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Sweden’s Enfant Terrible

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Posted on Sep 26, 2012

By Tom Artin

“Strindberg: A Life”
A book by Sue Prideaux

August Strindberg is renowned internationally as a founder of the modern European drama, notably as the playwright of “Miss Julie,” but also of more expressionistic plays such as “To Damascus, A Dream Play” and “The Ghost Sonata.” In Sweden, his status resembles Goethe’s in Germany—broadly acknowledged as his homeland’s greatest writer. His literary oeuvre extends far beyond his work for the theater. Aside from more than 60 plays, Strindberg authored 18 novels, nine autobiographies and three volumes of poetry. This does not include his journalism and nearly 10,000 extant letters.

Strindberg was also, like Goethe, a prodigious polymath. He was an adventurous and exhibited painter, as well as an avid photographer. For periods, he was a full-time chemist and alchemist who published scientific papers in these fields. Under the influence of Ernst Haeckel’s monism, he devoted much time and energy to proving sulfur was not an element, and that the so-called elements were transmutable. He claimed to have discovered X-rays 10 years before Wilhelm Röntgen. Believing colors were captured but hidden on photographic plates, he experimented with alternative photographic developers in hopes of revealing hues latent in the emulsions. He played piano and guitar. Seeking to break new tonal ground, he tinkered with aleatory music by randomly un-tuning one or more strings of his guitar.

Sue Prideaux’s splendid “Strindberg: A Life” is not a long book, and sets out not to record every jot and tittle of Strindberg’s passage from birth to death, but to limn a vivid portrait of its complex, iconoclastic, often self-contradictory, ever brilliant subject, written in lively—at times inspired—prose. 

Prideaux’s opening gambit is to leap into the biography in medias res by narrating the bizarre episode that resulted in Strindberg’s most celebrated, if not necessarily his greatest, work, “Miss Julie.” The 39-year-old Strindberg had moved his family to Denmark, where “The Father” was to be performed, and where he hoped to find more receptive audiences and publishers than at home in Sweden. At first, he blithely took up residence in a posh Copenhagen hotel, but when “The Father” closed after 11 performances, the family was forced to find thriftier lodging out of town. 

book cover


Strindberg: A Life

By Sue Prideaux


Yale University Press, 352 pages


Buy the book

They were eventually enticed by a withered door-to-door vegetable seller (Strindberg thought her a gypsy, the children, a witch) to rent—at a suspiciously low price—a wing of what she advertised as a royal palace. It was owned by the Countess Frankenau, who lived there with a man represented as her servant, in reality her illegitimate half-brother. These two became the models for Miss Julie and her servant Jean. The light of day revealed the palace, Skovlyst, to be no more than the ramshackle shadow of its former glory. “Skovlyst’s neglected garden had progressed, like its carriage horses, beyond the picturesque into the ruinous but there was a heart-stoppingly beautiful orchard of cherry trees whose polished auburn trunks rose from a snow of fallen blossoms,” Prideaux writes. Its denizens were four outlandish characters resembling a troupe of mountebanks, who—stalling until darkness could obscure the true state of the property—mounted a variety show of song and hurdy-gurdy, magical levitation and other illusions of primitive legerdemain. With its tawdry theatricality and its aura of deceit and extortion, the Skovlyst ethos was oddly appropriate as the nursery of Strindberg’s revolutionary play.

By placing this compelling tale at the head of her biography, Prideaux makes it emblematic of the vagaries of Strindberg’s career, and the convolutions of his mercurial character. “Fear alternated with recklessness, exhilaration with anxiety and young as he was, he was acutely aware of himself swinging from pole to pole without moderation or balance,” Prideaux writes of an earlier but equally definitive stage of his life. Although true to biographical objectivity, she narrates the Skovlyst adventure with the verve of a writer versed in the novelist’s art.
Having presented her exemplary narrative of the genesis of “Miss Julie,” Prideaux doubles back to the beginnings of Strindberg’s life with a brief historical and sociological survey of the Stockholm and the Sweden into which he was born—a radically different milieu from the country we know today. We tend to regard Sweden as an enlightened, modern, politically progressive country—some say a haven of “free love.” Fallen from its position as a significant European power, Sweden in the mid-19th century was technologically backward, its society predominantly pious, prudish and provincial.

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