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Per Olov Enquist's
The Visit of the Royal Physician
Boyd Tonkin

This article appeared in the 2004 Supplement.

The Swedish novelist, playwright and screenwriter Per Olov Enquist won the 2003 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Visit of the Royal Physician. A prolific, innovative and often controversial figure in Swedish and Scandinavian culture since the 1960s, Enquist shared the £10,000 award with his translator, Tiina Nunnally. The Visit of the Royal Physician (published in the UK by Harvill Press) beat Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a formidable runner-up, as well as shortlisted novels by José Saramago, Juan Carlos Somoza, Peter Stephan Jungk and Frédéric Beigbeder. Enquist’s historical drama, a success in 20 countries, had already by that stage taken both the best foreign novel award in France, and Sweden’s August Prize.

The Independent award, which is generously supported by Arts Council England, is the most lucrative British honour for fiction in translation. It also ranks as one of the few competitions in which translated work from many languages compete with one another. In the preceding year, the prize had been won by W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz; in 2004, the victor was Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.

This was the first major British honour for Per Olov Enquist, who turns 70 in 2004. He came in person to accept the prize at the ceremony at London’s Royal Festival Hall. There he made a pointed and timely speech in which – in April 2003 – he lamented the “dreadful war” just then unleashed in Iraq. Many English-language critics endorsed the assessment of the Independent prize panel, which consisted of the novelist and critic Ahdah Soueif, the poet and linguist Jack Mapanje, the translation specialist Professor Susan Bassnett, Amanda Hopkinson (then the Arts Council’s international literature officer, but now director of the British Centre for Literary Translation), and Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor of The Independent. In the Daily Telegraph, Kathryn Hughes called the feeling evoked by The Visit of the Royal Physician “dream-like, the style spare, the effect utterly beguiling”. Caroline Moore of the Sunday Telegraph described the book as “hovering brilliantly and most strangely between bald historical fact and poetic fiction”. In the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Levi applauded “an extraordinarily elegant and gorgeous novel”, which Bruce Bawer of the New York Times praised for its “admirable virtuosity”. Writing in World Literature Today, Anna Paterson simply paid tribute to “an almost perfect historical novel”.

Born in rural northern Sweden in 1934, Enquist has published fiction for 40 years: The Crystal Eye, his debut, appeared in 1961. He combines a modernist’s interest in formal experiment with an investigative journalist’s nose for the historical incident – recent or remote – that can illuminate an entire era or society. If this richly patterned blend of documentary density and taut, elliptical drama brings to mind a US writer such as E. L. Doctorow, then Enquist’s image-rich and fat-free historical narratives suggest a slightly more left-field comparison: the English novelist Beryl Bainbridge, who tells history in glittering fragments in such books as Master Georgie or Every Man for Himself.

Many of Enquist’s best-known works of fiction stem, like The Visit of the Royal Physician, from thoroughly-researched real events. They include The Legionnaires (1968), based on the experience of German troops who fled to Sweden at the end of the Second World War, and The March of the Musicians, set among the sawmill workers of northern Sweden. Enquist has also worked intermittently in the Swedish and Danish theatre for 30 years, as both playwright and director. As a screenwriter, he has helped create films that include Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror and Jan Troell’s biopic Hamsun, about the Norwegian author.

The Visit of the Royal Physician relates, in a flinty, lyrical and fast-moving style that Tiina Nunnally brought beautifully into English, the true tale of an abortive Danish revolution in the 1770s. Caroline Mathilde, youngest sister of George III of England, is married off as “breeding stock” to the disturbed and often demented teenage king, Christian VII of Denmark. In this declining feudal backwater, the reactionary nobles rule; the drunken, inbred puppet-kings perform; and the people mutely suffers. Then the unexpectedly strong-minded and resourceful English bride meets Struensee, a dashing and radical court doctor from Germany who is imbued with the reforming dreams of the Enlightenment. The pair form an alliance against the malign but cunning Protestant fundamentalist and court adviser, Count Guldberg. Their friendship deepens, fitfully but inevitably, into a passionate affair. Struensee assumes the regency of Denmark as the troubled king languishes in anxiety and fantasy. His whirlwind revolution-from-above abolishes torture, unyokes the serfs, frees the press and transforms the country from the most archaic to the most advanced of European lands, at the frantic rate of 564 decrees per year.

Inevitably, it all ends in blood and tears. The old guard regroups, conspires, stages a counter-coup. Struensee, who banished torture, now becomes the premier victim of its comeback. As he dies on the scaffold, Caroline Mathilde is bundled into exile. There’s a happy coda, however: the couple have had a daughter, Louisa Augusta. A generation later, with Struensee’s liberating legacy once more honoured after the French Revolution, she rejoins the bloodlines of European nobility. “Today, there is hardly any European royal house” that cannot trace its lineage back to Struensee and Caroline Mathilde. Although Enquist does not specify it, I calculate that – thanks to the Danish forebears of Philip of Greece – that currently includes the British House of Windsor.

It would be child’s play to underscore the uncanny contemporary echoes in this novel. The despised teenage English princess who takes a doctor lover, and schemes her way into an authority which she wields with glee, must bring to mind the the late Diana, Princess of Wales for British readers.

The clique of Enlightenment utopians who believe that freedom and modernity must be imposed on traditional folk by their well-meaning betters summon up the radical elitism that has vitiated so many revolutionary movements in the modern age. The clash of values and feelings between secular, liberal Struensee and the pious, repressive conservatism of Guldberg is one that still echoes through dozens of nations and cultures at the start of the twenty-first century. All of this up-to-the-minute relevance matters to the novel, but what makes The Visit of the Royal Physician a genuine literary marvel is quite different: the nerve-jangling ferocity and intensity of its human drama.

Whatever you may find hollow or hackneyed about period fiction, rest assured that Enquist knows exactly how to avoid it. His people never act like periwigged marionettes on an over-dressed stage (although he cleverly explores poor King Christian’s obsession with the theatre as an image of his artificial, spotlit fate). Instead, Enquist’s figures hate and plot and love and dread with a reckless energy that wipes out the emotional distance between them and us, while never giving way to any anachronistic language or beliefs. His language mingles poetry and documentary forms with an almost shocking intensity.

The novel’s final act – the revolution’s defeat and Struensee’s agonising humiliation – is a bleakly touching masterpiece of personal and political collapse. Enquist proves too wise, too shrewd and (above all) too skilled a novelist ever to plump in a simplistic manner for the “progressive” or “conservative” side of the arguments that have roared through the novel. “How could someone conquer the world if he was only good, and lacked the courage to be evil?” asks the disgraced, still-naïve doctor as he faces the death of his body and his hopes. “How was it then possible to put a lever under the house of the world?” Reformers and idealists of every stripe are still looking for that lever.