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 mirror—this is typical of Strindberg’s brilliant theatrical imagination—he sees he is a body without a face. It is only when he finds his lost mother and puts his head in her lap that he recovers his ego—and, needless to say, dies!
The fable is a characteristic experiment with Strindberg’s own history and it contains a truth about him as an artist and a person: his history and character are disponible. He is a model for the early nineteenth-century concept of genius: the genius is free and without character but passionately seeks martyrdom. This is a matter for Strindberg’s biographers. The work is far more important. Reading any story, particularly in the first section of Getting Married, one sees the link between the short story writer and the dramatist. He is a master at using overstatement; and one knows at once he is attacking a sententious and stolid society by the abrupt use of the offhand, natural voice:
They had been married for ten years. Happily? As happily as circumstances allowed.
The couple met at dinner and at night, and it was a true marriage, a union of souls, and of two bodies into the bargain, but this they never mentioned, of course.
A young wife is fretting because she is not pregnant. The husband
…had a confidential talk with his wife, and she went to see a doctor. Bang! Six weeks later the trick worked.
The word “Bang”—used by many translators—seems to come, with a grin, from Strindberg the sportsman but it also shows his sense of theater. A singer begins to get fat and to lose her audience—this is from “The Tobacco Shed”:
She really began to get somewhat corpulent. She began so slowly and cautiously that she did not notice it herself until it was too late. Bang! You go downhill fast, and this descent took on a dizzying speed…the more she starved the fatter she got.
“It wasn’t fat,” said the prompter. “It was conceit.”
This devilish, grinning abruptness gives his stories a swinging elation. In play writing and story, the cutting from outside to inside the people has to be drastic and fast. There is no doubt of Strindberg’s enormous talent; so that, in these stories, when he moves from one marriage to the next, one finds that as a realist with a message Strindberg is a mixture of the pugnacious, the pitying, and the reveler.
Mary Sandbach says that Strindberg’s misogyny has been overstressed; that he is as much concerned with the false values of a powerful upper merchant class which produces the unbending man and the cunning, idle female. His attack on “Amazonian” women who wish to have careers or non-domestic interests is rooted in deep private jealousy of them—as in his first marriage—but he is talking of women who are “idle” only because they have a huge supply of working-class girls as servants.
The message in the first series of the stories is that men and women must be liberated. In the second series, the excellent little scenes of life in town and country, the delight in the sea journeys and outings which bring out his high quality as an imaginative writer give way to arid, harsher analysis and polemic. But in the first part of one tale, “For Payment,” one gets that compelling and shrewd power of social analysis which D. H. Lawrence was to take further. The story is a full statement of Strindberg’s case: the stifling of the sexual instincts leads women to use sex as a weapon, so that the men become the slaves while the women grasp occupational power outside the home. It must be read in the context of nineteenth-century life, but it approaches the pure Lawrence of “St. Mawr.”
Helène, the young woman in the story, is the daughter of a general. In her home she sees the exaggerated artifices of respect paid to women and grows up to regard all males as inferiors.
When she rode she was always accompanied by a groom. When it pleased her to stop to admire the view, he stopped too. He was like her shadow. She had no idea what he looked like, or whether he was young or old. If anyone had asked his sex she would not have been able to answer, for it never occurred to her that a shadow could have any sex.
One day she is out riding in the country alone—she in fact hates nature; it makes her “feel small”—and when she gets off her mare the animal bolts off to mate with a stallion before her eyes. She is shocked and disgusted. In the next phase she takes to the out-of-date library in her father’s house and becomes infatuated with Mme de Stael’s Corinne, and this leads her
…to live in an aristocratic dream world in which souls live without bodies…. This brain-fever, which is called romanticism, is the gospel of the rich.
After the horse-riding episode, the analysis of the mind of a frigid, proud, and ambitious girl as it grows degenerates into an essay, but it is nevertheless very thorough and alive. As Mary Sandbach says, “For Payment” comes so close to the portrait of Hedda Gabler that many critics thought Ibsen must have read it. In the end Helène marries in order to trade on her scholarly husband’s political reputation and get herself into public life: she is a recognizable high-bourgeois female type.
I think Mary Sandbach is right in disagreeing with those critics who say it is incredible that Helène’s husband should submit to her rule even though, sexually, she has swindled him. This would be exactly in Strindberg’s own character but—more important—there have been many observable and well-known instances of this armed frigidity in our own time. Strindberg, the impossible, sincerely loved the impossible woman, even if he reserved the right to take it out on her and then, with chronic masochism and double-mindedness, to crawl back for forgiveness. Strindberg’s story fails not because it is false—emancipated groups, classes, or individuals are often likely to be tyrannical and reactionary when they get power, as every revolution has shown—but simply because in the later part of this story the artist has been swallowed up by the crude polemical journalist. He has turned from life to the case book. Trust the tale, not the case history.
The original artist in Strindberg survives in his imaginative autobiographies, in the powerful and superbly objective and moving account of his breakdown in Inferno; in certain plays, and in the best of these stories. In many of these, a curious festive junketing, a love of good food and drink, a feeling for the small joys of Swedish life, and the spirit of northern carnival, break through In “Needs Must,” the story of a bachelor school-master who runs into a midsummer outing in the country and is eventually converted to a marriage which is very happy—“no part of this story,” says Strindberg dryly—Strindberg suddenly flings himself into the jollities of the trippers. The schoolmaster listens to the accordion and “it was as if his soul were seated in a swing that had been set in motion by his eyes and ears.” It is a story that contains one of his happiest “Bangs”:
Then they began to play Forfeits, and they redeemed all their forfeits with kisses, real kisses bang on the mouth, so that he could hear the smack of them. And when the jolly bookkeeper had to “stand in the well” and was made to kiss the big oak tree, he did so with comical lunacy, putting his arm round the thick trunk and patting it as one does a girl when no one is looking, that they all laughed uncontrollably, for they all knew what you do, though no one would have wanted to be caught doing it.
If there is elation in the black Strindberg it springs like music out of his sunny spells. One is always compelled by something vibrant and vital in him. He is a bolting horse whatever direction he takes; and, as Mary Sandbach says, he brought new life to Swedish prose by his natural voice and his vivid images. He was, as some have said, a cantankerous Pietist or Anabaptist turned inside out. His lasting contribution was his liberation of the language. The reader feels the zest of that at once.