Art / Culture / Travel

Stockholm as Strindberg’s Muse

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August Strindberg, the legendary Swedish artist, poet, playwright and author, spend most of his life in Stockholm. And the city he knew is remarkably well preserved


Ingrid K. Williams

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, known as much for his gossip-column lifestyle and controversial political views as for his prodigious literary output, died in 1912.

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 to, but maybe not solely to Strindberg’s books, his works, his plays,” said Camilla Larsson, a curator at Stockholm’s Strindberg Museum, during a visit. “Instead, many have ideas and opinions about Strindberg as a person — who he was.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch to equate Strindberg’s notoriety within Sweden as akin to that of, say, Hemingway in America. Like Hemingway, Strindberg led a life worth writing about — “My fire is the biggest in Sweden,” he declared in a letter in 1876 — and the myth of the man has, over the years, become inextricably tangled with the literary legacy.

But 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 I used his texts as my guidebook and discovered that Strindberg’s Stockholm is remarkably well preserved.

“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 a half ago, like many of the now-built-up neighborhoods on the periphery of the city centre. Today, Sodermalm 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 his 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 Fotographiska. To the west were buses hustling toward Sodermalmstorg, a major city square. Across the water the island of Skeppsholmen and its swath of trees endure as proof of Sweden’s continued commitment to protecting urban green spaces.


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Mosebacke

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.

Following Emelie Sandahl, Berns’s public relations manager, I climbed an iron spiral staircase in the corner of one of the complex’s grand salons, now an Asian-inspired restaurant. Over the years, singers including Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich have performed beneath Berns’s showstopping chandeliers; I have dusty memories from the early aughts of dancing under those giant, glittering teardrops after midnight when the ballrooms had become thumping nightclubs. But on this weekday morning we quietly walked along a second-floor balcony to a small doorway I’d never noticed before.

“This is it, the famous Red Room,” Ms. Sandahl said. “What do you think?”

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.

“He was bohemian when the term still meant something”

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. Near Vitabergsparken, an area Strindberg describes as poverty-stricken, are two- and three-story wooden houses that I had always only thought of as charmingly rural and curiously incongruous in Stockholm.

Then there was a walk up the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare of Drottninggatan to Strindberg’s final home, now the Stindberg Museum, where Ms. Larsson welcomed me into her office next door to the author’s old abode.

Strindberg was born on Riddarholmen, an island near the southern end of Drottninggatan, and died in this apartment, on the northern end of the street. “Drottninggatan runs like a red thread throughout Strindberg’s life,” Ms. Larsson said.

The building, which is mustard-hued but known as Blå Tornet (the Blue Tower), earned its nickname from the ground-floor coffee shop (now a sushi bar), which had a sketch of the building printed in blue on its takeout bags. According to Nina Nelson, my guide at the museum, Strindberg bought prodigious quantities of coffee beans from the shop and would clip and affix the image to his correspondence.

As part of the museum, his three-room apartment 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 multistory gallerias. But in the pavement, I found thirty three 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.

But 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 sju på morgonen (Stockholm at Seven O’Clock in the Morning), published in 1905 in Dagens Nyheter (today the city’s newspaper of record).

So 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.

But following his route south to Strandvagen — “like a terrace with its fine-tinted houses on one side and cargo ships on the other” — leads to 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 Kyrka, whose eastern walls (a century later painted yellow and white) are just beginning to catch the rose-tinted rays of the rising sun.


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Katarina Kyrka

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 theaters should be experienced. In 1907, together with the actor August Falck, Strindberg founded an experimental theater, Intima Teatern, in Stockholm. Consistent with its name, the theater had an unusually small stage and seating for only about 150, but it closed only three years later. It wasn’t until 2002 that Strindbergs Intima Teater reopened after a renovation and modernisation that, with ninety seats, preserved the intimate atmosphere between actors and 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 Teatern. 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. But despite the wild theatrics, Strindberg’s lyricism still shines, further proof of why his work continues to resonate — and how his fire still smolders — in Stockholm today.


Ingrid K. Williams is a travel writer for The New York Times

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