Saturday, 12 May 2012

Strindberg distorted

When you are faced with a biography of someone you have studied for years and feel you know intimately and you suddenly don’t recognize what is written about that person you get an eerie feeling. I was curious to read about a new biography on Strindberg since I have spent the last thirty years or so translating his works and writing about him in journals and in book form. But when I saw the reviews of Sue Prideaux’s book Strindberg – a life I was alarmed to find some serious errors. It is not often that a biography on Strindberg is published in this country, although the publisher’s claim that it is thirty years since the last biography appeared is not true. My biography Strindberg and Love which deals with his wives and works was published in 2001 by Amber Lane Press
In her book Prideaux makes some hair-raising claims; she writes, for instance, that Strindberg’s and Siri’s eldest daughter, seven-year-old Karin kept a vigil at Viktoria Benediktsson’s bedside at the Leopold Hotel in Copenhagen on that fateful night in January 1888 when Benediktsson tried to commit suicide by taking morphine. Benediktsson survived on that occasion because she vomited in the night but six months later she used a razor instead and succeeded. Two weeks after her death Strindberg finished his play Lady Julie (Miss Julie) and let Julie use the same method as Benediktsson when taking her life in the final scene.
Karin wrote about this whole dramatic event in her book Strindbergs första hustru (Strindberg’s First Wife), but in doing so she is quoting another writer and friend of both Benediktsson and Strindberg who had witnessed the suicide attempt but was sworn to secrecy. It was he who had been sitting by Benediktsson’s bedside as she was drifting off, but at the last moment he got cold feet and knocked at Strindberg’s door in the middle of the night and told him about Benediktsson’s suicide attempt.  By putting this story squarely into Karin’s mouth and ignoring the fact that she was retelling Axel Lundegård’s experience Prideaux makes Strindberg into a complete monster. If he had been alive today he would have sued her for libel.
As Ruth Scurr writes in the Guardian review of 21 April 2012: Karin remarked: ’I’ll never forget the expression on his face. He was so interested. Not a smidgen of human sympathy or compassion crossed his features, just naked curiosity; he was fascinated.’
Karin NEVER said or witnessed that. Karin was simply quoting Axel Lundegård in her sober, restrained way.

Another glaring mistake is Prideaux’ assumption that Strindberg persuaded Siri to give up her first child, husband, most of her fortune and her social respectability. Where does she get this information from, I wonder? If you read Siri’s letters from that period you’ll see quite clearly that Siri did not want to be burdened with a small child when she started out as an actress. She wanted her first husband to have custody of their daughter so that she could have the freedom to develop as an actress. As far as her fortune is concerned she came to a complicated arrangement which I have written about at length in my biography but she certainly did not abandon her fortune at Strindberg’s request. Her first husband did rather well out of her. More so than Strindberg.
Where did Strindberg declare Frida’s journalism useless? On the contrary, he read some of her articles while she was staying on in England after their honeymoon and he was  surprised to find that she had a very good writing style and told her so in a letter.

When it comes to his third wife, Harriet Bosse, he did not try to cancel their honeymoon because he wanted to work. He was feeling uneasy about travelling at that time because ’the powers that be’ didn’t want him to go. It has been suggested that he was deeply affected by Dagny Juel’s murder that summer. Dagny had been one of his girl-friends during the Berlin period and he and Harriet were planning to go to Berlin on their honeymoon.
I could go on picking at details which are untrue or distorted but suffice it to say that it is rather sad to see so many sensational titbits presented as facts.
There are enough reliable sources around. There are no reasons for getting the facts so wrong.
It makes me both sad and angry.