I read this initially about a year ago, and thought it was quite interesting. A bit earlier I had read several of Strindberg’s plays, and also his novel-memoir “The Inferno”, so I was naturally interested in it. Now, I should say that what I read originally was called “Zones of the Spirit”, which was an excerpt of “A Blue Book” published in English in 1913; then I found out that the original work is much larger. And so, since then, I thought that I wanted to publish a larger selection of its contents.

August Strindberg’s “A Blue Book” was written between 1906 and 1912, the final period of his life, when he was influenced by his readings of the mystic Immanuel Swedenborg. During this same period he also wrote some of his best plays, including “The Ghost Sonata” .

“A Blue Book” was published in Sweden in four volumes. What we are publishing with Contrarium is a selection of volumes I and II with many texts never published in English before.

It is difficult to summarize “A Blue Book”. Many texts in the Vol. I take the form of a dialogue between a pupil and a teacher. Some interpret the pupil, sometimes also called Johann Damascenus, as being Strindberg himself, and the teacher as a proxy for Immanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish visionary who influenced Strindberg in his later years. However, since both pupil and teacher eventually make references to Strindberg’s own life, perhaps it would be more correct to understand the discussion between the pupil and the teacher as a discussion between the younger and the older Strindberg – or, at least, that’s another possible interpretation. The texts in the second volume abandon the “teacher and pupil” motif and simply consist of digressions by Strindberg himself, but basically in the same style as before, discussing themes such as love, human psychology, religion and mortality.

It is a fascinating work, which can give further insights about many of Strindberg’s later plays, as well as about “The Inferno” (1894), the narration of his previous spiritual crisis. While “The Inferno” is interesting in its own right, we believe that this book, which is in a way the solution to the preceding crisis, shows a much more serene Strindberg, a man coming to terms with life, Christianity and his own past, and offers many illuminating thoughts that can be interesting not only to scholars or those interested in the Swedish writer’s work, but to all general readers interested in religion, philosophy and human behaviour. August Strindberg (1849 – 1912) was one of the best playwrights of the modern era, author of “Miss Julie”, “To Damascus”, “The Dream Play” and many others.

Few know that Strindberg was also an excellent painter and photographer. We included here some of Strindberg’s own paintings and photographs, including his experimental “celestographs” on the cover, and also a few drawings or prints by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who was a friend of the author.

This is the last book I finished, just about a week ago now. It was the first novel I’ve ever read by the German writer Heinrich Boll, who received the Nobel Prize in 1972. I’ve read it in English (an excellent translation by Leila Wennewitz), since my German isn’t worth a Scheiße (pardon my French).

I won’t say much except that it is a beautiful and very touching book about a poor married couple who is forced by circumstances to live apart. The period is immediate postwar Germany (the book was written in 1953). The prose style is very beautiful and lyrical and at the same time very easy to read, although I can’t say for sure how much is the merit of the writer and how much of the translator.

The story is written with alternating chapters, always one narrated from the point of view of the husband, and the next one narrated by the wife. It is an interesting device that makes us go deeper into the psychology of each character and, at the same time, it helps to mark their separation, the impossibility of their full union as a couple.

Of particular resonance are the character of Kate, her thoughts about her children, her love, her neighbours and her despair, as well as the character of an angelic young girl who works at a cafe booth at the station.

The book abounds with religious references (Böll was Catholic), including the title that alludes to a religious song – actually a Negro spiritual or African-American slave Gospel song, lyrics here, and a version of it can be heard here. But the focus is on the crisis and dissolution of the marriage despite (or because of?) the mutual love of the couple.

As the husband says to the wife at one point, in the scene which is the emotional center point of the story, as she lies with his back turned to him in the bed of a decaying hotel room:

“The lucky ones”, he said, “were those who did not love each other when they got married. It is terrible to love each other and to get married”.

It took me a while to start reading this book, or rather, this series of four books also called “the Neapolitan tetralogy”. I had heard about it the first time around 2009, of course, when it became a surprising best-seller all over the world. But I was a bit suspicious of it, maybe even a bit prejudiced. First, because it was a “best-seller”, and second because it was written by a woman. Not because I don’t like women writers in general, but because the themes that they tend to be more interested in (love, relationships, female psychology) tend to interest me less than other themes…

But I was, of course, wrong. The books are actually very well-written and engaging, what one would call “page-turners”. They might even a bit soap operish, but in a good way: lots of drama and surprising twists, and usually very easy to read.

One possible problem of the book, although I am not sure if it is necessarily a problem, is that the character of the friend, Lila or Lina, is (for me, at least) so much more interesting than that of the narrator and protagonist. But during a lot of the time the story focuses more on “Elena” and her mundane problems with her family, her lovers, her writing career, etc, while Lina sort of disappears into the background.

Also Elena, contrary to Lina, does not seem to be the type of character that is always particularly very perceptive about her own reality: she is convinced that she’s a “good mother” when she takes extremely dubious decisions, or is sure that her relationships are “going well” when the opposite is quite clear.

Of course, as the story progresses, one feels more and more (and especially in the last part) that Lina, more than just a character, works really more as a sort of “dark alter ego” of the author, or as a symbol related to the city of Naples, an unstoppable force that somehow embodies the energies of the city.

And Naples, or more specifically its poor periphery (an unnamed “rione” or neighbourhood) where the two friends grew up is perhaps the main “character” of the series. Even if the protagonist Elena also wanders through Pisa, Rome, Florence and other parts of the world, the focus is always in the “rione”, which Lina never leaves.

The Naples that the story shows is a quite violent and sometimes very depressing environment. It is very different from what you may read or see in Eduardo de Filippo’s Neapolitan plays, for example. De Filippo also shows poverty, drama and occasionally violence, but he is almost always humorous and focuses more on the humanity of the characters, even when they are poor or desperate or make bad decisions. But Elena’s Neapolitans almost totally lack humor, and most characters, even when “friends”, have very harsh or complicated relationships with one another. There is not one family relationship or friendship in the book that seems to work even remotely well; everybody seem to be constantly fighting or trying to get their way with each other, or changing from friend to enemy on a whim; even Lina’s and Elena’s “friendship” is full of misunderstandings and aggressions.

Another observation: even though the book constantly mentions the “Neapolitan dialect”, it has very little of it. It mostly uses the standard Italian language for all of the dialogs (I’ve read the book in Italian; this wouldn’t apply to the translation), and maybe just a few local expressions (‘zoccola’ or slut is one that appears quite often). Now, if you’re even just a bit familiar with the Neapolitan dialect, you can see that it can be very colourful and characteristic, even if it can become impossible to understand, even for Italians (for an example, check the aforementioned plays by Eduardo De Fiippo, or the work of Neapolitan actor/director Massimo Troisi.) So while I understand why the author chose not to use it, sometimes it seems that it could give more life to the speech of at least some of the characters, who wouldn’t speak in formal Italian anyway. I don’t know; it’s a minor thing, and does not compromise the book.

I could go on, but I don’t want to give any spoilers. If you have the chance, read the book, it’s worth it. There is also a recent series based on it, but I didn’t watch it, and don’t plan to (I have my own image of the characters and I feel that the visuals chosen for the series might ruin it).

P. S. “Elena Ferrante” (not to be confused with “Elena Greco” which is the character of the book) is a pseudonym, and it is not clear who the real author is, as she has not come forward officially. Some say that she is actually the translator Anita Raja, which could or could not be true. Does it matter? Does it change the book in any way? I don’t think so. She has a new book now that just came out, not related to the tetralogy (“La vita bugiarda degli adulti”); I haven’t read it and not sure I will.