Rare is the writer who can still rile his countrymen more than a century after his death. But in Sweden, August Strindberg remains lodged under the country’s proverbial skin. The author and playwright, who died in 1912, was known as much for his gossip-column lifestyle and controversial political views as for his prodigious literary output.
Strindberg wrote in various genres — novels, articles, essays, poems — but outside Sweden he is best known for his plays, including the oft-staged ‘Miss Julie.’ And he was as provocative as he was prolific. “I need to travel to purge myself of Sweden and Swedish stupidity,” Strindberg wrote in a letter to his publisher. Despite, or perhaps because of, this vitriol, there is an indelible link between the writer and his modern compatriots.
“Strindberg is an author that almost all Swedes have a connection with, but maybe not solely with Strindberg’s books, his works, his plays,” said Camilla Larsson, a curator at Stockholm’s Strindberg Museum, during a visit last fall. “Instead, many have ideas and opinions about Strindberg as a person — who he was.”
Stripping Strindberg down to his writing, I found that his frequent muse — in addition to his three wives — was his hometown, Stockholm. Entranced by his lyrical descriptions of the industrial, fin-de-siècle capital, I wondered how much had changed since he haunted the streets of the city I consider a second home. So, on an extended visit last fall, I used his texts as my guidebook and discovered that Strindberg’s Stockholm is remarkably well-preserved.
I began on Sodermalm in southern Stockholm, where Strindberg set the opening scene of his breakthrough novel, The Red Room, a scathing satire of 1870s’ Swedish society that is considered the first modern Swedish novel.
“It was an evening in early May,” the novel begins. “The little garden on Mosebacke had not yet been opened to the public and the flower beds had not yet been dug up,” when the young writer Arvid Falk seeks advice over hot toddies in the park. Mosebacke is a hill with lovely views on the northern edge of Sodermalm, an island that was largely undeveloped a century and half ago. Today, it is arguably the most popular area of the city — at least for a certain creative-minded, youthful demographic — densely packed with restaurants, bars and boutiques. Yet there remain many familiarities from Strindberg’s description of the panoramic view that opens the book.
Standing at the edge of the Mosebacke terrace — where craft beers, not hot toddies, are now the drink of choice — I didn’t see horse-drawn traffic or rural expanses. But below, to the east, is a long brick building. Once a customs house, today it houses the excellent photography museum Fotografiska.
The Stockholm that Strindberg guides readers through was sometimes depicted as an unsophisticated backwater. From The Red Room, published when Strindberg was 30: “The conceited provincial had read somewhere the unreliable statement that Stockholm was another Paris, and had believed it.”
But during his lifetime, the capital developed and the population grew from about 90,000 residents to 300,000. The present-day Nordic capital, now a wealthy, progressive city, has since tripled in population again and sprawled geographically to accommodate over 900,000 inhabitants. But this continued growth hasn’t completely overwritten the past.
The Red Room, for example, which was featured prominently in the novel that bears its name, was a real salon and dining room at Berns, an entertainment complex and hotel in central Stockholm. Like his characters, Strindberg was a regular patron, although construction in the mid-1880s completely altered his old haunt. No longer open to the public nightly, the space now known as the Red Room is used for special events and private parties, but can be visited by curious guests and inquisitive writers.
The intimate room, with a low vaulted ceiling, original stained-glass windows and dark Jugendstil wall paneling, was smaller than I’d imagined it. But I could picture the wild-haired writer there, arguing politics with fellow artists — he was a bohemian when the term still meant something — and swigging punsch, a traditional Swedish liqueur popular at the time.
Later, I made my way to Osterlanggatan (“that street of vice, of filth and brawls”) in Gamla Stan and turned down Ferkens Grand, a narrow cobblestone alley where doorways cloaked in shadows seemed fitting for the unscrupulous characters who populate it in The Red Room.
Then there was a walk up the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare of Drottninggatan to Strindberg’s final home, now the Strindberg Museum, where Larsson welcomed me into her office next door to the author’s old abode.
Strindberg was born in Riddarholmen, an island near the southern end of Drottninggatan, and died in this apartment, on the northern end of the street. As part of the museum, the three-room dwelling has been recreated to look as it did when he died — from the olive-green wallpaper in his narrow bedroom to the meticulously arranged pens, paper and books atop his desk. It’s hard to picture the street as Strindberg experienced it, however, as it’s now packed with international chain stores and multi-storey gallerias. But in the pavement, I found 33 of his quotes — “Love me forever or I’ll bite you in the neck so that you die”; “I am placed under observation, because I am suspected of being wise” — imprinted in stainless steel as part of a half-mile-long artwork that was installed in 1998. Other parts of the city are just as he described them.
Strindberg regularly took early morning walks and poetically detailed one such route in the essay ‘Stockholm klockan 7 pa morgonen’ (‘Stockholm 7 O’Clock in the Morning’), published in 1905 in Dagens Nyheter (today the city’s newspaper of record). I, too, rose before dawn one day to chase his ghost through the twilight. “In a half-slumber I heard reveille from the barracks and a few notes of morning prayer; bakers’ carts rumble and a factory whistle howl,” he wrote. “Ostermalm is awakening on a December morning.”
When Strindberg raised his blinds, he saw the reflection of gas lamps in the windows across Narvavagen. But today, a new building with a fluorescent-lit supermarket has taken over the Karlaplan plot where his apartment building stood. And no longer does the corner of Banergatan, a block away, demarcate where “the city ends suddenly and the countryside takes over, without the transition of suburbs.” The urban limits pushed outward long ago.
Following his route south to Strandvagen — “like a terrace with its fine-tinted houses on one side and cargo ships on the other” — I reach a still-elegant waterfront allée. On the way, he sees “one of the most beautiful ‘landscapes’ the capital owns”: Nybroviken, the small bay that abuts Strandvagen; Skeppsholmen across the water with giant trees that are now “leafless crowns”; and beyond, the Baroque Katarina Church, whose eastern walls (a century later painted yellow and white) are just beginning to catch the rose-tinted rays of the rising sun.
The circuit then continues past one timeless landmark after another — the royal palace, the opera house — before pausing in Gustav Adolf’s Square, “pleasing, ever-changing, without tiring symmetry.” By a clock on the corner, “one wants to encounter an acquaintance, linger a moment, dispel the feeling of loneliness and feel at home.” Finding no familiar faces, Strindberg and I both circle north to Drottninggatan, cut through Berzelii Park and return to Strandvagen, which, as he wrote, was now flooding with sunlight and Stockholmers headed to work.
Then I let him lead me to the stage. Strindberg had incendiary views about the written word — “Libraries should be burned every now and then, otherwise the baggage becomes too big to carry,” he wrote — and he also had specific ideas about how theatres should be experienced. In 1907, together with the actor August Falck, Strindberg founded an experimental theatre, Intima Teater, in Stockholm. Consistent with its name, the theatre had an unusually small stage and seating for only about 150, but it closed only three years later. It wasn’t until 2002 that Strindberg’s Intima Teater reopened after a renovation and modernisation that, with 90 seats, preserved the intimate atmosphere between the actors and the audience.
On a brisk autumn evening, I bought a ticket to see ‘Pelikanen’ (‘The Pelican’), one of four chamber plays that Strindberg wrote specifically for Intima Teater. This production, opening with a manic tarantella-like dance, actors in various degrees of undress and a menacing, rotating set, was an avant-garde interpretation of the text, which chronicles the struggle between a self-obsessed widow and her long-neglected adult children. Despite the wild theatrics, Strindberg’s lyricism still shines, further proof of why his work continues to resonate and how his fire still smoulders in Stockholm today.