Translated and Introduced by Peter Graves
This article appeared in the 2012:2 issue.
Det nya riket (The New Kingdom) is a volume of satirical sketches and stories Strindberg wrote in 1882. The title refers – ironically, of course – to Sweden in the years following the constitutional reform of 1866. Strindberg prefaces his volume with a well-known quotation from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers: ‘“You’re a humbug, sir.” – “A what?” said Mr Winkle, starting. – “A humbug, sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, sir.”’ Dickensian humour there may be, but Strindberg’s satire is less forgiving than Dickens’ and it is worth noting that the chapter in Strindberg’s autobiography that deals with the writing of Det nya riket is simply and brutally titled ‘Hämnd’ (Vengeance). In part, the vengeance is Strindberg – quite specifically and typically – getting his own back for the poor critical reception given to his preceding work, Svenska folket (The Swedish People), but the targets range pretty widely: the aristocracy, the honours system, the Swedish Academy, the Dramatic Theatre, business, the press and much more were in his sights. He is in a sense consolidating the position as radical social critic he took on with Röda rummet but the scorn is now a good deal more naked. Martin Lamm describes the book as ‘the finest pamphlet ever written in Sweden’ and, inevitably perhaps, the book became a succès de scandale, not least because the individuals targeted were so easily recognisable to contemporary readers.
The extract translated here is set in Riddarhuset, the House of the Nobility, in Stockholm, where the walls of the main hall are lined with the numbered coats-of-arms of some 2,330 noble families. A mother bedbug, a resident of Riddarhuset, tells her daughter the story of the rise, fall and rise again of the fortunes of one noble family. Strindberg provides the bedbug’s story with an historical setting (Magnus Ladulås died in 1290, Karl XI in 1697) although the actual target is a contemporary of his own: the unfortunate individual lightly concealed as Agathon Hound, editor of The Pharaoh, was Hugo Nisbeth (1837-87), founder and editor of the newspaper Figaro. Among the many unsympathetic reviews the volume received, that written by Nisbeth and published in Figaro is understandably one of the least appreciative: Nisbeth suggested the Strindberg was about to go into exile as a result of having gone mad.
Det nya riket was translated into German in 1971 but has not been translated into any other language, including English.
Claris Majorum Exemplis
Heredity without Morals
The Bedbug’s Story About Number 806
During the war with Norway His Majesty King Magnus Ladulås spent a night in the Forest of Tiveden. As a result of a kidney complaint brought on by excessive consumption of Alicante, the king tossed and turned in his bed. It was still dark and, not wanting to light a candle yet, he felt for his water clock. Four o’clock! Still two hours to daybreak. He rose, said some prayers, drank a glass of beer and lay down to think things over. He lay there until it was light, restless and disturbed by troubling thoughts. When the doctor entered in the morning he found the king’s condition so grave that he felt compelled to organise something that would perk him up – an execution or a hunt, say. Given that there were no peasants available and the king’s own people were indispensable, they settled on a hunt. By a stroke of good fortune they had come upon the tracks of elk a short distance into the forest but there was one further issue that threatened to negate the prescribed treatment: they had no dogs! Another piece of bad luck! The king, who had momentarily begun to recover from his depression, was now beside himself and fell down in a swoon time after time. The whole camp was in a state of alarm. Huge rewards were promised to anyone who could come up with a dog. A dog! A dog! The call rang through the forest, but all in vain.
The king’s condition deteriorated.
A dull silence descended on the camp. Everyone feared the worst and no one dared move. Finally, towards midday, just as the doctor was shaking his head, the sound of barking echoed from the very depths of the forest. First a couple of deep barks, like those of a watch-dog that is barking because it knows that is what it is supposed to do; then the busy barking of a beagle, ringing out like a hunting horn and indicating that it has picked up the scent; and finally a continuous yelping, as if a hound was right on the heels of a hare. A thunderous cheer rolled along the streets of tents and everyone expected to see a panting hound emerge from the edge of the forest at any moment. And what did they see? They saw the Chief Ordnance Officer’s batman come jogging through the trees whining and wagging his tail. At first everyone laughed, but then they became serious. The king, who had leapt out of his bed, came out and witnessed the scene, but Måns the batman did not waste any time: cap in hand, he immediately opened his mouth and spoke up.
