Saturday 7 December 2013

The beauty of crayfish

The beauty of crayfish

Strindberg enjoyed his food and drink, and to him eating his favourite food was a truly sensual experience.I recently came across one of Strindberg’s short pieces about food, which I translated some years ago and I think it is a good example of his passion for certain foods.


‘At half past eight, on the dot, one winter evening, he is standing by the door in the glass porch of the restaurant. While pulling off his gloves with mathematical precision, he peers above his misted up glasses, first to the right, then to the left to see if any of his acquaintances are there. Then he hangs up his overcoat on his hook, the one to the right of the stove. The waiter, Gustav, his former pupil, has brushed the crumbs off his table, stirred the mustard in the jar, raked the salt basin and, unprompted, unfolded the napkin. Then he fetches a bottle of Medhamra, still without having received any order, pours half a pint of Försoningens, hands over the menu for the sake of appearances and utters, more like a formality than a question: ‘Crayfish.’

‘Female crayfish?’ asks the schoolmaster.

‘Big female crayfish,’ answers Gustav and walks over to the kitchen hatch and calls out:’Big female crayfish for the schoolmaster, and a lot of dill!’

Then he gets a tray of butter and cheese, cuts two slices of black bread and puts it on the schoolmaster’s table. The latter has raided the porch for evening papers but has only managed to get hold of Posttidningen. As a substitute he picks up the Dagbladet which he did not have time to read earlier, then he places the Dagbladet on his chair, sits on it, turns the Posttidningen inside out and places it to the left, on top of the bread basket. Then he spreads some geometrical butter figures on the black bread, cuts s rectangle out of the Swiss cheese, fills his akvavit glass to three quarters and holds it up to his mouth; at this stage he pauses as if hesitating before taking his medicine, throws his head back and says:’Huh!’ That is what he has done for twelve years and that is what he will carrying on doing until he dies.

When the crayfish, all six of them, arrive he examines their gender and having found nothing objectionable about them, he begins the pleasurable procedure. The napkin gets tucked under the loose collar, two open sandwiches with cheese are being placed on guard beside the plate and then he pours himself a glass of beer and half a glass of akvavit. After that he picks up the little crayfish knife and starts the slaughter. There is no one else in Sweden who knows how to eat crayfish like him. First he makes a cut around the head of the crayfish and when he has put the hole to his mouth he sucks.

‘That is the best of all,’ he says. Then he loosens the thorax from the lower part, draws his sword, as he calls it, digs his teeth into the carcass and sucks in deeply; whereupon he pulls the little legs as if they were asparagus. Afterwards he eats a sprig of dill, takes a swig of beer and takes a bite out of the sandwich. When he has peeled the claws carefully and sucked the finest legs he consumes the meat and moves on to the tail. After three crayfish he drinks another glass of akvavit and studies the appointments in Posttidningen. That is what he has done for twelve years and that is what he will always keep doing.

Saturday 2 November 2013

A Blue Book, like a modern day blog.

In 1906 Strindberg started work on a book that was to occupy him practically up to his death in 1912. It ran to more than 1000 pages and is a kind of diary where he broods over the existence of God, the meaning of life and where he also feels free to jot down some scathing portraits of friends and acquaintances. The book was called En blå bok, A Blue Book.

A few months after he had started on it he wrote to Carl Larsson, the painter: ‘This summer I have solved once and for all the question of religion, in 300 pages which will never be published. Now I feel anchored and I shall quote Luther who said that neither the pope in Rome nor the Devil in Hell is going to lure me onto some new philosophical currents.’

He dedicated the book to the 18th century Swedish philosopher and mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, who had spent much of his life in England and who had died in London where his ashes were buried in the Swedish cemetery. As Strindberg was writing the first volume of En blå bok Swedenborg’s ashes were being brought to Sweden with great ceremony.

