In twenty-first-century America, August Strindberg (1849–1912) is known as a “classic” writer, but his actual works are familiar primarily to drama students and nonprofit-theater directors. A few of Strindberg’s plays—Miss Julie, The Father, Master Olof, The Dance of Death, The Ghost Sonata, The Stronger—have worked their way into the canon. As much as their excellence, the fact that these works provide some powerful monologues for acting students has ensured their survival there. But does anyone outside of Sweden have any conception of Strindberg the satirist, the radical, the rebel, the humorist, the historian, the novelist, the feminist, the hypnotist, the painter, the photographer, the alchemist, the wild eccentric?
The last big biography of Strindberg was Michael Meyer’s in 1985, a hefty tome that concentrated largely on Strindberg the sexist, racist, and anti-Semite, and compared his character unfavorably with that of the more conventionally liberal Ibsen, whose life Meyer had also penned. All this was very much in keeping with the preoccupations of academia at that time, when biographers and professors found it hard to forgive great authors for their lapses from political virtue. Strindberg, like so many men of his time and place, took some racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic positions. But this was only part of the story, for he was also a political radical who shocked contemporaries with his progressive stands, and at significant moments of his life vigorously championed both Jews and women. He was a deeply complicated man whose prejudices and enthusiasms were as contradictory as those of the times in which he lived.
All this is clarified in Sue Prideaux’s hugely readable and lavishly illustrated new biography of the mad genius.1 Prideaux, an Anglo-Norwegian who is also the author of a prize-winning life of Strindberg’s famous frenemy, the painter Edvard Munch, is a sophisticated and humorous writer who, in her portrait of Strindberg, presents the whole man; she is above petty political categorization (for which the complex Strindberg is in any case not a good candidate). He was one of the most astonishing personalities of the modern age, a polymath who encapsulated many of the profound shifts in thought, art, and psychology that separated the nineteenth century from the twentieth. A man of demonic energy, in his not-too-long life he produced sixty plays, three books of poetry, eighteen novels, nine works of autobiography, ten thousand letters, and a considerable corpus of journalism. “If more of this vast agglomeration had been translated,” Prideaux comments, “he would surely be more widely valued as one of the founders of modern literature and enjoyed as an irreverent commentator on the ideas of half a century.”
Sadly, Strindberg’s fiction has never traveled much beyond Scandinavia. His comic novel The People of Hemsö (1887), set on a fictionalized version of the island of Kymmendö off of Stockholm where Strindberg summered in the 1880s, is in Prideaux’s judgment, “the great comic masterpiece of Swedish literature.” Strindberg’s idea, successfully executed, was to produce a story of bawdy peasantry that might have been illustrated by Breughel. His novels The Red Room (1879) and Black Banners (1907) remain classic and still effective satires à clef, attacking the sort of hypocrisy in high places that has in no way died out since the author’s time. His short story collection Getting Married, whose advanced sexual politics scandalized Sweden when it was published in 1884, was still deemed by Germaine Greer a century later as “an extraordinarily broad and reverberating sort of book.” Strindberg’s twelve history plays earned him the title of “Sweden’s Shakespeare,” but since few non-Swedes seem to take an interest in Swedish history they are all but unknown outside of his country. He also wrote the first “people’s history” of modern times, The Swedish People, which, while flawed (“over-extended, hurried, under-researched and finally far too personal,” in Prideaux’s judgment), was groundbreaking in its approach to historical focus.
Strindberg was also fascinated by the burgeoning interest in the unconscious; an avid student of Jean-Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet, and Hippolyte Bernheim (who each had a strong influence on Freud), he brought these new ideas into his plays and other writings. His work pioneered the artistic use of the irrational and even of absurdism, with flashbacks and reruns that demonstrate the fragmentation of time and self. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was one of Kafka’s favorite authors. Sean O’Casey thought him peerless: “Strindberg, Strindberg, Strindberg, the greatest of them all. . . . Barrie sits mumbling as he silvers his little model stars and gilds his little model suns, while Strindberg shakes flames from the living planets and the fixed stars, Ibsen can sit serenely in his Doll’s House, while Strindberg is battling with heaven and hell.”
