MISOGYNIST, madman, playwright of genius: the labels Strindberg's name evokes often block all desire to learn about his life. Olof Lagercrantz shows, in his brilliant and evocative biography translated by Anselm Hollo, how much we lose by giving in to this impulse. Reacting to a caricature of Strindberg's life, we end by merely skimming the surface of his plays and lose sight of the rest of his work altogether. Without burdening the reader, Lagercrantz makes full use of existing research on Strindberg, as well as of his letters and diaries. He makes clear how much more of Strindberg's production remains of interest than the few plays that English-speaking audiences still see: not onl novels, essays and poetry but the photography and art of which the book includes striking examples, and works on science, alchemy and language.
Lagercrantz suggests that Strindberg's confessional writings are meant to fashion a myth of his development as an artist and that any biographer must tread with caution, for Strindberg has an "extraordinary talent for making us believe what he wants us to believe." Thus The Serving Maid's Son purports to describe his underprivileged upbringing, whereas in reality he was raised "in a secure and comparatively well-to-do home." And though his letters and diaries abound with tales of attempted and threatened suicide, there is no shred of independent evidence for a single suicide attempt on his part. Indeed, he penned some of his especially distraught letters while composing, in his usual calm and harmonious handwriting, idyllic descriptions of life in the Swedish archipelago.
But even where Lagercrantz sees greater correspondence between Strindberg's life and what he wrote about it, as in the paroxysms of jealousy described in A Fool's Apology or the delusions and paranoia in Inferno, this biography proposes a novel interpretation. Lagercrantz believes that Strindberg experimented with jealousy, the demonic and hatred for the sake of being able to write about them, much as a scientist might with typhus; and that he used himself and those close to him as subjects of experimentation, inducing and observing pathological states and in the end expressing every nuance of his experience in masterful prose. Truth, he believed, demanded such exposure, however much it hurt. As he wrote in a letter to the poet Heidenstam, he had invented a new, more highly developed form of literature that he called "vivisections."
In his most searing "vivisection," the novel A Fool's Apology, Strindberg explores the jealousy that seemed insane to his wife Siri, but that he thought to be founded on her diabolical betrayals. Making her into Maria, the novel's central character, Strindberg writes of his wife's drunkenness, her infidelities, her neglect of her children, as well as of her lesbian leanings and plots to have him committed to a mental hospital. He ends with the words, "Now the story is finished, my Beloved. I have found revenge; we are even."
Strindberg's misogyny was a weapon in his marriage from the start: viewing women alternately as madonnas and whores, he idealized his wife at first while taunting her with his views of women as "semi-apes, inferior creatures, sick children, sick and insane thirteen times a year at the time of menstruation, completely insane during pregnancy and irresponsible during the rest of their lives . . ." He mentions occasions of physical abuse; indeed, his relatives feared that he extorted his wife's "confessions" through torture. Lagercrantz insists that incidents of physical abuse were rare, but Siri's eyes in the book's photos hae a knowing, hunted look that undercuts such assurances.
In justifying his literary "vivisections," Strindberg reaches for clich,es: artists are condemned to baring themselves in public; one cannot be a writer without, like a vampire, sucking the blood of friends and intimates -- even one's own blood; someone must have staged all the terrible happenings in his life so that he could become a playwright. Lagercrantz, admiring of Strindberg's results if not of his methods, passes no judgment on these suppositions. It would have been worth inquiring further into Strindberg's assumption that great art both requires and justifies brutality in making use of others' lives.
Lagercrantz conveys, with compassion and wit, the drama, often the theatricality, of Strindberg's life and contrasts the make-believe and stage-settings of that life with his sober and professional approach to the theater -- whether in writing plays, directing them or commenting on those of Shakespeare and others.
Of all periods in Strindberg's life, his "Inferno crisis" of the years 1894-1897, later portrayed in the novel Inferno, is the one that commentators have been most unanimous in finding deranged. The novel, as well as letters and diaries from those years, speaks of attacks by enemies and the beings he called "the powers," of earthly terrors that belie the notion that hell is not of this world.
Here again, Lagercrantz warns us not to fall for appearances. He argues that Strindberg was experimenting with madness (as earlier with jealousy), taking a perilous inward journey toward clarity and insight, surviving to recount the experience. His Inferno must be read in the light of Dante's Inferno, which he had taken as a model. It is "an education of the human soul, one of the most memorable in our history," undertaken by one character and guided by another, both of the same name. In Dante's work there was both a weak and frightened Dante the Pilgrim and an arrogant and courageous Dante the Narrator; in Strindberg's Inferno, likewise, there is Strindberg the Victim, "a poor wretch, superstitious and easily frightened," and an indomitable Strindberg the Narrator. The Victim, according to Lagercrantz, will be "familiar to anyone who has followed Strindberg down the years, with his complaints and suicide threats, while the Narrator is the arrogant trickster and strong- willed writer who is determined to leave his mark on the world. Strindberg's whole life passed in a state of tension between these two, and in the book he was able to make them interact successfully."
A consummate stylist and himself the author of a remarkable autobiography reminiscent of Dante, Min forsta krets (My First Circle), Lagercrantz is uniquely placed to convey the power and the subtlety of Strindberg's creation of both life and work. The translation, while it does not always fully convey theagility and striking imagery of the Swedish original, is careful, informed and highly readable.