Chair no. 13 - Sara Stridsberg

Sara Stridsberg was born on 29 August 1972 in Solna and currently lives in Stockholm. She is a writer, dramatist and occasional translator. She was voted into the Swedish Academy on 13 May 2016 and formally inducted on 20 December 2016. Stridsberg succeeds the author and translator Gunnel Vallquist on Chair No. 13. Among her awards are the Nordic Council’s literature prize for 2007, the literary society De Nio’s Grand Prize for 2015 and the Selma Lagerlöf Prize for 2016.

Sara Stridsberg grew up in Solna, Huskvarna, Skogås and on Södermalm [Stockholm’s southern island]. At Uppsala University and in Strasbourg, France, she studied sociology, the history of ideas, law and other disciplines. Although she graduated with a degree in law (jur. kand.) from Uppsala University in 1998 she has never practiced. A year after graduation, she and gender researcher Jenny Westerstrand produced a paper for the Equality Committee at Uppsala University, Juristutbildningen ur ett genusperspektiv (Law studies from a gender perspective), in which the authors propose that “the introduction of gender perspective [..] be firmly integrated in the course programme”.

An interest in literature soon took over, especially through the works of Birgitta Trotzig, Marguerite Duras and Elfriede Jelinek, and in that same year, 1999, Stridsberg completed a course in creative writing at the Biskops-Arnö adult education college, subsequently finding work as a freelance writer and soon joining the editorial staff at the cultural affairs magazine Bang.

2002 brought a book of interviews, Det är bara vi som är ute och åker (It’s just us out for a ride), commissioned by Kvinnor på Norr (Women of the north), a group project at an adult education college in Fårösund, and published by the regional council of Gotland, with photography by Catti Brandelius. The subtitle, “Interviews from Fårö and Fårösund” indicates the content but not that all fourteen interviewees are young women talking about their lives, ideas and visions, with the stated purpose of giving neglected women a voice. The book was distributed in northern Gotland, free to anyone under the age of 35.

On a lengthy stay in Cambodia that same autumn and struck by the enormous poverty and the depredations of the sex industry, Stridsberg discovered the feminist icon Valerie Solanas and translated her controversial SCUM Manifesto, published in 1967. (SCUM = Society for Cutting Up Men.) When the Swedish translation appeared in 2003 – with Stridsberg’s enthusiastic, not to say furious foreword – she was thrust into the public eye. Fiery debate ensued and Stridsberg was now a contentious figure in Swedish cultural circles, especially in light of statements such as: “But SCUM is a dangerous text. SCUM does things to women. The words change the reader forever. The reader immediately becomes a nasty, dangerous bastard. You become brash and aggressive and egoistical, a mouthy woman-from-hell.”

This helped to consign almost to oblivion her actual literary debut - the low-key, insightful Happy Sally - on its publication in January 2004. Nonetheless, critics knew they had a new, original voice with a multi-levelled story about the price of female ambition. Happy Sally is structured as a diary novel; fictional entries by three women at three different points in time weave a melancholic jeremiad of obsession, loss and the role of women in a patriarchal world.

Happy Sally was an authentic figure, Sally Bauer. On 27 August 1939, she was the first Scandinavian to swim the English Channel. In the book, a fictitious Ellen becomes obsessed with Bauer and makes a deal with her husband: If she can match Bauer’s accomplishment, he will accept her total dedication to swimming. At Dover, a few decades later, Ellen’s daughter retraces her mother’s footsteps, and the daughter’s reflections and memories at the fateful beachhead combine with Ellen’s and Sally’s. What emerges is sorrow. And, for better and worse, strength.

Happy Sally is an unusually complete first novel. Stridsberg has already found her characteristic voice, that melancholically beautiful, chillingly musical, highly poetic voice, fearlessly defying conventions. Later, she explained to an interviewer: “As a material object of our world I think that the novel is fantastic. I wonder how it can be allowed when everything else is under such control?”

Sojourning in the United States in the spring of 2005 Sara Stridsberg chose to revisit a familiar approach, applying the pseudo-documentary method from Happy Sally to Valerie Solanas. It produced Stridsberg’s breakthrough, the novel The Dream Faculty, published in January 2006 and not only nominated for the August Prize [the Swedish Publishers’ Association’s literary award] but also awarded the Nordic Council’s literature prize. In late 2009, in a summing up of the decade poll organised by the Sydsvenskan daily newspaper, The Dream Faculty was voted best novel of the 00s by “the nation’s smartest novel readers”. This was repeated in 2011 in a similar survey by Sweden’s major daily, Dagens Nyheter.

