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The Red Room

What we perceive as culture may be broadly understood as what we do with our free time.  For those only interested in money and power, culture will comprise what material items wealth and influence can acquire – at once seemingly limitless and bound to the earth that crushes our bones.   Those who pursue art and its sweet rewards, however, will have a very different perspective on culture.  They will eschew the resorts, the shopping, the discos, and the expensive and meaningless excursions to expensive and meaningless pockets of humanity; you will find them instead in bookstores, cinemas, sidewalk cafés, libraries, and museums, often sauntering about, seemingly directionless, and in any case inefficient in the conventional sense of the word.  Upon being asked about their leisure time, materialists will irreverently joke about what they ate and bought, and perhaps complain about the service; but artists will tell you something that they discovered about themselves or others.  It may just a fragment of a portrait, a revelation about someone's true motives, an understanding of a minor event, but it is from these seeds that art grows and blooms.  And the question of whether such pursuits are really worth our time is at the heart of this novel.

The uniqueness of the color has already been discussed on these pages, and the room in question is a salon in Stockholm where those of artistic temperament could convene and shirk their mundane duties:

They wanted a meeting place, somewhere they could talk, somewhere they could guarantee to meet an acquaintance at any time.  And since music was no barrier to conversation, rather the reverse, it was tolerated and gradually became as much a part of a Stockholmer's evening menu as punch and tobacco.  Thus Berns' Salon soon became the bachelor's club for the whole of Stockholm and each coterie had its own corner.  The inhabitants of Lill-Jans had commandeered the rear chessroom behind the gallery and because its furniture was red it had, for the sake of brevity, become known as the Red Room. 

This selection is from the sixth chapter, an arbitrary designation suggesting a certain lack of cohesion – although should we expect much more from a novel with the subtitle "Scenes from the Lives of Artists and Authors"?   As it were, we realize rather quickly that the Red Room, a symbol of decadence or inequality, is the only venue that links these disparate souls.   The ostensible protagonist for a large number of pages is the idealistic civil servant Arvid Falk, whose name implies a bird of prey but whose actions are reminiscent of a sparrow.  He wafts between the steady path of conformity he has already walked, with regular consultations with higher-ranking members of the Swedish bureaucracy as to the next steps, and something resembling an artistic existence.  The almost mid-twentieth century angst (a conundrum not unlike the one faced by the main character in this novel written ninety years later) has allowed Strindberg's novel to endure countless editions and still be considered the prototypical Stockholmer work.  Falk can sense and see what shapes his soul sculpts in time and space, but cannot distill this data into everlasting art.  He publishes poems with an unscrupulous arbiter of taste by the name of Smith, "a feared figure with a thousand tentacles," but does not advance much past the doggerel he dedicates to a young lass who loves an actor and fame more than him.  

Falk has a host of companions along his peripatetic way, including Olle Montanus, a Bohemian philosopher who has a moment of great pathos at the novel's conclusion, Lundell, a painter of popularity, Yngberg, another philosopher with certain ambitions, Sellén, a struggling painter, and Borg, whose role only becomes clearer after Falk endures greater and greater adversity.   And while Lundell's fate is most definitely what Falk fears ("He painted what public taste desired; he was never crippled by doubt; he may have left the Academy but he had done so for private practical reasons and he had not broken with it, even though he went about claiming to have done so"), his greatest apprehension is what he sees in his older brother, Carl Nicolaus Falk.  Carl Nicolaus is a money lender, a boor, a social climber, and one of nineteenth century literature's most outstanding creations.  Arvid comes to talk about Carl Nicolaus's having cheated him out of his rightful inheritance, an accusation that, as is common in family disputes, only arises sporadically.  Yet Carl Nicolaus has long since steeled himself to this charge:

He criss-crossed the room several more times, his footsteps sounding as if they were applauding his performance, and he rattled his bunch of keys as if signalling the curtain to fall.  His final speech had rounded things off so well that anything further would destroy it all.  In spite of the gravity of the accusation, which he had actually been expecting for several years as he had always believed his brother to have a false heart, he was more than pleased that it was now over with, so successfully over with, so completely and cleverly over with, that he almost felt happy and even a touch grateful. 