Strindberg’s autobiographical works are not to be trusted as sources for accurate biography, as Prideaux is well aware. “Strindberg left nine volumes of autobiography which are a complex mix of sticking closely to the action of his life and veering into the wildest imagined scenarios.” The playwright’s actual life was already fantastic enough. His own childhood was to inspire one of his better-known aphorisms: that is, his definition of “family” as “the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children.” His father, Carl Oscar Strindberg, was a middle-class spice merchant with delusions of aristocracy who took a waitress as mistress and produced two sons with her before finally making up his mind to take the socially suicidal step of marrying her. Their third son, August, was their first born in wedlock, but he was their least favorite. When Carl Strindberg went bankrupt in 1853, the six-year-old August became a scapegoat for his father’s every frustration. Stringberg writes in The Son of a Servant:
Hungry and afraid, afraid of the dark, of spankings, of upsetting everybody. Afraid of falling and hurting himself, afraid of being in the way. Afraid of being hit by his brothers, slapped by the maids, scolded by his grandmother, caned by his father and birched by his mother . . . he could do nothing without doing wrong, utter no word without disturbing somebody. Finally, the safest thing was simply not to move. His highest virtue was to sit on a chair and be quiet. It had effectively been dinned into him that he had no right to exist.
The playwright’s mother Nora Strindberg adhered to Pietism, a strict variety of Lutheranism emphasizing personal faith and clean living, and enjoyed the hellfire sermons of its wilder preachers. Anti-intellectual by definition—it deemed that, of all books, only the Bible was to be trusted—Pietism made a virtue of Nora’s ignorance, and she saw her third son’s liking for books and intellectual inquiry as theologically perilous, a punishable offense. In later life Strindberg was to write that “Pietism was then what spiritualism is now—a cut-rate philosophy claiming to offer a higher knowledge of hidden things, which was therefore eagerly taken up by women and the great uneducated and finally even made its way into the royal court.” As a child he suffered acutely from its edicts, as interpreted by Nora: she “knew” she was saved, she told the boy, and that he was not.
At the age of seven August was sent to the Klara School for boys, a place he found so hateful that he thought it must have been invented as a punishment for Original Sin. The atmosphere became temporarily more civilized when one little girl, the daughter of the rector, joined the French lessons. This was Strindberg’s introduction to love, and probably his first intimation that a more equal relationship between the sexes might be possible, for from that moment on he loudly advocated coeducation. He eventually moved on to the Stockholm Lyceum, but for various reasons his secondary education was not much happier than his primary schooling had been. Nora Strindberg died in 1862, and Carl, with indecent haste, married the children’s governess, thirty years his junior. August received no more guidance from his stepmother than he had from his mother, and was perplexed and disturbed, as ever, by the strict mores of Lutheran Sweden. Like many other teenagers the young August was tormented by a book that, in Prideaux’s words, “galloped through Sweden like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, spreading terror and misery”: A Warning Against the Enemy of Youth by a Friend of Youth, by the Pietist Karl von Kapff: “Possibly unique in extending the consequences of masturbation to politics, von Kapff suggested that the favorite practice of revolutionaries spread their poison through society.” Terrified by von Kapff’s admonitions, August began spending many hours in church, longing for salvation; he even contemplated taking Holy Orders, though this religiosity proved short-lived.
In 1867 Strindberg entered Uppsala University. Although by this time Carl Strindberg had built his business back up, he refused to pay his son’s tuition, so that August was compelled to leave the university and take a job as a teacher at—of all places—the hated Klara School. (His father, perversely, chose to grumble at the son’s consequent loss of social status.) The young Strindberg turned out to be an inspiring teacher, but he was quite sure that he wanted “not to be enrolled as a regular member of society.”
