and warmth and is an image of the ultimate man of nature. His poems are still widely read and often quoted.  He was born on the 8th of December 1918 to a poor family. They lived on a remote farm deep in the Norwegian forests of Eidskog. He was a bright young man, but his education was cut short because of the war. Børli took part in the fighting against the Germans but was captured. Luckily, he was not deported to the work camps, but was released and worked as a teacher and a lumberjack for the remaining war years. And at the same time, he also wrote poetry. His first collection, Tyrielden, was published in 1945 to great acclaim and good sales. And he kept on writing, publishing works almost every year from then on. However, his popularity as a writer did not stop him from continuing his forest work; rather it was reinforced by it. Nature was his muse, and he was inspired when he spent time surrounded by the tranquil greenery. However, his poems are not merely romantic tributes to the beauty of the forest, but the forest rather serves as an animated allegory to illustrate the complexity and fragility of life. Børli’s works are filled with wise words about what it is to be a human being in this world.

To celebrate the centenary of his birth, we would like to pay tribute to him and his beautiful poems by posting some of them here alongside the English translations by Louis A. Muinzer.

 

Junikveld

Vi sitter i slørblå junikveld 
og svaler oss ute på trammen.
Og alt vi ser på har dobbelt liv,
fordi vi sanser det sammen.

Se – skogsjøen ligger og skinner rødt
av sunkne solefalls-riker.
Og blankt som en ting av gammelt sølv
er skriket som lommen skriker.

Og heggen ved grenda brenner så stilt
Av nykveikte blomsterkvaster.
Nå skjelver de kvitt i et pust av vind,
–  det er som om noe haster…

Å, flytt deg nærmere inn til meg
her på kjøkkentrammen!

Det er så svinnende kort den stund
vi mennesker er sammen.

June Evening

On the steps in the mist-blue evening
we sit in the cool June air.
And all that we see is double,
because it is something we share.

Look – the lake’s shining with scarlet
from the land of the sunsetting sky.
And bright as a piece of old silver
Is the diver’s red-throated cry.

And the bird-cherry’s burning in silence,
Its blossoms alight by the gate.
A breeze makes their white clusters tremble
– as if there is something can’t wait…

Oh, move yourself closer against me,
here by the kitchen door!
We are given a short time together,
then given no more.

 

Forbi

Forundelig
som kvelden ringer
høyhet fram i alt og alle…  

Selv kråkene
får gylne vinger
når de flyr i solefallet…

Beyond

So strange to see
how the evening rings
loftiness forth and makes things bright…

Even the crows
have golden wings
when flying in the sunset’s light…

These poems are taken from the volume We Own the Forests and Other Poems, Hans Børli, translated by Louis Muinzer. Browse and buy here.

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An evening with Danish author Dorrit Willumsen and translator Marina Allemano

Bang coverA reading and panel discussion with author Dorrit Willumsen and translator Marina Allemano

Tuesday 16 October 2018, 6.00-7.30pm
UCL Arena Centre
10th Floor, 1-19 Torrington Place, London, WC1E 7HB
Tickets are free, but pre-registration is essential. To book your place, please email norvikevents@gmail.com by 9 October

Join us over a glass of wine with Danish author Dorrit Willumsen and translator Marina Allemano, as they discuss the process of bringing Herman Bang to the English-speaking world. Bang will be available for sale at a special discounted price for one night only. 

In Bang, winner of the 1997 Nordic Council Literature Prize, Dorrit Willumsen re-works the life story of Danish author, journalist and dramaturge Herman Bang (1857-1912). In a series of compelling flashbacks that unfold during his last fateful train ride across the USA, we are transported to fin-de-siècle St Petersburg, Prague, Copenhagen, and a Norwegian mountainside. A key figure in Scandinavia’s Modern Breakthrough, Herman Bang’s major works include Haabløse Slægter (Hopeless Generations, 1880), Stuk (Stucco, 1887) and Tine (Tina, 1889).

Read more about Bang here

Read an extract from Bang here

Browse and buy Bang and other books in all good bookshops and at norvikpress.com

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Ten Lagerlöf masterpieces for £100

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…

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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 Emperor of Portugallia: A compelling exploration of father-daughter relationships and of madness.

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.

The internationally beloved tale of a boy and his goose, Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden, Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Nils Holgersson is also available in a single-volume hardback collector’s edition).

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 norvik.press@ucl.ac.uk to place your order. First come, first served – available only while stocks last!

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Women in Translation

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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 Eat translated by Marina Allemano, Selma Lagerlöf’s Banished translated by Linda Schenck and Vigdis Hjorth’s House in Norway translated 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 norvik.press@ucl.ac.uk, 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.

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The Lagerlöf Series in English

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.

You can download a brochure and find more information about the series on our website.

Banished

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.

Mårbacka

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.

Charlotte Löwensköld

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.

Anna Svärd

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.

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A Matter of Life and Death

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.

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