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  • Italy Seen from Sweden and Sweden Seen from Italy:Selma Lagerlöf's Sicilian Novel and Italian Translations
  • Anna Smedberg Bondesson

Places and perspectives are inherently intertwined. A place is necessarily viewed from somewhere: a specific perspective or point of view. Perspective, too, depends on and is bound to place as it is situated in space and time. Sweden and Italy, two distinct countries and cultures, are placed at opposite ends of the European vertical axis both geographically and imaginatively. Within this perspective Sweden represents the cold, controlled north, while Italy is associated with the warm, spontaneous south.

Due to these differences a fascination has always existed—a simultaneous attraction and repulsion—with regard to such European opposites. This fascination has led to a mutual exoticizing practice throughout history that has emphasized and enlarged the distance and differences rather than bringing the cultures closer together. I wish heuristically to juxtapose these practices in order to facilitate their intercultural performance, transaction, and "discussion." Many parallels can be drawn between the Swedish-Italian practices and the Anglo-Italian cultural transactions as described in the volume Performing National Identity. In both cases, the performative aspects of intercultural transactions and relationships should not be considered just in colonial or post-colonial senses but also from an inner-European perspective. Manfred Pfister introduces the anthology as follows:

Particularly important here are intercultural performances and transactions, and that not only in a colonial and postcolonial dimension, [End Page 233] where such performative aspects have already been considered, but also in inner-European transactions. "Englishness" or "Britishness" and Italianità, the subject of this anthology, are staged both within each culture and, more importantly, in joint performances of difference across cultural borders. Performing difference highlights differences that "make a difference"; it "draws a line" between self and other—boundary lines that are, however, constantly being redrawn and renegotiated, and remain instable and shifting.


This passage could just as easily refer to the discussion of intercultural performances and transactions in Swedish-Italian relationships. Of course, in Sweden there is no parallel to Byron with his cultural capital not only to be "Italianized," but also to "Byronize" Italy as described by Barbara Schaff in her contribution to Performing National Identity (103-21). However, this difference is marginal. Various kinds of cultural transactions can be seen as ongoing performing processes, including the present effort of apposing the two exoticizing practices thereby facilitating Italy and Sweden's dialogue in the middle. By engaging in this practice, one may glimpse something that lies beyond the respective stereotypes and banalities so that a more nuanced perspective may emerge.

In her article "Translation, Travel and Identity," Susan Bassnett writes that translation sometimes

becomes a powerful means of exploring the range of the language and extending the boundaries of a literature. Crucial to such an exploration is the ability to shift perspective, to look simultaneously from within and from without, to question oneself and one's own culture as much as one questions the other.


In considering Selma Lagerlöf's Italy and Italy's Selma Lagerlöf, such ambitions may be formulated in a more meta-literary way. Using Selma Lagerlöf's oeuvre as an example, this article seeks to explore "the range of the language and extend the boundaries of literature." Therefore it is necessary "to shift perspective, too look simultaneously from within and from without," to question oneself and one's culture as much as the other.

Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) worked for ten years as a teacher in Landskrona in southern Sweden before turning to writing full time in 1895. Her first task in her new post-teaching life was to go on a long journey to Italy and Sicily with her traveling companion Sophie Elkan. The trip lasted nearly ten months, from October 1895 until the summer of 1896. [End Page 234]

Lagerlöf's literary debut had previously occurred in 1891 with the novel Gösta Berlings saga that takes place in the province of Värmland where she was born. Following her travels, Lagerlöf positioned herself within a long and strong tradition of describing Italy in romantic and often even exotic terms...


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pp. 233-246
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