Whenever Carl Nicolaus appears – bickering with his insufferable sloth of a wife, berating his shop assistant Andersson, trying to impress those who could ordain civil honors, or dreaming up new forms of usury – the novel sparkles with the wit and precision of a small town tale by Melville or Hawthorne, and clearly foresees the mature Strindberg's future greatness.  That the rest of The Red Room is not as tight cannot detract from the beauty of its surroundings, of Sweden, of life in Northern Europe, of the epicenter of culture, philosophy and progressive thought that still wonders about what Heaven might bring.  As Montanus writes in a revealing letter:

It is a curse to feel the growth of your soul stunted while your body sinks ever deeper into the mire.  Walk behind the oxen and the plough day in and day out with your eyes fixed on the grey clods and you will eventually forget to look up at the sky.  Toil with the spade digging out a ditch under the scorching sun and you will feel yourself sinking down into the waterlogged soil, feel that you are digging a grave for your soul.  Ye know nought of this, ye who make merry all the long day and labor only to pass the idle hour between breaking your fast and dining.  And in summer, when the earth is green, you rest your souls and rejoice in nature as if it were a play, noble and uplifting.  That is not how nature is for a laborer: a field is food, a forest is timber, a lake is a washtub and a meadow milk and cheese.  Just soil, not soul!

Montanus once counted himself these laborers, who could not possibly figure in a novel about "Artists and Authors."  And yet they do: they hide in the shadows, begging for crumbs from the food dropped by these artists and the patrons that think money can buy culture; they waft in and out of the portraits we see hung on the Red Room walls; and in one scene they even sleep in a famous theater after all the shows and all the encores have died out.  Art has its societal benefits after all.

Reader Comments (4)

Well wasn't it well overdue that we finally found some of the writings that Swedish literature has had to offer on these pages :) Funny thing that I haven't thought about this before. But seriously speaking it's always a breath of fresh air when, as in this instance, the "outsider" speaks his mind and sees things from his point of view that I do think sometimes the own canon/nation cant quite comprehend on its own.

Now I wouldn't label myself as a Strindberg scholar of any sort (matter of fact the texts I have read by him could probably be counted on my left hand) but as the man is so deeply rooted in the Swedish literature canon, any understanding of the canon as a whole - at least by the traditional standards - cannot claim to offer very much without taking his production into account at least in way or the other.

What the generic canon does however fail to take into account (well most of the time anyway) is that the writings and texts about these authors that are taught almost without exception are made by the sons and daughters of the own country (well sons mostly as is the case for how most societies are constructed). Thus never quite grasping or simply ignoring the immense values and benefits of having the eyes of the outsider (the second time I give you this label how very highly you must think of me) read and view these texts from a "new" or at the very least from a "culturally" different perspective.

Thus I salute you for all the above reasons and i take it you will put your daughter in a Swedish-only speaking kindergarten and introduce her to the world of Strindberg so that she will plow through "Hemsoborna" four or five years from now. I will catch up on a lot of the readings on this blog, and be thankful for this oasis of high quality literature and popular culture content that you provide.

Dein ewiger Freund seit bald zehn Jahren!

September 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMicke

Micke, es freut mich immer, von dir zu hoeren! Hemsöborna is definitely on the agenda once she's four or so. Have you perused my review of Dödsdansen? I have a couple of other Strindberg projects planned -- not so hard to do when his collected works reached seventy-two volumes. Danke noch mal fuer dein Kommentar, und wir sollten unser Jahrzehnt feiern!

September 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdeeblog

Das freut mich zu hören, ein kind das mit guter literatur aufgezogen wird, wird sie auch später in der zukunft verlangen :). Sorry but this was my first time reading on this blog about something originally written in swedish. As i said i indeed have some catching up to do here. But i will be sure to check out your entry on Dödsdansen (der Todestanz welch ein name!). And don't worry about not getting through you Strindberg collection, with your pace of reading and writing you will probably have all your insights posted here within a month ;)

September 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMicke

Seventy volumes to go, but I fear that certain sections may be skipped. Thanks again for your comments, Micke!

September 16, 2009 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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