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Paul and Peter

The novella, “Paul and Peter,” was first published in Strindberg’s collection Svenska Oden och Afventyr (Swedish Destinies and Adventures) in 1882. Strindberg was thirty-three and had already proven himself to be one of Sweden’s most versatile young writers. The Royal Theater had staged his first plays, The Outlaw and The Secret of the Guild. He was a journalist who wrote for major publications ranging from Dagens Nyheter (The Daily News) to Finsk Tidskrift (Finnish Magazine). He translated English children’s books into Swedish: Hush-a-bye-Baby, Tottie’s Nursery Rhymes and Childhood Delight. He wrote poetry and had published his first best-selling novel, The Red Room.

      But in the early 1880s Strindberg changed course. He had become intensely interested in the life and lore of "simple folk," and decided to go on a crusade against his peers who, according to him, only considered the king and court as constituting the Swedish people. The result was his first major work, Old Stockholm, which appeared in serial form between 1880 and 1882. This was followed by a wild and idiosyncratic thousand-page book with a tongue-twisting title: The Swedish People at Work and Play in War and Peace, at Home and Abroad, Or, A Thousand Years of the History of Swedish Education and Customs. He wrote this book in eighteen months.

      “Paul and Peter” was written during this period of frenzied immersion in Swedish lore. Strindberg introduces peasant language as a literary vehicle in opposition to the conservative and reactionary trends of the time. The urban merchant Paul is contrasted with the rural landowner Peter, and the creation of cultural and psychological tensions between these two protagonists was to become a characteristic element in Strindberg’s major plays. The controversies that his "Swedish" works unleashed finally forced him to flee to France with his family. 

      “Paul and Peter” was published in English in 1915 in 
The German Lieutenant and Other Stories. This new translation of an extended excerpt from the novella reveals an important side of Strindberg’s work.


Christmas Night lies bitter cold and silent over the capital, and all life seems frozen. Even the wind is still, and the stars flicker like minuscule fires that strive to keep life going. A lonely night watchman hurries through the streets so his feet do not freeze through, and the old wooden houses crack loudly as their beams huddle together in the cold.

      In the house of merchant Paul Horning, in Drakatorn Lane, the mistress is already up and about, but she dares not break the night-law and light a lamp or start a fire in the hearth before the morning all-clear is rung. But any moment now the matin bells of the town church will ring, for she feels it must be almost four o’clock. The whole family is going to Spanga for the Christmas morning service, and first everyone must have some warm food in their stomachs. She fumbles for her best dress, which she had laid out on a chair, and begins getting herself ready in the dark as best she can. But dressing in the dark is too difficult, and she can’t wait any longer. She lights a horn lantern, hoping the night watchman will respect the Yuletide and not create a row, and tiptoes through the small, low-ceilinged room. Father is still half-sleeping, and little Sven is far away in the land of dreams, although his head is resting on a wooden horse and he has a shuttlecock in his hand. And Karen, who was confirmed last autumn, is also asleep behind the curtain, and her new velvet jacket and her necklace of Bohemian crystal are hanging on the bedpost. The Christmas tree with its red apples and Spanish nuts casts a long jagged shadow over everything, making the semidarkness uncanny. The mistress goes to the kitchen to wake Lisa who, sleeping on the bench, springs up and lights the iron lamp. Lisa is not worried about the law forbidding fire during the night: Truls, the night watchman, is a good friend of hers, and, in any event, the kitchen looks out onto the yard. Then the mistress bangs the ceiling with a broomstick, a wake-up call for Olle, the clerk, who sleeps up in the attic. Olle answers by banging the floor three times with his boot.

      Then she goes back to the bedroom and sews a hook on Father’s best starched shirt, well ironed and stiff- collared. She also takes little Sven’s red stockings out of the oak cabinet, holds them up to the light and sews a quick stitch or two in them. She wakes Karen, who slips her small freshly bathed feet into straw slippers and starts dressing behind the curtain, as they live crowded together. And now Sven wakes up, with a red mark on his cheek from the wooden horse. He immediately starts throwing his shuttlecock. It flies over the curtain but comes hurtling back, landing on father’s nose. He too wakes up, rumbling an amiable “Good morning” and “Merry Christmas” from the massive bed built like a small house.

      The little boy wants to scramble behind the curtain to see his sister’s Christmas presents, but she squeals that he can’t—she’s washing.