Strindberg began toying with the idea of taking up medicine, and a kind friend, Dr. Axel Lamm, invited him to join his household while he supervised his studies. The Lamm family (which was Jewish) provided Strindberg’s first experience of liberal, cosmopolitan culture, and he flourished under its aegis; the opportunity to be, for the first time, part of a happy family was particularly valuable to him, and though he eventually dropped his plans to be a doctor, the broad scientific education he received under Dr. Lamm was not wasted. His next thought was to become an actor, and in 1870 he took a job playing various non-speaking roles at Stockholm’s Royal Theater. When he tried to move up in the hierarchy, he was advised in no uncertain terms to take some acting lessons, an admonition that sent him into an emotional collapse: “He wept for rage, went home and took an opium pill that he had been keeping for emergencies. Then a friend took him out and they got stupendously drunk.”
It was a turning point in his creative life. The next morning, as he lay sunk in misery, his subconscious seemed to take over. Here is his account of the experience, from his autobiographical work Time of Ferment:
While thus lying on the sofa he felt an unusual degree of fever, during which his brain seemed to work at arranging memories of the past, cutting out some and adding others. New minor characters entered; he saw them mixing in the action, and heard them speaking, just as he had done on stage. After one or two hours had passed, he had a comedy of two acts ready in his head. . . . But now he had to write it. In four days the piece was ready. . . . When the work was finished, he drew a deep sigh of relief, as though years of pain were over, as though a tumor had been cut out. . . . [Later that evening] he wrote a four-page letter in rhyme and discovered that he could write verse. . . . It seemed to him like a visitation of the Holy Spirit . . . someone or something seemed to be there which, or who, was not there before . . . he fell on his knees and thanked God for the gift of poetry.
His first few plays, as Prideaux indicates, have not stood the test of time, but finally a verse play called In Rome (about the Danish neo-classical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen) was accepted by the Royal Theater. Its eleven performances in the autumn of 1870 financed the author’s return to Uppsala University, where he now enjoyed the sort of intellectually adventurous, bohemian student life he had always craved. He learned Icelandic and studied the sagas; he composed songs and sang them on his guitar; he took up painting. His father offered to fund the rest of his education on the condition that he did not write any more plays—apparently this occupation was considered déclassé—but the neophyte dramatist ignored this edict, producing three more in quick succession. The Outlaw, written in 1871 when the author was only twenty-two, earned him an audience with the king, who presented him with a gift of two hundred riksdalers. The result of this was Strindberg’s first masterpiece, Master Olof, written at this time but not produced until ten years later.
Strindberg left the university in 1872 without a degree and began the drudgery of trying to support himself as a freelance writer, attempting novelettes for ladies’ magazines, art criticism, translations, and editorials. He even edited an insurance magazine, which he ran into the ground after six months. He also fathered an illegitimate child whom he disowned: lingering guilt haunts two of his autobiographical novels, The Son of a Servant and Inferno, and throughout his life he suffered from a morbid horror of men’s uncertainty about their biological paternity; his best and most graphic artistic expression of this fear appears in the great play The Father (1887).
It was at this time that Strindberg met the woman he wished to marry. Siri (born Sigrid Sofia Mathilda Elisabeth) von Essen was the daughter of a Finnish aristocrat and the wife of Carl Gustaf Wrangel, a popular military man and a scion (though from a lesser branch) of a great family. At the time of this momentous meeting, Siri was twenty-four years old, with a two-year-old daughter. “Of Byzantine slenderness,” Strindberg gushed, “which allowed her dress to fall in simple, noble folds, like the dress of St. Cecelia, her body was of bewitching proportions, her wrists and ankles exquisitely turned.” Strindberg fell headlong into the sort of Madonna-worship he later excoriated: “Henceforth this woman represented to me a soul incarnate, a soul pure, unapproachable . . . woman as both virgin and mother . . . I worshipped her.”