In A Blue Book Strindberg also set out to prove that all languages originated from one world language and God had given Man that original language. Some fanciful articles about linguistics make up a large part of the later volumes of En blå bok. But in the end the book spans the whole human experience, or Strindberg’s life experience at least. In 1906 he was living alone and recapturing the years of marriage and bachelorhood. Under the heading ‘The Most Secret’ he wrote:

‘Some years ago a young man came up to me, asking for advice in sexual matters. My answer was and remains: I know nothing about it. Experience has given me so many contradictory answers that I can’t have an opinion in the matter. But about love I know something and the cardinal points are: Don’t play with love. Don’t look at another man’s wife. Be faithful to your spouse.

In marriage it is very tricky. Sometimes it is supposed to be one way, sometimes another. Sometimes you have to pay a price for your virtue, other times for your transgressions.

I have lived as a married man and as a celibate. Afterwards I thought it was equally good, but while it was happening both states were just as difficult. The marriage tied me to the ground so that it felt as if I would never be free, the celibate state gave me freedom which I could use and which emanated in a suicidal mania – which I believe to be the reverse side of the creative force.

But to the ordinary man marriage is necessary. It offers interest in life, keeps your spirits up, creates warmth around you and keeps your egotism in check. It is a tough school which leaves beautiful memories behind, even if, at times, it was very ugly.

People should not analyse and judge each other when it comes to the hidden erotic aspect of life. One person was born with a greater need for reproduction than someone else. There is no scale. And nature is best at getting it right.’

Strindberg’s various entries or posts in this mammoth book are, on the whole, the size of a normal blog. As in so many other areas he was obviously before his time. He would have been a keen blogger.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Strindberg and religion

Strindberg and religion

Was Strindberg religious? Yes and no and yes! That is, like practically all Swedish citizens at that time he was brought up in the Lutheran faith. The church and the state were not separated until the year 2000, we had our Church of Sweden, like England still has its CofE. Right up until the late 1950s all schoolchildren had a religious morning assembly and about six hours of religious instruction a week. That would include comparative religious studies as well, as you got older. The result was that you knew the stories from the Old Testament, you knew your catechism and the basics, at least, of the New Testament. That, in turn, meant that you could relate to the classics, you could spot the allusions to the Bible and you had a foundation on which to stand on when it came to education.

Many writers, including Strindberg rebelled against Christianity and the power of the Church at the end of the 19th century. Working class people often felt marginalised and discriminated against by the church.

Strindberg went through an atheistic phase in the eighties. It went hand in hand with anti-Establishment ideas and a radical outlook. This didn’t stop him from baptizing his children, however, although his keen criticism of the church was very apparent in his play The Father.
After two failed marriages he was living in Paris when, in the mid 1890s he went through a religious crisis, which he later called his Inferno, and after that he called himself a Christian again.

His second wife, Frida Uhl, had been a non-practising Catholic but her family were all devout Catholics and Strindberg was deeply influenced by them, even after the break-up from Frida.

‘I am not a Catholic,’ he wrote in his essay ‘Religion’, published in Stridsskrifter, ‘but after spending seven years in Catholic countries and having Catholic relations I discovered that the difference between the Catholic and the Protestant doctrine is non-existent, or simply superficial; and that the break that happened once (The Reformation) was simply political or it may have been about theological issues that don’t really adhere to religion. Hence my tolerance towards Catholicism, especially in Gustav Adolf (a History play).’

He blames Darwinism for a general feeling of hopelessness. He cites the preposterous unfair idea that the stronger should be eligible for supreme power merely because of his strength. He sees the evil of capitalism as a direct result of this teaching. ‘Everything that is contrary to charity, compassion, fairness are the consequences of Darwinism.’

He goes on to say that Darwinism is the philosophy of the upper classes, it is conservative, anti-people, the opposite of socialism.

Strindberg claimed that without religion there is no honour, no faith, no sacrifice. People can’t trust each other because they are without faith. That is the victory of science over compassion.

Strindberg was not a church-goer, at least not while he was living in Sweden, but he knew his Bible and he read it and quoted from it throughout his life. He preferred the stern God of the Old Testament to the meek Saviour of the New Testament, but his Chamber plays which were written towards the end of his life all have a Christian message.

