Strindberg’s telephone tragedy


With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that the telephone and telecommunications were indicative of the modern age throughout the 1900s. The telephone provided direct and instantaneous communications between people, making it easier for them to both establish and maintain close relationships, irrespective of geographical constraints, which in a historical perspective imposed a natural separation between people located in different places.

August Strindberg was undoubtedly fascinated by the potential of telecommunications technology. Strindberg did pen the short story “Half a sheet of foolscrap” which was published in 1903 in a collection of short stories entitled “In Midsummer days and other tales.” Many Swedes have read the story, at least when they were in school, where its short length of less than half a page made it suitable study material.

In “Half a sheet of foolscrap,” Strindberg structured his story around combinations of numbers. These numbers would have been incomprehensible in the 1870s in which “The Red Room” was set, but just a few years later, they were laden with meaning.

The story in “Half a sheet of foolscrap,” takes place within the course of a few minutes during a day in Stockholm in the early 1900s. A young man is in the process of moving. His apartment is already empty, as he makes a last inspection to ensure that nothing has been forgotten. As he is leaving, he notices a half sheet of paper that is tacked to the wall by the phone on which numerous telephone numbers have been written.

The young man takes down the sheet of paper and begins to read what Strindberg describes as “the whole beautiful story playing out over the short span of two years. Everything that he wished to forget was recorded there on a half sheet of paper.” At the top is the name Alice, the most beautiful name he knows, since it was his fiancée’s. He then sees various numbers to his workplace, the florist, a furniture dealer and the Royal Opera. These numbers remind him of their engagement, their wedding, moving to their own apartment and a visit to the opera as newlyweds. This is followed by the number to the mid-wife and a memory of happiness.

But further down there is a telephone number to the pharmacist, and below that yet another number, which he is “incapable of reading, for his eyes began to dim as might be experienced by a person drowning at sea who is trying to see through salt water. But there it was: the funeral home. Surely that says enough. One larger, one smaller, needless to say, coffin.”

Author: Jan Garnert

Telephone, 1893 wall model

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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