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BOOKS OF THE TIMES STRINDBERG. By Michael Meyer. 651 pages. Illustrated. Random House. $24.95. AUGUST STRINDBERG doubted whether tuberculosis really existed, but he believed in vampires. He was also convinced that he had mastered the art of making gold. Not long after X-rays were discovered, he confided to a friend that he himself had discovered them 10 years before; on the other hand he dismissed radium as a fraud. Once, while sitting in an open-air restaurant, he suddenly produced a syringe and injected an apple on a nearby tree with morphia, explaining to the proprietor that he was a botanist. On another occasion, during a visit to the zoo, he began expounding his theory that gorillas were descended from a union between a shipwrecked sailor and a female monkey; by way of proof he produced two photographs that he carried around, showing the alleged similarities between the palm of an old sailor's hand and a monkey's paw. If his scientific ideas were unorthodox, so were some of the methods his enemies resorted to - as he supposed - in their efforts to do him harm. Along with elaborate schemes involving gas or poison, they were ready to use any psychological weapon that came to hand. When someone sent him a box of expensive cigarettes, he told a friend that whoever it was knew that he loved this particular brand but could only afford cheap cigarettes, and had sent them so that once they were finished he would no longer be satisfied with ordinary ones. The hapless friend was then obliged to explain that he had sent them himself and apparently forgotten to enclose a covering note (but perhaps Strindberg guessed as much and was playing complicated games). To follow Strindberg through the thickets and rough places of his career is to traverse territory that often borders on madness - and however well you get to know the general pattern of his obsessions, the intricate ways in which they worked themselves out are likely to remain perpetually disconcerting. If he hadn't gone to extremes, he would not have been Strindberg; but it is what he was able to bring back from those extremes that makes him important. Michael Meyer proves as admirable a guide to this problematic genius as anyone could ask. Meyer sees no call for a drastic reinterpretation of his work as a whole. He salutes his novels and stories (which are much esteemed by his countrymen), but insists that it is only as a dramatist that he can be considered a giant. Within the plays, the qualities he singles out are the opening up of themes that had previously been largely taboo - sexual antagonism, the disruptions of neurotic jealousy, hysteria, vengefulness, ''those dark corners of the human soul which most of us seal off like poisoned wells'' - and the parallel exploration of the frontier zone where realism and fantasy converge. As for Strindberg the man, it is the detail that makes Mr. Meyer's portrait so absorbing. Almost everything about him, for good or ill, has a peculiar vividness, from his choice of a favorite color when answering a journalist's questionnaire (''zinc-yellow and amethyst violet'') to his way of terminating a conversation with Mr. and Mrs. George Bernard Shaw (he ''took out his watch and said, in German: 'At two o'clock I am going to be sick' ''). If his attitudes were often ugly - his anti-Semitic letters at the time of the Dreyfus affair are particularly unpleasant - he could also show impressive courage and strength of character: his complicated but generous dealings with Paul Gauguin are a case in point. And if we see him fighting his demons, or giving way to terrible rages, we are also reminded that he had a weird, self-mocking, highly distinctive sense of humor. There is the letter he wrote while living in Austria, for instance, after he had heard about his first real success in France: ''This is happiness, this sense of power, sitting in a hut on the Danube among six women who regard me as a semi-idiot, and knowing that in Paris, the intellectual centre of the world, 500 people are sitting in an auditorium silent as mice, stupid enough to expose their brains to my powers of suggestion.'' At other times, no doubt, he was just weird, without benefit of the humor or self-mockery. The letter he sent to one of his daughters, complaining about neuralgia and carbon monoxide poisoning, anticipating that when his book ''Inferno'' was published he would be reviled as a charlatan or a madman, must surely be, as Mr. Meyer says, ''one of the most extraordinary letters that can ever have been addressed to a child of three.'' The temptation is simply to go on quoting. How well Mr. Meyer writes about Strindberg's friendships and quarrels with other artists, for example; how interesting he is about the initial reception of the plays both inside and outside Sweden. He has written a splendid book, fully worthy to stand beside his earlier biography of Ibsen.

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