Dec 7, 2013
Sweden’s Enfant Terrible
Posted on Sep 26, 2012
By Tom Artin
Strindberg was one among 11 siblings of punitive, unloving parents. In a paradigmatic childhood scenario, he would be falsely accused of some domestic infraction, then doubly punished for having the cheek to assert his innocence. This recurring experience must have been at the root of both Strindberg’s characterological paranoia, and his dogged refusal to compromise his version of the truth, even when it was socially or commercially disadvantageous to do so, or hurtful to someone he loved.
Typically, Strindberg’s imaginative writing is autobiographically derived, to the point not merely of the confessional, but the compulsive. It depicts (and also seems a working-through) of his famously tortured relationships with women—a major focus of Prideaux’s biography. “But crimes and secrets and debt tie us together! We have broken up and split apart so many, many times, and yet we are drawn together again. . . . ” muses the Colonel’s wife in “The Ghost Sonata.” A very porous border separated reality and imagination in Strindberg’s mind. He felt besieged; in his most paranoid phases, occult “powers” inhabited and were manipulating his world. In his later years, he wrote his German translator, “My life often seems as if it has been staged for me, so that I might both suffer and portray it.”
Contemptuous of the pieties and hypocrisy of his native milieu, Strindberg spent many years abroad, mostly in France and Germany. In Berlin, at the center of an illustrious bohemian circle at a bar he had dubbed Zum Schwarzen Ferkel (“The Black Piglet”), his cohorts included Edvard Munch, Knut Hamsun, German poet Richard Dehmel and Polish philosopher Stanislaw Przybyszewski.
When the Berlin scene unraveled, he proceeded to Paris, where he notably befriended Paul Gauguin. It was there he navigated his so-called Inferno crisis, immersed in chemical experiments and occult speculation, a period during which Strindberg was most in the grip of his paranoid fantasies, described in “Inferno,” a quasi-fictional work written in French.
Emerging from this crisis, which bordered on madness, Strindberg returned to Sweden and spent the rest of his life garnering the literary and theatrical success so long denied him.
“Strindberg: A Life” features many illustrations, including a generous sampling of his photographs, representative of his immersion in the discipline of photography. An entire section is devoted to Strindberg’s paintings, with which few readers are likely to be familiar.
Less satisfactory is the treatment of notes, bunched as endnotes at the back of the volume, instead of as footnotes at the bottom of pages where they belong. This format may avoid scaring off a general reader at whom commercially the book is probably aimed, but makes for tedious riffling back and forth for anyone interested in what the notes contain. Equally awkward is the chaotic index, which gathers an unwieldy number of entries under the heading “Strindberg, August.” These entries are in turn gathered under arbitrary subheadings, generally impeding rather than aiding a reader’s search.
Finally, Yale University Press has been slipshod in its editing. Though Prideaux is a fine writer, minor errors appear throughout her text, some of fact, some of grammar, some of style, which it was an editor’s job to have caught. The author is less to be faulted for these lapses; she had overarching tasks to attend to. And she did so, admirably.
Prideaux rounds her book with a touching narrative of Strindberg’s final days. Dying of stomach cancer, he was honored on his 63rd birthday with a torch-light procession of 15,000 well-wishers. Repeatedly passed over for the Nobel Prize by the Swedish Academy, an “Anti-Nobel” was presented him on March 2, 1912, organized by subscription from all over Sweden. He immediately gave away most of this award of 45,000 Swedish crowns—10,000 to his youngest daughter, the rest to charities. In April of that year, on hearing the news of the sinking of the Titanic one month before his own death, he made his way to his piano, weak as he was, to play “Nearer My God to Thee.” On May 19, more than 10,000 people joined the funeral procession to his burial. The great man of Swedish letters, so long at odds with his homeland, was taken to its heart at the last.
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