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Broken Glass

Strindberg’s Letters Vol. I: 1862–1892 Vol. II: 1892–1912

selected, edited, and translated by Michael Robinson
University of Chicago Press, 952 pp., $95.00 the set

August Strindberg is known outside his native Sweden chiefly as a dramatist, one of the three most influential (with Ibsen and Chekhov) since Shakespeare. Born in 1849, twenty-one years after Ibsen and eleven years before Chekhov, he was one of the most prolific and uneven of all great writers. Of his sixty plays, barely a third are performed today even in Sweden, and only a dozen or so anywhere else (but which other major dramatist apart from Shakespeare and Ibsen has left as many that have stood the test of time?). Yet these sixty plays form only a fraction of his total output. He wrote novels, poetry, over a hundred short stories, and books on an astonishing range of themes including over two thousand printed pages on scientific subjects alone. Politics, sociology, astrology, religion, aerodynamics, gardening, the occult, how to grow melons—you name it, Strindberg wrote about it. And in every field his writing was as uneven as in his plays. He wrote more rubbish than any other great writer who has lived, even Wordsworth.

None of this detracts from his greatness, because the value of a writer’s work does not depend on the law of averages, and Strindberg’s influence on the drama was profound in two respects. First, in his late thirties (the late 1880s) he wrote three plays, The Father, Miss Julie, and Creditors, which treated sex as never before in the theater. These plays, to put it bluntly, are about people who hate each other and fuck each other. I use the latter verb deliberately, because the root of the tragedy of Strindberg’s characters is that they do not make love, they do not sleep together. They fuck each other like animals and then return to hating each other. That is what Strindberg thought life in general, and marriage in particular, was all about. Before Strindberg in the drama (though not in the novel), fucking only takes place between married people or wicked people (even Cressida, it is implied, was immoral). Strindberg’s honesty and clear-sightedness about sex was to have a powerful effect on his successors, not least Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, both confessed disciples. O’Neill called one of his shorter plays Welded, which could serve as the title for almost any Strindberg play.

A decade later, around the turn of the century, Strindberg branched out into a new kind of drama. Just as The Father, Miss Julie, Creditors, and later plays such as The Dance of Death are set in a nightmare border country where sanity and insanity merge, so the To Damascus trilogy, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata take place in another no man’s land where reality and fantasy overlap. Often we do not know whether what we are seeing is happening in, as we would say, the real world, or inside one of the characters’ heads (though Strindberg argued that there is a higher reality than what happens, or what the eye sees). In these plays Strindberg is the ancestor of the theater of the absurd as surely as he is the father of sexual realism.

In Sweden there are some who prefer his nondramatic works, as witness a recent Swedish biographer whose book reads rather like a life of Björn Borg by someone with a distaste for tennis. Strindberg is extolled as the father of the Swedish novel, but the novel has never been a field in which Swedes have excelled, any more than the British in painters and composers. We in Britain speak of Constable and Reynolds, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, as great, but they are not so regarded outside our shores; our only painter universally held great is Turner. Strindberg’s novels are intolerably flawed—brilliant scenes of dialogue alternating with acres of clumsy and repetitive analysis, something for which Strindberg, the most impulsive of men, had no talent. He was better as a short story writer, because that kind of shorthand, much closer to the drama, suited him, and he was an interesting pioneer of free verse several decades before Pound and Eliot. But although he sometimes said interesting things in verse, he was not a skilled formal poet, least of all when he introduced poetry into his plays.

In no field, even science, did he try to write objectively. His explorations in scientific matters have rightly been compared with those of his idol Poe, of whose “Eureka” Julian Symons wrote: “The right way to regard [it] is to discard the science with its occasional brilliant guesses…emerging from a sea of nonsense, and to regard it as a vision.” Symons summed up Poe’s oeuvre as

an expression of personal obsessions which articulate universal fears and horrors…. The shriek of a man possessed by demons…. His various obsessions strike chords of fear and longing in us all…his perception of a different world that existed in the imagination, into which one might enter like Alice through the Looking Glass.

The same could be said of all Strindberg’s best work (he was much excited when he discovered Poe in 1888, and wondered in his diary: “Is it conceivable that he, who died in 1849, the year I was born, could have smouldered through the various media to me!”). Strindberg is unlike every other great dramatist in that he does not, like Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Ibsen, attempt to give an objective view of the human predicament, or present himself as a wise and all-seeing Olympian. His plays are the literary equivalent of the famous painting The Scream, by his friend, and later enemy, Edvard Munch. He shook his fist at the world and God and, if I may be allowed the word again, cried: “Fuck the lot of you, and fuck You up there too!”

