Allen, Brooke, New Criterion
In twenty-first-century America, August Strindberg (1849-1912) is known as a "classic" writer, but his actual works are familiar primarily to drama students and non-profit-theater directors. A few of Strindberg's plays--Miss Julie, The Father, Master Olof, The Dance of Death, The Ghost Sonata, The Stronger--have worked their way into the canon. As much as their excellence, the fact that these works provide some powerful monologues for acting students has ensured their survival there. But does anyone outside of Sweden have any conception of Strindberg the satirist, the radical, the rebel, the humorist, the historian, the novelist, the feminist, the hypnotist, the painter, the photographer, the alchemist, the wild eccentric?
The last big biography of Strindberg was Michael Meyer's in 1985, a hefty tome that concentrated largely on Strindberg the sexist, racist, and anti-Semite, and compared his character unfavorably with that of the more conventionally liberal Ibsen, whose life Meyer had also penned. All this was very much in keeping with the preoccupations of academia at that time, when biographers and professors found it hard to forgive great authors for their lapses from political virtue. Strindberg, like so many men of his time and place, took some racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic positions. But this was only part of the story, for he was also a political radical who shocked contemporaries with his progressive stands, and at significant moments of his life vigorously championed both Jews and women. He was a deeply complicated man whose prejudices and enthusiasms were as contradictory as those of the times in which he lived.
All this is clarified in Sue Prideaux's hugely readable and lavishly illustrated new biography of the mad genius. (1) Prideaux, an Anglo-Norwegian who is also the author of a prize-winning life of Strindberg's famous frenemy, the painter Edvard Munch, is a sophisticated and humorous writer who, in her portrait of Strindberg, presents the whole man; she is above petty political categorization (for which the complex Strindberg is in any case not a good candidate). He was one of the most astonishing personalities of the modern age, a polymath who encapsulated many of the profound shifts in thought, art, and psychology that separated the nineteenth century from the twentieth. A man of demonic energy, in his not-too-long life he produced sixty plays, three books of poetry, eighteen novels, nine works of autobiography, ten thousand letters, and a considerable corpus of journalism. "If more of this vast agglomeration had been translated," Prideaux comments, "he would surely be more widely valued as one of the founders of modern literature and enjoyed as an irreverent commentator on the ideas of half a century."
Sadly, Strindberg's fiction has never traveled much beyond Scandinavia. His comic novel The People of Hemso (1887), set on a fictionalized version of the island of Kymmendo off of Stockholm where Strindberg summered in the 1880s, is in Prideaux's judgment, "the great comic masterpiece of Swedish literature." Strindberg's idea, successfully executed, was to produce a story of bawdy peasantry that might have been illustrated by Breughel. His novels The Red Room (1879) and Black Banners (1907) remain classic and still effective satires a clef, attacking the sort of hypocrisy in high places that has in no way died out since the author's time. His short story collection Getting Married, whose advanced sexual politics scandalized Sweden when it was published in 1884, was still deemed by Germaine Greer a century later as "an extraordinarily broad and reverberating sort of book." Strindberg's twelve history plays earned him the tide of "Sweden's Shakespeare," but since few non-Swedes seem to take an interest in Swedish history they are all but unknown outside of his country. He also wrote the first "people's history" of modern times, The Swedish People, which, while flawed ("over-extended, hurried, under-researched and finally far too personal," in Prideaux's judgment), was groundbreaking in its approach to historical focus. …