There was nothing August about Strindberg

As brilliant a playwright as Strindberg was, his life as an alchemist, practitioner of the occult and downer of absinthe remains as compelling as his work.

Alexander Adams

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Sue Prideaux opens her biography of playwright August Strindberg with the Strindberg family arriving in Copenhagen during a lengthy period of self-imposed exile from Sweden. Strindberg, in search of accommodation, had been directed to the local castle by a gypsy. The family arrived at dusk and an eccentric host and hostess (ostensibly mistress and servant but actually brother and sister) proceed to put on a bizarre magic display for the Strindbergs, accompanied by dirges on a hurdy-gurdy.

Growing increasingly alarmed, Strindberg (prey to portents and magical signs) was anxious to leave. However, given a brief tour of the castle in near darkness, he finally agreed to take rooms there. Only on returning next morning did he discover the squalid state of his rooms and the noisy menagerie in the gardens. The sinister servant threatened the family with a pistol and Strindberg was seduced by a maid and subsequently charged with sexual intercourse with a minor. (It turned out she was actually above the age of consent.) The shenanigans at the castle would come to inspire some aspects of Strindberg’s most popular play, Miss Julie.

Strindberg’s life is so eventful and colourful – packed with friendships and rivalries with some of the greatest names in art, literature and science – that it would be easy to get diverted into detailing extraordinary events and absorbing correspondence. One of Prideaux’s significant achievements in this study (the publication of which is timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Strindberg’s death, this month) is to balance an account of the life with discriminating analysis of the work.

And what work it is! Not only was Strindberg the author of over 60 plays, 18 novels, poems, polemic and journalism, he was also a painter, photographer, naturalist, historian, linguist, alchemist and practitioner of the occult. Mining his nine autobiographies, voluminous correspondence and manuscripts (as well as numerous other historical sources), Prideaux has assembled a compelling portrait of a protean giant of European Modernism, who is now known to Anglophones only as the author of the plays Miss Julie and The Dance of Death.

Prideaux sets the writer in context, describing how Stockholm went from a condition of near-Medieval decrepitude to being a modern capital city within her subject’s lifetime (1849-1912). Considering how wealthy and progressive Scandinavia is today, few aside from students of history and readers of the novels of Knut Hamsun will know how poor and backward Scandinavia (and especially Norway) was before the twentieth century. Strindberg’s novels and plays acted as a bellwether of social progressiveness and psychological perceptiveness in a period of rapid civil and intellectual evolution. When Strindberg was prosecuted for blasphemy, he felt he was being made a scapegoat because of his calls for female emancipation. He was hugely controversial in his home country.

Depending on one’s political stance, Strindberg was either a brave standard-bearer for reform or a mentally unstable firebrand with a murky private life. Largely spurned by the establishment, Strindberg received an Anti-Nobel Prize, raised by donations from 20,000 contributors. Though far from rich, he gave it away to family members and charities. His funeral was nominally private but observed by sizeable crowds.

A combination of psychological insight and disregard for theatrical convention gives Strindberg’s plays complexity and depth. A burning sense of injustice informs the writing, though Strindberg was burdened by regret at his personal failings. In Prideaux’s book, we get to see Strindberg as sensitive and brusque, irrational and logical, a tender father and a jealous husband. It therefore makes sense when we learn of his fascination with astronomy and photography, painting and numerology. Though unarguably eccentric (he was once arrested for injecting apples with morphine but discharged by the policeman as a harmless madman), his actions are never incomprehensible once we understand the various facets of his personality.

Prideaux, an Anglo-Norwegian novelist, is ideally placed to undertake this biography, having already written a revealing life of Edvard Munch. Indeed, the stories of Munch and Strindberg overlap in their friendship. In the 1890s, they spent time in the louche milieu of Zum Schwarzen Ferkel (The Black Piglet), a notorious drinking den in Berlin frequented by intellectuals. The roll-call of attendees includes novelist Knut Hamsun, painter Gallen-Kallela, art-critic Meier-Graefe and composer Jean Sibelius (once), as well as Strindberg and Munch and a host of scientists and philosophers, attended by mistresses and hangers-on.

Inevitably, absinthe, adultery and derangement of the senses drove some to madness, suicide and murder. Strindberg himself entered a period of mental instability. Paranoid and occasionally suicidal, he severed ties to friends and picked unwanted quarrels. When he recovered equilibrium, he had material for many plays and autobiographies and he eventually returned to Sweden to live out the last years of his life. Prideaux adds that during this period of instability, the arsenic treatment he underwent for a skin condition (and possibly the toxic substances used in alchemy experiments) may have caused his fatal cancer.

With such a volatile nature, it is unsurprising that his three marriages and one engagement foundered. His choices of brides were not inextricably flawed but an inability to curb his behaviour drove wedges between him and the women he loved. He was close to his children and especially fond of playing with youngsters, when his inquisitiveness and warmth came to the fore, untempered by duty or convention.

August Strindberg: A Life could have been twice as long, but Prideaux has wisely decided to approach the life as a high-octane novel, fast-paced with telling vignettes and concise commentaries on the most important works by her subject. Her enthusiasm sometimes leads to some questionable alliteration (eg, ‘fluidic fisticuffs’) but overall her sympathy, wryness and insight prove a good blend.

It would have been nice to read more about Strindberg’s art, which is illustrated in colour. He was untrained as an artist, but made effective and distinctive art (something he has in common with writers such as Kafka and Lorca). One wonders about the reception of Strindberg’s art and the reactions of his artist friends. However, with such a full and varied output to cover, something has to give. Let’s hope that Prideaux is invited to curate an exhibition of Strindberg’s paintings and can discuss them at length in the catalogue.

Alexander Adams is an artist and critic based in Berlin.

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