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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

One of the most beautiful scenes of rural life in literature: in The Natives of Hemso

Still surprised at the absolute beauty of some of the passages in Strindberg's The Natives of Hemso - I really didn't expect that - but with his simple, clear writing and sharp eye, his attention to detail, and most of all his evident love for the rural people and their even-then (1887) vanishing way of life, Srindberg shows another side of his artistic sensibility. The long passage about haying of the fields is a great example, absolutely beautiful and perfect account of rural life - from the mock-heroic outset, when the hayers gathered from nearby islands assemble with their scythes - the scene obviously nods to the Homeric lists of the assembled warriors before the assault on Troy - the early-morning (about 3 a.m., but it's light already) breakfast, the men walking thru the fields swinging their blades, the pretty young women behind them raking the hay into neat piles, the big dinner and dancing at the end, the young couples sneaking off the "green grass" - this anticipates Smiles of a Summer Night, and you can see why Bergman loved this novel - all excellent. This scene is as good as the harvest scene in Anna Karenina, a near-contemporary novel. The central figure in Hemso, Carlsson - who oddly is not one of the "natives" but is the stranger who came to the island to help get the farm into shape - is increasingly becoming a narcissistic boor, fighting a much weaker man for the favor of a pretty girl, the cook at the house of the family - she's from Stockholm, and tho she tolerates Carlsson's attentions for a time, she has no intention, as she says, of marrying a farmer - she's a sophisticated city girl - and leaves with hardly a farewell, making Carlsson look like a fool. As is typical of Strindberg, there's a great deal of attention, some very subtle, to class relations and distinctions: Carlsson thinks he's much better than the island farmers, and he is a better farmer - but not a better person - and when off the island he's looked down upon by other Swedes as a provincial. One thing that hasn't changed in Sweden in 150 years is the incredible neatness and orderly nature of farms - anyone who's driven through Sweden, even on the main highway, notices today the meticulous care farmers take with their land and property - the hay all neatly baled, the fields trim and angular, the houses crisply painted, usually red w/ white trim. Strindberg captures that in Hemso, and probably thought he was writing about a dying tradition, and it's nice to know he was wrong.

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