The Saga of Gösta Berling begins with the story of a young minister. He has been so depressed by his difficult job and his gloomy house in a remote region of Sweden that he has begun drinking, going so far as to miss some Sunday services. His parishioners have complained, so the bishop and other senior clergymen have come to his parish to attend Sunday service and dismiss him. However, that morning he is sober and gives a passionate and inspiring sermon. The clergymen question the parishioners and they suddenly have no complaints. So, the clergymen give the minister a talking-to and depart. The young minister is Gösta Berling, and now he resolves to reform, to stop drinking and dedicate his life to others. But then one of his old drinking buddies, who drove away with the clergymen, tells him they won’t bother him again. He has given them a terrifying sleigh ride to the station and then threatened them. Gösta knows they won’t believe he didn’t have a hand in it. So, off he goes to become a defrocked priest, a vagrant wandering in the wilderness.
This bit is typical of what we find in this episodic novel, situations apparently resolved for the good, only to end in some ironic twist. It is an unusual novel, and the only thing I can think of that it reminds me of is Peer Gynt, except that Peer Gynt didn’t seem to have good intentions.
Years later, we find Gösta at Ekeby, the home of the majoress. She has a sad past but for years now has ruled Ekeby and its iron mines and farms through having married the major. She has given free room and board, indeed a wing of her house, to 12 cavaliers, who are required to do nothing except enjoy themselves and raise hell. The only catch is that each year, one of them dies. Gösta is one of the cavaliers.
On Christmas Eve, a “black gentleman” emerges from the chimney during the cavaliers’ party and convinces them that everything wrong with their lives is the fault of the majoress, that she has made a pact with the devil to get power. He particularly convinces Gösta even though the majoress rescued him from poverty. They make a pact with him to have control of Ekeby for one year, and if one of them acts unlike a cavalier in that time, he will have all their souls. So, on Christmas Day the cavaliers drive the majoress out of her house to wander the countryside.
This event is only two or three chapters into the book, but by this time there had already been several episodes in which Gösta proved himself charismatic but mercurial and unreliable. I was getting disgusted with him and took a break from the novel.
But coming back to it, I began to appreciate Lagerlöf’s extravagant prose style and vivid descriptions. It’s clear that she loves the Värmland area of Sweden, which was her home and the setting of the novel. Plus, I got more involved in the action of the novel, which has the feel of stories of the past being told around a fire.
Still, I found Lagerlöf’s idea of a fitting ending as well as the religious overtones fairly off-putting. So, a so-so for Gösta. I read this novel for my Classics Club list.