Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song, and I’ll try not to sing out of key.
—Lennon and McCartney
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.
—Sir Francis Bacon 1561-1626
With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America looming, the idea of an odd couple like Strindberg and Byron performing on the same imaginary stage isn’t so far fetched — at least not if you recall the most celebrated album cover of its day, in which the Fab Four appear costumed as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band standing with a photo montage of “infinite riches” from past and present, movie stars and mystics, poets and explorers, celebrities and occasional lesser lights. The star attractions in this page’s music hall are some literary gentlemen who share the same birthday, and it seems only right that a knight of the realm should open and close the festivities. Coming all the way from January 22, 1561, to deliver words of wisdom on the strange beauty of the occasion, Sir Francis Bacon, performing an imperfect flourish, announces the main event: “In this corner, stage right, wrapped in the Greek flag, Lord Byron (1788-1824), and entering stage left, the pride of Stockholm, August Strindberg (1849-1912).
A Byron Treasure
Of course the best place outside the internet to find Byron, Bacon, and Strindberg under the same roof is in a well-stocked secondhand bookstore like the Old York in New Brunswick or the Wise Owl in Bristol, England. In bygone days at the Old York, when the word on the street had it that the owner would be unpacking some treasures to put out for sale, book dealers would flock like birds of prey to feed on the grossly underpriced new arrivals. In all the years I frequented the store, the one time I happened to be present when John Socia was unpacking a freshly bought lot, he pulled out a set of Byron from the 1820s, eight elegant little volumes with gold-tinted pages. It didn’t matter that I’d never bonded with Byron the way I had with Keats and Coleridge. I was gaping, dazed, in awe. Even the most generous of book dealers would have put a hefty price on that set, but when John saw the lovesick gaze in my eyes, the classic starving grad student, he quoted an unthinkably low price. As it turned out, I was more at home reading Byron in the copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature I’d been living with during my year as a Norton college traveler.
Strindberg in Bristol
Strindberg’s autobiographical novel, The Inferno, cost me the equivalent of 50 cents at the Wise Owl, which was located just around the corner from a 17th-century alms house. Although Bristol had a number of browsable secondhand stores in the 1970s — from the magnificent George’s at the top of the Park Street hill to the lowly George’s on the Christmas Steps — my favorite was the Wise Owl, a paradise of “quaint and curious volumes,” most of them reasonably priced. It was there that I found an illustrated set of the Brontes, a copy of the works of Milton the size of a package of cigarettes, and an equally charismatic volume from the same year (1837), Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil. This bookshop specialized in the occult, shelves and shelves of it, which is where the Strindberg turned up, seething like a smoky red beacon amid its unprepossessing neighbors.
First published in English in 1912, the year its author died, The Inferno’s once-brick-red front and back covers were so haunted by mysterious stains and shadows that most discriminating book buyers would have hesitated to touch it let alone buy it. Being a believer in the Baconian aesthetic of strangeness, I found the condition of the leprous object fascinating in itself, and after reading a page or two I realized that I was holding one of those volumes where the medium, due to the ravages of time and misuse, had come to reflect its demented message. The thing looked as though it had been set on a hearth stone to dry after being dipped into one of the sulphurous solutions that flayed and ravaged Strindberg’s hands on his descent into the nether regions of alchemy.
Anchor or Be Wrecked
At that time I only knew Strindberg as a dramatist (Miss Julie, A Dream Play), not as a tortured mystic obsessed with “the problem of making gold” in his makeshift laboratory in Paris as he suffered through hell, purgatory, and paradise in 1896. Though tormented by demons of paranoia, he took pleasure in bizarre transformations, hunks of coal taking the shape of grotesque tableaus; the detached germ of a nut appearing on “the glass-slide of the microscope” as “two tiny hands, white as alabaster, folded as if in prayer … fingers clasped in a beseeching gesture”; a zinc bath showing “on its inner sides a
landscape formed by the evaporation of iron salts,” the latter image not unlike the stain I saw on the book’s cover.
