What we perceive as culture may be broadly understood as what we do with our free time. For those only interested in money and power, culture will comprise what material items wealth and influence can acquire – at once seemingly limitless and bound to the earth that crushes our bones. Those who pursue art and its sweet rewards, however, will have a very different perspective on culture. They will eschew the resorts, the shopping, the discos, and the expensive and meaningless excursions to expensive and meaningless pockets of humanity; you will find them instead in bookstores, cinemas, sidewalk cafés, libraries, and museums, often sauntering about, seemingly directionless, and in any case inefficient in the conventional sense of the word. Upon being asked about their leisure time, materialists will irreverently joke about what they ate and bought, and perhaps complain about the service; but artists will tell you something that they discovered about themselves or others. It may just a fragment of a portrait, a revelation about someone's true motives, an understanding of a minor event, but it is from these seeds that art grows and blooms. And the question of whether such pursuits are really worth our time is at the heart of this novel.
The uniqueness of the color has already been discussed on these pages, and the room in question is a salon in Stockholm where those of artistic temperament could convene and shirk their mundane duties:
They wanted a meeting place, somewhere they could talk, somewhere they could guarantee to meet an acquaintance at any time. And since music was no barrier to conversation, rather the reverse, it was tolerated and gradually became as much a part of a Stockholmer's evening menu as punch and tobacco. Thus Berns' Salon soon became the bachelor's club for the whole of Stockholm and each coterie had its own corner. The inhabitants of Lill-Jans had commandeered the rear chessroom behind the gallery and because its furniture was red it had, for the sake of brevity, become known as the Red Room.
This selection is from the sixth chapter, an arbitrary designation suggesting a certain lack of cohesion – although should we expect much more from a novel with the subtitle "Scenes from the Lives of Artists and Authors"? As it were, we realize rather quickly that the Red Room, a symbol of decadence or inequality, is the only venue that links these disparate souls. The ostensible protagonist for a large number of pages is the idealistic civil servant Arvid Falk, whose name implies a bird of prey but whose actions are reminiscent of a sparrow. He wafts between the steady path of conformity he has already walked, with regular consultations with higher-ranking members of the Swedish bureaucracy as to the next steps, and something resembling an artistic existence. The almost mid-twentieth century angst (a conundrum not unlike the one faced by the main character in this novel written ninety years later) has allowed Strindberg's novel to endure countless editions and still be considered the prototypical Stockholmer work. Falk can sense and see what shapes his soul sculpts in time and space, but cannot distill this data into everlasting art. He publishes poems with an unscrupulous arbiter of taste by the name of Smith, "a feared figure with a thousand tentacles," but does not advance much past the doggerel he dedicates to a young lass who loves an actor and fame more than him.
Falk has a host of companions along his peripatetic way, including Olle Montanus, a Bohemian philosopher who has a moment of great pathos at the novel's conclusion, Lundell, a painter of popularity, Yngberg, another philosopher with certain ambitions, Sellén, a struggling painter, and Borg, whose role only becomes clearer after Falk endures greater and greater adversity. And while Lundell's fate is most definitely what Falk fears ("He painted what public taste desired; he was never crippled by doubt; he may have left the Academy but he had done so for private practical reasons and he had not broken with it, even though he went about claiming to have done so"), his greatest apprehension is what he sees in his older brother, Carl Nicolaus Falk. Carl Nicolaus is a money lender, a boor, a social climber, and one of nineteenth century literature's most outstanding creations. Arvid comes to talk about Carl Nicolaus's having cheated him out of his rightful inheritance, an accusation that, as is common in family disputes, only arises sporadically. Yet Carl Nicolaus has long since steeled himself to this charge:
He criss-crossed the room several more times, his footsteps sounding as if they were applauding his performance, and he rattled his bunch of keys as if signalling the curtain to fall. His final speech had rounded things off so well that anything further would destroy it all. In spite of the gravity of the accusation, which he had actually been expecting for several years as he had always believed his brother to have a false heart, he was more than pleased that it was now over with, so successfully over with, so completely and cleverly over with, that he almost felt happy and even a touch grateful.
Whenever Carl Nicolaus appears – bickering with his insufferable sloth of a wife, berating his shop assistant Andersson, trying to impress those who could ordain civil honors, or dreaming up new forms of usury – the novel sparkles with the wit and precision of a small town tale by Melville or Hawthorne, and clearly foresees the mature Strindberg's future greatness. That the rest of The Red Room is not as tight cannot detract from the beauty of its surroundings, of Sweden, of life in Northern Europe, of the epicenter of culture, philosophy and progressive thought that still wonders about what Heaven might bring. As Montanus writes in a revealing letter:
It is a curse to feel the growth of your soul stunted while your body sinks ever deeper into the mire. Walk behind the oxen and the plough day in and day out with your eyes fixed on the grey clods and you will eventually forget to look up at the sky. Toil with the spade digging out a ditch under the scorching sun and you will feel yourself sinking down into the waterlogged soil, feel that you are digging a grave for your soul. Ye know nought of this, ye who make merry all the long day and labor only to pass the idle hour between breaking your fast and dining. And in summer, when the earth is green, you rest your souls and rejoice in nature as if it were a play, noble and uplifting. That is not how nature is for a laborer: a field is food, a forest is timber, a lake is a washtub and a meadow milk and cheese. Just soil, not soul!
Montanus once counted himself these laborers, who could not possibly figure in a novel about "Artists and Authors." And yet they do: they hide in the shadows, begging for crumbs from the food dropped by these artists and the patrons that think money can buy culture; they waft in and out of the portraits we see hung on the Red Room walls; and in one scene they even sleep in a famous theater after all the shows and all the encores have died out. Art has its societal benefits after all.