The Dream Faculty is an extremely idiosyncratically narrated novel, with abrupt shifts in time, place and state of mind. Dialogues segue into inner monologues, moods, childhood reminisces, rantings. Recurring locations include the hotel room where Valerie Solanas died, the courtroom where she was convicted of attempting to murder Andy Warhol, the desert-like childhood Georgia milieu where she was repeatedly raped by her father, and scenes from mental hospitals. In poetically fluent style, Stridsberg slowly crafts a picture of a woman who wants to live life to the full but is constantly thwarted and obstructed. It is a simply heartbreaking novel.

The Dream Faculty’s subtitle, “Appendix to sexual theory”, hints that we are faced with a female completion – and correction – of Freud’s classic theory of sexuality. It was becoming clear what Stridsberg was dedicating her writing to: constructing alternatives to the presiding patriarchic order through content and form, and especially through emotion. As she said in an interview in 2016: “The Dream Faculty unfolds beyond all shared understanding, beyond all science, and was my small extension to Freud’s sexual theory”. Nothing disturbs order more than at-risk, sassy, deprived women, and over time, Stridsberg has developed a superlative method for delving into their worlds and eliciting words from souls normally unable to articulate.

The richness of dialogue in The Dream Faculty led artlessly to drama writing, and in the same year of the novel’s publication, Sara Stridsberg became a playwright by expounding further on The Dream Faculty’s heroine in the play Valerie Jean Solanas ska bli president i Amerika, (Valerie Jean Solanas will be America’s president) written specifically for actor Ingela Olsson. The play had its première at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in September 2006, receiving blanket good reviews and generating further interest.

Another of her plays premiered at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in March 2009, Medealand, a powerful yet surprisingly faithful interpretation of Euripides’ eternal drama, focusing on the infinite complications of motherhood and love’s infinite difficulties: “Marriage is the paramount cure for love.” A few years later, the play lent its name to the title of a collection of Stridsberg’s drama works, Medealand och andra pjäser (Medealand and other plays - 2012), that earned her a third August Prize nomination.

The second nomination had come two years after the premiére of Medealand with Stridsberg’s novel, Darling River, published in March 2010. With it, Stridsberg addresses yet another of world literature’s iconic female portraits, namely Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

But it was no straightforward extension; in Darling River we find ourselves at further reach from the original than in Medealand. Lolita sees herself in a mirror then smashes the mirror, the shards reflecting different figures: one is Lo, whose father loves the Russian lepidopterist’s books and who drives his daughter around Europe in an old Jaguar, selling her sexual favours; another is Dolores, Nabokov’s Lolita’s real name, now in Alaska, to die in childbirth by the Darling River; and the anonymous mother following moderkartan [lit. ‘the mother map’, a play on the Swedish for placenta, moderkakan] taking photographs and never arriving at her destination; and a female ape being force-trained in how to write in a laboratory in Jardin des Plantes in Paris. All are reflections of Lolita; all surpass Lolita.

Because there is no true mirror image. The reflection is a muddle of visual impressions, personal experiences, female myths, other people’s subjective understandings. No matter how much these women have been assaulted, they are not victims. Victims are objects; all these women are subjects, with clear if self-contradictory personalities, motivations, dreams and hopes.

Darling River is principally a book about aloneness, perhaps the incurable isolation of the soul, and compared with The Dream Faculty, its style is more subdued, restrained, reflective. This does not make the novel less forceful, possibly the contrary. Perhaps Darling River has brought Stridsberg even closer to her true voice.

Towards the end of 2010, Sara Stridsberg was appointed Samuel Fischer visiting professor of literature at the Peter Szondi Institute of Comparative Literature at the Freie Universität in Berlin. Her installation lecture in October of that year was titled “‘Destroy she says’. Destruction, Alienation & Literature from Medea (Euripides) to Blasted (Sarah Kane)”. Stridsberg spent that Berlin winter teaching.

The influence from playwright Sarah Kane – whose first play, Blasted, was translated by Stridsberg for a Royal Dramatic Theatre production in 2006, now titled Bombad – was already evident in the core of her first novel, Happy Sally, and became clearer in her next play, Dissekering av ett snöfall (Dissection of a snowfall), premiered at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in August 2012. Again, Stridsberg uses a mythical yet authentic female saga, that of Sweden’s Queen Christina, a powerful woman in a man’s world, constantly in free-fall: “Free-falling / Into the light”, as Kane’s play Crave echoed the leitmotif of Happy Sally. In the programme for Dissekering av ett snöfall Stridsberg says: “To describe a person is to destroy her.”

And somewhere at the intersection of these statements is the meaning of theatre and drama for Sara Stridsberg: “I’m always fighting the way prose constricts my writing […]. I’ve used the freedom of drama in my novels. I learned through drama to write freer, more open prose, more open novels.” In the same interview, conducted by the late Karin Johannisson in 2016, Stridsberg says: “Sarah Kane once said that an audience watching her plays should experience it like tumbling down a staircase. And I often think that writing is like falling without hurting yourself, without cuts and marks and bruises afterwards.”