      The matin bells ring from the town church. Everyone bids each other good morning, and Mother lights the sconces in the large room. Sven comes in wearing only his shirt and, sitting down under the Christmas tree, pretends he is in the woods and immediately starts nibbling at an apple from the back so that no one will notice. But the apple whirls on its string, and Mother comes and says she will spank his bottom if he doesn’t go and get dressed immediately.

      Lisa lights the stove, and the flames thunder up the chimney. She puts a saucepan of milk on to boil. Mother spreads a tablecloth over the large dining table in the living room and sets down the mugs, but at Father’s place she puts a polished silver jug. She also scoops curls of butter onto a plate and cuts pieces off the Christmas loaf and the ham, for you have to have food in your stomach before you go to church.

      Olle has also been up for quite a while and has already been down to the stables, roused the stableboys and groomed the bay horses. The sledge is pulled out of the shed and its fur covers are beaten. In minutes the vehicle is out on the street, and Olle lights the torches, which illuminate the house wall like a wildfire. Jons cracks his whip as a sign that the sledge has been hitched up, and the bays impatiently snort and scrape with their hooves. In the merchant’s house everyone is rushing about looking for their overcoats; furs and hats, Lapland snowshoes and muffs are put on, and Karen, who is the first one ready, is allowed to go down and bring mugs of warm beer to Olle and Jons. After Father has finished dressing, he downs a glass of mulled French wine and goes downstairs. Mother locks all the doors and follows him with Sven and Lisa. Finally everybody is assembled outside on the street.

      The sledge is gigantic, as big as a ship, with three rows of seats. Father and Mother sit in the first row with little Sven, Karen and Olle in the second, and Lisa and Jons holding torches in the back. Father climbs in last, as he wants to check that the horses have been well groomed and the bits and harnesses securely fastened. Then he heaves himself onto the sledge, whose frame creaks loudly. He takes the reins, asks one last time if anyone has forgotten anything, cracks his whip, nods his head toward the windows of the old wooden house and they start off.

      First they head to the main market square, where all their friends among Stockholm’s horsy set are gathered. Everyone is there already, sitting in their sledges, stout brewers, and thin bakers, and the whole square is filled with the smoke of their torches. whips crack, sledgebells ring, and the procession sets off down the slope and out through the town’s northern gate.

      “I can’t wait to see what kind of welcome my brother Peter has in store for us this year,” Paul says to his wife, once everyone has settled in their seats.

      “What do you mean?” she asks, slightly worried.

      “Well, it’s nothing really, just that I might have been a bit hard on him last year with what I charged him for the salt. He looked a bit sour, from what I could tell.”

      “Even if he did, he’ll hardly bring it up now. The two of you don’t meet that often, and even though you’re not real brothers you have always been very close.”

      “Oh, he’s not the kind to let things just blow over! If a hair falls in the soup, nothing will come of our plans for Karen and Mats. But we’ll see! We’ll see!”

      Little Sven is sitting on the straw tugging at the ends of the reins, imagining he is driving the horses. Olle the clerk tries to say a few tender words to Karen, but her thoughts are far away and she doesn’t answer. Lisa, however, lets Jons, who is sitting next to her, take her hand and slip it into his large glove, and from time to time she holds the torch when his fists get frozen through.

      The procession passes below Brunkeberg, across the marshes and out onto the road to Uppsala, and soon the lights of the church in Solna glitter between the pine trees in the dark winter morning. Paul turns and drives away from the other sledges, which are not going any further, and heads for the road that goes to Vasteras and then on to Spanga. Little Sven is astonished by the tall Christmas trees on both sides of the road, which are lit up by the torches one by one and then plunge into darkness again. He thinks he can see little elves standing behind the tree trunks waving with their red hats, but his father tells him that it’s only the red shine of the torches darting through the trees, for he is a city dweller who no longer believes in goblins. But Sven thinks the tall Christmas trees are running alongside the sledge and that the stars are dancing above their tops. His mother explains to him that God lives in the stars, and that they are dancing with joy because on this day baby Jesus was born. This makes sense to little Sven.

      The horses’ hooves thunder as they drive over a bridge. The woods become lighter, the plain widens, and there are small hills here and there dotted with birch groves. Here a light shines out of the window of a hut, there a torch hurries them on, and far over the plain the morning star shines large and beautiful. Olle the clerk tells Karen that it was this very star that guided the shepherds to Bethlehem, but Karen knew that already, for in the capital one knows everything, and Olle was a country boy.

      The road makes a last turn, and through the long branchs of the leafless linden trees the church appears in all its glory. On the church grounds torches have been thrown onto a large bonfire, beside which the sledge drivers are warming themselves after leading their horses into the church stables. Paul cracks his whip and drives around the fire in a grand arc, parading his bay horses in front of the admiring eyes of the farmers.