Launching himself into emotional Grand Guignol, Strindberg first vowed to renounce his married inamorata and staged a dramatic final parting before moving to Paris. Thirty miles south of Stockholm, as his ship passed the little island of Dalarö, the crazed lover hurled himself histrionically from the ship, fetching up at a Dalarö hotel where he decided to kill himself “by contracting pneumonia or some other fatal disease, which would keep me in bed for weeks. I would be able to see her again, kiss her hand and say goodbye for ever.” The suicide attempt, clearly never a very serious one, failed, and the lover duly returned to Stockholm to continue the pursuit. The fact that Strindberg was offering her a career on the stage sweetened the deal, and, as she wrote to her mother, she had never been content with the passive Carl Gustaf anyway. “Battle and progress is my motto—Peace is not for me—I wasn’t born a Woman—I was born an artist!” As she and Strindberg planned their future together, he drew up a marriage contract, far ahead of its time, that would give each partner control of his own property: he was beginning to formulate certain feminist ideals.
But his idealism, and his Madonna-worship, soon began to wilt. Siri had taken on her first stage role, in a Swedish version of Jane Eyre. She turned out not to have much talent, and the theatrical milieu quickly coarsened her once aristocratic manners: Strindberg was appalled to discover that “his alabaster Madonna, his pure princess, his gentle, motherly Siri turned into—an actress.” She drank, swore, smoked. This was not at all the way Strindberg had envisioned his bride’s artistic maturation; “he was not championing the idea of female equality so that women could behave as badly as men. The understanding in his mind had been that the elevation of women to equality would generally elevate standards.” Nor did things go smoothly on the domestic front. Siri’s little daughter Sigrid Wrangel died, and then Strindberg and Siri’s first child together, Kerstin, died mysteriously a day after her birth. Siri lost all her money when the firm she invested in went bankrupt, and in 1879 Strindberg also declared himself bankrupt, as his father had done before him.
But his next project, The Red Room, was a resounding popular success, a broad-strokes satire that arrived at a moment of widespread disillusionment with Sweden’s governing class and intellectual elite. The author was now widely considered a genius, but, rather than basking in his fame, he fled it, sinking himself into arcane studies, a lifelong habit: the history of aquavit, Swedish relations with China and Tartary, Central Asian geography. He studied Japanese and Chinese, and also went back to dramatic writing, producing several plays including Sir Bengt’s Wife (1882), a considered reply to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Now Master Olof finally appeared and made a major impression on Stockholm theatergoers. Strindberg’s thousand-page history, The Swedish People, was finished at the same time, and he was soon planning another historical work, The New Kingdom: Satirical Sketches from the Era of Assassinations and Jubilees.
This last work scandalized the establishment: narrated by a bedbug which lived in Stockholm’s House of Nobility, an equivalent to the British House of Lords, “It let rip in ten shatteringly direct chapters which did not spare church, state, or big business. . . . Reaction in the corridors of power was shock and a sort of surreptitious delight at the audacious truths he had dared speak.” It also earned him an important new supporter: the eminent publisher Albert Bonnier, who offered to take Strindberg on and advanced him a hefty sum of money against future earnings—a bonanza to the debt-ridden author. In 1883 the Strindberg family, newly solvent, left Sweden for what would be a six-year journey through France, Switzerland, Italy, Central Europe, and Scandinavia. This trip, states Prideaux, “would transform him from an essentially Swedish writer into a European voice.” Strindberg read Byron and Rousseau, and worked on a long cycle of poems called Somnambulist Nights while Bonnier, back in Sweden, urged him to write a novel. Strindberg pondered the plight of the professional artist:
This is my dilemma! To be useful, I must be read! To be read I must write “art,” but I consider “art” immoral. So: whether to die with a pure soul or carry on with what is for me an immoral activity! Solve that! And then, when I’ve pondered and fought, along comes that black devil who dwells in my heart, and mocks everything: the epicurean spirit of art awakens in me, and I long for the pleasure that producing works of art affords. And it is a tremendous pleasure, which is precisely what makes it immoral.
