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

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Another Side .... of Strindberg

To the extent that August Strindberg is known at all today it's as a dramatist of the highest emotions,very violent expression of power relations, struggles between the sexes and social classes - most famously in Miss Julie - and to an extent as well as misogynistic and experimental and avant-garde, for his day - as in The Father and particularly The Dream Play. Strindberg was the ostensible reason why I went to Sweden in the 1970s  - he was my cover story, so to speak - I went for a lot of reasons but what bought me the ticket was my plan to research and write about his works - which I did do. While I was there many Swedes encouraged me to read his one novel, The Natives of Hemso (Hemsoboran, I think in Swedish), and I pretty much said I had no or little interest in doing so: I was interested in his plays, and the novel, from all accounts, was a sweet and provincial by-way in his life. I did buy a copy somewhere along the way, however, and am after so many years reading it. First reactions: first of all, it's completely atypical of his work, sweet and pastoral and funny to a degree and even sentimental - and I can see why it means to much to Swedes as a vision of rural life in the late 19th century and as a way to save and protect one of their few international literary stars: he wasn't always violent and antisocial. Oddly, though the novel is now nearly 150 years old, it feels almost contemporary - not only because of the clear and straightforward style but mainly because Strindberg was writing about a society and culture remote and primitive even in his day, so the distance we feel from the material is not too different from the distance Strindberg's first readers felt in the 1880s. The story is a typical "stranger come to town" saga: a farming expert, Carrlsson, comes from the mainland to the island (Hemso -  o [with 2 dots] means island) to help the widow Flod put her farm, now in "rack and ruin," back into prosperity. To do so, he must face off against several potential rivals, including her son and some other hired help who resent the new boss. He also must acclimatize to island life; the story might be sharper and funnier if he were a "city slicker," but he's not - he's used to country ways and he's very peripatetic - but he's not used to life on an island, knows nothing about navigation or sailing, for example. Strindberg and the Hemso natives describe him as a "windbag"; I don't know if it's meant to be a joke, but he doesn't seem particularly loquacious, so it may be that anyone who speaks at all in the taciturn, rural Swedish society was considered to be verbose. Very sweet novel, so far, with some beautiful passages of pastoral description and tons of arcane knowledge about farming - who knew Strindberg had such a bead on this?

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