‘Your Majesty! My Lords! Only too well aware of the existence of the ailment that has seen fit to afflict Your Majesty’s Gracious Kidneys, and knowing both the remedy that has been proposed and the utter unavailability of the said remedy, I am therefore taking the liberty of offering my humble services.’
‘What can you do?’ the king asked in exasperation.
‘Bark, Your Majesty, bark!’
‘That’s good! Can you chase elk?’
‘No, I don’t bark at animals that big – they hit back. But I can deal with hares, hazel grouse and other small beasts.’
‘That’s good! I’ve never shot hares put up by a batman, that’s true, but it will be something new and may well take my mind off other things. Bugler – blow your horn! Head Groom – saddle the horses!’
By dinner time the king had shot three hares and was feeling very happy. Måns the batman was called forward to receive his reward.
‘Do you want gold or honour? Choose – because you cannot have both!’
‘Honour, Your Majesty!’
‘On your knees, you hound!’
Måns the batman kneeled, was tapped three times on his shoulder with a sword, and rose a nobleman.
‘Your shield will bear three hounds’ heads in memory of your outstanding talents, but instead of helms you shall have three peacock feathers since your vanity was greater than your greed! You are free, Måns Hound, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth!’
So Måns was now a nobleman. And now he had to buy a suit of armour and a shield and a sword and ride in a coach. But he had no money. Using his newly acquired access to credit he tried to set up a boot-blacking factory but the competition was too much for him and it went under. He had to endure every level of humiliation before finally returning to his former position as the Chief Ordnance Officer’s batman. But by this stage he was married and had children – small noble children who needed to be brought up in accordance with their rank, which was not an easy thing to do. His son was promoted to sergeant, received a pension as an executioner, got married and kept the family name alive.
The family remained in quiet obscurity and failed to achieve any distinction in the centuries that followed. The highest rank any of them could reach was that of colour sergeant, which then allowed them to draw the pension of a lieutenant. The remarkable origin of their noble status was forgotten and the family lived as impoverished aristocrats. But there was something that plagued them: they had honour, of course, but money still evaded them, and no member of the family dared go into trade since trade was held in contempt – their shield must be kept untarnished and they had to seek their living in the service of the state. The family could not degenerate since it had never risen, and lack of money prevented it from climbing. The quite remarkable ability that had led to the ennoblement of the founding father jumped six generations and only resurfaced in the notorious Daniel Hound whom Johan III unleashed on Erik XIV, about whom Daniel wrote his infamous chronicle, thus becoming the first chronicler in the history of his native land. Since Johan was of a generous and grateful disposition, Daniel’s preferment was not long in coming, and with preferment came gold – at last! Soon Hound Hall could be seen going up on the square at Norrmalmstorg and a merry life was being led – so merry that when Daniel died his heirs had to leave everything. Old women said ‘Easy come, Easy go’, but the newspapers said that by attacking a king Hound had shown himself to be a prophet and they organised a collection on behalf of the family.
At this point there is a gap in the biographical details I have, but I do know that the family went into decline again until the age of Karl XI, which was when the family really flourished. One of the sons of this generation was rather less able than the other children but he more than made up for it in terms of vanity; he was also rather less sympathetic than them but all the more unscrupulous. They found him a post in an office. Nothing is known for certain but it is rumoured that he contributed to the support of his family (i.e. of himself) in a manner that was less than lawful and as a result he had to take ship for New Sweden in some haste.
New Sweden in America was not then the respectable model state it has since become, peopled as it now is solely by honourable and excellent citizens and viewed with envy and admiration by Europe. Like the whole of America at that time, however, New Sweden was a dustbin for Europe and all the rabble collected there. Since our friend had frittered away all his travel funds in port, he was forced to perform various minor duties aboard ship in order to be allowed to travel and, on arrival, he took advantage of this experience to have visiting cards printed on which he gave himself the title of Lieutenant in His Royal Majesty’s Navy. That ‘Royal Majesty’ bit made a huge impression on the Americans and the lieutenant would have risen high in government service if he had been able to keep his mouth shut and his fingers to himself – neither of which he was capable of doing. After a couple of years’ residence in that expensive country he was overcome by profound homesickness and that (together with a number of policemen) ensured that he soon found himself serving as an able seaman on a brig sailing for home.
