The Magazine

Unhappy the Man

The life and work of August Strindberg.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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At last he was able to get out, but only briefly at first. Strindberg matriculated at Uppsala University, Sweden’s Oxford, but his father, although flush again, refused to finance his studies. After one term, August was forced to become a schoolmaster—at Klara, of all places. He was an inspiring but uninspired teacher, and his melancholy became obvious to a friendly neighbor, Dr. Axel Lamm, who offered to take him in as companion to his two sons and as a medical student under Lamm’s personal tutelage. Strindberg loved the studies, which he described as “penetrating nature’s secrets.” He loved Dr. Lamm for (what Prideaux calls) his “disinterested benevolence.” The Lamms were among the few Jews in Stockholm, and, for a spell, Strindberg had only generous things to say about Jews. But as his paranoia deepened over time, and he sprayed venom in all directions, the Jews would become a particular object of his mad hatred. With sadness, Prideaux points out that the year Strindberg spent with the Lamms was the only time he was ever “part of life in a happy and functioning family.”

Then the theater bug bit him. He attended the Royal Theatre two or three times a week, bluffed his way into supernumerary roles, flubbed his chance for a one-line part, drowned his sorrows in opium and liquor, and woke up hungover but pregnant with a play of his own, and then a long poem. Prideaux writes, “At last he felt chosen, blessed, directed.” In short order, he turned out five plays, one of which, In Rome, about a Danish sculptor’s success in the face of his father’s scorn for art, received its premiere at the Royal Theatre in 1870. Strindberg used his paycheck to return to Uppsala. He acquired prodigious learning for a young man, composed songs, learned to paint, and wrote three more plays, one of which earned him an audience with the king of Sweden and a royal stipend. 

He left the university in 1872 without a degree. Supporting himself in Stockholm with freelance journalism and a position at the Royal Library struck him as beneath his dignity, but he had time for scholarship and writing plays. And by now there were women. There would always be women from this point; and they would be his particular torment. He had a long affair with a “waitress”—Prideaux considers the word a euphemism—who he dumped when she got pregnant in 1875. Later that year, he met the first woman he would marry: Siri von Essen Wrangel, a Finnish aristocrat, the wife of a Swedish baron, and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter. She yearned to be a famous actress, and Strindberg offered her excitement that her handsome but inert husband could not. At first, their union seemed impossible; in despair Strindberg even (sort of) tried to kill himself, but then the baron’s own adultery opened the way to a divorce and Siri’s remarriage. Bliss beckoned; Hell gaped. 

Strindberg’s autobiographical novel A Madman’s Defense (1888) traces the arc of their romance from first infatuation through her infidelity, his jealous rage, his loathing her as a slut and a lesbian, and, above all, his fears that their children might not be his and that his vampire wife was trying to poison him. All modern women came under assault. In an earlier manifesto he had endorsed female emancipation and full equality; now, like Nietzsche, whom he admired and corresponded with, he came to woman with the whip: “The very thought of having to witness the recognition and apotheosis of these intelligences of the Bronze Age, these anthropoids, these semi-apes, this pack of pestilent animals, roused my manhood.”  

He would work this vein for the rest of his life and become the anti-Ibsen, a self-appointed role Prideaux alludes to and on which Michael Meyer, an Ibsen biographer, provides a running commentary. Disastrous subsequent marriages to a trophy-hunting Austrian journalist and a very young Swedish beauty who would become the leading lady of the Scandinavian stage furnished Strindberg with deep background.