He considered a novel about nihilists, also a satirical travel book about Europe to be called Through the Continent of the Whites, a play on the African explorer Henry Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent. But in 1884, once more out of money, he found himself at work on Getting Married, a collection of twelve stories dealing with the difficulties facing those who seek an honest, successful marriage in an intrinsically hypocritical society.
“The Woman Question” had galvanized and polarized European society in the late nineteenth century, and Getting Married was Strindberg’s contribution to it—an outrageous one, by the standards of the time. Anti-feminists were angered by the manifesto’s call for women to be given the same education as men, in the same schools; to be given the vote; to be eligible for all occupations; to keep their own names; to have their own bedrooms. Women of every political stripe were angered by their demotion from the pedestal they had occupied throughout the nineteenth century: Strindberg openly attacked the Madonna-worship he had dubbed “gynolatry.”
There shall be complete equality between the sexes, which will do away with that revolting form of hypocrisy called gallantry, or politeness to ladies. A girl will not expect a boy to get up and give her his seat, for that is the hallmark of the subservient slave; and a brother will not get into the habit of expecting his sister to make his bed, or sew his short buttons, for these are things he must do for himself. . . .
False gallantry will cease of itself, and men and women will associate together as men do now. But things shall not be as at present, when men have all male banquets, which end with a toast to the ladies, while the latter sit at home eating porridge and milk.
Getting Married, it turned out, was more than just offensive; it was actionable on grounds of blasphemy, for in one of the stories the author had referred to Holy Communion as an “impudent deception.” Police seized the remains of the first print run from Bonnier’s office, and Strindberg worried whether or not he should return to Sweden and face prosecution.
Strindberg’s eventual return to Sweden and his dramatic trial (thousands of spectators crowded round the courthouse, throwing up their hats when his acquittal was announced) made him a momentary hero in the cause of free speech, but his feminism had fatally soured, and he was soon plugging away at a sequel to his story collection, Getting Married II—a very different kettle of fish from its predecessor. He had lost his one-time respect for the fair sex, and began his second volume with “a scattergun volley of misogynist quotations taken from Rousseau, Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and even Annie Besant whom he detested.” One of the stories was such a brutal and transparent portrait of Siri as a drunken, slovenly wife and mother that she announced she would henceforth cease to read what he wrote—a great blow to their marriage, much of which had until then revolved around Strindberg’s writing life.
This tiff was symptomatic of a general breakdown in their marriage, and a corresponding heightening of Strindberg’s tendency to paranoia. Suddenly he began to be tormented by suspicions: that he had not been the father of their first child, who had died; that the child might still somehow be alive, hidden by Siri; that Siri was a secret lesbian. This last notion was fueled by Siri’s close friendship with an aggressive and challenging young woman named Marie David. All of these fears, as well as a new fascination with extreme psychological states (he read all the latest publications on this subject), went into his new works, including, most significantly, The Father.
This marked the beginning of a spurt of creativity. There was The People of Hemsö (1887), his comic masterpiece, and the final volume of his fictionalized autobiography, A Madman’s Defense (1888)—a work that has been compared with Poe and Kafka, and whose themes presage both Freud and existentialism. In 1888 Strindberg also founded the Scandinavian Experimental Theatre, and in March 1889 three of his new plays were scheduled to be premiered there: Miss Julie, The Stronger, and The Creditors.
Once again Swedish censorship sprang to the defense of public morality; the police raided the dress rehearsal of Miss Julie and banned the play. The producers got around the ban by staging the play at a private performance in Copenhagen two weeks later, but it was not until 1984—a century after its completion—that it could finally be produced in its entirety in the author’s native country. Strindberg tended to blame all this prudery on “this intellectual syphilis called Protestantism. It gradually robs people of their confidence, their voice, their strength, and is passed on like the physical ditto. And nowhere does it wreak havoc as in Scandinavia.”
The Strindbergs’ personal life was becoming as scandalous as August’s plays. They had finally returned to Sweden, but their life as a couple had been irreparably damaged both by Siri’s unfaithfulness and Strindberg’s mounting paranoia. In 1890 they applied for a divorce and Marie David, who now affected male dress, moved in with Siri and the children. Strindberg was incensed and the fur flew. Marie sued Strindberg for libel; Strindberg pushed Marie down the stairs; Marie sued Strindberg for assault; Strindberg sued Marie for trespass. None of this kept Strindberg the artist from maintaining a certain objective humor about the events, and two excellent new plays came out of the fiasco.
Strindberg’s post-Siri life was, if anything, even more emotionally stormy than his married years had been, the boundary between eccentricity and madness finer than ever. In 1892 he traveled to Berlin at the invitation of Ola Hansson, a writer who shared Strindberg’s interest in abnormal psychology and the connection between genius and insanity. A tavern on Unter den Linden, Zum Schwarzen Ferkel (The Black Piglet), became the hangout for Strindberg’s new group of friends, a crowd who
saw themselves as part of a great renaissance of the soul against the intellect, part of the mystical underground current rising as a counter-culture to Darwinian certainty. They were not rising up against science—but against scientism, the attitude that all phenomena were explicable. . . . They wished to restore validity to the invisible and the irrational. . . . They aimed to find a technique to tap the unconscious processes for art: to master and control that elusive process “inspiration.” To this end they studied the structure of the brain, optics, psychiatry, mysticism, and symbolism, they paid attention to dreams before Freud made it routine to do so and, notoriously, they sought to unlock the doors of perception through excessive use of drink, drugs, and sex.
Under the tutelage of Edvard Munch, another denizen of Zum Schwarzen Ferkel, Strindberg refined his painting skills. He had already exhibited his paintings in Sweden, where one critic had complained that they looked like dirty bed-sheets hung up to dry, but in Berlin he achieved a renommé as a painter that he retains to this day. (Pri-deaux has included several fine reproductions of his work in this volume.) Another new friend of the 1890s was Paul Gauguin, whom Strindberg met in Paris when the painter was between Tahitian voyages. “Gauguin played his mandolin and Strindberg played his guitar and they planned a South Seas musical entertainment which sadly came to naught,” Prideaux tells us.
In May 1893 Strindberg married Frieda Uhl, a twenty-year-old Austrian girl he had known for three months and who was already widely renowned, Prideaux says, as “a man-eater who never passed up a meal.” Things began badly and got worse. On their wedding night Strindberg tried to strangle Frieda in his sleep; later that night she heard him say, also in his sleep, “She would not believe I could get such a young girl!” After a few weeks of marriage they went to England for a visit; there they began to quarrel violently. “As they walked along the banks of the Thames he harbored violent fantasies of pushing her into the river or of the rough dockers ravishing her.” By October Frieda was pregnant, and wanted an abortion and a divorce. He pleaded for reconciliation. The child was born (a girl), but each partner wanted out of the marriage, which was dissolved in 1895. Frieda, who specialized in the pursuit of famous men (Augustus John described her as “the walking hell-bitch of the western world”), eventually settled in London, opening a nightclub off Piccadilly.
After his split from Frieda, Strindberg moved to Paris to devote himself to alchemy. “I will be mad,” he wrote to Gauguin. He meant “to plunge himself into the Dionysian journey of submerging the conscious in the lava of the unconscious, thus continuing the journey that had started in Berlin.” Alchemy, it should be stated, was not considered as mad then as it is now; in fact, as Prideaux reveals, there were some fifty thousand alchemists living in Paris at that time, and occult matters had not yet lost their aura of scientific viability. Strindberg became, at least for a time, a respected member of the scientific community.