      At the church door they meet Peter, his wife and his lanky son, Mats. The families embrace, wish each other Merry Christmas, and ask after each other’s health. They talk until the bells start ringing again, and then they all go into the church. Inside it is as cold as a frozen lake, but since you never shiver in good company no one minds, and the sermon and the carols keep you warm; and then there is so much for the young people to see as they move through the congregation greeting each other, mesmerized by all the lights.

      After the morning service everyone goes out again into the churchyard. The stars have disappeared, but the sky in the east is as red-gold as a ripe apple, and the two families quickly drive over to Peter’s house.

      Peter Matson’s property lies a stone’s throw from the church. It is a large cottage with a wing in back, with bedrooms and extra rooms in the attic. A sheaf of unground grain is leaning against the gatepost, and sparrows have already settled in for a Christmas feast. Two fir trees sparkling with hoarfrost stand by the house door. Peter goes to the door, turns and welcomes Paul along with Paul’s wife and household, and everyone goes inside and takes off their furs. Peter’s wife had left church earlier and is already at the oven, warming up the beer. Mats helps Karen out of her fur, and little Sven rolls in the Christmas hay that lies thick on the floor. Peter shows Paul and his wife to a large bench, where they sit under blue and red tapestries showing the Three Wise Men and Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem. Peter sits down at the head of the table.

      The long dining table is a splendid sight. There is no spot larger than the palm of a hand that is not covered by plates or bowls. It is laid out for the Christmas feast, and everything edible in the house is there. The head of a pig grins from a red wooden dish among all the exquisite food: preserves, tongue, roasted meats and briskets; salted fish and dried fish, dishes of butter and loaves of bread, pastries and biscuits, and mugs made of aromatic juniper wood filled with frothy Christmas beer.

      The red glow of the morning glimmers through the small frosty green windows and it looks like summer outside, but the fire in the large hearth spreads its gentle warmth through the room. Peter picks up his clasp knife, cuts a slice off a loaf of bread and with his thumb piles on large mounds of butter, urging his guests to follow his example. They drink the warm beer and Peter, a man of few words, starts to talk, since Paul shows no sign of doing so.

      “Had a good ride out from the city, did you?”

      “A bit bumpy,” Paul answers. “Those bays know how to run, though!”

      Peter doesn’t like showy bay horses from town, and pretends not to see them when Paul comes riding in with them.

      “Were grain sales good for the Christmas season?” Peter asks.

      “Prices are low because those damned Lilanders had an incredible harvest this autumn.”

      “Do you begrudge them that? Don’t curse the fertility of the season, brother. You never know where you’ll end up. The more you curse a goat the more stubborn it gets!”

      “Yes, but can’t I make a living too?”

      “Plow, hack, and sow, and you will reap the crop!”

      “Oh, so we’re back on that subject again, are we?”

      “Yes, and we’ll stick with it! The pastor reads his sermon in church and prays for a good harvest, and merchants from the capital curse when God sends a good crop. To hell with those that profit from the misery of others!”

      Paul was on the point of answering, but the two women begged them for heaven’s sake to keep peace on Christmas day.

      The two men sat silently and glared at each other. In the meantime, Mats and Karen were sitting together in a corner drinking from the same cup, and the two women smiled knowingly at one another.

      “Pass the salt!” Peter said, reaching out with his hand. Mats handed his father the salt, but spilled some on the tablecloth.

      “Be careful with what the Lord provides!” Peter said. “Salt is very expensive.”

      Paul felt the sting, but remained silent. The women began speaking about other things, and the tempest was averted.

      After the meal Paul and Peter went out for some fresh air and to take a look at the fields and livestock. They went first to the cowshed.

      “How much would you give me for this one?” Peter asked, pulling the tail of one of the bulls so hard that it balked.

      “If you can make him an ox and bring him to town in the spring, I’ll let you know.”

      “I’d rather let one of my sows loose in the pea patch than send my ox into town!”

      “We’ll see,” Paul said.

      “What will we see?” Peter asked, leaning his head to one side. “I know your little games, but just because the sow managed to get its snout through the fence doesn’t mean its rump will follow!”

      “We’ll see, we’ll see!”

      Peter didn’t want to pursue the matter. They went on to the stables.

      “How much would you offer me for this one?” and he grabbed and lifted the back leg of a black stallion. “Ten quarters over the backbone.”

      “My left bay is eleven quarters, and my right ten and a half,” Paul said.

