Thursday, September 22, 2011

Douglas Messerli | "Selling Out" (on August Strindberg's The Red Room)

by Douglas Messerli

August Strindberg The Red Room, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves (London: Norvik Press, 2009)

Although Strindberg had already published one of his major dramas, Mäster Olaf in 1872, his long fiction, Röda rummet (The Red Room) of 1879 was his first great success, and is often described as the earliest modern Swedish novel. In noting that, however, one should not expect the kind of psychologically-based, well-made fictions of such modernists as Joyce, Woolf, Proust, and even fellow Scandinavian writer Knut Hamsun. The Red Room can hardly be said to have any coherent structure, and, as a social satire of the whole Swedish culture, it has little concern with character. Rather, it resembles in odd ways, as translator Peter Graves suggests, the kind of overview of society that occurs in Dickens' novels. Yet even here the similarities quickly disappear, since narrative is at the heart of the great English writer's fictions, whereas Strindberg relies on a series of comically imagistic sketches to capture his much beloved and obviously much hated Stockholm.
     To tell his story, Strindberg relies on what might be described as a single thread in the figure of a young idealist Arvid Falk, following the vicissitudes of his life along with tracing loose strings through the various figures he meets along the way. Strangely, however, because of Strindberg's buoyant comic timing and the large palette from which he paints his doctors, lawyers, actors, artists, philosophers, journalists, do-good philanthropists, publishers, carpenters, prostitutes, street urchins, misers, ministers, and just plain drunks one doesn't, ultimately, feel the lack of coherency in this work. Strindberg sets this whole world so a-whirling already in the second chapter that by the last page the reader is dizzied enough that he has had little time to realize that the merry-go-round upon which he has just careened should have sent him wobbling off into chaos. That sense of dislocation, perhaps, is why this work does seem, despite its numerous set pieces, so modern.

     Moreover, as anyone who has read of Strindberg's life up until the time The Red Room's creation realizes, most of the various figures of satire have to do with careers with which he himself had suffered and failed. Accordingly there is, at times, a biting edge to this work that will find its fulfillment in the author's later domestic dramas and autobiographies of madness. But here, despite the constant sense of the injustice and meaninglessness of the society at large, we do not ultimately feel, as Graves puts it, the "disillusion and pessimism" that seem to be "at the heart of the book."

"The satire is ebullient and hits home with an open, almost Pythonesque, glee which is, however, remarkably free from bitterness...."                 

     Although The Red Room received mixed reviews from the critics and was turned down for newspaper serialization, the work quickly sold out and went through four editions in the next year, allowing Strindberg at least a short period of economic relief.

     From the very beginning of the book we quickly come to realize that poor Arvid Falk is a kind of holy fool, a gentle, even bashful man, seldom able to stand up to friends or enemies in his defense of goodness and meaningful social involvement. His own brother has chiseled him out of some of his inheritance, and others throughout the book will hit him up for money and even his suit and overcoat whenever he is able to accumulate anything.
     At work's beginning Falk has a respectable job, even if low-paying, as an Assessor. But he can no longer bear to work at a place where no one shows up until hours after starting time, spending most of their remaining hours in countless meetings where nothing gets settled save the pettiest of decisions. Despite no training in writing, he is determined to quit the government and become a journalist. The ridiculousness of this decision is apparent to anyone who has read Hamsun's novel Hunger, published eleven years later, whose journalist hero nearly starves to death. Falk similarly undergoes nearly every kind of deprivation possible. To start with, even before he can raise a pencil to paper, he is accused by the press of having attacked the government—a terrible blow to his socially-concerned brother. Falk is innocent; the man to whom he has told his story and revealed his decision returned home to immediately write a piece for one of the most disreputable newspapers of the day.
     The rest of Strindberg's work is centered on the assignments given Falk and the individuals he meets along the way. A visit to a publisher lands an immediate assignment to rewrite a German documentary, The Guardian Angel, about the surviving children of a couple drowned in a shipwreck; fortunately they were insured, but as they rush to claim their inheritance they discover that the boat that carried their inheritance had also sunk, and their parents had failed to pay the insurance premium due on the day their death! Falk wisely rejects the assignment.
     A visit to a religious charity portrays a mad man sitting behind a churchlike-organ shouting messages to various employees through the trumpet while pulling out its stops. A visit to a local field uncovers artists living in shanty-like constructions, one painting landscapes, the other religious subjects, while nearby two friends spend the day reading philosophy. For supper they quickly gather up anything that might sell (including each other's prized possessions), speeding them off to the pawnbrokers, and gathering at a local bar to fill their bellies. It is the room in the bar, nicknamed the Red Room, that gives Strindberg's work its title. And it is in this room where Falk feels most a home, surrounded by seedy Bohemian-like types.
     I will not list every societal situation Falk must endure—he meets up at various moments with a theatrical troupe, a beautiful prostitute, an entire household of unemployed workers, and a disgusting-looking and profoundly boisterous man of the medical profession; he visits the Swedish Riksdag (parliament), attends a labor meeting, and finally, in complete despair, travels with the doctor to the countryside for a few weeks of rest. Upon his return he is seen as being a different man, a being who now has now sold out to the barren and destructive society he has fought. Becoming a teacher of Swedish Literature and History at a Girl's School, he smilingly attempts to keep a bird's-eye view of the society. Strindberg writes:

"But when he is tired of family life and the falseness of society he goes down to the Red Room and meets that dreadful man Borg [the doctor], his admirer Isaac, his secret and envious enemy Struve...and
the sarcastic Sellén...."

Of Falk, Borg writes:

"He lives for his work and for his fiancée, whom he worships. But I don't believe all that. Falk is a political fanatic who knows it would destroy him were he to let air reach his flame, so he smothers it instead with these strict, arid studies. I don't believe he will succeed and however much he controls himself I fear there will be an explosion at some point."

     Strindberg suggests, as I read it, that there may be hope for some in Swedish society despite the impossibility of their cause. It is the possibility of those explosions that promise change, and in allowing their potential Strindberg appears to look ahead to the Futurists and other literary movements of the new century.

Los Angeles, August 27, 2010

Reprinted from Rain Taxi (Winter 2010/2011).

Copyright (c)2010 by Douglas Messerli

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