1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (6): Half a Sheet of Foolscap by August Strindberg

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Mar 19, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "Half a Sheet of Foolscap" by August Strindberg. You can find a copy of the story here.

    For those of you who don't know, Strindberg was a prolific writer from Sweden. He's considered one of the big names in Swedish literature. According to his Wikipedia page, he influenced writers such as Franz Kafka and Tennessee Williams. I've never read anything of his before, so I look forward to reading this story.
     
  2. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    A quick explanation: When Strindberg wrote the short story the phone numbers had four digits and were grouped like in the story (i.e 15,11), in fact 50,50 was the actual phone number to the Opera.
     
  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Now THAT is a short story, isn't it? It reminds me a little of that Hemingway six-word story. All text on a page, with the meaning left up to the reader.

    I almost think Strindberg missed a bet here. With the exception of the last paragraph, he could have left the man out of the story entirely and just let us read the paper and interpret it. It's all there. Strindberg, I think, may have explained too much, especially with "It ended with 'dust'! and that is exactly what happens in life." That sounds like an old-time schoolteacher.

    The last paragraph seems to me a desperate attempt to give the story a happy ending and a moral lesson. Is Strindberg usually this didactic?
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Ah, OK. I wasn't actually sure about that. Thanks for the clarification.

    I liked how much he did given the length of the story. I do agree with you about the last few paragraphs. I feel the story could have been stronger had he left out "and that is exactly what happens in life." And I would have perhaps rewritten the last two sentences of the story. It reminds me too much of Aesop's Fables.

    In spite of these criticisms, I do think it's a good story. Strindberg packs a lot of information in a short paragraph. Unfortunately, I can't comment on Strindberg's actual writing since this is a translation, but he's certainly someone I can see myself coming back to in the future (maybe I'll try one of his plays next).
     
  5. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    It's amazing how some authors can reveal the best emotions without
    mentioning emotion at all and do so by stating everything plainly but beautifully.
     
  6. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    I like his use of metaphors: "He could not read what followed, for it grew dark before his eyes; he might have been a drowning man trying to see through salt water" and his 'hidden' meanings. The obvious 'undertaker--a large coffin and a small one' and the perhaps less obvious 'forgotten' or 'dust'.

    It's probably quite difficult to cram so much information into such short space but uses the available space quite well and it's easy to read.
     
  7. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    I think he might wanted to keep the man in the story as a reminder that marriages brings sorrows, one way or another. He was ambivalent towards women and marriages.

    The happy ending is somewhat of a mystery.

    I saw one error 'He detached the paper; it was a piece of scribbling paper, yellow and shining like the sun..' As a matter of fact he wrote 'sun-yellow and subsequently 'He took the yellow paper, kissed it, folded it carefully, and put it in his pocket' should be sun-paper.
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I know we all agree that Strindberg did a lot given the length of the story, but do you guys think this story would have been better if it had been longer? Would you have been more sympathetic towards the man had more information been given about the past two years? I feel that one of the intrinsic drawbacks of a very short story is that it's hard to get the reader to sympathize with a character because the reader doesn't have the time to get to know the character very well.
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think it would have been better if it had been longer. I would have liked to know more about the man (what's his name, anyway?) and what kind of guy he is before he reads this piece of paper. Maybe it would have made the last paragraph make more sense, or, alternatively, maybe Strindberg could have done away with the last paragraph entirely if we knew more about the man at the beginning. We would understand how he would react to the piece of paper.

    But on the other hand, the story looks to me like an exercise. Strindberg was challenging himself to tell a complete story using almost nothing but a sequence of phone numbers. I think he did a good job of it, but it works better as an exercise than as a full story, in my view.
     
  10. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    I also think it would have been better if it had been longer.

    I'm skeptic about the inclusion of his friends phone number because it's the only entry that don't relate to the 'storyline' so it feels redundant. After that's three lines he could have used better.
     
  11. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I found another English translation if anyone is interested. This one is done by a different translator, and I noticed some significant differences in the first paragraph alone. It might be worth reading.
     
  12. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    Interesting. He picked up a few things the other translator missed but he overlooked some things himself. For example he uses 'missed' in the first paragraph, I believe 'forgotten' is closer to the original as Strindberg intended a dual meaning (forgetting the incident).

    Btw, does anyone detect any of the mysogyny Strindberg is known for?
     
  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's an interesting new translation. I think this translator's first language is not English. There's a clear grammatical error in "... Alice, the most beautiful name he knew at the time, because it belonged to that of his fiancee." Also, he refers to "sun-yellow capacitor paper that emanates light." A capacitor is an electronic component; I've never heard anyone refer to "capacitor paper." And paper doesn't "emanate" light. The first translation looks much more reasonable here.

    It's interesting, as well, that the woman referred to in the first translation as "nurse" is called "mistress" in the second. I guess the second translator didn't know how "mistress" is commonly used in English.

    I'm not really sure I see real misogyny here. There may be some sexism, but I attribute that to the time in which it was written.
     
  14. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Now that I've read the second translation, I find the first to be the superior one. The second one seems to have been done by an amateur translator because I noticed some grammatical errors. The first one is a bit outdated, and you do see evidence of that based on what words are used (for example, "betrothal" vs. "engagement"). Of course, I can't speak for the accuracy because I don't understand Swedish. Sved, what's your opinion on the two translations?

    I looked around but couldn't find a collection of Strindberg's stories in English. I know there's a Swedish version of 60 or so of his stories. I guess he's just not that well-known in the English-speaking world. It's a shame. I really wanted to read more of him. Perhaps I'll try my luck with the handful of stories they have on Project Gutenberg.

    I didn't see any evidence of that in either translation. Do you have a specific sentence or passage in mind?
     
  15. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    I totally agree with the first translation being the superior one, the second one uses modern languages but I find some errors in his translations too.

    I saw 'The Red Room' at Gutenberg, this was his breakthrough, and also the 'People of Hemsö' which is one of his best novels (it also got him banned from ever visiting the island 'Hemsö' again.

    No, just like Ministrel I only saw some sexist notions. For example it's implied the man had money prior to the relationship. However, he often attacked women directly or indirectly in his writings. In his play 'Miss Julie', he writes that a woman is a "stunted form of human being," inferior to man in strength, sensitivity, and initiative.... and that's only the preface... But to be fair he also wrote things which supported the feminist movement of those days. In fact I don't think there is anyone he didn't insult during his lifetime from penpal Nietzsche (who was so offended he broke contact afterwards) to the Swedish Church (he stood trial for blasphemy, and later had to leave Sweden), but if there was one man Strindberg hated and despised more than anyone else it was the playwright Henrik Ibsen. (The feeling was mutual, Ibsen kept a painting of Strindberg and referred to it as 'Madness incipient").

    Perhaps I didn't suggest the best novel by Strindberg, but I'm still very happy to have heard your opinions about a sample of his writing.

    A sort article about why he still matters can be read here
     
  16. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I've been meaning to read "A Doll's House" for years now. From what I hear, Ibsen is basically as important a playwright as Shakespeare.
     
  17. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    It was actually 'A Doll's House' which became the start of Strindberg's hatred towards Ibsen. He scolded it in public, and would late write a short story with the same name as a rebuttal. However Ibsen was obviously Strindberg's equal with the pen and he had no trouble defending himself... or attacking :)
     
  18. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Nothing like a good ol' literary war of words!

    (Ibsen is one of those big holes in my literary education that I need to fill before I die ...)
     

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