Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Red Room by August Strindberg

Nothing if not (hypo)critical
The Red Room, published in 1879, is a satirical novel by August Strindberg, originally published under the Swedish title Röda Rummet. Arvid Falk, a young idealist, becomes disillusioned with his job as a civil servant and decides to pursue a career as a writer and journalist. Cheated out of his inheritance by his brother, an avaricious capitalist, Falk wanders into an artist colony where he befriends a bunch of creative misfits. This cadre of bohemian pals occasionally scrape up enough change to hang out at a club called The Red Room, where they debate issues of politics, religion, and art. Falk soon learns that the writing life does not live up to his idealistic expectations, as his talents are bought and sold like any other commodity. The fortunes of he and his friends rise and fall as they either do battle with or get in cahoots with representatives of industry, the government, the clergy, or the press. Liberals and conservatives change sides at the drop of a hat if it serves their own interests. Scruples are few and far between, and those who have them often suffer for it. The whole book is a facetious celebration of various species of hypocrisy—political, financial, artistic, religious, and even sexual.

Strindberg plays it all for laughs. The dialogue between the characters can get pretty absurd. It’s funny for a while, but without a more substantial story to ground the satire upon, it does grow tiresome. You never really care about any of the characters. They simply serve as symbols of different segments of Swedish society, and all are destined to act like buffoons. It’s difficult to tell them apart from one another; they display so little difference in personality. Even Falk, the “hero,” doesn’t inspire much sympathy. He disappears from the book for chapters at a time, in favor of some other protagonist, and the reader barely notices. Much of the time while reading The Red Room, I’ll confess my mind was wandering elsewhere. Strindberg’s sarcastic jibes at the ills of Stockholm society just didn’t hold much interest for me. I prefer a less absurd take on these subjects, like Balzac’s Lost Illusions or Knut Hamsun’s Shallow Soil, which still have a sense of humor but manage to temper their satire with good storytelling, emotional engagement, and some attempt at a philosophy of morals.

The Red Room is often credited as being the first modern Swedish novel. Stylistically, Strindberg is a naturalist in the vein of Emile Zola. His social consciousness in regards to class, his unabashed lampooning of religion, and his lack of prudishness in discussing sexuality attest to the book being ahead of its time. Still, some of Strindberg’s views are anything but modern. He has nothing good to say about women in this book, and his depiction of Jews is anything but positive. An appreciation of 19th century literature, however, often requires overlooking antiquated prejudices. One can see how The Red Room might be considered a classic in its home country, by Swedes who no doubt have a better understanding of the political and historical context behind the satire than this American reader. Although I wouldn’t recommend The Red Room, as a fan of naturalist literature I’m sufficiently intrigued by Strindberg to give him another try. He’s probably got a good book in him somewhere.

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