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lagraziana

Lagraziana's Kalliopeion

This is a blog about my reads as well as everything related to them.

My taste is for good quality literature - old and new. Some of it I review here or on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany.

 

 

The Torments of an Arrogant Outcast: By the Open Sea by August Strindberg

By the Open Sea (Penguin Classics) - August Strindberg Am Offenen Meer (German Edition) - August Strindberg

Multi-talented and restless as he was, August Strindberg (1849-1912) never limited himself to only one trade. In his life he was active as painter, photographer, natural scientist, and sinologist, but his lasting worldwide fame is based on his writing that was too controversial in his own country – Sweden – to earn him one of the early Nobel Prizes in Literature as many expected abroad at the time. Today the author is best known for his more than 60 plays of which a considerable number keeps being performed regularly on stages around the globe. And yet, they are only part of a much larger and more versatile œuvre. August Strindberg also wrote poems, essays, autobiographical works, narrations… and last but not least, ten novels that were mostly acclaimed by critics outside Sweden. One of these novels is By the Open Sea that first appeared in print in 1890.

 

The protagonist of By the Open Sea is Axel Borg who is in his mid-thirties and on his way to one of the tiny islands of the archipelago off the coast of Stockholm where he was assigned fisheries inspector. From the very first he provokes the hostility of the local population because he behaves like a bureaucratic know-all from the city. His arrogance, however, isn’t based on his rank in society, but on the concept of the world that his father instilled into him. Borg firmly believes that ridding himself of base desires to give unlimited room to pure reason instead and gaining knowledge to act according to it has risen him above most people in evolution. All his past efforts can’t prevent him, though, from falling in love with Maria who comes to the island with her mother for summer holidays away from the city. For him every woman is unreasonable by nature and this “girl” (who is only two years his junior) confirms his chauvinist ideas by appearing particularly childish and stupid. Nonetheless, he chooses her as his wife-to-be because he is lonely and convinced that he can teach her to accept her natural inferiority to him (and every man). Although lowering himself to Maria’s level exhausts him increasingly, they get officially engaged. Then Borg’s new assistant arrives on the island. His name is Blom and contrary to Borg he is an engaging young man who enjoys socialising. Maria begins to flirt with Blom and as can be expected Borg gets jealous. And yet, he soon realises that it’s actually a relief that he no longer needs to pass all his time with Maria…

 

Although the language of By the Open Sea is often highly poetic, the novel paints a very sombre and also somewhat sober portrait of a young man caught in his own limited world and ever more despairing at the mediocrity, not to say stupidity of others. Borg is shown as a highly educated, highly refined and highly sensitive person, thus as a Übermensch in the Nietzschean sense, but his father’s as well as his own exaggerated regard for everything intellectual left him with poor social skills. Certainly, his obvious introversion (»»» read for instance The Introvert’s Way by Sophia Dembling that I reviewed) and high sensitiveness (»»» learn more about it from The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron for example) add to his inability to adapt to life in a community, especially a small one where everybody knows each other and where you can’t hide as easily as in the anonymity of a big city. In brief: Borg’s intellectual ideals combined with his nature doom him to a life in loneliness that eventually changes into paranoia, i.e. madness. The psychological depth of the descriptions of the protagonist’s inner life makes it very likely that August Strindberg himself had many of Borg’s character traits. From own experience I can tell that they are extremely authentic. As for the misogynistic tone of all passages concerning women, it clearly corresponds with the author’s known sexism that may still have been shared by the majority of men in the late 1800s and that would be completely unpardonable today.

 

Admittedly, By the Open Sea by August Strindberg is on the whole a rather depressing read that requires a stable frame of mind to be able to enjoy it, but its merits as a psychological novel cannot be doubted. And it’s beautifully written, at least the German translation of Else von Hollander is. Sidenote: I couldn’t help wondering if Borg might not have served as model for Mr. Spock in the Star Trek series because they have quite a lot in common although the cool Volcanan is definitely more sympathetic…

 

By the Open Sea (Penguin Classics) - August Strindberg