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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, October 31, 2014

A novel of great beauty - The Natives of Hemso

All told August Strindberg's The Natives of Hemso is a pretty terrific little novel - with excellent and beautiful descriptive passages about life in the 19th century, and not so different today in many ways I'm sure, in an out island in the Stockholm archipelago, centered on a vain and supercilious mainlander who comes onto the island to help right the fortunes of a widow's farm, eventually marries the widow and rises in the ranks of island society, until he gets too big for himself and his fortunes implode. There are many beautiful scenes, some just single set pieces - descriptions of the landscape in winter, of the pastoral scenery; some are extended chapters such as the long chapter about the marriage, which in some ways recalls the marriage procession in Madame Bovary, a near contemporary - and in other ways is as bawdy as Chaucer or Rabelais. Toward the end the novel touches on politics, capitalism, and social class, as mainlanders come in and buy a rocky outcropping for what seems like an outrageous sum and begin to mind for feldspar, bringing riches to the island for a time but destroying the pastoral tranquility - those that are making money are willing to give up the beauty of their lives - but when the ore tends to e of too poor a quality they just abandon the island, leaving behind trash and debt. Has to call up for contemporary readers the issues today surrounding "fracking" and the sudden wealth that can bring to rural communities at the cost of the quality of life. The last chapter, involving a pursuit through through a blizzard - the snow falling like gray moths, the flakes like chicken feathers, as Strindberg memorably puts it - and later a hazardous journey across the icy straits to bring a body to the country church for burial. The novel lacks a bit in shape - reading essentially like 7 or 8 stories in sequences - a form almost unknown in Strindberg's day and now the boring staple of every graduate writing program - but more than makes up for the general drift of plot by acute observation, sharply drawn characters, real confrontations and personal crises, humor, beauty; as with all great "folk literature," Strindberg captures a way of life vanishing in his day, yet also strangely universal and present still in many settings.

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