Home > 19th Century, Classics, Novel, Strindberg August, Swedish Literature > Lost illusions in Stockholm

Lost illusions in Stockholm

The Red Room by August Strindberg 1879 French title: Le cabinet rouge (Out of print)

Rules always have exceptions or perhaps it’s my being French, we don’t have a grammar rule without an exception to it. So it’s ingrained. One of my rules is that I don’t read books in English translation; if it’s translated, it has to be in French. Unfortunately, I wanted to read The Red Room by August Strindberg and I couldn’t put my hands on a French copy whereas there’s a free kindle version in English. So I read it in English.

The Red Room is a picture of the Stockholm society in the 1870s. It opens on a scene between Arvid Falk and Mr Struve, in a park in Stockholm. Falk has decided to change of career path:

“I mentioned a little while ago,” Falk resumed, “that I’ve broken to-day with my past life and thrown up my career as a government employé. I’ll only add that I intend taking up literature.” “Literature? Good Heavens! Why? Oh, but that is a pity!” “It isn’t; but I want you to tell me how to set about finding work.” “H’m! That’s really difficult to say. The profession is crowded with so many people of all sorts. But you mustn’t think of it. It really is a pity to spoil your career; the literary profession is a bad one.”

That sets the context: Arvid Falk quits his job as a civil servant to become a writer and we’ll follow him in this important change. Arvid isn’t a rich man; he lived upon his salary and is quickly penniless. He starts mingling with the artists’ crowd who cheaply lives in gardens in the surroundings of Stockholm and gathers in The Red Room, a special room in a café that serves cheap meals. This group of artists (and I couldn’t help thinking of L’hommage à Delacroix by Fantin-Latour) is composed of a philosopher (Yberg), a writer (Arvid Falk), two painters (Séllen and Lundell), an actor (Rehnhjellen) and Óllen (artist-to-be).

Falk has a brother, Nicholas who is throwing himself in the business world in a ruthless manner. He recently married and his wife wants to climb the social ladder through a feminist society and charities.

According to Wikipedia, in 1866 Sweden became a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament, with the First Chamber indirectly elected by local governments, and the Second Chamber directly elected in national elections every four years. It was considered as a liberal reform and The Red Room relates how the society had difficulties to accept the change and turned back to conservatism. The text is full of acerbic remarks about Sweden and Strindberg shows a picture that doesn’t add up with the image I had of this country.

Following these characters serves Strindberg’s goal to draw a dark picture of the Stockholm society. The criticism is harsh: the civil servants are lazy, the dice of politics are loaded (“But you mislead public opinion.” “The public does not want to have an opinion, it wants to satisfy its passions), the newspapers only tell what suits the power and create artists through fake critics, the businessmen have no ethics, the women do charity to show off their generosity in newspapers, the unionists are uneducated people who take advantage of their position and the clergymen have a not-so-Christian tendency to brag. (“You know,” he continued, “that I’m a popular preacher; I may say that without boasting, for all the world knows it. You know, that I’m very popular; I can’t help that–it is so! I should be a hypocrite if I pretended not to know what all the world knows!)

Arvid Falks wanders into the Swedish society, accepting low paid jobs at a publisher, becoming a journalist himself, which gives him the opportunity to attend political events, trials, the general assembly of companies and all kinds of events.

Strindberg depicts MPs totally disconnected from their country, unable to listen to the sensible speeches of people’s representatives. The particularities were a bit lost to me, I don’t know enough about the history of Sweden to get all the details and references to real events. (There were most probably some)

Business caught my attention. At this time – and it was the same in France – Sweden was investing in industries and fortunes were building in finance, insurance and industrial fields. These investments require large funding and companies with limited liabilities increased in number. But as you can also read it in Zola or Maupassant, business was a war zone, there wasn’t much regulation. And shrewd investors took advantage of that new kind of company, as Strindberg shows in this conversation:

“But if–but if–matters should go wrong….” “One goes into liquidation!” “Liquidation?” “Declares oneself insolvent! That’s the proper term. And what does it matter if the society becomes insolvent? It isn’t you, or I, or he! But one can also increase the number of shares, or issue debentures which the Government may buy up in hard times at a good price.” “There’s no risk then?” “Not the slightest! Besides what have you got to lose?”

