As Finland’s centenary drew ever closer, I realised I had been neglecting her western neighbour in favour of the eastern one, which also has a big anniversary year. Selma Lagerlöf’s Mårbacka, published in the 1920s, seemed a good place to start redressing the balance. After all, Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and first member of the Swedish Academy. And she doesn’t forget her next-door-neighbour, which Sweden ruled before the Russians did:
This new translation by Sarah Death has an excellent afterword giving context to the text. Not least, Death shows how Lagerlöf blended autobiography and fiction, creating a story of her own background as an author, just as she extended her home at Mårbacka; you can still visit the house. Lagerlöf starts with her own memories of childhood, including a long period of illness when she was unable to walk:
The stories recall an old world that is passing away, traditions that some would call superstition or irrationality have been lost and will soon be forgotten:
This awareness that the world is changing fast is lightened with humorous observation of how people behave in a small community and family where everybody knows everybody all too well. These are gentle stories, sometimes very moving; how “really true” they are doesn’t matter. Lagerlöf herself recalls what an excellent storyteller her grandmother was, and found the right tone for this book by imagining she was speaking to her younger sister. Reading these, you can start to feel part of the family.