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How my father happened to lose his own old copy of Gösta Berling’s Saga, I have no idea. When it came to books, the Colonel was an odd  mix of jealous worship and carelessness… But somehow or other the book was lost.

What I know for sure is that, many years later, I found an old copy of the Saga in a second-hand bookshop in Pavia – an old, tiny and delightful place named Il Parnaso, the kind of place where one can while away a rainy afternoon making discovery after wonderful discovery… oh, you know what I mean. Now, my found Saga was not the same edition my father had lost – but it was old, a little worse for wear, and bore an ex-libris explaining how it had been saved during some flooding or other of the Ticino, Pavia’s river. Well, wasn’t that perfect: a book, the right book – and with a story of its own… I bought it as a birthday present for my father – who appreciated it very much, read it a couple of times, spent some time comparing the merits of the different translations, then put it in his own “favourites” shelf, where it stayed for years.

And perhaps it would have stayed there if it hadn’t been the perfect size to fit in an overnight bag. Years and years later, I brought the Saga with me on one of those opera blitz-trips I used to do once upon a time, and devoured it on the train. And… you know those bittersweet moments when a shared reading becomes very much like a conversation you can’t have anymore? At long last I was seeing why my father had been so upset at losing his copy of the Saga. Because it is a tale of betrayed intentions, fall, second chances, and (perhaps) redemption – written with a vivid, austere power that shines even in translation. It is an intense affair, filled with powerful descriptions, bigger-than-life characters, and it has an epic, drumming pace, that sweeps the reader all along. Just the sort of things my father enjoyed – and I rather take after him in this respect.

And – well, Gösta’s story also has a Northern saga’s occasional stiffness, and there is no denying that it is quite stark. There is nothing light about it – and it’s definitely worth its while, in the way of a walk in deep snow: for the icy crispness, the beauty, and the vigour of it.

 

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