AUGUST STRINDBERG by Olof Lagercrantz


Email this review


There was a connection between his artistic fertility and his tendency to confuse reality and imagination--a confusion that entailed a sacrifice of his own life, and that of his nearest and dearest, and exiled him from normal relationships."" That is the not altogether convincing premise of Lagercrantz's dense, skeptical biography--which, in contrast to more psychoanalytic studies, usually sees Strindberg as the master of his own fate: self-dramatizing, role-playing, intentionally creating personal turmoil to generate literary ""material,"" a driven yet wily and ambitious genius. (""There is ample material proving that Strindberg was insane. . . but his works suffer from incurable health."") Throughout, while finding life/work parallels in the plays and fiction, Lagercrantz puts little trust in Strindberg's various memoirs--like The Serving Maid's Son (""useless as a source""). And he wrestles edgily with Strindberg's thorny personality while filling in the facts of his stormy career and stormier domestic life: early ups and downs with Swedish society--cheered for The Red Room, shunned for the satiric The New Kingdom; the secret liaison with married actress Siri von Essen--leading to a grim 13-year marriage, rabid misogyny, material for Marrying and The Father; the 15 years of self-exile, ""living out of a suitcase"" (en famille) around Europe; Miss Julie, inspired in part by an affair with a young servant-girl; divorce, doomed remarriages; quasi-crackpot researches in science and the occult; the return to Sweden, poetry, and playwrighting, with The Road to Damascus, Gustaf Vasa, and Eric XIV--following his ""voyage through hell"" (Inferno); controversies, feuds, estranged children (from all three marriages), suicide threats, correspondence with Nietzsche (embracing his ""superman"" credo), final illnesses. Lagercrantz, despite thoughtful effort, never quite succeeds in giving shape or coherence to this feverish, daunting life-and-work story. He gives surprisingly little space (barely a mention) to The Ghost Sonata and The Dance of Death; there's no discussion of Strindberg's place in world-drama literature. Still, if not particularly strong on Strindberg-the-playwright, this is--for English-language readers, at least--the fullest, shrewdest study of Strindberg as unruly genius, sexual misfit, and eclectic man-of-letters.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux