Strindberg and others

Svenska B is the course in Swedish which I am required to complete before I can go further in my application for medical registration in Sweden. It is not so much a language course as a course in the history of literature. We have progressively read about various periods starting with Antiquity (Sophocles, Aristotle, Euripides, Aristophanes) and moving through the Middle Ages (Dante), the Renaissance (Shakespeare), the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Austen), the Romantic era (Rousseau, Goethe, Heine, Byron, Poe, Scott), and Realism and Naturalism (Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Balzac, Maupassant, Dostoyevski, Conrad). All sounds rather impressive, but apart from the basic text we read only a few pages of each author, so the course has hardly made me well read. But it has given me a good overview.

At first it seemed rather odd to be attempting to read English literature in Swedish (Shakespeare, Dickens and others) but then I realised that English speakers like myself do not think it strange to read Greek, French, German, and Russian authors in English, which is the same thing really. It does, of course, make a lot more sense to read Swedish authors in Swedish, but Swedish literature really only got going in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, so there was not a lot to read. However, with our discussion over the last few weeks of literary realism, we have begun to read Strindberg, who, according to our text, has been called Sweden’s only literary superstar. “It could be said that the whole of modern Swedish literature begins with him. To read Strindberg is a foundational course for all aspiring writers.” (Den levande litteraturen, p.205, Ulf Jansson, 1995)

Strindberg is not easy to read for a non-Swede like me. In fact, even native Swedish speakers find him difficult. The lady in the Red Cross charity store where I today bought a second hand copy of collected short stories by Strindberg mentioned to me that there are easier Swedish authors to read. Had I considered them? I smiled and explained. Through my course I have come to a greater appreciation of Strindberg, as depressing as his writing is sometimes. He is a real wordsmith and some of his descriptive passages are wonderful. What is more he was obviously a hugely intelligent person with a keen insight into human nature. But his writing does not give the impression of a happy man.

The end of the 1800s and the early 1900s saw many other Swedish authors come to light, including Selma Lagerlöf, Hjalmar Söderberg, and Hjalmar Bergman (an Örebro man) among others. My Swedish is almost good enough to read these people in the original language, and that is exciting for me, although it is hard work. To understand the soul of a nation it is so important to understand the language, and to be able to read the works of the great writers. I am a long way from reading or understanding all that these people have written, but it makes all this language study seem worthwhile, quite independent of the need to pass Svenska B to get my medical registration.

See also article Classic Swedish authors here.


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