by Selma Lagerlöf. Translated from the Swedish by Velma Swanston Howard. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company. 1924. 8vo. xi+288 pp. $2.50.
WHAT we vaguely term folk-quality is that beauty which comes into being almost unconsciously, as a by-product of some other intent. In the sturdy utility of peasant architecture and furniture there is a subtlety of line, a perfection of detail, which studied imitations never recapture; in the naïve frenzy of the old morrisdance there is a frolic grace wholly absent from the antics of those who have revived its measures but can never revive its spirit. So it is that we hail with particular delight, in these sophisticated days, any work well done which, both in matter and in manner, exhibits the true folk-quality, baffling in its perfection.
Of such a nature are these childhood sketches by Selma Lagerlöf, excellently translated by V. S. Howard. They are of varying merit, to be sure, especially toward the end of the volume, where the subject matter becomes slightly attenuated; but in all of them there is a direct style which moves unswervingly along its way, never consciously pausing to create an artistic effect, but throwing out beauty as it advances. Mȧrbacka, the prosperous farmstead of the Lagerlöf family, is really the central figure round which the portraits, legends, and impressions are grouped. The old place takes on the mood of the people who pass through it: it becomes sorrowful with the sorrow of Mamselle Lovisa; it expands, on festival days, with a great hospitable inhalation to welcome the small fry and large fry of the neighborhood; and now and then, in the still of the night, it gives back its ghosts.
But there are no unintended ghosts in these pages; all the characters, no matter how unimportant, take on the very semblance of life. Individually the Lieutenant, Fru Lagerlöf, Kaisa Nilsdotter, and the rest, become as distinct to us as to her who knew and loved them; as a group they re-create for us all the gusto and strength of the old rural life which, even in Scandinavia, has now almost disappeared. And through all the sketches humor and sentiment are so skillfully modulated as to avoid caricature, on the one hand, and sentimentality on the other. The author herself remains in the background, observing and comparing, with the quick eyes of a child. I note that the publishers call the book the loveliest of autobiographies. It is lovely, but it is the most modest of autobiographies. It is less the story of Selma Lagerlöf’s childhood than a calling back to life of a vanished era, a preoccupation with the nobility of simple people and the beauty of simple things.