I guess all lovers of used bookstores know that feeling of suddenly stumbling upon a real treasure. A few years ago I visited a Norwegian used bookstore and looked through their tiny shelf of Swedish books and there it was, a large book, with gold coloured lettering, a map in relief on the cover and plenty of illustrations inside. That book was the 1903 edition of Gösta Berling’s saga (making it one of the oldest books I own) by Swedish Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf. It’s not particularly valuable but it is the most beautiful book I own. However, the size and fragility of the book meant that it has been lingering unread in my bookshelf for far too long.
The story of Gösta Berling was Selma Lagerlöf’s first published novel (in 1891) and consists of a series of loosely connected stories set in Värmland (west Sweden) during the 1820s. Following a pact with the devil a group of lazy upper-class drunkards, including the charming title character Gösta Berling, take control of an estate which they promptly mismanage causing disturbances (and multiple broken hearts) throughout the region. However, I found the main plot to be secondary, the real interest for me lay in the rich tapestry of stories of the lives affected during this year of disturbances. Together the stories created a loving portrait of the region. Each chapter is a partly independent story, covering various people and episodes and sometimes including supernatural elements from the local folklore. And what a story-teller Selma Lagerlöf is!