Alchemy, schizophrenia, witchcraft, and religious fanaticism, all leavened with a knowing wink of humor, Inferno, by Swedish author August Strindberg is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. It is also deliciously macabre, if you like that sort of thing.
The Inferno is far from Strindberg’s most famous work. In 1879, he became famous in Northern Europe with the publication of what is often described as the first modern Swedish novel, The Red Room. Set in Stockholm, The Red Room is a satire dealing with compromise and corruption in politics, journalism, and business in general. Strindberg wrote over 60 plays and is probably best known for his 1888 play Miss Julie, which told a tale of power and sex within high and low social classes. Other plays include The Father, Creditors, and The Ghost Sonata. He was also an essayist, a painter (two of his friends were Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin), and based on at least one photograph, a guitarist.
Strindberg’s early plays were in the naturalist style, closely associated with realism, but that all changed when he got out of the hospital after a so-called nervous breakdown. Many of his later works are now considered precursors to surrealism and expressionism. Wikipedia tells us:
The Ghost Sonata is a key text in the development of modernist drama and a vivid example of a chamber play. In it, Strindberg creates a world in which ghosts walk in bright daylight, a beautiful woman is transformed into a mummy and lives in the closet, and the household cook sucks all the nourishment out of the food before she serves it to her masters.
Not surprisingly for someone influenced in varying degrees by Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Shakespeare, Strindberg often found himself at odds with both Church and State. The State tried to censor his plays for sexual content and for criticism of the government. The Church accused him of blasphemy for mocking the Holy Communion in his 1884 book Getting Married. Critics found fault with his work even as his popularity grew with the public. Financial problems led to bankruptcy. It has been speculated that these adversities, along with stress from this second divorce and estrangement from his children (his third divorce would come later), compounded by the use of alcohol and absinthe, culminated in the psychotic episode that landed him in the hospital while he was travelling abroad in France.
There is some disagreement as to how much of The Inferno is based on an actual nervous breakdown and how much Strindberg embellished and exaggerated his madness to make a better story. Having just finished reading Inferno, I have to believe that, if Strindberg really went temporarily insane in the mid-1890s, he certainly recovered enough to write a candidly self-aware book about the experience.
This book may make you think of Philip K. Dick’s pseudo-religious experience involving a pink light sending information into his brain, or Jack Kerouac’s crack-up in Big Sur. But what makes The Inferno so fun is Strindberg’s enthusiastic sense of self-parody. Hunter S. Thompson once said, “buy the ticket, take the ride,” and in this book Strindberg takes us right along beside him. It may also remind you of Salvador Dali’s self-described paranoic-critical method, in which the artist sees through the eyes of a madman but paints what he sees with the lucid skill of a draftsman.
The main character of Inferno, presumably Strindberg himself, wanders from place to place in search of peace of mind, experiencing bouts of paranoia, hallucinations, apophenia (imagining profound connections in random coincidences), and pareidolia (seeing faces and other shapes in ordinary objects, like when someone claims to see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast). In fact, Strindberg did dabble in alchemy and religious mysticism. Here is a typical passage from Inferno:
In my fireplace I burn coals which, because of their round and regular shape, are called “monks’ heads.” One day when the fire is nearly extinguished I take out a mass of coal of fantastic shape. It resembles a cock’s head with a splendid comb joined to what looks like a human trunk with twisted limbs. It might have been a demon from some mediaeval witches’ Sabbath.
The second day I take out again a fine group of two gnomes or drunken dwarfs, who embrace each other while their clothes flutter in the wind. It is a masterpiece of primitive culture.
The third day it is a Madonna and Child in the Byzantine style, of incomparable beauty of outline. After I have drawn copies of all three in black chalk, I place them on my table. A friendly painter visits me; he regards the three statuettes with growing curiosity, and asks who has” made” them. In order to try him, I mention the name of a Norwegian sculptor. ” No,” he says,” I should rather be inclined to ascribe them to Kittelsen the famous illustrator of the Swedish legends.”
This made me smile, because most of Strindberg’s original readers would have recognized the reference to Theodor Kittelsen, an illustrator known for his depictions of trolls, ogres, and spirits for books of Norwegian folk and fairy tales. The modern equivalent to the above exchange might be someone building a sculpture out of cereal boxes and attributing it to Rodin, only to have a skeptical art critic look at it and say, “More like Warhol, if you ask me.”
Strindberg recovered from his breakdown and continued to write more successfully than ever, garnering acclaim and awards for his work.
German theater and film director Max Reinhardt staged some of Strindberg’s plays in Germany. Reinhardt and Strindberg were key figures in the creation of the chamber play, which can be performed with a small cast, in a small space, with a minimum of sets and costumes.
Strindberg spent the last four years of his life in a building he called The Blue Tower in Stockholm, Sweden. This building is now the Strindberg Museum, containing a library of some 4,000 works by or about Strindberg, as well as exhibitions on various aspects of his career.