Young Strindberg

The Son of a Servant

by August Strindberg, newly translated, with an Introduction and notes and Evert Sprinchorn
Doubleday Anchor Books, 243 pp., $1.25

August Strindberg
August Strindberg; drawing by David Levine

Strindberg was the most uneven of all great writers. His collected works fill fifty-five volumes of plays, novels, short stories, sociological and philological theses, philosophy, occultism, poetry, essays—is there a single literary form with which he did not experiment? The most self-critical of human beings, he was almost totally lacking in self-criticism as a writer. He seems to have been quite unable to distinguish between his best work and his worst. He wrote more rubbish than any other writer of his stature, including Coleridge. Of his sixty-odd plays, less than half are still performed even in Sweden, and of those scarcely a dozen show him at or near his best. However, it is not by a writer’s average standard but by his best that we judge him. If we define (as I think we must) a great tragedian as being one whose works transcend the language barrier—which, whatever their fellow-countrymen may say, excludes Racine, Goethe, and Schiller, all death on the boards outside their own frontiers—then, of the great tragedians, only Euripides, Shakespeare, and Ibsen have left more major plays than Strindberg.

The problem remains: How much of this vast body of Strindberg’s work should be translated? Most of what Strindberg published would have found its way into any other writer’s wastepaper basket; does the mere fact of a piece having appeared in print render it sacrosanct? The answer, surely, must be no. Only a Strindberg specialist could find any real interest in him at his tedious worst, and it is the duty of a Strindberg specialist to learn Swedish. But there is a good deal of his nondramatic writings that needs to be available in English, and this is true of the eleven autobiographical volumes. Uneven as they are, and often dull, they tell us things about Strindberg which we can find nowhere else; even the very dullness and longueurs are revealing. Two of these volumes, Inferno and From an Occult Diary, have recently appeared in England, both brilliantly translated by Mary Sandbach. A good translation of The Son of a Servant, Strindberg’s account of his childhood and adolescence written at the age of thirty-seven, would be a useful addition. One is always being asked by actors, directors, and students to recommend reading matter that will throw light on Strindberg, and nothing that has been written about him is nearly as illuminating as what he wrote about himself.

IT WOULD BE NICE if one could say that Mr. Evert Sprinchorn’s new version of The Son of a Servant fulfills the necessary requirements, for he has contributed a useful Introduction and excellent and scholarly notes. He is well steeped in the social and political history of the times, and continually surprises one by unlikely and interesting pieces of information. As a translator, however, he is most unhappily inadequate. Strindberg, when he is boring, is boring in an astringent, high-stepping, ultra-sensitive prose,…

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