When Edvard Munch arrived in Paris he quickly became the target of his former friend’s paranoid delusions. Strindberg became convinced that Munch was trying to murder him by shooting gas through a wall while he slept; he practiced subjugating Munch to his will; he stabbed knives in the air to fight off evil spirits; he performed dances of exorcism.
Frieda Uhl’s sister Marie suspected that he sometimes put on an act.
My sister and I have often wondered if these dramatic and frequently theatrical events were not so much expressions of an occasional abnormal idea but rather experiments designed to create a good theatrical effect and, also, to test its impact on an audience. . . . It is difficult to decide how much is fantasy, how much reality, hard as it is to imagine how Strindberg really saw the real world.
The genuine madness into which Strindberg had sunk during his time in Paris began to recede after he left the city, perhaps because he was no longer exposed to the quantities of chemicals he had breathed in during his alchemical experiments. Returning to Sweden for the first time since his departure with Siri, he settled in the provincial city of Lund. Life was calmer: here he completed Inferno, and between 1898 and 1901 produced a total of twenty plays, including his famous To Damascus (Parts I and II) and Advent. In 1899 he returned, after sixteen years, to Stockholm.
Strindberg might have been older and more stable, but his love life didn’t reflect it. In 1900 he met the young actress Harriet Bosse. He became obsessed, believing that Harriet visited him nightly, in incubus form, for sex. Prideaux links the incubus visitations to a concurrent outpouring of creativity: “During the time that his spirit was shackled to Harriet he wrote thirty-one works, all of them worth reading, including Swanwhite, the only play in which the modest, prudish Strindberg lifts the skirts on his erotic fantasies, showing them to be Art Nouveau in terms of décor and stuffed with symbols anticipating Freud.”
The couple married in 1901: the writer was fifty-two, his bride thirty years younger. Though they produced a daughter, the marriage was hopeless; there were sexual incompatibilities and by this time there seems to have been no living with the semi-deranged Strindberg. They divorced in 1904, but remained close friends. The incubus visitations, incidentally, continued, and perhaps they accounted for the author’s final creative push, a series of four “chamber plays”: Storm, The Pelican, The Burned House,and The Ghost Sonata. None of these was a success, and The Ghost Sonata, today a classic, was found totally incomprehensible—evidence, some said, of the playwright’s madness. It ran for only twelve performances and was not shown again until four years after the author’s death.
Old age was now approaching, but Strindberg was not one to go gently. At sixty he fell in love with an eighteen-year-old, Fanny Falkner, and longed to marry her, but this time the age gap was so big that the bride, star-struck as she was, balked and refused. He completed The Roots of World Languages—“as eccentric a book,” in Prideaux’s judgment, “as any he had written.” And he launched a written campaign against an influential cabal of reactionary nationalists, declaring, in his words, “a war of liberation against stupidity and snobbery, and time-serving in literature and government.” These fifty articles and the responses to them have become known as “the Strindberg feud,” and through them he demonstrated his ongoing talent for polarizing opinion in Sweden. In his early sixties, as he developed stomach cancer and was clearly approaching death, he was called by some “a sex-philosopher, a sphinx, a vampire, a parasite, a volcano who belches not fire but filth”; by others, particularly the Social Democrats and the workers, he was honored. The Swedish Academy pointedly ignored Strindberg and awarded the Nobel Prize that year to Maurice Maeterlinck; influential fans retaliated by awarding him an “Anti-Nobel Prize” two months before his death, which occurred in May of 1912. At his funeral the following week, ten thousand mourners followed the hearse to the cemetery. Not bad for a man who had made so many enemies.
Prideaux might be faulted by some for not having produced a “critical” biography. But for a one-volume, widely accessible biography this might not have been possible; the sheer volume of Strindberg’s oeuvre would expand such a work to impossible dimensions. That should be a goal of some much longer and more scholarly study. This one concentrates, for better or worse, on the life rather than the work—and it is a life that can hardly fail to amaze.
1Strindberg: A Life, by Sue Prideaux; Yale University Press, 352 pages, $40.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 2 , on page 24
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