Thursday 21 February 2013

Romantic Friday Writers Challenge for February: Fanfiction - February 21st to 24th, 2013

Lars Hanson as Gösta Berling and Greta Garbo as Countess Elisabet Dohna. Source.

Welcome to Romantic Friday Writers' February Challenge! 


This time we have a fan-fiction-challenge for you! Write up to 1,000 words of prose or poetry based on famous lovers in famous stories from the past--recent or distant. 

Poster for Stiller's 1924 silent film.

My text is based on Nobel Prize-winner, Selma Lagerlöf's (1858-1940) debut roman, Gösta Berlings Saga (1891).

Selma Lagerlöf in 1909
Selma Lagerlöf in 1928

The top photo is a still from the 1924 silent film of Gösta Berlings Saga, that launched Greta Garbo's cinematic career. 

The Saga of Gösta Berling is a story set in the isolated, wooded, western Swedish province of Värmland in the 1820's. The main character, Gösta Berling, is a clergyman with a drinking problem that causes him to become defrocked and destitute. After loosing both his home and position, he wanders alone along snowy country roads until he decides to take his own life. He lies down in a snowdrift and waits to freeze to death, but is rescued by the richest woman in the province, the powerful majoress, Margareta Samzelius, of the manor at Ekeby. He becomes one of Ekeby's twelve cavaliers, a collection of misfits, homeless noblemen or veterans of the Napoleonic wars, who live in a wing of the foundry estate. 

After a time at Ekeby, the secret about the source of the Majoress' wealth is revealed by Simtram, the malicious owner of a neighbouring manor. Margareta Samzelius had had a lover, Altringer, who left her everything in his will, all the land and riches that she and her husband now own. The Major is so chocked that this secret has been made public, that he drives is wife away from the Ekeby Manor; and for the sake of revenge, leaves the estate in the hands of the twelve incompetent cavaliers. A year-long reign of wild frivolity follows, during which no work is accomplished at the foundry. 

Gösta Berling is described as the strongest and weakest of men. He is also so extremely handsome and attractive that several young women fall in love with him. But no one really wants to marry him because of the shame of him being a churchman removed from his parish by the bishop

However, at the end of this year of madness, Gösta Berling does indeed marry the beautiful young Countess Elisabeth von Thurn, herself shunned by her former husband, Count Henrik Dohna. The 1924 silent film, The Saga of Gösta Berling, directed by Mauritz Stiller, ends with the Majoress giving Gösta Berling and his wife Elisabet, the entire estate. In Selma Lagerlöf's novel, the majoress offers Gösta Berling Ekeby only if he lets his wife return to her native Italy. Gösta Berling refuses the offer and chooses to live with Elisabet in a small cottage in the woods and work as a carpenter and musician.

One of Selma Lagerlöf's critics, Georg Brandes, thought that the character Gösta Berling was not convincingly portrayed as a seducer. He's not really a Don Juan at all; He never goes to bed with any of the women who fall for him, not even Elisabet. He is just a very, romantic dreamer, a kind-hearted, poetic and good-looking young man, who is perhaps a little impractical and naive; and who starts drinking in the face of life's hard reality. The model for Gösta Berling was a distant relative to Selma Lagerlöf, who spent most of his life in a mental hospital. Selma Lagerlöf kept this a secret. So Gösta Berling is perhaps better off as a fictional character than as a real life individual.

Selma Lagerlöf lived a sedentary life because of a limp do to a birth defect. In her youth, she was a 'wall-flower', and as an adult, her closest companions were other women.  She may not have known first hand so much about men as lovers or seducers, but she knew what it was like to live in a family with someone with a drinking problem, her father. When she was ten years old, in 1868, her father became very ill. In order to please and appease God and make Him make her father well again, she read the entire Bible from cover to cover. This was the Karl XII (Charles XII) Bible, which is approximately like The King James Version of the Bible. It helped a little. Her father lived another 17 years. But more importantly, she learned the language of the Bible, and the biblical stories became one of her main sources of inspiration. 

Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman, as well as the first Swede, to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was also the first woman to be elected into the Swedish Academy.

Selma Lagerlöf receives her Nobel prize in 1909.
Here is an excerpt from the opening of the first chapter, superbly translated as The Saga of Gösta Berling in 2009 by Paul Norlen:

At long last the minister stood in the pulpit.
   The congregation raised their heads. So there he was after all. The service would not be canceled this Sunday, as it had been the previous Sunday and many Sundays before that.
   The minister was young, tall, slender, and radiantly handsome. If you had set a helmet on his head and hung a sword and breastplate on him, you could have chiseled him in marble and named the image after the most beautiful of the Athenians.
   The minister had the deep eyes of a poet and the firm, rounded chin of a general; everything about him was lovely, fine, expressive, glowing through and through with genius and spiritual life.
   The people in the church felt strangely subdued seeing him like that. They were more accustomed to seeing him stagger out of the inn in the company of merry companions, such as Beerenceutz, the colonel with the ample white mustaches, and the strong Captain Kristian Bergh.
   He had been drinking so excessively that he had not been able to perform his duties for several weeks, and the congregation had been compelled to complain about him, first to his dean and then to the bishop and the consistory. Now the bishop had come to the parish to conduct an inquiry.

Selma Lagerlöf at 23 in 1881.
Here is Selma Lagerlöf's original text:
Äntligen stod prästen i predikstolen. 
     Församlingens huvuden lyftes. Så där var han ändå! Det skulle inte bli mässfall denna söndagen såsom den förra och många söndagar förut.
    Prästen var ung, hög, smärt och strålande vacker. Om man hade välvt en hjälm över hans huvud och hängt svärd och brynja på honom, skulle man ha kunnat hugga honom i marmor och uppkalla bilden efter den skönaste av atenare.
     Prästen hade en skalds djupa ögon och en fältherres fasta, runda haka, allt hos honom var skönt, fint, uttrycksfullt, genomglödgat av snille och andligt liv.
     Folket i kyrkan kände sig underligt kuvat vid att se honom sådan. Det var vant vid att han kom raglande ut från krogen i sällskap med glada kamrater, sådana som Beerencreutz, översten med de tjocka, vita mustascherna, och den starke kapten Kristian Bergh.  
      Han hade supit så förfärligt, att han inte på flera veckor hade kunnat sköta sin tjänst, och församlingen hade måst klaga på honom, först hos hans prost och sedan hos biskop och domkapitel. Nu var biskopen kommen till socknen för att hålla räfst och visitation.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction using characters from the world of The Saga of Gösta Berling, trademarked by Selma Lagerlöf. The characters, Gösta Berling and Elisabet Dohna, were created by Selma Lagerlöf and I claim no ownership over them or the world of Gösta Berling.
     The story that I have written is a work of my imagination intended for entertainment only and is not a part of the official story line. I gain no profit from this text. It is simply a writing exercise for my own instruction and amusement for Romantic Friday Writers' monthly challenge.

My text does not accept the ending offered in the silent film. My story returns to the end of the novel and shows something of what Gösta Berling's and his wife Elisabet's life together might be like.


Here is my text: 

Tiny light green leaves had suddenly appeared on the once bare branches of the birches around their timbered home. Sunlight filtered through this silk-like green canape. Elisabet had risen early, and taking her fiddle and bow with her, she went out dressed in only her nightgown, and stood barefoot in the dewy grass. They lived in a small croft, that Gösta had refurbished with the help of the cavalier, wenborg. It was finally spring and Elisabet’s music had to compete with a huge choir of the tiny voices of nesting birds.

Elisabet turned slowly the tuning peg for the A-string, and drew the bow over the string, listening, and comparing the sound to that of the tuning fork held to the belly of the violin. 

Essi dovrebbero vedermi ora, i miei cugini giovani in Italia! thought Elisabet reverting to her native tongue. She was thinking of her childhood and started composing a letter in her mind, as she listened to the birds, the violin and the tuning-fork: Mio caro papà, grazie per l'invio del diapason.

