It’s impossible to read much European literature from the turn of the century and not have run into Strindberg, as so many fictional characters gush and have epiphanies over his writings. Somehow however, he’s never managed to get to the top of my own reading pile – so once again I’ve had reason to be pleased with my Nordic winter reading project; if nothing else, it would finally get me started on this Swedish literary giant.
In England, Strindberg is best known for his plays, but he first came to fame as a novelist when ‘The Red Room’ exposed the hypocrisy of contemporary Stockholm society. The book begins when the idealistic young Avrid Falk leaves his job as an overpaid and underworked civil servant in order to become a starving writer. Personally, I was rather confused why he had to do both,the scathing description of his day job (hardly anyone ever shows up to work, those who do have no duties or responsibilities anyway) left me with the impression that it would be the perfect way to fund a literary career. Forget burning the midnight oil, it sounded like he could work full time as a journalist while still picking up his pay-check as an assessor. Such half measures will never do however, and in the company of bohemian artists Falk will spend the rest of the book bearing horrified witness to the sordid business of succeeding in the terrible modern world.
As you may be able to tell, while I enjoyed ‘The Red Room’ it was mostly because I found it silly and endearingly self-indulgent rather than actually shocking or affecting. From what I’ve read, Strindberg was doing something very new in 1879 when he published his first novel, but I defy any modern reader to approach the book ignorant of the trials of being a starving writer in a world of hypocrites who are too ignorant and stupid to recognise artistic merit and inner goodness. The characters are unpleasant and unsubtle: Falk’s bohemian friends are selfish and callous and his pretentious brother and sister-in-law are are larger-than-life monsters.
An implicit aim behind my Nordic winter reading was to spend my mental time away from the all too real horrors of 2017. While ‘The Red Room’ didn’t transport me to vast icy wastes, it did succeed in helping me escape from all that frightens and disgusts me about my own modern world. Seen in context, it gives me hope that in the future my contemporary concerns will seem petty and trite because times pass and societies change. At the very least we can be confident there will always be a body of under-appreciated young artists out there, ready to write about their trials and tribulations. And as my experience of Strindberg has shown, there will always be a body of readers waiting in their turn to feel empathetic, horrified or smugly superior.