Book review: Strindberg: A Life
IN THE mid 1890s, living in Paris, the playwright August Strindberg became preoccupied by monkeys. He developed a theory that the gorilla was descended from the unnatural union of a shipwrecked sailor and an ape.
To prove this theory he would show friends a photograph comparing the black wrinkled paw of a gorilla and the worn hand of an old sailor.
It was just one theory amongst many at a time when Strindberg’s mind whirled in a frenzy of exploration and invention. When he wrote to Gauguin, “I will be mad,” it seemed less an awful premonition, and more a mission statement.
Writing for French Occultist publications, convinced that Edvard Munch was trying to murder him, and wrestling with the conviction that he was the reincarnation of Edgar Allen Poe, the Strindberg of the 1890s is a man in the midst of a psychic frenzy.
Yet this is also a writer who managed to produce 61 plays, three poetry books, 18 novels and nine autobiographies.
His most famous play, Miss Julie, hinges on a disruptive sexual act which, though not quite as transgressive as the sailor and the ape, nonetheless turns social convention on its head. Prideaux wisely begins her biography of Strindberg in the middle. In the winter of 1887-78, Strindberg and his family take up residence in the Hotel Leopold in Copenhagen. Strindberg can’t afford the hotel, but he is a local celebrity. His career is going through a relatively good patch, but his marriage to the Countess Siri von Essen, a Finnish aristocrat whose promiscuous behaviour with men and women has made Strindberg a laughing stock, is on the rocks.
Salvation, of a sort, appears in the form of an offer to go and live, at a peppercorn rent, in a former royal dwelling named Skovlyst. There, under the increasingly deranged care of Countess Anna Louise Frankenau and her sinister servant Ludvig Hansen, the elements of Miss Julie begin to form. Hansen embarks on a campaign of what Prideaux terms “a war of psychic demoralisation” against Strindberg, a campaign which culminates in Strindberg engaging in a single illicit act of sex with Martha Magdalena, Hansen’s young sister. The case ends up in court, where Hansen’s claim that his sister is only 15 falls apart. The seeds of Miss Julie have been sown.
This key revelation gives the first part of Prideaux’s exhaustively researched biography its shape, and is a deft piece of detective work. Unfortunately, in the very next chapter we are taken back to the very beginning of Strindberg’s life. The dramatic material here is promising. Strindberg’s childhood was disrupted by his father’s bankruptcy and his mother’s death, and the young Strindberg became the focus of his father’s disappointments.
All of this, however, struggles to emerge from pages of detail about Sweden’s role in the Napoleonic War, the unique constitutional arrangement of Sweden’s Four Estates and the fecklessness of the Swedish monarchy. Prideaux is surprisingly leaden when it comes to bringing the historical background to life.
The Strindberg story is almost archetypal: broke, unhappy, mocked and unsupported during his career but posthumously acclaimed as a writer whose savage disruptions of bourgeois society forged a new psychological realism on the stage.
Appropriately enough, the day after Strindberg’s funeral procession filled the streets of Stockholm with dignitaries, political supporters and ordinary people, vandals smashed his grave. All the tributes which had been laid out for him were destroyed. The old man would have been delighted.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East