Monday, March 26, 2012

I have never stolen a live peacock!

Sam Leith reviews Strindberg: a life (Yale), Sue Prideaux’s biography of the 19th-century playwright August Strindberg. All I knew about him was that he was a Swede who wrote a play called Miss Julie. I figured him for a gloomy sort, Ibsen without the jokes with added misogyny. But no:  
Strindberg was attacked by feminist contemporaries not because he wanted to keep women down, but because his ideas for female emancipation went far beyond what they found comfortable. And in addition to Miss Julie he wrote 60 plays, three books of poetry, 18 novels, nine autobiographies, 10,000 extant letters, tons of journalism ... and the contents of a green flannel sack he hauled around after him, described thus by his second wife:
   “About one yard in length, with gentle billowing valleys and summits and fastened by a cord. It contained all his manuscripts. It contained his theory that plants have nerves. It contained his theory that elements can be split. It contained theories that refute Newton and God himself.
So, more interesting than one had supposed. Leith summarises the life thus:
Born in 1849, he had a horrible childhood, and was bullied by both his parents. He rejected his father’s snobbery and his mother’s pietism. He was, for the most part, kind. Even when he was flat broke, he bought handfuls of cherries twice a day to feed a bear in the zoo that he had become fond of. The bear was called Martin. When Strindberg behaved badly — as he did towards his first wife, Siri and their children — guilt weighed on him. Having once been falsely accused of stealing a peacock, 18 years later he startled a bookseller by exclaiming at random: ‘I have never stolen a live peacock!’
Nothing was ever simple for him. He fell in with crooks, swindlers and Satanists. When he was accused of impregnating an underage girl, he denounced his blackmailer to a policeman — who himself turned out to be being blackmailed by the same man. Strindberg was repeatedly sued for blasphemy. {. . .]
 He lived, gregariously, in Stockholm, Paris and Berlin — everywhere he went cultivating a more or less drunken salon of some sort. His love life was a non-stop disaster, and his finances were always precarious — a clue to the reason for which can be discerned in a triumphant letter he wrote to his wife: ‘I’ve succeeded in borrowing some money, so we are debt-free!’
Leith ends by saying:
you can see in the prose how much fun the author is having with Strindberg. Anyone reading her marvellous book will have that much fun too.
I so want to read this.

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