fredag 22 april 2011

Fabian Göranson: Inferno

Inferno is one of August Strindberg's most famous novels, depicting his nervous breakdown and descent into paranoia, occultism and alchemy. Swedish comics creator Fabian Göranson has adapted it to comics form.

The novel starts with Strindberg in Paris, saying goodbye to his wife who's going back to Austria as their little daughter, living there with Strindberg's mother-in-law, is sick. Having just had one of his plays played in Paris to apparently good reviews, Strindberg is apparently having trouble writing, and turns instead to chemistry to make earth-shattering discoveries and become incredibly famous. Since he's nothing but a dilettante, of course nothing comes out of his naive musings and experiments (which, apropos nothing, reminded me very much of bloggers or people internet discussions boards declaring how they've now proved that climate change is a bluff). Well, not quite "nothing" – isolating himself, and the strain of his feverish experimenting, leads Stindberg to psychosomatic illness (eczema) and exhaustion, and he's put in a hospital. However, his mental condition continues to deteriorate, with increasing paranoid ideation and a belief in the spirit world. After that, the book is basically about how he keeps having these paranoid delusions about things that happen to him, coupled with his newly-found beliefs in spirits, and the ventures into Swedenborgianism and brushes with Catholicism those beliefs lead him to.

In the "real" world, Strindberg feels he's being persecuted by a Russian expat, returns to Sweden to be taken care of by friends, and goes to Austria to meet his now two-year-old daughter. The emphasis is, however, on his mental illness, which colors everything he does and experiences (naturally), and how he thinks he's really being persecuted by a punishing spirit.

Göranson sticks pretty closely to the original novel, as far as I can tell without actually reading it, but being a cartoonist takes some liberties with how he depicts it. Most amusing are a couple of instances where he shows people's reactions to things by utilizing thought balloons that depict characters as manga caricatures, but the overall story is ably told too. Me, I like a crisp, clean and strong ink line, so I'm not really a fan of the more murky, somewhat Tardi-ish look I think the artwork has here, but the coloring works well and like I said, overall it is a story well told.

The big problem for me is rather that Göranson sticks a bit too close to Strindberg's original, because after 80 or so pages (out of a total of about 150), I've grown weary of reading about the torments of poor neurotic August, as there is no character or other development really going on, just more and more delusional ideation applied to what is really basically rather humdrum events. When August decides to go Austria to visit his daughter, a refreshing change of pace and scenery makes the book more interesting again, but by then I can't really rekindle the enthusiasm I had for the first quarter or so of the book.

Göranson has stated that he views Strindberg's Inferno as to a large extent self-ironic, a "look how stupid and crazy I behaved, wink wink" sort of book. I can't really agree with him all the way there, as I have a very hard time seeing Strindberg as capable of real self-irony, but there may well be something to it – the English Wikipedia article mentions (unfortunately without supplying a source) that "evidence also suggests that Strindberg, although experiencing mild neurotic symptoms, both invented and exaggerated much of the material in the book for dramatic effect" (which would lead me to revoke at least some of the sympathy I felt for him while reading about his miseries, if it's true).

Anyway, Göranson is an able comics creator and has created a work that is well worth your time – not least because it means you'll save the time it would take to read Strindberg's own novel. So the book is recommended, if not unconditionally – had Göranson chosen to free himself from Strindberg's original just a bit more (like perhaps taking some more cartooning liberties à la the manga storytelling imagery), I would probably have upgraded my recommendation.

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