Strindberg’s Island

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In my early twenties I became an avid sailor. Whenever life seemed too complex I would turn to the sea – to the curative simplicity of sailing. I loved to be in the grasp of the elements and was thrilled by the way a tug here or a pull there would miraculously bring everything into fragile balance.

One early autumn, when life wasn’t going exactly to plan, I joined two friends sailing around the Stockholm archipelago, the 20,000 islands and skerries that protect the approach to the Swedish capital from the Baltic. As afternoon sank into evening we set course for the outer islands and Kymmendö, the setting of August Strindberg’s novel The People of Hemsö (Hemsöborna).

Here and there they slipped past a broom-beacon, sometimes a ghostly white sailing-mark, in some places late snowdrifts shone like linen on a bleaching green, in others net-floats rose to the surface of the black water and scraped against the keel as the boat passed over them.

This is the passage that I remember best from my first-ever reading of the novel: the approach to Hemsö. I must have read it when I was still at school but the image of this peaceful night-sail, where things seem to come alive in the dark, had somehow settled in the shallows of my mind.

It was also an image that had stayed in Strindberg’s imagination for many years. He wrote the novel in exile, during one of the darkest periods of his life. In 1884, in a letter to his publisher, he said: ‘I need to go away to purge Sweden and Swedish stupidity from my system.’ He spent the next three years travelling around Europe with his family. On reaching Lindau, on the shores of Lake Constance in Bavaria in 1887, misery finally caught up with him; his recent writings on Swedish life and society had made him unpopular ‒ even hated‒‒ by conservatives and feminists alike. His publisher was getting increasingly nervous about his work,

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About the contributor

Karin Altenberg once sailed to St Kilda and survived. For this reason, perhaps, her latest novel, Breaking Light, is mainly landlocked. Recently she paddled up the Missouri River in search of a new story. Like Strindberg she is Swedish, but the comparison ends there.

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