The Son of a Servant
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, so that even when what he says is not revealing, the way in which he says it is. Mr. Sprinchorn’s prose (as a translator—he writes well enough as an annotator) is verbose, untidy, cliché-ridden, and, occasionally, ungrammatical. He does not appear to know the difference between as and like, after and afterwards, oldest and eldest, infidelity and breach of promise, or widow and old maid. Occasionally he leaves out a phrase; and he is an incorrigible diluter. Where Strindberg tersely calls someone “a wit of quality,” Mr. Sprinchorn makes him “a wit of the first water.” “Childhood and youth had become excessively painful” is stretched to “Childhood and youth now seemed to consist of nothing but pain and misery”: thirteen words instead of seven. The fresh and original phrase “the half-light of the foliage” is flattened out into our old friend “the green shade of the trees.” “Love the body” becomes “be attracted by the physical body”; for “however difficult their marriage” we have “however galling the bonds of matrimony.” “John had been inwardly cleansed” is embarrassingly rendered as “John’s insides had been scrubbed clean.” Väninna, which is simply the female form of friend, is translated as “lady friend,” a hideous genteelism which Strindberg, of all people, would surely have abominated. On page 137 in this edition, the first two sentences, twenty-seven words in the Swedish, are expanded by Mr. Sprinchorn to forty-six. Throughout the book what is, in the original, the concentrated extract of thought, is transmuted into prose so loose and sloppy that it must be difficult for anyone coming fresh to the work to respect the mind that conceived it or the hand that penned it. The total effect is of Strindberg ghosted into vulgar journalese.
Nor does Mr. Sprinchorn follow any consistent policy with regard to proper names. Some are anglicized, some are not. Kungsbacken becomes King’s Hill Street (why not simply Kingshill, which would be more accurate?), but Stora Grabergsgatan, which means Great Grayhill Street, is for some reason hybridized as Great Gräberg Street. We have Gustav I, but Gustavus III. And when Strindberg breaks into dialogue, Mr. Sprinchorn’s efforts at colloquialism, though energetic, strike a somewhat strange note. “Me at a ball? Are you nuts?” is a line one cannot easily imagine issuing from the young Strindberg’s mouth.
WITH THE STYLE removed, The Son of a Servant has not a great deal to offer. What is complex becomes boring, what is hyper-sensitive becomes maudlin. Strindberg’s animal reactions to the world around him—fascinating largely because the censor that operates in most writers did not operate in him, or did so only intermittently—seem, in this version, merely blurred and unselective. I regret writing thus harshly of Mr. Sprinchorn, who is evidently a conscientious scholar, but Strindberg, more than any other writer, depends on sensitive translation. With him, if with anyone, the style was the man.
I do not think that The Son of a Servant is, despite its attractive title, among Strindberg’s best works. It ought to have been. Strindberg was the son of a shipping merchant of aristocratic lineage and, as the title tells us, a maidservant (though when Strindberg’s father met her she had become a waitress). His father went bankrupt when Strindberg was four, and his mother died when he was thirteen; the next year his father married his housekeeper. As a result, Strindberg tells us (speaking of himself in the third person): “He longed for the splendor of the upper classes as if it were his native home, but the slave blood he had inherited from his mother rebelled against it…He felt that he belonged neither to them nor to the slaves. Between the two he would be torn for the rest of his life.” Many excellent childhood autobiographies have been made out of material much less promising. Why did Strindberg fail?
The answer, I believe, is because he could not disengage his adult self. He was always the least objective of writers. Even in his historical plays, he is liable at any moment to interrupt the action, as in the final act of Gustav III, by hauling in his pet theories and obsessions. I cannot recall a single play by him that does not benefit in performance by judicious weeding—as Strindberg himself was not unaware. “You will have received a copy showing the cuts,” he wrote to August Falck in 1887, when the latter was about to stage The Father in Stockholm. “Cut more if you wish! You’ll hear at rehearsal what doesn’t work.” The Son of a Servant falls between two stools. It sets out to be a plain narrative of childhood, but the critical, self-accusing, adult Strindberg is continually interrupting, so that even when the child speaks it does so as though conscious of that grim, bearded figure with the terrible eyes waiting to break in with a denial or a homily. Strindberg, Mr. Sprinchorn tells us in his Introduction, “insists that his own views and comments are as vital a part of the data as the conditions at home under which he was raised, his experiences at school, etc.,” but in fact these views and comments are not very interesting. The Son of a Servant tells us little more about Strindberg than would a brief summary of his comparatively uneventful first eighteen years by another hand. It is nothing like as revealing as Inferno or From an Occult Dairy.
STRINDBERG IS NEVER likely to be a popular writer, any more than Kafka; his sympathies were too narrow, his obsessions too dominating. There is a border country where sanity and insanity abut, a country into which all of us are driven at some time in our lives by love, hatred, jealousy, or a mixture of the three. Strindberg spent his whole life in that borderland, and he mapped it as no one has ever done before or since. All of his most memorable characters are inhabitants of it: Adolf and Laura in The Father, Miss Julie, Jean (on that Midsummer Night), the three Creditors, King Erik the Fourteenth, Edgar and Alice in The Dance of Death, the Old Man and the Mummy in The Ghost Sonata. He did not, in general, write well about completely sane people; the minor parts in his plays are often rather peremptorily outlined; and this defect is another reason why The Son of a Servant is disappointing. The secondary characters, such as his relatives and the people he met at school, are a curiously shadowy and uninteresting lot, none of whom, not even his mother, remain with any vividness in one’s memory. Well translated, it would be of value in the way in which even the worst of D. H. Lawrence (a writer with whom Strindberg had much in common) is of value. Lacking the style and flavor of the original, it seems very flat stuff.
A Vulgar Style September 22, 1966