The Scapegoat, by August Strindberg

I’m always being stopped in the street by people who suggest to me that, all right Strindberg’s well-known as a playwright, but his novels are really worth reading too. Up to now, however, my efforts in this area haven’t proved fruitful. Getting Married (1884) I couldn’t get beyond a few symbol-saturated pages of; Inferno (1897) promised more – something existential, a bit more modernist – but turned out almost Kafka-esque in its tediousness and repetition: – it’s about a man plagued by extreme paranoia, a total persecution complex, engaged on turning base metals into gold – the amusement comes to discover it’s entirely autobiographical.

But I’ve persevered, and so picked up a copy of The Scapegoat (1907). What kind of thing was Strindberg writing at the end of his life? What is any better? – Well, yes, certainly it was.

The Scapegoat is about an outsider whom comes to a small town in Sweden and sets up there as a attorney. It was the fate of this man to be hated wherever he goes (at school he was bullied) though nobody can say why, he is entirely good man – a Christ-like man. As one of the characters remarks, reflecting on this at the end:

Your name annoyed people, too. The name Libotz has something offensive about it. It would have been better if your name had been Lobitz…

Nonetheless, his business flourishes, and he makes two friends there – a restauranteur and the police-chief – or at least he believes they are friends – or perhaps not even that, but they act as though they are friends. For it is one of the contentions of this novel that human-beings are inscrutable to other human-beings. As Askanius, the restauranteur, explains to the two others:

“How curious people are! How strange! … They think they know one another, but they don’t – they know nothing! I, for example, don’t know anything about you, gentleman . . . I don’t know whether Tjärne is an honest man, or not. And if Libotz really is the person he presents himself to be, then he is not a human being … We are sitting here keeping one another company out of fear of our dreams … I know not with whom I am sitting at this table . . . but you – you have-no-idea-who-I-am!”

Askanius (another outsider, though less so) believes throughout the novel- or seems to believe – that the police chief, Tjärne, is his only true friend, whereas in fact Tjärne is his greatest enemy, engaging at all times in trying to destroy him – though, as it happens, Libotz sees this perfectly clearly. Whereas for Libotz, everything he does is misunderstood, all his acts of kindness are seen as the workings of maleficient spirit. For both of them, at times this inability to understand the feelings and motivations of others breaks down into paranoia and a martyr complex – and you can’t but see Strindberg himself slipping in here – and indeed, this is taken up at the end in the idea of The Scapegoat, the sacrificial animal which is filled full of the sins of others and then sacrificed, just as was Christ, and just as is Libotz.

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