She would sit down and write a letter after practicing this wedding march that she knew Gösta usually played. 

The letter might be like this:

Dear Sweet Papa,
Spring has finally arrived here in the north.
Thank you so much for sending the tuning fork. I am practising every morning before Gösta wakes up. It is easy now that the sun goes up so early. My plan is to always be with Gösta. If I am with him, he will not drink. If he never drinks, he will be good and kind and do well whatever he does.
The people here are not used to drinking wine at meals the way we do. They drink strong spirits to get drunk and lose their wits. It is the darkness, that drives them to it. And the cold. But we have made it through the winter without Gösta drinking a single drop of  alcohol.
Gösta seems happy. He works hard and has time to tutor the local children, play his instrument at public gatherings and he even continues to make violins. I’m glad that we have several violins. This way I can go with him and play and keep an eye on him.

Il tuo Elisabet figlia devota

Elisabet put away her thoughts about the letter, and just played the melody until the fiddle sang with joy, as if fiddles liked to be in tune. 

’Elisabet!’ called a voice from within the logged cabin, ’Where are you, my love! I hear music! Am I dreaming?’

’No, it’s not a dream, my sweet. Come out and see. I can play! I can play!’

Gösta came out of the house, also in his bare feet, and kissed his wife, as she held her arms up in the air afraid to drop the fiddle and the bow.

’Please, darling. Let me put the fiddle down and I’ll kiss you more.’

’No. I want to hear more,’ he said kissing her again before returning to the house. ’In fact, I’ll fetch mine and we can play it together.’

’Oh, please do. That would be lovely!’ chirped Elisabet. Do I dare feel happy? she thought, La vita è come un opera qui al nord. La gente in Värmland sono emozioni così forti. Si potrebbe pensare che sono italiano! (Life is like an opera here in the north. People in Värmland have such strong emotions. You would think they were Italian!)

Gösta brought out his fiddle and they played together as they stood barefoot in the grass at their own home. Elisabet felt strongly that she would indeed succeed in keeping Gösta sober and that they would truly live happily ever after. At least it felt like that in the first few days of spring, when life seems to return to all of nature, and there seems to indeed reside a merciful God in Heaven. It was like drinking and getting drunk and still remaining sober.

’I wanted it to be a surprise. I wanted to practice more and get even better before telling you,’ explained Elisabet with a glint in her eyes.

’How did you do it? You make the fiddle really sing with joy! How did you learn to play without a teacher?’

’I learned to play as a child in Italy. It's a musical place too. I just need to learn your repertoire. We could play duets together at weddings. That way, we would not be apart.’

’Good thinking, my darling. Then there's a meaning to why I’ve made all of these extra fiddles.’

’Yes, dearest. You can never have too many fiddles!’ replied Elisabet laughing, thinking of their small cottage filled to the brim with string instruments. ’We should start an orchestra or at least give lessons.’ The truth be told, Gösta made fiddles out of any piece of wood available. He even made small fiddles out of wooden shoes.

Axel Pettersson's wooden-shoe fiddle

Daniel Frykman's wooden-shoe-fiddle

Björn Bergman's wooden-shoe-fiddle

Elisabet wanted children. The child that was the reason for them getting married (which was her first husband, the Count’s child) had died when it was just some weeks old. But that was not uncommon. Lots of children die. Mothers die too. But Elisabet had survived having a baby and thought that might mean that she could have another one; this time with Gösta, whom she dearly loved. But she was wise enough not to speak about it to Gösta. If it was to be, it would be. As long as they loved each other.

’You never did get to have music or a wedding dress when we got married,’ said Gösta.

’I know.’

Putting the violins aside, Gösta gently kissed Elisabet on the lips. Then they made love until noon.
Word count according to WordCalc: 975; Full Critique Acceptable: FCA.

P.S. I do not know the Italian language. I thought it would be fun to let Elisabet's background show in her thoughts. But I had to 'Google' the translation. If I have made any mistakes, I am grateful if you wonderful people who know this language, let me know.

Best wishes,

First Commenter:
Nilanjana Bose 

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