If you wonder what the author of The Inferno can have in common with the Don Juan who wrote Don Juan you need read no farther than Byron’s Faustian dramatic poem Manfred (which Strindberg “greatly admired” for its “criticisms of society”) or the opening lines of Childe Harold, who has “through sin’s labyrinth run” and “for change of scene would seek the shades below.” More to the Byronic point, there’s translator Claud Field’s introduction to my copy of The Inferno, quoting Robertson of Brighton (“Woman and God are two rocks on which a man must either anchor or be wrecked”) and pointing out that even toward the end of Strindberg’s life, when “the storm has subsided” and “the sea is calm, though strewn with wreckage,” one bitter fact remains: “He cannot forgive woman. She has injured him too deeply. All his life long she has been ‘a cleaving mischief in his way to virtue.’”
Both men were shipwrecked on those rocks, just as both were wounded from birth, Byron literally, having been born with a club foot and sexually abused by a sadistic governess, Strindberg growing up with a fear of the “invisible powers” that “robbed him of all peace of mind.” According to Sue Prideaux’s recent biography “he could do nothing without doing wrong,” was slapped, scolded, caned, and birched (“It had been effectively dinned into him that he had no right to exist”).
Strindberg was sent to a notoriously strict school, where he fell in love with the rector’s nine-year-old daughter, the only female in his class (boys who dared to so much as look at her were whipped), and it was for the love of this girl that he threatened to cut his throat. In Edna O’Brien’s Byron in Love (Norton 2009), eight-year-old Byron “felt the attendant joys and uncertainty of first raptuorus love,” the girl, named Mary, “one of those evanescent beings, made of rainbow, with a Greek cast of features, to whom he would for ever be susceptible,” her “successor” a distant cousin “for whom he also conceived a violent love.”
No doubt Byron and Strindberg would raise their respective eyebrows if they knew that the biographies of the moment are by women: besides Edna O’Brien’s, there are Benita Eisler’s Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (Knopf 1999), and Sue Prideaux’s Strindberg: A Life (Yale 2012), which features an author photo showing Ms. Prideaux at the feet of the Strindberg monument in Stockholm, a nude sculpture of the dramatist as a Greek god so sprawling, muscular, and immense that you can barely see the comely biographer smiling in its shadow.
Admitted, my knowledge of Byron hasn’t progressed much beyond the 90 pages afforded him in my frayed, faded copy of the Norton Anthology. And to be brutally honest, it wasn’t the poetry that struck a certain lonely Norton college traveler writing a freeform novel about a ravishing teen-age goddess named Susanna: it was the commentary revealing how Byron “found himself besieged by women” and the way this “period of great literary creativity coincided with a period of frenzied debauchery, which, Byron estimated, involved more than 200 women, mainly of the lower classes.”
Among the numerous compelling illustrations in Prideaux’s handsome biography of Strindberg (including a selection displaying his Turneresque paintings), there’s a photograph of the funeral procession on May 19, 1912, when ten thousand people lined the streets of Stockholm to honor the dramatist. What stands out most among the photographs, however, are those of Strindberg’s children he took himself and the photographs of his first and third wives, both actresses, the first, Siri von Essen, costumed to play Jane Eyre, the third, Harriet Bosse, a charming Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Her movements … were like music for the eyes”). Writing in his Occult Diary, Strindberg describes encountering 22-year-old Harriet backstage, where her “little face … assumed a supernatural beauty,” her eyes “ensnaring me with black lightning.” In the dream he had of her appearing “in her costume as Puck,” she gave him her foot to kiss, but then, inevitably with Strindberg, things took a demonic turn, the angel was an “incubus,” and everything became “quite ghastly.”
The Last Word
Although Sgt. Pepper’s “band you’ve known for all these years” kicked off the music hall festivities, and although Harriet Bosse’s supernatural beauty and black lightning glances suggest the “kaleidoscope eyes” of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the last word belongs to Sir Francis, who tells us that “love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies,” which “in life … doth much mischief; sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.”