Strindberg battled with his God, as with everything else, but after his Inferno period in Paris he announced that from 1896 he considered himself a Christian.

When he died he had the Bible on his bedside table and he had given instructions about his grave where he wanted a simple wooden cross raised, with the inscription: Ave crux, spes unica. Hail the cross, my only hope.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Strindberg, the Berliner

One of the most popular meeting  places in Berlin in the 1890s was a wine cellar called 'Turkes', better known as 'Zum Schwarzen Ferkel', a name that Strindberg invented in reference to the sign above the door. 'The Ferkel' functioned as a delicatessen and off licence, with a couple of rooms set aside for customers who wanted to drink on the premises. The landlord, Gustav Turke, was said to have kept 900 varieties of liquor in stock. Strindberg was a frequent visitor and quickly gained a reputation as a prodigious drinker. He would also entertain the company by playing the guitar and singing songs that he had composed himself.
The 'Ferkel's' popularity may have had something to do with the fact that Herr Turke offered his customers generous credit and would sometimes take a work of art in lieu of payment. He accepted one of Stridnberg's paintings and promptly displayed it on the wall of the bar for many years.
The bohemian set gathered at the 'Ferkel' was headed by the temperamental Polish writer and womanizer Stanislaw Przybyszewski and the German poet Richard Dehmel, known as the 'wild man'.
Other writers in the circle included Adolf Paul and Karl August Tavastjerna from Finland and Holger Drachmann from Denmark. It was here that Strindberg first met the Norwegian painters Edvard Munch and Christian Krogh. Munch was another  'wild man' and just before he met Strindberg he had had an exhibition in Kristiania (Oslo) that had been forced to close because his avant-garde paintings had so shocked the visitors. Berliners were similarly shocked when the exhibition opened in their city but at least the authorities were tolerant enough to keep it open.
Munch encouraged Strindberg to paint and  became an important influence in his life.
Both Krogh and Munch painted portraits of Strindberg during this period. Ibsen bought Krogh's painting at an exhibition in 1895. 'It is really a portrait of Strindberg,' he wrote to his wife, Suzannah, 'but Sigurd calls it 'The Revolution' and I call it 'Madness Breaking Out.'
When Strindberg died Munch gave his portrait, which he had never sold, to the
Swedish Mational Museum. 'To be honest,' he wrote to them at the time, 'it feels empty in the room where Strindberg has been hanging for twenty years. To me, the picture is the incarnation of those two remarkable years in Berlin.'

Thursday 11 July 2013

Translating the untranslatable

When it comes to translation it is not always words and phrases which cause the biggest problems, but a cultural concept. I have yet to see a satisfactory rendering of Midsummer Eve in an English production of Fröken Julie, for instance.

Still, it is quite clearly stated in the script how Strindberg intended the scene. The peasants enter the kitchen, sing an ambiguous - but not obscene - song, dance around and leave.

Clearly, this pagan festival has given rise to all kinds of sexual fantasies when English directors have staged the play. Why is that, I wonder? Where do the huge phallus symbols come from, where the simulated sex scenes in the kitchen? ‘Peasants shag like rabbits, don’t they’, seem to be the general assumption.

I have shown my students these particular scenes from various English TV productions and compared them with Alf Sjöberg’s film from the 1950s and the students are invariably shocked and annoyed at the misrepresentation of Strindberg and can’t understand why the directors have chosen this coarse interpretation.

But what do you do when you have to translate something quintessentially Swedish as Midsummer, Lucia celebrations - and Walpurgis night with its bonfires, singing and undergraduates’ white caps. And the yearning for the countryside or the sea from the month of May onwards is a fever with no recognizable equivalent in England.

When Strindberg refers to autumn already in August it is hard for most Europeans to understand why, since August often is the main summer holiday month south of Scandinavia. But keep in mind that Swedish children go back to school after the middle of August when daylight hours are shrinking fast and you realise that the arrival of the lamplighter at that time, as in Strindberg’s Thunder in the air (Oväder) really means that the first signs of autumn have appeared. All this is very difficult to put across to any audience south of the Baltic. August - autumn? August, the foremost holiday month?