In The Red Room, members of the high society put their credit in an insurance company along with other adventurous self-made-men. The scene of the general assembly of the insurance company is incredible. The company had to face important reimbursement of claims and makes a loss but the shareholders don’t care, they want a dividend! When you know what Solvency II EU regulations have in store of today’s insurance companies, this sounds surrealist. It also shows the beginning of modern corporate world and I find it fascinating.

Strindberg is also extremely hard on journalists, another profession whose ethics had yet to improve. Here is a newspaper looking for a new chief editor:

There only remained the necessity of finding a new chief editor. In accordance with the new programme of the syndicate, he would have to possess the following qualifications: he must be known as a perfectly trustworthy citizen; must belong to the official class; must possess a title, usurped or won, which could be elaborated if necessity arose. In addition to this he must be of good appearance, so that one could show him off at festivals and on other public occasions; he must be dependent; a little stupid, because true stupidity always goes hand in hand with Conservative leanings; he must be endowed with a certain amount of shrewdness, which would enable him to know intuitively the wishes of his chiefs and never let him forget that public and private welfare are, rightly understood, one and the same thing. At the same time he must not be too young, because an older man is more easily managed; and finally, he must be married, for the syndicate, which consisted of business men, knew perfectly well that married slaves are more amenable than unmarried ones.

Hard task, isn’t it? No the kind of man to turn his newspaper into a fourth power. And indeed newspapers change of side if needed, turning from liberal to conservative if it sells more copies. Strindberg describes how they praise books they haven’t read to please friends and not to promote real talent. They are extremely conservative when it comes to paintings. I saw in Séllen a sort of Manet when he scandalized the good society with Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe or Olympia. Lundell is more an official artist, accepting jobs for a living (portraits, religious scenes for churches). They create reputations not based on talent but on favoritism.

I suppose The Red Room is a coming-of-age novel but I’m not good at labeling things. Perhaps Arvid Falk has something to do with Strindberg as a young man. Arvid starts his life as a writer full of illusions about life, society and progress. He hurts himself against the glass of conservatism and is knocked out. Will he find a way to be a member of this society without giving up his principles?

Now, what about the form? Strindberg is mostly known as a playwright and his skills for theatre filter through the text. Sometimes it sounds more like scenes than like a real novel, he doesn’t have the talent of a Maupassant even if I felt it was what he was trying to achieve. However, he has a great sense of humour and a knack to coin funny images:

he could only concentrate his thoughts on one spot inside a not very large circumference, his tailor could have expressed the size of it in inches after measuring him round the stomach.


he looked deadly pale, cold and calm like a corpse which has abandoned all hope of resurrection.


The cigar continued talking.


Arvid tranquilly pocketed the insulting compliment.

But he’s also able to write lovely descriptions of his home town:

He sat down on a seat, listening to the splashing of the waves; a light breeze had sprung up and rustled through the flowering maple trees, and the faint light of the half moon shone on the black water; twenty, thirty boats lay moored on the quay; they tore at their chains for a moment, raised their heads, one after the other, and dived down again, underneath the water; wind and wave seemed to drive them onward; they made little runs towards the bridge like a pack of hounds, but the chain held them in leash and left them kicking and stamping, as if they were eager to break loose.

Beautiful picture of Stockholm’s seaside. Strinberg spent years in France and I noticed he uses a lot of French words in his text. Or is it in the translation? I don’t know. But I wasn’t aware that you could use the words employé, crèche, coup de vent, femme entretenue or coup de théâtre in English.

I found this book extremely interesting but a bit patched up sometimes. The style is uneven, brilliant sometimes and heavy at other times. As I said before, I’m not sure Strindberg has a real talent as a novelist. It’s my first one by him, so I can’t compare. Nevertheless, The Red Room is worth reading for the picture of Sweden it describes.