      Peter let that pass, and opened the stallion’s mouth to show Paul its beautiful teeth.

      “That’s some sheep of a horse you’ve got there!” Paul said. “Try doing that with one of my bays! You’d never see the light of day again!”

      “As the miller said to the sow, to each his own!”

      The conversation was going nowhere. The two men went to look at the sheep and the pigs, but Paul’s responses were either forced or else he ruined things by bringing up his bay horses again, which were in the church stables. Finally they went outside and walked over to the fields. It was difficult to judge the exact state of the crop because of the snow, but Peter pointed out where he had sown the autumn seed and where he was going to sow the spring seed and which field he was keeping fallow. They looked at the wood for brewing to see if it was dry, and then at the straw stacks to see if they were damp. Then they checked to see if the bees were frozen in their honeycombs and that the geese were not too warm in their shed. By now it was late morning, and the church bells were ringing for the main service.

      Everyone went back to church and dozed on and off till noon, and then returned to Peter’s house to eat. They ate for three hours, stopping to rest at dusk. The men lay down on their benches and fell asleep; the women sat by the hearth where the glow was just enough to keep off the dark, and talked about weaving and baking. Mats and Karen had sat down on a chest and were whispering to each other Olle the clerk had his arm around Lisa’s waist, and Jons squeezed the servant girl’s hand as they sat on the floor, and told riddles which little Sven racked his brains to solve.

      The glow on the hearth grew dimmer and the conversations duller. The men snored, their throats rattling like horseflies in wooden jars. The women nodded off, and Mats and Karen nestled closer together. The young people fell silent, and soon the whole household had slipped into an afternoon sleep.

      Peter’s wife woke up first; it was already completely dark. She blew on the fire in the hearth and lit the lamps. The men gradually woke up, and movement came back into the house. The mothers and young people sat on the straw in front of the hearth and cracked nuts and told legends. Paul brought in a keg of Spanish wine, which he and Peter would swig from while talking and playing cards through the long winter night. They filled their cups and emptied them, Peter feeling that the wine was too sweet for him. Paul boldly picked up the threads of their earlier conversation in order to set things straight.

      “Well, Peter, if you have anything to say about you-know-what, pull out the plug and let the words flow!”

      “All right,” Peter said. “But I always thought that when the true Abraham comes, it is Sara who dances. Fine! So, tell me, what can my son expect as a dowry from your daughter?”

      “I will give my daughter as much as you give your son.”

      Peter scratched his head.

      “Well, that depends on what kind of year I’ll have. A trousseau means money and if I have a bad year there’ll be no money. Right now there’s no way I can tell how things will go— in autumn snow fell on the seed while the field was still wet.”

      “You’re right, you’re absolutely right! I have the same problem,” Paul said. “So let’s postpone everything till autumn, and if we can both put down the same amount we’ll let the wedding bells ring.”

      “Fine! Let’s leave things the way they are. The two young ones can wait till the corn stands ripe in the field.”

      They poured more wine, while the young people swept away the hay and sat down on the floor in a circle to play hide-the-shoe.

      Paul and Peter watched the game silently. Finally, spurred on by the wine, Paul felt a strong urge to start a boisterous conversation, and he knew exactly how to do it.

      “So, Peter,” he said. “Will you be coming to town this winter?”

      Peter sneered, looked at Paul to see if he was serious and said, “No! Absolutely not!”

      “So you’re still set against town life like you’ve been for the past ten years? You wouldn’t look at it through seven fences!”

      “You can have your town! I wouldn’t take it if you threw it at me! I can live without townspeople, but they can’t live without me.”

      “Oh, is that so?”

      “Yes it is so! I have all the meat and hay I need, firewood, lumber, my house, my clothes. What do I need you for? I build my own house, plow my own field and chop my own wood, My wife spins my wool, weaves my clothes, bakes my bread and brews my beer. What do you do? You plunder my corn, tax my forest and empty my shed! You sit on a stone as bare as my hind, and neither sow seeds nor plow but take everything from me and store it in your barns. You eat my bread and drink my beer, you burn my wood and spin my wool. You sit around like a lazy monk and collect tithes. And what do I get in return from you?”

      “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” Paul stammered. “Don’t I give you my salt?”

      “Your salt? You don’t make your own salt! And if you hadn’t set things up so we need you as middlemen, you wouldn’t be able to fleece us either! As for your sugar—I don’t need your sugar, I have my bees!”

      “Don’t I give you my iron?”

      “Your iron? Where do you quarry it from? The gutter? Come on!”

      “Don’t I give you my wine?”

