by August Strindberg, translated and edited with an introduction by Mary Sandbach
Viking, 384 pp., $7.95
An intelligent edition of Strindberg’s antifeminist stories, Getting Married, has been done by Mary Sandbach. The commentary is detailed and valuable to those of us who have seen many of Strindberg’s plays but who do not know him thoroughly as a prose writer and know even less about the tensions in Swedish life in the last half of the nineteenth century.
Among the Ancient Mariners who arrive to stop guests from getting into the wedding feasts of the European middle classes in that period, Strindberg has the most frenzied and unrelenting grip. The calms that lie between his bouts of paranoia are themselves dangerous. We can easily “place” the puritan sexual guilt in, say, The Kreutzer Sonata, for Tolstoy has immensely wider interests. But except, apparently, in his historical novels (which few people outside Sweden have read), Strindberg’s personal obsession rarely ceases. He is the perpetual autobiographer who has at least three albatrosses—his three wives—hanging from his neck, and it is not long before he is telling us that the birds shot him. One of the surprising consolations of his life was that he liked going out into the country for a day’s shooting, and it is a striking aspect of his lifelong paranoia in human relationships that he loved what he killed.
Strindberg’s strange upbringing as an unwanted son of a successful businessman and a domestic servant, and as the victim of a stepmother; his poverty as a student; his quarrel with the Anabaptists and Pietists of a respectable society, who had him prosecuted for blasphemy because they hadn’t the courage to bring him to court for his polemic for sexual freedom; his flight from literature into experiments with sulphur that drifted into a half-insane obsession with something like alchemy; above all, his instability as a husband or lover—all these sufferings kept him at white heat. What astonishes is the lasting fertility—in his work—of these ingeniously exploited obsessions. I can think of no other writer with the possible exception of D. H. Lawrence who retold himself in so many different ways.
One thinks one has seen his case analyzed and dramatized in The Father—where he is the sea captain, in fact the Ancient Mariner in person, driven mad by the cunning calculations of a respectable bourgeois wife—or in Miss Julie. Yet, in 1903, much later, the whole personal story is retold as a legend, folk tale, or saga for children, in the droll story called “Jubal the Selfless.” This tale appears to be serene, but its playfulness and resignation are deceptive. The title itself is misleading. Jubal’s selflessness is not that of the saints. It is the selflessness of an opera singer who, in old age, realizes that his ego or will has been systematically destroyed by a conspiracy between his father, his mother, and his wife (an actress who uses him in order to supersede him in his career). When he looks into his …