Friday, February 28, 2014

Book 144, Sweden: "Miss Julie and Other Plays" by August Strindberg

Ah Sweden. Home of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and eight laureates thereof (they do have home advantage, after all). Also birthplace of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck detective series, John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In and Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking.

And who do I choose for this blog? A psychotic misogynistic 19th century playwright whose stuff is mostly unstageable. Ladies, I give you: August Strindberg!

Ooh, but isn't that a pretty cover?

There's five plays in here, performed between 1887 and 1907. They're The Father, Miss Julie, The Dance of Death I, A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata. They're supposed to represent his progression from naturalism - i.e. a social realism that hinges on biological premises of naturally inherited traits of femininity, psychosis, etc - to radical experimentalism.

But the truth is, even in his earlier works, I have no idea what's going on. Is the Captain really nuts in The Father, or is his wife Laura just goading him on, and does that mean that he was going crazy to begin with anyway so she had every right to send him to the loony bin? Seriously, it's quite possible to read the women he wants you to hate as strong but broken women.

This is probably why Miss Julie still gets so much play. It's a two-act piece, a three-hander, between the noblewoman Miss Julie, her manservant and lover Jean, and the servant-girl Kristin, and the big dynamic is about the dominance of Jean over Julie - and yet Kristin's level-headed sense seems to make her the ultimate moral compass of the piece, never mind that Strindberg dismisses her in his infamous preface as a "female slave", the lowest of them all. (This is seriously the only play of his in which I could be pretty sure I knew what was happening.)

It's my second time reading A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata - and I guess they are worth a reread. While there is very little linearity in these tales, there are such striking images that one wonders if Strindberg was visited by a time-travelling surrealist - the daughter of a god freeing a man imprisoned in a castle, the lovers doomed to fall out of bliss by the paralysis of a quarantine, a Sunday child student who can see ghostly milkmaids, a vampirical servant woman, a living mummy, phantasmagorical hyacinths... and no clear endings, because it was the twentieth century now, and structure be damned.

A Dance of Death I is somewhere in between. I think I know what's going on (but did the Captain's wife and Kurt actually sleep together or what?), yet that's not the point - the entire point is the mood of foreboding that casts its pall over everything...

I suppose my main worry after reading all this is whether I've made the best use of my eyeball-time. I should be reading works that'll improve my writing - what can I learn from these strangenesses?

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Representative quote: from Miss Julie:

JEAN Don't think, don't think! You're taking all my strength away too, and making me a coward- What's that? I thought the bell moved!- No! Shall we stop it with paper? - - To be so afraid of a bell! - Yes, but it's not just a bell - there's somebody behind it - a hand sets it in motion - and something else sets that hand in motion - but if you stop your ears - just stop your ears! Yes, but then he'll go on ringing even louder - and keep on ringing until someone answers - and then it's too late! Then the police will come - and then...

Two loud rings on the bell.

JEAN: [cringes, then straightens himself up]. It's horrible! But there is no other way!-Go!

Next book: Sally Salminen's Katrina, from the Åland Islands.

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