Published March 11, 2005
Man Bites Dog
“Society is madhouse whose wardens are the officials and the police,” it said. I stopped, surprised, excited and feeling somewhat less safe. Yes, of course it is, I thought to myself as I reread the phrase in the clear, metallic letters fastened to the asphalt. I continued on, not quite as sure of what to expect next. “People who keep dogs are cowards who haven’t got the guts to bite people themselves,” the street now said. As a former mailman, I could not help but agree. As I looked up the street, past the pedestrians happily carrying bags or hopefully peering into windows to find the mid-winter sale made just for them, I noticed that the street seemed to be lined with mysterious messages. And all of them seemed to speak directly to me.
A Hell for Children
“Happiness consumes itself like a flame. It cannot burn for ever, it must go out, and the presentiment of its end destroys it at its very peak,” “Family… the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children,” “A man with a so-called character is often a simple piece of mechanism; he has often only one point of view for the extremely complicated relationships of life.”
It was true, it was all true. My steps grew heavier as I continued up the street. Was there no hope? And then, as I had almost reached the far ends of the busiest pedestrian street in Stockholm, amid the mid-winter sales I found it. The tiny gleam of hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. “Allt tjanar,” the street said. Everything helps.
The Genius of the North
Who was this mysterious sage who had taunted me, tried me and in the end, perhaps, offered me salvation?
As I reached the end of the street I saw him, sitting on a rock. He was about twice my height, muscular, and made of solid granite. Like Prometheus unbound, there was nothing that could contain his fire. Not chains, not even death itself. His fire burns the hottest of anyone in Sweden still, almost a century after his death. He is Strindberg.
Norwegians probably think that Ibsen is the greatest literary genius of the Nordic countries, the Finns Kivi or Runeberg, the Danes might mention a miserablist philosopher (Kirkegaard) or a children’s book author (HC Andersen or indeed Ole Lund). Icelanders, of course, rarely tire of pointing out that Laxness won a Nobel Prize in this very city.
But to many more impartial observers, Strindberg is the greatest writer of the north. Just ask Halldór Laxness, who wrote in his memoir Úngur ég var, “I myself wrote, if truth be told, the same story as Strindberg had in Inferno, except it was called Vefarinn mikli.” Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír was Laxness’ first novel, and set him out on the career that led him to Stockholm.
The Man who Got Laxness Writing
Strindberg himself never won the Nobel Prize, despite having been born in Stockholm, and despite his influence on Laxness and a host of other writers. Einar Már Guðmundsson, whom many have called Iceland’s greatest living scribe following the death of Laxness, said that no book had served him as well when writing his award winning Angels of the Universe as had Strindberg’s Inferno.
When Inferno first came out in 1897, Strindberg had been in the throes of a creative crisis, which almost ended his career. In 1889 he had written the play Miss Julie, which remains one of the most frequently performed plays in the world. Three years later, he had divorced his wife, the Finno-Swedish baroness Siri Von Essen and left Stockholm for Berlin. There he hung out with Norwegian painted Edvard Munch before marrying Austrian journalist Frida Uhl and moving with her to Austria.
Symbolism, Alchemism and the Occult
Once there, he promptly left Frida and their newborn child to hang out with French painter Paul Gauguin in Paris. Strindberg was an accomplished painter himself, and dabbled in symbolism as well as alchemism and the occult. But still he did not write. Then, finally, and no doubt based on his recent experiences, he writes in French the story of Johann Jörgensen, about a writer living in Paris who leaves his family to discover the secrets of alchemy before his final conversion to Catholicism. The book not only inspired Laxness to write his first novel, but also to become a Catholic, and he almost joined a convent. But fortunately for all of us, he decided to do as Strindberg did, not as he said.
The Only Award that Ever Meant Anything
The fire rekindled, Strindberg returned to Stockholm, married his third and final wife Harriet Bosse and invented expressionist theatre. But Strindberg and Bosse remained together for only two years. In 1908, he moved to his final home, The Blue Tower, on Dronninggatan 85, where he died four years later. He never won the Nobel Prize, probably because of his socialism (they should have checked Laxness’ political affiliations better), but in the final year of his life, students and workers held torch-lit processions on Dronninggatan outside his house, and awarded him the “Anti-Nobel Prize,” a large sum of money organized by donations. Perhaps it is the only award an author ever got that really meant anything.
His house on Dronninggatan 85 has been turned into a museum, and, if you ask really nicely, they may even let you into his study, where he wrote his final play, “The Great Highway.”
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