Once back in Stockholm he felt something of a stranger. As a result of hard work, self-denial and integrity, many of his contemporaries had achieved some degree of status – some, indeed, had won fame. This left him with a deep sense of dissatisfaction, caused not so much by the situation as such (there was, after all, always a chance that some benefits might accrue to him) but caused by the fact that certain individuals were better off than he was. Simultaneously, however, along with this sense of dissatisfaction, people noticed that he was beginning to show a hitherto unsuspected interest in literature, particularly the sort of literature that consists of short lines and is paid in column inches. Very soon our friend could be seen with his snout well and truly in the trough of the periodicals and magazines that flourished in such a lively fashion in the reign of Karl XI. But once he had emptied his store of topics (i.e. his old friends), his articles became fewer and his meals more irregular – poverty wrapped her cruel arms around him and he soon found himself under lock and key in the debtors’ prison. Necessity, however, makes a man inventive and our man (since he was now poverty- stricken we must cease referring to him as ‘our friend’) was now destined to make the greatest invention of the seventeenth century – the travel journal. Very soon the most wonderful travel narratives from Tunis and Constantinople began to emerge from the debtors’ jail and sensitive readers were receiving thoroughly shocking descriptions of the theatre of war from ‘A Swedish Nobleman’ whose personal courage shone from every line they read. The doings and the sayings of the generals (some of them, anyway) were subjected to critical scrutiny, but what was most notable was the author’s clear predilection for anything that touched on maritime issues, and in his review of the proposals for a reorganisation of the navy, he revealed an amazing level of detailed technical knowledge: he had his views on hawseholes and round bolts, he could put a name to every single rope’s end, he knew how many cans of tar it took to coat the topgallant backstay, all of which details were, of course, of incalculable utility to the navy. So thanks to his inventiveness our man soon found himself a free man again, and with his freedom he regained his spirit and with his spirit his arrogance returned.
Meanwhile, however, a number of new features had entered the life of the capital city. A factory had been set up, as had a company in which the royals owned shares. Two such patriotic enterprises would not have been able to survive unless the general public, who were the investors in these enterprises, were given regular reports about the standing of the institutions, the wishes and decisions of their boards, their future intentions and so on. It was decided that a news-sheet would be the most suitable means of fulfilling these worthy aims. To edit this news-sheet they set about seeking an individual who, while taking an impartial stance in all business matters, would nevertheless be capable of recognising that the French Cordoba leather factory was the only such factory that Sweden needed and that the Italian glass company was the only such company necessary. Additionally, the intention was that the editor would be a hard-headed man capable of repelling any and every unjust attack mounted by those who were envious (that is, the competitors), while he ought simultaneously to be well-versed in all the kinds of things that interested the general public (volumes of poetry, plays, oil paintings and the like), the idea being that the newspaper would then look as if it was something more than just a business circular. They had no need to search high and low in order to find their man! Our friend – we can risk calling him that again since he was no longer poor and was now standing on the very threshold of power – our friend was immediately discovered, thus providing further proof that the theory of heredity is right, although that fact was still unacknowledged at the time: with a series of glittering achievements Agathon Hound of the noble family the Hounds of Brazenby was now in a position to vindicate his family’s ancestral reputation and to bring renewed glory to its rather threadbare name. And the patriotic shareholders could hardly have made a better choice. They had no cause to fear that they would find their editor holding controversial opinions about anything, because all his political, social, ecclesiastical and economic views could be summed up in the one central principle that gave his public persona its utterly individual stamp: ‘a man must drink wine with his dinner’.
The instructions that the two institutions gave our friend were equally succinct and no less expressive for that. They consisted of two phrases: ‘Let him have it!’ and ‘Careful now, easy does it!’ It was up to the editor to use his intelligence not to confuse the two and to decide which of the instructions to apply and when.
