A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 5 - Winter 2012-13

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Sue Prideaux, Strindberg: A Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.); Pp. xii+371.
ISBN: 978-0300136937

reviewed by Sven-Johan Spanberg, Umeň University, Sweden

August Strindberg is, by common consent, Sweden’s greatest writer. He was an innovative dramatist, novelist, polemicist and stylist; Swedish prose was never the same after the publication of his novel The Red Room in 1879. Yet, Sue Prideaux argues, outside Scandinavia he is mainly known for his ”alarming misogyny” and one play,  Miss Julie.

Quite logically, then, she begins in medias res, with an account of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the writing of this drama in the summer of 1888. Strindberg, his wife and three children rented rooms in a manor house belonging to the eccentric Danish countess de Frankenau. He thought that she was having an affair with a lower-class man running the estate, and Prideaux argues that this putative relationship provided the inspiration for Miss Julie where a count’s daughter is seduced by her father’s manservant. Strindberg’s works have often been interpreted in biographical or autobiographical terms, and his marriage to Siri von Essen, a baron’s daughter, has also been considered a possible source for Miss Julie. The events of the summer of 1888 certainly merit retelling in greater detail than previously, but I think it is doubtful whether they constitute a significant source or whether, for that matter, they increase our understanding of the play.

After this colourful opening, Prideaux reverts to a chronological method. An inevitable source for Strindberg’s early life is, of course, his series of autobiographical volumes, usually known as The Son of a Servant. His gloomy account carries great conviction, but it is a very subjective one, and Prideaux accepts it too uncritically. At the very beginning, Strindberg identifies two oppressive patriarchal structures, a private and a public one. At home, his father, who had actually married his servant, terrified him. The king, Karl XIV Johan, better known as Bernadotte and one of Napoleon’s most distinguished field marshals, similarly oppressed the country. In his old age he had become conservative and suspicious of reform. He died in 1844, five years before Strindberg’s birth, but his influence lingered on in Sweden, which at the time was one of the poorest and most backward countries in Europe.

The picture of unrelieved gloom that Strindberg paints and Prideaux accepts is not entirely true, however. From the 1830s, there was a vocal liberal opposition, and there were radical writers like Almqvist who questioned the concept of gender and gender roles in The Queen’s Tiara and Det går an (It Is Proper, i.e. that a man and woman live together without the sanction of the Church or society). The latter is a devastating critique of the institution of marriage. Strindberg clearly knew both works for he alludes to them in his own texts. There were also a number of women writers, among them Fredrika Bremer, who was then at the height of her international fame. Why does Strindberg fail to mention these positive aspects of early nineteenth-century Swedish political and literary life? The answer seems to be that he needed to construct an identity as a misunderstood outcast, for that was the one most conducive to his writing.

The title of his autobiography reinforces this interpretation. The English translation, The Son of a Servant, highlights its class aspects whereas the Swedish title, Tjänstekvinnans son, has distinct Biblical connotations. His mother is not just any servant but Hagar, Sarah’s servant in Genesis, which turns her son into Ishmael. This self-image follows Strindberg through life, and in his last major play, The Great Highway, the main character, the Wanderer, again identifies with the outcast Ishmael. The biblical allusion makes The Son of a Servant more of a literary work and less of a reliable autobiographical source. Similar methodological problems occur in connection with later works. Strindberg was better at fictionalising than Prideaux and many other critics give him credit for.

Prideaux is on firmer ground when it comes to Strindberg’s later life and writing career. He was an extremely prolific writer; the almost complete National Edition amounts to seventy volumes with twenty-six volumes of commentary. The Letters amount to twenty-two volumes, and the secondary sources are extensive, to say the least.  Prideaux has a commendable grasp of all this material. Another difficulty that she masters is the fact that from the time Strindberg left Sweden for voluntary exile in 1883 until his return to Stockholm in 1899, he led a nomadic life, from Sweden to France, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and back to Sweden. During four years, the family moved eighteen times, mainly because he felt restless. He was a difficult man.

Until his divorce from Siri and his departure for Berlin in 1892, Strindberg was writing feverishly. To combine all the physical movements of the family with his writing of novels, plays, short stories, social history and political pamphlets into a coherent whole cannot be an easy task, but Prideaux succeeds remarkably well. She has produced a very readable narrative, which, unlike many modern biographies, is quite short. The text proper is only a little over 300 pages. At the same time, she sticks to her biographical task, giving equal attention to texts now acknowledged to be masterpieces and to potboilers, which were financially successful and therefore important to Strindberg at the time. Until late in life, he was almost always short of money.

Certain texts by Strindberg have attracted increased attention in recent years, notably those that he started during the 1890s, works like Inferno, A Blue Book and The Occult Diary.  Scholars and critics have found them difficult to categorise and they were also seen as embarrassing evidence of an unbalanced mind. Prideaux’s chapters on these years, which Strindberg spent mainly in bohemian circles in Berlin and Paris with associates like Munch and Gauguin, are particularly interesting. During this time he wrote little for publication and devoted himself instead to chemical research and esoteric pursuits like alchemy. He seems almost deliberately to have exposed himself to poverty, disease and suffering and survived only through the intervention of friends.

In retrospect, these preoccupations and the writing of these essentially private texts seem a preparation for the burst of creativity that followed. Although Prideaux does not say so outright, Strindberg had overcome what looks suspiciously like a writer’s block. Beginning in 1898 he wrote twenty plays in three years. Many of them, like To Damascus and A Dream Play, totally discarded established theatrical convention and made great demands on contemporary audiences. At the same time he wrote a number of plays on Swedish history, which made him popular and, for the first time, financially successful. He spent much of this money on his last experimental venture, the founding of the Intimate Theatre and the writing of the so-called chamber plays. They seemed incomprehensible to most of his contemporaries but are now considered to be among his most path-breaking works.

Strindberg was not only a writer but also an innovative painter and photographer. This biography is handsomely illustrated with a number of interesting reproductions and photographs. It seems a pity, then, that Yale University Press did not spend some additional money on proof-reading and editing. There are, especially for a Swedish reader like myself, too many spelling and grammatical errors in names and in the titles of books. It seems that Prideaux’s knowledge of Norwegian, which enables her to read Strindberg in the original since the two languages are quite close, has tripped her up. Many mistakes show the influence of that language. There are also a few too many errors as regards Swedish history. For instance, Sweden did not lose all her Baltic possessions including Finland in 1809. It was rather a process of progressive decline starting almost a hundred years earlier when she lost Estonia, Latvia as well as other provinces. These mistakes, however, are less likely to bother an English-speaking reader who will rather enjoy a racy and informative biography of a writer who wrote much more than just Miss Julie.