Norstedts, 2011. ISBN: 9789113033969
Reviewed by Eivor Martinus in SBR 2012:1
Strindberg pleaded his innocence in The Confessions of a Fool (orig. Le playdoyer d’un fou) in a fictional format and also put his case in several memorable dramas.
The love affair between him and Siri von Essen is well documented in both factual and fictional accounts and has invited people to take sides for over a hundred years.
Their love story never ceases to fascinate. A beautiful young baroness with an impeccable pedigree meets passionate, penniless young author who is hungry for love. She is a frustrated actress, locked in a boring marriage and unable to realise her artistic dreams.
A platonic relationship develops into a friendship that graciously embraces the husband as well. Siri slowly awakens and falls in love with the friend, but not before her husband has announced that he is having an affair with her eighteenyear-old cousin, who is a house guest. The news of her husband’s infidelity hits Siri and her writer friend with force and results in a remarkable exchange of love letters, which surely are among the most passionate in the Swedish language.
It is on this foundation that Lena Einhorn builds her first novel about Siri and August. Much has been written and said about Strindberg and his three wives, his attitude to women and supposed misogyny, but not many books have been written from the point of view of his women. Siri and August’s eldest surviving daughter, Karin, has written two admirable books about her beloved parents and tried hard to be impartial, even though she spent most of her childhood and youth with her mother and came to know her better than her famous father.
Siri left her first husband, Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel, and their two-year-old daughter in order to pursue a career as an actress. From the beginning, she and August did not intend to get married but when Siri found herself pregnant, they decided to seal their relationship, just a few weeks before the child was born. Siri’s first child with Wrangel died and her second child, registered as ‘Kerstin – father and mother unknown’, died the day after she was born.
The relationship between August and Siri lasted seventeen years. They were years of hardship, fun, social gatherings, artistic successes and failures; years of illness and health, long sojourns abroad and happy summers on Kymmendö in the Stockholm archipelago. Their marriage was unusually free for the time. Siri went away on tours, stayed up late with fellow actors after performances, had a brief affair while on tour and a close relationship, possibly lesbian, with Marie David. It was stormy marriage, often impecunious and unpredictable. In other words, light years away from the cosy matrimonial home that Siri had left for August.
With this inflammable material as a starting point, Lena Einhorn has decided to tackle the story from Siri’s point of view and to place it in the grey zone between fact and fiction. She borrows freely from letters and plays, especially Fadern (The Father), taking its main characters to represent the real-life characters of August and Siri.
It makes for dramatic and fascinating reading, but also leads to confusion at times. Calling it a novel is rather a cheat, because the storyline follows the authentic events logically and along two chronological strands, one of which ends in 1885 and the other in 1897, with Siri in Helsingfors, struggling with one faithful maid still in attendance but living in much reduced circumstances. Siri had to undertake a formidable journey of reversed fortune. Being an only child brought up at Jackarby manor with a governess, she could not have imagined that she would end her days sharing a small flat with her children, her companion and her maid.
Einhorn starts her novel in 1890, the year after Siri had wound up the business in Copenhagen after the world premiere of Fröken Julie (Miss Julie). The excitement and anticipation had turned sour and August left for the Stockholm archipelago ahead of Siri and the children. It is a shame that Einhorn decided to omit the dramatic episode of putting on Fröken Julie before the marriage was finally over. The focus stays steadfastly on Siri and there is no doubt whose side Einhorn is on as she describes this doomed relationship. By omitting vital facts or emphasising details out of context, she tends to present Siri as a victim and reinforces the image of Strindberg as unreasonable and mad. For instance, their stay in Switzerland comes across as wholly miserable in Einhorn’s version, but in real life, Siri is on record raising her glass to August and saying: ‘Thank you for seven happy years!’
When a writer chooses to use authentic people as main characters in a novel, it often says more about the writer than the depicted characters. It is easy to side with the angels, and obviously, Siri with her extraordinary patience, great understanding and endurance, is worth much praise, but if – as Einhorn admits in an afterword – you resort to existing biographies, letters and articles, you will soon find that it takes two to tango.
Even so, it is refreshing to get a new perspective on this relationship and, on the whole Einhorn balances between fact and fiction with great aplomb.