They christened the newspaper with a rather peculiar name – The Pharaoh – which was supposed to serve as a reminder of its strongly monarchist leanings and of its respect for everything that had been tried and tested for centuries; the less sophisticated sections of the public, those who knew nothing about the existence of the Egyptian pharaohs, quickly concluded that the name had been taken from a well-known gambling game in which cheating was prevalent.
By one of those cruel ironies that omnipotent fate is so fond of, the editorial offices were housed in what had been Hound Hall on Norrmalmstorg, though the mansion had gone under the hammer long before this time and was now divided up into shops of various kinds. Our friend Agathon occupied the ground floor where the grand family banquets had taken place and, now a powerful figure, he sat there in judgment over the weal or woe of his fellow man. Sometimes, when he looked up to the first floor where the Great Hall had been, his heart ached, for it was now rented out as a furniture store. And when people saw the arms of the Hound family carved in sandstone and still visible over the door, […] they believed it was the emblem of The Pharaoh.
His sojourn in America, however, had made such a profound republican impression on Agathon that in those areas where he was free to do so, such as when writing about plays, poems or paintings, he soon fell into the temptation of laying aside his monarchist beliefs and adopting instead a variety of novel ideas; but so as not to risk doing any damage to his current position he took some of his ideas from that old, soi-disant republic, namely aristocratic Venice, in whose constitution he happened to admire the wellknown and invaluable institution known as the Lion’s Mouth. Translated into the context of seventeenth century Sweden this was an official but clandestine acknowledgment of the fact that people at large, for the miserly sum of five silver daler, could print unproven accusations against their enemies. This ensured that the paper achieved huge financial success while Agathon became the most feared grandee in the capital after the king.
Woe betide anyone who failed to greet him! Woe betide anyone who complained about the thrashings he doled out! He wrote paeans in praise of absolute monarchy and of the church discipline prescribed in the Church Law of 1686; he printed sermons and he promoted the persecution of heretics; he praised the royal reduction of aristocratic estates since it made other noblemen as poor as he was; he hated the lowest of the four estates – the landowning peasants – because they had fixed residences and could (i.e. had to) pay tax; he had even proposed the abolition of the estate of the peasantry, suggesting that only the windmills and waterwheels on their holdings needed to be worked since the farms, after all, existed only for the sake of the taxes that could be levied, not for the sake of the peasants; he was the man who proved that the peasants could not really be said to own their own land since they did not own the revenue (i.e. the taxes); and, furthermore, he was a strict upholder of aristocratic privileges.
The bigwigs had never had such a mighty champion before, and even though they were ashamed to number him among their acquaintances, they never failed to give him a friendly nod when he stood there hat in hand by the gutter as their carriages rolled past and splashed him. That did not, however, stop them from spitting out of the other carriage window, just as one does when a cat crosses the road in front.
When he entered the Tennis Court Theatre of an evening, none of the poor actors neglected to stand up and offer him a seat, for their welfare lay in his hands. In fact, in the seventeenth century people had so much respect for anything that appeared in a newspaper that any actor given an unfavourable mention was instantly dismissed – it was not unknown for a father who had been robbed of his and his family’s daily bread to be seen sobbing and appealing to newspaper editors to have mercy on the little ones, mercy in this case meaning that the father would be spared abuse next time round.
But the moment our friend rose well-fed and replete from the poor men’s table, and the moment they saw his sword disappearing out through the door, a veritable hailstorm of curses would break out and several daggers were drawn halfway from their sheaths, only to be slowly and meekly pushed back. Had there not been a ban on duelling, our friend would not have been allowed to practise his pretty craft for long […]
‘Well, and how did things go for our friend?’ the young bedbug asked, wanting to hear how it all ended.
‘The factory collapsed, the company went bust and our ex-friend sank back into misery.’
‘But his shield is still hanging in the House of the Nobility, that temple of memories?’
‘Nobility, like crime, is hereditary!’
‘And the punishment?’
‘Oh, that will come!’
‘Claris majorum exemplis? Through the shining example of our forefathers? What?’
‘No, not that way!’