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.
Strindberg: A Life
By Sue Prideaux
Yale University Press, 352 pages
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.
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.
Strindberg: A Life
By Sue Prideaux
Yale University Press, 352 pages
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.