Her book, Medealand och andra pjäser (Medealand and other plays), was published in January 2012, just over half a year before Dissekering av ett snöfall had its first night, and includes all three plays Stridsberg had written thus far. This was also the year when she tried her hand at a new genre: children’s literature. In a book illustrated by Anna-Clara Tidholm, Mamman och havet (The mother and the sea) – the title tipping its hat to Tove Jansson’s classic Moomin book, Moominpappa at Sea – we cascade with protagonist Milou through the town’s sewage system searching for mamma Fin who had dived into her toilet bowl. The mood in Mamman och havet is a kind of gentle, everyday absurdism that accurately captures a child’s unruly way of thinking and feeling.

Stridsberg was already working on a new novel, a site-centric story concisely entitled Beckomberga [once Stockholm’s largest mental hospital] published in September 2014 and handing Stridsberg her fourth August Prize nomination. Again, it was about approaching the world not as a so-called sane person - on the contrary, it was about submitting to a kind of madness, opening up to a place and to characters, doggedly avoiding exterior observation. But there was a new, autobiographical element - her childhood visits to the historic mental hospital - and the novel proved extremely hard to write.

Stridsberg got stuck and despaired of progress. She took a sabbatical via drama, writing a play on the same theme – Nelly Sachs kommer aldrig fram till havet (Nelly Sachs never gets to the sea, retitled Beckomberga by the Royal Dramatic Theatre for its opening on 12 September 2015 but published under its original title in book form in April 2017) – “and it was suddenly possible to write things which would have been impossible in a novel. I could listen to naked voices without the diagnosticating, cage-like language of prose. The characters could speak for themselves without being described from the outside, without being pigeon-holed…”

Ultimately, despite the hiatus, this “ode to my family” was finished, and Beckomberga – departing from the question, “Where did the old mental hospital patients go?” – became a powerful opus delving deep into the shadow world of mental illness, at the same time a novel about the most Swedish of mental hospitals and its history, both nefarious and benign, reflected through a few extremely specific lives.

Centre-stage is Jackie, a headstrong girl in some respects reminiscent of Lo in Darling River. Her father Jim is an in-patient at Beckomberga, and when her mother moves away, Beckomberga becomes Jackie’s world. She meets the peculiar doctor Edvard Winterson, who doesn’t always act like a doctor should, and patients Inger, Sabina and Paul, more or less submerged in what is usually termed madness.

Sara Stridsberg has probably never reached higher in the art of, from the inside, stretching the boundaries of abnormality. After reading Beckomberga it is hard to speak of normality and abnormality without sounding false. As Stridsberg puts it: “For me, literature has been simply this: a space for empathy, a place where it’s possible to approach what is alien and make it less alien.”

In the same autumn of 2014, a short story, “American Hotel” was published in the Swedish edition of the literary magazine Granta. It is, for our time, a highly apposite drama about disoriented people in Detroit’s ruins, in what was once the capital of American industrialism. In some respects the story can be seen as a new step i Stridsberg’s work. It is simpler, more direct, perhaps more realistic, more political. We find a young woman, Carter, in a barren, post-apocalyptic industrial landscape together with the two men in her life; a dying mother; and, as usual, a self-absorbed father. We meet the first victims of the global financial crisis, the cannon fodder of capitalism, and it is profound and utterly gripping.

The story was later reworked into a play, American Hotel, given its première at Stockholm’s Stadsteater in the spring of 2016; it was also published as a novella by a small publishing house, Novellix.

Stridsberg also wrote a play for [Stockholm’s independent] Teater Galeasen, Konsten att falla (The art of falling), which opened in late 2015. The play was about the Bouvier Beales, Big and Little Edie, an eccentric American mother and daughter pair living in a decaying beach mansion in the wealthy community of East Hampton on Long Island outside New York, eternalised in the 1975 film Grey Gardens. Stridsberg saw the play as a looser continuation of Beckomberga, focusing on the odd couple’s paradoxical mix of pride and poverty. In the play, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the president’s widow and their relative, arrives, wanting to help them financially and renovate the house. Their meeting becomes a struggle between practicality and folly, with no guarantee that practicality will triumph.

Because what Sara Stridsberg is always looking for is complete people, people who are both wise and unwise. As she said in an interview in 2016: “People in general are impressive, individual and grand, and bear with them many stories if you really listen. I want my characters to be just as interesting, just as brilliant. I want to investigate the part of people that has all that."

Jan Arnald
(Translation by Kim Loughran)