Norstedts, 2010. ISBN: 9789113022604
Reviewed by Peter Graves in SBR 2011:1
We are clearly entering the run-up to the 2012 centenary of Strindberg’s death and Lena Einhorn’s Om Strindberg is one of the first shots. And a big shot it is, in every respect, including the physical: it is about the size and shape of the average laptop computer and probably rather heavier, so finding a comfortable reading position is not always easy. The design and layout are sumptuous, however, and the designer Pär Wickholm certainly deserves a mention: good quality paper, eminently readable type-faces, occasional pages of a different colour, an abundance of illustrations and a binding that looks as if it will hold everything together for a lifetime, all add up to a luxury read at what seems to be a remarkably low price – presumably Norstedts is reckoning on bulk sales. The many illustrations are, for the most part, wellchosen and well reproduced. Almost inevitably, quite a few of them are familiar, but there are also many that will be new even to keen readers of biographies of Strindberg or books on Stockholm in the decades either side of 1900. One or two of the pictures struck me as stretching things a little: I can’t quite see the point of including Henry Scott Tuke’s painting of T. E. Lawrence as a boy on Newporth Beach, even though it accompanies an essay that touches on the possibility of Strindberg’s latent homosexuality. The core of the book consists of twenty-five essays or chapters by twenty-one contributors, almost all of them well-known names in their fields. The organisation of the volume is largely chronological so it functions as a biography, but the biographical chapters are interspersed with more thematic contributions on topics such as Strindberg the painter and photographer, ‘the battle of the sexes’, Strindberg’s anti-Semitism, the archipelago, his relationship with his publishers and so on. Most of the pieces are eminently readable, some are fascinating, and although much of the material is well known even to those who have done no more than wander in the foothills of the mountain of Strindberg literature, there is enough that is new or casts in a fresh light to satisfy anyone. This makes choice between essays difficult since there is very little that does not justify its place; nevertheless, here are, in no particular order, the contributions I found the most rewarding: Among the mainly biographical chapters, Clarence Crafoord’s on Strindberg’s childhood and home situation provides many pointers that help to elucidate the adult’s later life – he is less convincing, however, when he experiments with writing in the persona of the twelve-year old Strindberg. Ludvig Rasmusson contributes two excellent and unpretentious pieces, both of which effectively link biography and place: in the first he traces Strindberg’s love for the Stockholm archipelago and in the second he looks at Strindberg in Paris during the 1890s. One of the surprising things to emerge from his account is quite how uninterested Strindberg was both in the city itself, and in what was going on around him. Björn Meidal’s two chapters trace the course of Strindberg’s disastrous relationships and marriages, a decade apart, first with Frida Uhl and then Harriet Bosse: particularly fascinating here are the quotations from his letters and diaries, swinging as they do between vitriolic abuse and servile declarations of love. Johan Cullberg’s chapter discusses Strindberg’s Inferno crisis. He begins by rejecting the idea that Strindberg’s psychological suffering was largely a self-construct and goes on to offer a quite outstanding and convincing analysis of the background to, and process of, the psychosis and religious conversion of the 1890s. Eva Borgström offers an illuminating piece on En dåres försvarstal in which she reveals the multiple layers of a text that Aftonposten called ‘unparalleled in its indecency’ and Dagens Nyheter said should ‘never have been written’. In Nathan Shachar’s chapter on the beginning, process and end of Strindberg’s friendship with Heidenstam we see once again the benefits of contextualisation – Shachar quite properly views the relationship within the mental history of friendship, rather than simply subject to the vagaries of the individuals involved. Finally, among the biographical contributions, Ulrika Knutson’s account of Strindberg’s last years – ‘the old man in the tower’ – succeeds in being both moving and bringing a rare touch of humour to the volume as she describes his dealings with Fanny Falkner and her eccentric and incompetent family. Among the more thematic chapters, David Gedin offers two fine essays: the first of them, on Strindberg as autobiographer and self-analyst, contains much welcome discussion of the cultural and historical context in which he was functioning; proper contextualisation is also a strength of Gedin’s second piece, in which he traces Strindberg’s relationship with his various publishers and views it in the light of the changing role of publishers in the period in question. Nina Solomin discusses Strindberg’s anti-Semitism, showing how – as in so many other areas – Strindberg’s views were both inconsistent and contradictory; what is quite clear from Solomin’s carefully (perhaps too carefully) balanced account is that Strindberg went well beyond the kind of casual anti-Semitism that was almost the norm at the time. Ebba WittBrattström’s chapter on Strindberg as ‘the foremost constructor of masculine consciousness’ in Swedish literature is stimulatingly contentious – and the volume would have benefited from a little more contentiousness. She argues, convincingly I think, that the standard line among literary historians (male) has been to neutralise his ‘masculinist’ ideology. Enjoyable and rewarding as many of these essays are, there does seem to me to be a flaw in the conception of the volume partly, I think, because of the coffee-table book presentation, and partly because it reflects the current fascination with ‘personalities’ in the media sense. Indeed, what a gift to the modern media Strindberg would have been. This book is ‘om Strindberg’, about the man, whether he was mad or sane, radical or reactionary, pro-feminist or anti-feminist, lovable or intolerable, so there is a lot of psychologising or pseudo-psychologising. Strindberg’s works tend only to be present in order to illustrate aspects of his life and relationships – a kind of biographical criticism in reverse. There is little about what keeps us reading or watching Strindberg even at his most inconsistent, wrong-headed or obnoxious; little , that is, about the vigour and pace of his language, his snappy dialogue, skill at painting cinematic scenes in words and ability to take his reader through a whole gamut of emotions, not the least of which is exasperation. The final contribution to the volume is a very short and personal piece by Leif Zern. Among the many perceptive points Zern packs into his three pages is the simple statement ‘Strindberg’s works are, after all, more important than his personality’. Readers of Om Strindberg will certainly be fascinated by the personality of the man, but whether the collection will send new readers scurrying to take Strindberg’s works out of the library is perhaps open to doubt.