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Strindberg: A Biography by Michael Meyer (Random House: $24.95; 651 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Ronald Varney | Varney is a free-lance writer and critic living in New York

When "The Encyclopedia Britannica" published a new edition in 1911, it referred to the life and work of Swedish playwright August Strindberg in tones of praise and disgust. While he was acknowledged as "unquestionably the greatest name in recent Swedish literature" and a writer of extraordinary power and originality, Strindberg was also deemed a vulgarian with no sense of humor, one who harbored "a boundless confidence in the philosophy of Nietzsche."

As for his prolific output of more than 60 plays and more than 30 works of fiction, autobiography, politics and history, they were written off thus: "He affronts every canon of taste. His diatribes against women suggest a touch of madness, and he was in fact at one time seized with an attack of insanity. He writes like a man whose view is distorted by physical and mental pain."

Since Strindberg's death in 1912 at the age of 63, critical opinion has softened considerably. In his native Sweden, where he was routinely savaged by the critics of his day ("A filthy bundle of rags which one hardly wishes to touch even with tongs," was how his enduring play "Miss Julie" was received), he has become something of a god. However, time has done little to improve the reputation Strindberg earned as a man of monstrous hatreds and prejudices.

Strindberg was not only an avowed misogynist but a violent anti-Semite as well. In the course of three disastrous marriages, he proved often to be a cruel, jealous and abusive husband ("You are the filthiest beast I have ever known," he once wrote to his second wife Frida.). He was given to hysteria, hallucinations and depressions. He carried lifelong grudges (most notably against his father, a failed businessman, whose funeral Strindberg avoided), and he used his pen to caricature brutally those he disliked.

Michael Meyer, the highly acclaimed author of "Ibsen," has written a biography of Strindberg that is tightly researched and relentlessly probing. Meyer has drawn upon a great number of previously unpublished letters and diary extracts, and these help to make his portrait all the more stark and memorable.

Readers may find Meyer's scholarship a bit dense at times. For example, he provides extended and occasionally numbing commentaries on Strindberg's plays, all of which he has translated into English. But most of these works are virtually unknown to American readers and will probably, justifiably, remain so. Nonetheless, the reader is rewarded elsewhere in the book by the many striking episodes from Strindberg's life which Meyer re-creates vividly. These include scenes of Strindberg's bizarre sex life, his strange alchemical experiments, his celebrated trial for blasphemy, and his "Inferno" period of insanity.

Echoing throughout the book, like the distant crack of thunder, is Strindberg's own voice. Strindberg is quoted so often from his letters and diaries that he may seem to the reader an almost palpable presence. This is not always a very comforting sensation.

"Life is so hideously ugly," we hear him roar, "we mortals so abysmally evil, that were an author to portray everything he had seen or heard, no one could endure to read it. Life is so cynical that only a swine can be happy in it. And anyone who can see our ugly life as beautiful is a swine."

Despite this pervasive mood of blackness in Meyer's biography, it is, on the whole, very engaging, lucid, and even-handed, the very model of fair, dispassionate biography. For whatever his personal feelings toward Strindberg, Meyer does not let them cloud his vision. It is perhaps, then, a compliment to Meyer's skill and sensitivity as a biographer that the reader may wind up regarding Strindberg in roughly the same way Yeats did:

"I have always felt sympathy for that tortured, self-loathing man, who offered himself to his own soul as Buddha offered himself to the famished tiger."

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