Natur och Kultur, 2012.
Reviewed by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Faction
The first thing the reader notices about the physical appearance of the novel Mitt grymma öde by Carl-Michael Edenborg is the look and feel of it: a beautiful, black, slightly rubbery cover featuring the blood-dripping chiaroscuro painting ‘Judith slaying Holofernes’ by the seventeenth century painter Artemisia Gentileschi. It is emblematic of the way Edenborg creates his picture of the life and times of the world famous composer Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) in this novel.
Edenborg has a Ph.D. in the history of ideas and works as a critic, writer, translator, and publisher at Vertigo publishing house. Mitt grymma öde is Edenborg’s debut as a novelist. Although based on the few known facts about Handel’s life, the novel is a fantasy rather than a romanticised biography. The story is told in the first person and in the present tense, apart from the Epilogue which covers the period between 1738, when Handel suffered his first stroke and the year of 1759, when he died.
‘I was Händel. I am nobody. This is my tale of immortality and beauty.’ With these words the novel sets off, and Edenborg takes the reader for a whirling roller coaster ride through the baroque age. We follow Handel from Halle in Germany, where he was born into a non-musical family, to Italy. Handel, already famous for his operas, works his way up in the courts of the nobility, often sleeping with his illustrious patrons. In Italy he is inspired and fascinated by the unearthly beauty of the castrato singers’ angelic voices. A fascination so strong that Edenborg lets Handel ‘deliver’ an ‘angel’ himself by taking to the knife and castrating the little boy Domenico in Naples, in the so-called angel factory. Handel then travels to England, where he settles in 1712 and remains for the rest of his life, setting up three opera companies, but later moving off in other artistic directions. He gains particular recognition for his oratorios.
Handel despises women and looks upon himself as asexual despite his often brutal sex with men (Edenborg lets his protagonist be the victim of rape several times). The only real love he feels is for Domenico, whom he hasn’t seen in decades but whose testicles he keeps in a small case as a memento. Domenico has become quite a well-known castrato singer and Handel manages to persuade him to come and work with him in London. Despite being a lover of women, Domenico makes Handel happy for a while. When Domenico leaves him, Handel has a nervous breakdown and a stroke shortly afterwards.
Edenborg presents his story in a lively, bombastic style, dark and colourful at the same time, with hedonistic scenes, highs and lows, in which he brings Handel to life as a fat, ugly megalomaniac, full of self-contempt but capable of great insight into human character. Edenborg’s style reminds me of that of another Swedish writer, the famous Sven Delblanc, who was a master of the mixture of solemnity and vulgarity, of baroque writing, fine metaphors and very refined characterisation. And who, by the way, also wrote a novel on the life of some famous castrato singers, Kastrater (The Castrati, 1975).
With its repetition of sometimes perverse scenes, Edenborg’s exuberant style may be too much for some readers. In my opinion, however, Mitt grymma öde works very well. I was swept away by this daring, overwhelming, baroque and sometimes humorous novel about the creation of art and the desire for beauty.