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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The earth is a place of woe and wailing: This is an understanding as old as human consciousness. However, most men and women have always seen that such an understanding is hardly adequate. Small contentments and towering ecstasies, consolation and redemption, must have their significance as one considers the arrangements that the Powers have made for us.

What, then, are we to make of the thinkers and artists who believe that our world is Hell? In the superb essay “The Dark Brain of Piranesi,” Marguerite Yourcenar describes the mid-18th-century series of engravings Invenzioni Caprice di Carceri, or Imaginary Prisons, as images of human damnation under a human regime: 

These sites of hard labor from which Time and the forms of living nature are eliminated, these sealed chambers which so readily become torture chambers, but in which most of the inhabitants seem perilously and obtusely at their ease, these abysses which are bottomless and yet without means of escape, are no ordinary prison: they are our Inferno, our Hell.

Men condemn not only others but also themselves to this dark confinement, Yourcenar suggests, when there is no God to stop them. She plainly has more recent enormities in mind. There is abundant evidence for this view.

Yet Piranesi’s vision (and Yourcenar’s) stops short of the ultimate terror. For what if Hell on earth is not of human devising but enforced by metaphysical fiat? Can there be a more frightful intuition or revelation than that one is a resident of Hell by order of some implacable Power? Such an insight sounds like the stuff of schizophrenia, or an episode of The Twilight Zone; most anyone who succumbs to this occult delirium is offered pity, derision, and a straitjacket or padded cell. 

Yet even a genius such as August Strindberg (1849-1912), the Swedish writer, painter, photographer, and pseudo-scientist, can fall victim to this loss of equilibrium. Strindberg registered intimations of his own earthly damnation early in his literary career, and felt them perhaps already in childhood. His life was certainly cruel enough that one can understand how this obsession seized him: In a 1907 letter, he wrote, “My life often seems as if it has been staged for me, so that I might both suffer and portray it.” It is remarkable that his suffering did not disable him from accomplishing anything at all. In fact, he wrote more than 60 plays, 18 novels, 9 volumes of autobiography (more precisely, autobiographical novels), 3 books of poetry, historical and linguistic tomes, antifeminist and anti-Semitic screeds, and some 10,000 letters.

Here, Sue Prideaux, an Anglo-Norwegian novelist and author of a prize-winning biography of Edvard Munch, breaks little new ground—Michael Meyer’s exhaustive and engaging 1985 biography remains the standard in English—but she goes over the familiar ground ably and succinctly. Prideaux seems to pity Strindberg more than Meyer does, though both biographers recognize that many of Strindberg’s pains were self-inflicted. All the same, whenever one blames a man as troubled as Strindberg for his own miseries, one must ask how he could have avoided them except by being born someone else.

His father was an ogre, his mother a hag. Carl Oscar Strindberg, a Stockholm spice merchant and shipping agent who went bankrupt when Johan August was 4, made his third son the whipping boy—and everyone else in the household joined in the abuse. Nora, a barmaid whom Carl Oscar kept as his mistress for six years before marrying her, browbeat her unacceptable stepson as hellward-bound for certain, according to the savage mystery of her Pietist faith. In The Son of a Servant (1886-87), the first of a series of autobiographical novels, Strindberg recalls the shame and fright of being the family’s punk: 

Afraid of being hit by his brothers, slapped by the maids, scolded by his grandmother, caned by his father and birched by his mother .  .  . he could do nothing without doing wrong, utter no word without disturbing somebody. .  .  . It had effectively been dinned into him that he had no right to exist.

Compound the unhappiness at home with an awful time at Klara elementary school, “a preparation not for life but for Hell,” in Strindberg’s words, and his boyhood becomes unendurable. The torment abated somewhat as August changed schools; but when his mother died, the wicked stepmother, 30 years younger than Carl Oscar, meant going from bad to worse at home.