I have to admit that the Nobel Prize for literature causes me quite some trouble. You know, if someone receives a price for physics or chemistry you typically can tell an immediate effect of their work.

Normally, this is not the case for literature although I would never say that literature has no effect. Moreover, I simply do not understand why certain writers belong to the so called world literature, while others are not mentioned.

While I cannot choose if 2 plus 2 equals 4 or rather something else I can have a certain taste concerning authors and texts.

The Nobel Prize

However, the first woman who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909 is the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf. Maybe you don’t know her name. But I guess you know her most famous story “The wonderful adventures of Nils” which was also published in 1906. I think it had a revival as an anime that appeared in 1980.

Apparently the members of the committee had a heated fight about awarding her the prize or not. Well, we know the result. They awarded her this prize “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”. More than 100 years later it is almost impossible to interpret the meaning of these words.

Life and Work

It seems many things about Selma Lagerlöf were unusual. She was born in 1858. From early childhood she had been a passionate reader with a particular interest in legends but she showed little interest in household work which was considered a problem in her time. Against her father’s will she visited the college for girls in Stockholm and later became a school teacher. During her time as school teacher she published her epic novel “The Saga of Gösta Berling” in 1891 which in 1924 had been made into a film with immortal Greta Garbo.

The novel became quite successful, Selma quit her job as a school teacher and did something that was certainly unusual in her time: she travelled the world which of course brought her more inspiration for her writing.

With the money she received for the Nobel Prize she could rebuy her family’s manor (for economic reasons they had to sell it some years earlier) where she lived until her death.

Social and Political Engagement

Selma Lagerlöf engaged on issues for women’s rights and as from 1933 she was also a member of a committee that supported Jewish refugees.

In order to support the Finns during the so called winter war (a war between Russia and Finland between 1939 and 1940) she sold her golden Nobel Prize medal.

The poetess died in 1940 in her manor “Mårbacka” which today is a museum.


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