Thursday, 9 April 2015

August Strindberg, in the maelstrom

In 1887–8, August Strindberg wrote the experimental autobiographical novel Le Plaidoyer d’un fou; but only now is it available in a translation taken directly from the author’s original manuscript, lost shortly after its first publication in Paris in 1895. The manuscript resurfaced in 1973 in the safe of the Anatomy department of Oslo University – a curious location rendered curiouser when you remember that Strindberg, a Swede, never visited Norway.

Throughout his life, Strindberg wrote a series of autobiographies that shared no common style or language, each aiming at “an analysis of the soul or psychological anatomy” that was truthful to himself at the particular moment of writing. The whole was deliberately designed to display the discontinuity of his “evolution as a human being” and as a writer. Plaidoyer was written as Strindberg was approaching forty. He wrote it in French, hoping Paris would be receptive to a new form of literature “more realistic than Flaubert, more experimental than Zola”. It was to be the opposite of the French tradition of the novelist-observer reporting elegantly on the human condition, the reverse of a neat encapsulation of experience. Written in the first person, it recorded his tortured ambivalence during the thirteen years of his adoring passion for his first wife, Siri von Essen. While writing it, Strindberg was reading the latest literature by the foremost experimental psychologists: Henry Maudsley and Théodule-Armand Ribot on the pathology of the mind, Hippolyte Bernheim on “suggestion” – the witch-doctorish power of one mind to subject another to its will – and Freud’s teacher Jean-Martin Charcot (known as “the Napoleon of the neuroses”), on female hysteria. All of them were thinkers ideally suited to Strindberg’s subject matter: obsessive love.

What plot there is in Plaidoyer charts the ten-year marriage following the coup de foudre that poleaxed the twenty-six-year-old commoner, struggling as an actor and writer, on meeting the blue eyes of Siri, a stage-struck actress and married baroness. Siri and her husband seem to connive at drawing Strindberg into their marriage. The baron introduces Siri’s pretty young cousin into the house as his mistress. Strindberg is obliquely invited to complete the quartet. Ambiguity reigns. Lesbianism whispers softly in the shadows. Strindberg becomes prey to the certainty that his rigid lower-class moral code is being undermined by the sophisticated flexibility of the confident aristocrats. Siri is willing to risk ruin for a career on the stage. She leaves her doll’s house, divorces the baron and marries Strindberg, who permits her to live the liberated life of sexual equality they both believe in. They write a feminist manifesto. She becomes an actress; smokes, drinks, treats everyone of both sexes with the same uninhibited even-handedness. He is disappointed that liberation leads her to behave as licentiously as a man. His suspicion over small incidents, which at first he recounts humorously as farcical vicissitudes, grows into jealousy, then full-blown paranoia as he interprets her unfettered behaviour, first as promiscuity, then as nymphomania. Who is right ? Who is wrong? Who is lying? Who is mad? The reader has no idea, and their violent clashes sweep headlong into tragedy. When at last Strindberg wrings a confession of sexual infidelity out of Siri, he wonders – even while beating her up – whether her confession is true or if it is designed to drive him mad so she can gain total power by committing him to an asylum.

The question has always been whether Strindberg crossed the line into insanity during the six months it took him to write the book. He said himself he had no idea. While writing it, he visited Knud Pontoppidan, a famous mind doctor, to be certified sane (Pontoppidan refused to pronounce unless Strindberg gave him more time, a commodity Strindberg couldn’t spare). Strindberg described the six months of writing as if fiction and reality were indistinguishable, as if he were walking in his sleep with the feeling that if he discovered what was art, and what life, he would go insane or commit suicide through a sick conscience. Siri’s response to Plaidoyer was: “It’s all true and not true . . . there is scarcely an incident in it that does not have some foundation in fact – only everything is so horribly twisted and distorted”.

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