Another concept which is practically untranslatable is ‘innanfönster’ which is a very important word in Strindberg’s The Father. Double glazing and secondary glazing conjure up quite different ideas. What Strindberg is referring to is the extra windows that you can hook onto the window frames on the inside and keep in place for the length of the winter months. They helped to keep the cold out and the heat in before the days of universal double glazing. Taking them away in the spring became a symbolic act of saying farewell to winter. You could then open the window again and let in the air, sounds and scents of spring. Because spring had, indeed, arrived.

When Bertha in The Father makes her strong and passionate statement about her father by saying that when he comes home it is like taking away the inner windows on a spring morning, it is a beautiful and moving declaration of love - but it is untranslatable. If we use words like double glazing or secondary glazing they would refer to a 1960s suburban middle-class home. And that misses the point completely. So, as a translator, you have to find another expression, another way of putting Strindberg’s message across. It is not always easy or possible. As George Barrow, the English 19th century linguist, put it:’Translation is at best an echo.’

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Strindberg's revolutionary play

Mäster Olof

My first encounter with Strindberg on stage was at Gothenburg Civic Theatre in 1958. They were showing Mäster Olof - which is translated as Master Olof but I would prefer to call it Father Olof, since it is about a monk who breaks away from the Catholic church and follows in Luther’s footsteps.
It is a play which has been revised endlessly and Strindberg wrote three different versions of it. The prose version, which is perhaps considered the best, was finished in 1872. Two years later he wrote another version which is partly in verse, and in 1876 he finished the verse drama on the same character. It took nine years before the play was produced on stage in Sweden. The cast list is huge and I can understand why foreign companies shy away from a production for that reason, but it is fascinating play of ideas in Ibsen’s and Schiller’s vein, and it works on two levels. On the one hand it is a play about the priest Olof who studied under Martin Luther in Germany and who returned to Sweden in 1518 with revolutionary ideas about the church. He wanted to fight ‘the spiritual death and corruption in the Catholic church’. With the help of the king, Gustav Vasa, he brought about the Reformation in Sweden. At the time when Strindberg started work on this play there was another strong movement gathering momentum in Europe and, undoubtedly, Strindberg was referring to the rise of Socialism in Mäster Olof. Like Luther, Olof falls in love with a nun and marries her, thus breaking the law of celibacy. Olof’s wife, Kristina, is portrayed as an unusually gentle and yet strong woman. She stands by her husband, but at the same time, she points out the importance of appreciating flowers and birds. The lofty ideals must not eradicate the real values in life. She represents a kind of Francis of Assisi in her naivety and all-embracing love.

Are you too grand to look at a flower or listen to a bird? Olof, I put the flowers on your table for you to rest your eyes on , but you ask the maid to take them away because they give you a headache, you say. I wanted to break the silence when you were engrossed in your work so I offered you birdsong, but you call it shrieking. I asked you to come in for dinner a short while ago, but you didn’t have time. I wanted to talk to you, but you don’t have time. You despise this small reality and yet you have placed me in it. You don’t want to elevate me, but then spare me your contempt at least. I shall remove everything that might disturb your thoughts. I shall leave you in peace and keep myself and my rubbish away from you. (She throws the flowers out of the window, takes the birdcage and is about to leave the room)
Kristina, my child, forgive me! You don’t understand!

The play lasts for six hours if performed in its entirety. It took Dramaten another nine years before they put it on. They chose the verse play. In 1887 while the Strindbergs were living in southern Germany August asked his brother Axel to sell the original manuscript. It brought in a much needed 500 kronor and Strindberg wrote to his brother in a desperate but jocular tone:
‘Well, now I have sold everything that can be sold. The only thing remaining is my corpse (and above all the skull) which I donate to Medical Science.’
But soon after he sat down to write his most popular novel, The People of Hemsö, which became a huge success.