      “And where do you plant the vines, on your rooftops?”

      “What about my silver and gold?”

      “An what would I do with it if you had any? Can I make a knife, a plow, a spade, a rake, or a flax-beater out of silver or gold? Come on! I don’t want to hear about it! Everything you do is useless, and if there weren’t so many fools around to buy your rubbish you’d starve to death! Imagine if all the country bumpkins, as you call them, suddenly came to their senses and stopped exchanging their crop for your rubbish? What would you eat then? Well?”

      “Eat? We don’t only live to eat!”

      “No, but we do eat to live! And it seems that he who eats the other man’s bread can afford to have the stadium and dance halls and learn pretty things, and write books in which you read that everything a lazy man does is good, that stealing is fine as long as you pick up a sword and head off to foreign countries, hanging a rag on a pole, shouting: ’War! war!’”

      “You always come back to that old stadium story! We paid the King for it, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t keep it now that there’s peace!”

      “You paid for it? Really? The original plan was for Stockholm to pay, but then you all started moaning how bad times were because the peasants weren’t buying your rubbish. And then what did you do? You simply made us pay more for salt. Oh, I haven’t forgotten that, nor will I! We farmers ended up paying for that stadium and for all your other little tricks too, for you will have your tricks, all you town folk, like bees in a hive, seeing neither sun nor moon.”

      Peter was beginning to feel the wine, and an image of the detested bay horses, the embodiment of city vanity, crystallized in his mind.

      “And even though you don’t own as much grass as could grow on my chin, you still have the means to keep two bays! And what do they eat? Sugar and salt? Maybe raisins and almonds? And what do your bays do for a living? Do they pull plows? Do they pull logs? Do they draw cans? No! they’d never do that! I know what they pull, but I won’t say! But one thing is certain, your streets are no longer than my turnip field! Plain lazy, that’s what they are! I wouldn’t mind being lazy myself, damn it! Hey, Mother, did you hear all this? You wouldn’t mind being lazy either, would you? Well, let’s get us some nice red bay horses, shall we, and put cordovan leather and silver buttons on their shanks. Come on, Mother, let’s join the lazy crowd! Then we can ride about in a blue-painted sledge with our farmhands and maids and stuff our boots in otterskin bags; we can wear velvet caps on our heads and take long naps at noon and drink Spanish wine with sugar! Come one, Mother, let’s join the lazy crowd!”

      Paul was furious.

      “I see you really like the Spanish wine, even though you didn’t plant it yourself or press the grapes!” he said.

      Peter felt that things were about to blow up, but was too befuddled to realize what was happening.

      “The wine?” he said. “Are you making fun of me? Don’t forget that he who opens his mouth should first be sure his back is covered! Just because one man blows his nose in a silk handkerchief and the other flings his snot onto the ground doesn’t mean they can’t eat from the same trough! And even if you wear a starched collar and have braid trimmings on your shoulders you still have to watch your snout. One has seen worse, and one can dance with a shorter cane than a sowing stick! What the hell did you say just now about the wine? Did I look into your mouth while you were eating my food? Do you think I don’t have any wine of my own to drink? To hell with your wine! Come outside and I’ll show you!”

      Peter flung the rest of the wine out of his cup and stood up to go outside. Paul was held back by the women who begged him, for heaven’s sake, not to follow Peter—Peter would calm down in a few minutes, and the Christmas peace should on no account be disturbed; Peter was jealous, and couldn’t bear it when someone else spoke up.

      Paul wanted to return home immediately, but he gradually let himself be calmed down and joined in the games that the others were playing, while Peter cooled off outside.

      Soon after, there was a knock on the window, and then a knock on the door. The door was opened, and Peter came in wearing a sheep-skin coat. He hobbled about like a julbock, a festive Christmas goat, so that the straw flew, and everyone jumped up onto benches and tables. In minutes the whole house was bubbling with laughter and everyone happily ate and drank late into the night and then lay down to sleep.

      After the Christmas holidays were over, Paul and his family drove back home, and Karen was promised to Mats. The wedding was set for the following autumn, provided that the harvest and business went well. So the new year began with hope for the young and hard work for the old!

Peter Constantine’s translations include The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (Norton), Within Four Walls: The Correspondence Between Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher, 1936–1968 (Harcourt Brace), and Elegy for Kosovo (Arcade Books) by Ismail Kadare. His translation of Six Early Stories (Sun & Moon Press) by Thomas Mann was awarded the PEN Translation Prize, and The Undiscovered Chekhov: Thirty-Eight New Stories (Seven Stories Press) received the National Translation Award.