  1. August 14, 2012 at 3:06 am

    Your title is exactly write – a lot of this is Balzac moved to Sweden. I had no idea.


    • August 14, 2012 at 2:31 pm

      I chose a Balzacian title but it aims more at Zola or Maupassant. It’s Balzac for the young man launching himself in the capital (although Arvid was born in Stockholm and doesn’t come from a remote country place) but it’s more Maupassant or Zola for the historical setting. In Balzac, you feel you are before 1850. The country side is still important, the literary currents are different and so is painting. Here, it’s definitely the 1870s, for the change from a rural to industrial society, the renewal of painting and the social battles. (feminism, socialism)


    • August 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      You’d like it, Tom and I’d like to read your reviews. (plural, not a typo, you’d write several entries, I’m sure)


      • August 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm

        I wrote “write” when I meant “right.” I have done that several times recently. It likely means something significant.

        You certainly make the book sound worthwhile if minor compared to “The Dance of Death” and so on – I hope to read it some time.


        • August 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm

          Perhaps it’s because what you write is right? 🙂

          I’ll read the plays but Inferno, written in French, intrigues me. A French blogger, Le Chat Masqué is fond of Strindberg and she reviewed it. (link in my blogroll)


  2. August 14, 2012 at 3:25 am

    I can see what you mean about the Gissing-Strindberg connection. I didn’t know that he’d written novels. I’ve seen a number of his plays performed and have never been disappointed.


    • August 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

      I’m glad you see it too, I wasn’t imagining things. I downloaded the Gissing.
      I haven’t seen his plays but I’d love to.


  3. August 14, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Coup de theatre I’ve seen, not the others.

    It sounds incredibly, depressingly, modern. As if written of today. It does sound as if he’s a better playwright than author, but still an interesting book.


    • August 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm

      It’s very interesting despite its literary flaws. I think you’d like it.


  4. August 14, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I’ve not found the free kindle version in English. Do you have a link Emma?


  5. August 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Once the freshly pressed frenzy is over, I’ll read and comment. At the moment, I’m a bit overwhelmed.


    • August 14, 2012 at 4:19 pm

      Pour vivre heureux, vivons caché. 🙂
      Good luck with the frenzy and congrats.


      • August 14, 2012 at 4:38 pm

        Thanks but it’s really strange. On the plus side…. There are so many book bloggers and book lovers out there. And on the spooky side… I’m sure it happened because of the photo… BUT … I had removed the photo from the post by the time I published but it was still on the freshly pressed page. I now I put it up again. Isnt’ it weird and spooky?


        • August 14, 2012 at 4:41 pm

          Maybe you’ll pick up some new Tabucchi readers!


          • August 14, 2012 at 5:39 pm

            Funny enough from the comments I see most of them are actualy rather interested in literary books, so indeed, it’s possible. 🙂


  6. August 15, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    I always thought of him as a novelist first. All of his novels are available in German, for free and otherwise. It seems quite dry for my taste. I vaguely remember someone else writing about a Swedish novelist of the 19th that it was flawed and patchy, maybe Swedish translates not so well into English. I would be curious to read sometihing by him but rather short stories to start with.


    • August 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm

      I would have prefered to read it in French but I couldn’t find it.
      Have you read another one by him?


      • August 16, 2012 at 8:53 pm

        No, never. I think I got the one or the other among my mother’s books that’s why I thought of him as a novelist. I don’t really thik he is read anymore, not even in Germany but I could be wrong.


  7. May 30, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    I’m glad I remembered that you reviewed this (I read it on your recommendation). It’s the next one I’m writing up myself, and I really enjoyed it so thanks for the suggestion. I think you’re right that the style is a bit patched together, but I found it often very funny and the satire still surprisingly current. It’s definitely a good place to start with Swedish literature.


    • May 30, 2013 at 8:08 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to reading your review (least I can do since I cheekily reminded you to add it to your upcoming reviews list)
      Reading my billet again, I think you’d love Money by Zola if you liked this one.


  1. June 6, 2013 at 4:11 pm

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