A compulsive and very fast writer, he developed the theory that criticism, including self-criticism, is a kind of blasphemy against the sacred act of creation, and refused to read through what he had written or even to see proofs except a single page to check the typography and margins. His texts are accordingly full of inconsistencies, the more so because his publishers, fearful of court action for libel and obscenity, sometimes struck out a line or speech, leaving us no way of telling whether it was Strindberg or his publisher who drew the line through it. In his manuscripts, characters appear in the cast list who are not in the play, and in the play who are not in the cast list. People enter who have not left the stage. But this seeming defect proved one of his strengths: his characters do not think or speak logically, A, B, C, D, E, but A, Q, Z, X, B, as people in a state of frenzy do. One of the main problems in translating him is resisting the temptation to sanify his dialogue. It should be, as it is in the original, like broken glass.

Strindberg was as voluminous a correspondent as in every other field. He left some ten thousand letters, more than any other major writer one can think of, even though many letters are known to have gone missing. From this huge mass Professor Michael Robinson has selected 679 items, covering over 900 pages, for many of the letters run to three thousand words and more. Robinson has chosen well and translated admirably, conveying the sharpness, imagination, and scattiness of Strindberg’s prose, nor does he shrink from the scatology to which Strindberg was prone, with many a four-letter word. His notes are full and lively. One could hardly wish for a better guide.

I have only two minor complaints. Strindberg was for most of his life a horrible racist, anti-Semite and anti-black, though this racism does not appear in his plays and he mellowed in the final decade of his life. Robinson gives occasional examples of his racism, but leaves out the nastier ones, and leaves us to suppose that Strindberg’s protests to his Jewish admirers, that it was only a certain kind of Jew that he disliked, were honest, when this was far from the truth. A peculiarly revolting letter in which he supports a “Jew pamphlet” and accuses of “abortions and crooked property dealing” a Jewish doctor who had befriended him when Strindberg was a student finds no place here, nor: “To squander, to pinch, to pilfer, to be disloyal and show one’s eye-teeth…that is nigger! Black man is bad man!” A socialist in his youth and old age, Strindberg was for most of the intervening period something not far short of a fascist, but this aspect of his personality, though by no means ignored, is somewhat sanitized.

More seriously, this otherwise exemplary editor overquotes. Most of the letters he has chosen contain something interesting, and sometimes they are wholly so, but as in his novels and essays (and indeed many of his plays) Strindberg is often prolix and boring, the way obsessional writers tend to be. There are many items here of purely parochial interest, such as references to minor writers of no value except to students of Swedish literature who will be able to read these letters in the original. We could do without an unrewarding 350-word extract from a forgotten poet named J. H. Kellgren which Strindberg quotes in an early love letter to his first wife, Siri, and indeed without most of his love letters to her, couched as they are in a dreadful purple prose. “You shall water my flowers—oh how happy and beautiful they’ll be when you look at them with your friendly eyes, your beautiful, dangerous, enchanting eyes!” We also have some dull information about his lesser plays, such as The Last Knight, which no one anywhere will ever stage again.

Some correspondents brought out the worst in him, notably the Norwegian dramatist Bjarnson, a notoriously prolific correspondent who wrote even longer letters than Strindberg, to which the latter replied in kind. And he is something of a bore on religion, especially Eastern religion. We need to see some of what he wrote on this subject, but not so much. Yet Strindberg at his best was original, witty, passionate, and unpredictable, and all these qualities emerge in these volumes, sometimes memorably:

It seems to me as if I’m walking in my sleep; as if my life and writing have got all jumbled up. I don’t know if The Father is a work of literature or if my life has been; but I feel as if, probably quite soon, at a given moment, it will suddenly break upon me, and then I shall collapse either into madness or remorse, or suicide. Through much writing, my life has become a shadow life; I no longer feel I am walking the earth but floating weightless in an atmosphere not of air but darkness. If light enters this darkness, I shall drop down, crushed!

The strange thing is that in an often recurring dream at night, I feel I am flying weightless, which I find quite natural, as though all notions of right and wrong, true and false, have also ceased to exist for me, and that everything that happens, however strange, appears just as it ought to be.

Strindberg is popularly thought of as a misogynist, but his ambivalence toward women began only halfway through his life, when his first marriage had begun to strain at the seams and he supposed his wife to be a lesbian. Thereafter his letters contain some very sexist passages. In 1888 he dismisses women as “these half-apes, this Bronze Age people…. Being small and stupid and therefore wicked, an appendage and encumbrance on the male, women should be suppressed like the barbarian and the thief. She is useful only as an ovary and a womb, best of all, though, as a cunt!” Yet he claimed that his misogyny was only theoretical, and that he could not exist without women:

I can’t live on masturbation and charity….Therefore help me…get hold of a young woman who has recently had a child by a more or less unknown father, who has slunk off…. I’ll bring up her child and bed the mother, of course. I must have children because I can’t work without the sound of children’s voices. A whore would do just as well, but they’re so unfaithful…. I don’t want to fuck any more children into the world, for I’ve no illusions left on that score.

Wondering, as men sometimes do when their wives seem unsatisfied, if his sexual organ was undersized, he decided to have it scientifically tested.

Provoked to the very roots of my testicles, I went to Geneva and took a doctor with me to a brothel…. Had my semen examined, which was confirmed fertile, and was measured when aroused at 16 × 4 centimetres… Once before…I arranged a cock inspection at 3 o’clock one summer morning, in the presence of witnesses (including a whore). The whore…gave me her approbatur, though sine laude [pass, but without honors].

On the theater, Strindberg is rather disappointing. His advice to actors was of varying quality. To one actress he recommended: “Enjoy hearing your own voice…face the audience…the full face, with the gaze out towards the audience,” which one might think would encourage just the kind of showy acting of which he was trying to rid the theater. In the last decade of his life he founded his own Intimate Theater in Stockholm, and even directed a few plays there, making a habit of attending only four rehearsals per play and saying nothing to the cast, merely sending them written notes. Like so many other dramatists, O’Neill for one, he hated seeing his own plays performed before an audience, and visited the theater less and less often as he grew older, so that toward the end his ideas about staging and acting were thirty years out of date. But if his technical advice was sometimes dubious, he was good at clarifying the characters he had created, as when he stresses that his fierce young cleric Master Olof in the play of that name “is no elegaic Hamlet but an ‘angry man’…proud as a king, sharp, venomous and sullen,” or when he says of the Captain in The Dance of Death, “his ugliness, age and whisky must be visible,” advice unheeded by Laurence Olivier who romanticized the character into something like the elder Douglas Fairbanks.

Among the best letters in the book are those written to his third wife, Harriet Bosse, after she had left him, and when he had become unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, and to a theosophist, Torsten Hedlund, at the time of his “Inferno” crisis in Paris in 1895–1896 when he hovered on the brink of madness.

Hallucinations, fantasies, dreams, seem to me to possess a high degree of reality. If I see my pillow assume human shapes, those shapes are there, and if anyone says they are only fashioned by imagination, I reply: “You say only?” What my inner eye sees means more to me.

His friendships were usually short-lived, because once he suspected anyone of turning against him, that person became an enemy, worse than the ones who had always been enemies. He feared meeting other great writers lest they should take possession of him, but liked powerful personalities in other fields, especially extrovert drinkers. He struck up a warm friendship in Paris with Paul Gauguin, and one of his most remarkable letters is a long one refusing the latter’s request that he should write an introduction to the catalog of an exhibition of Gauguin’s paintings:

To the southern strains of the mandolin and the guitar, I contemplated the walls of your atelier with their medley of sun-drenched paintings which haunted me last night as I slept…. “Monsieur” (I said in my dream), “you have created a new earth and a new heaven,” but I don’t feel at home in this world of yours. It’s too sunny for someone like me, who loves le clair-obscur…. I saw trees which no botanist would recognize…figures which you alone could have created. A sea that might have flowed from some volcano, a sky in which no God can dwell…. Gauguin…is…the savage who hates a burdensome civilization…who abjures and defies, preferring to see the heavens red than blue, as the crowd does…. Bon voyage, Maître! Only do come back to us…. By then, perhaps, I shall have reached a better understanding of your art…. For I, too, am beginning to feel an immense need to turn savage and create a new world.

Equally remarkable is Strindberg’s brief correspondence with Friedrich Nietzsche in 1889, conducted in a mixture of German, French, Greek, and Latin. Nietzsche admired The Father, which Strindberg had sent him in French, and each was excited to receive a tribute from a fellow spirit similarly lonely and unrecognized. But within six weeks, after they had exchanged eight letters, Nietzsche’s reason finally abandoned him. Later Strindberg was to fear that the same fate might overtake him, as it had overtaken his other hero, Poe. But this, at least, he was spared.

Michael Robinson has given us two fascinating and important volumes; one hopes that he may reduce them to a more manageable length in a paperback edition for those who don’t have $95.00 to spend on them.

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