Norstedts, 2006. ISBN: 9789113015989
Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2008:1
Why does Agneta Pleijel turn history into novels? Why select particular elements of history for fictional makeover? She is an outstandingly good writer, observant, emotionally aware and somewhat melancholic.Varying in form – novels, plays, poetry, journalism – and rich in ideas, her work is focused on the side effects on people of time passing.As she says, in a characteristic sentence from her foreword to Vid floden (By the River, 2003: a volume of two plays about reminiscing): “We are standing on the banks of the swift-running river of time or go wading into the rapids, sometimes with our eyes closed”. Individual memories seem to interest her even more than the collectively held records of history. Personal recall is important in her recent plays and poetry, as is documentary material in her recent novels, from Fungi (1993), about scientific exploration in the nineteenth century, via Lord Nevermore (2000) about travels during the twentieth century, to the two published novels of her new trilogy, set mainly in Stockholm during the last four decades of eighteenth century . Drottningens chirurg is the first and Kungens komediant the second instalment of the trilogy. Royalty mattered in those days: the shift of power in the early 1770s from King Adolf Frederick and his Queen to their glamorous son Gustav affected every aspect of Sweden’s political and cultural life. In the surgeon’s story, the emphasis is on courtly culture and the absurdly unfair trickle-down of royal patronage, rather than on the characters of the dull royals. On the other hand, King Gustav III was a complex, talented man and his presence dominates every turn of the tale told by one of the leading comic actors of his day. Agneta Pleijel recreates the past carefully, filling in with beautifully assembled detail. Her sensual alertness to “what it was like” is moving and convincing. Historical novels inevitably leave the reader wondering about the relative proportions of colourful authorial touches and documentary precision, but as far as my checking goes, both these books are alive with authenticity. It must have helped with the recreation of that dirty and violent little city that was Stockholm to have welldocumented actual citizens as protagonists.The surgeon, Herman Schützer, started out as the ambitious son of an immigrant German barbersurgeon and went on to become an ennobled court medic, but died a poor and embittered old man.We first meet him hurrying along to an interesting obstetric case: a dwarf is in the last stages of labour. Schützer specialised in the endless complications of giving birth and was confident enough to attempt a caesarean section, the first in Sweden.A bevy of medical colleagues crowded into bedroom: classically, the operation was a success, but the patient died.The baby survived, though and becomes a key character in the novel, a bright, kindly, pocket-sized person. Louisa, known as Liten (Little), is the trusted housemaid in the Schützer household, a go-between helping Schützer’s frustrated wife and a protective friend of the doctor’s boy apprentice Lars. That boy, who quickly drops medicine in favour of acting, is the fictional impersonation of Lars Hjortsberg, a leading actor with a talent for comic roles. His birth in 1772 coincided with young Gustav III stepping dramatically onto the political stage at the head of a rebellious, nationalistic party. Gustav's story is the heart of the second novel, not only because he is a fascinating man with a flamboyant line in politics, but because his life gives so much reason for thought about private and public, learning and action, artifice and reality. Arrogant and sensitive, torn between his royal role and inclination towards the arts, Gustav III must have seen himself in the kings of the plays “in the French style” which he loved so much. His obsession with theatre and opera makes Lars Hjortsberg an invaluable engine driving the novel’s narrative onwards. Lars is an especially favoured boy-actor, who, while still in his teens, is chosen to read aloud to the King. Sometimes hiding behind a curtain, Lars stays with his King after the shooting at the famous masked ball and observes him as he dies slowly in fever and pain. In terms of novel construction, the crucial difference between the two books is the mode of narration. Schützer’s story is told plainly but with verve, plenty of unnerving materia medica and sharp insights into the intellectual ruthlessness of some professionals.The dramatic tension rises as Schützer becomes locked into an agonising, career-wrecking dispute with a wellconnected colleague. His wife hopelessly endures both her husband’s distractedness and the incurable mixture of alcoholism and poverty that finally kills her lover. The story of Lars and the King is told by the aging actor in a flow of monologue, delivered to the elderly Liten, who never interrupts.The monologue format suits the man and the actor, but makes the rather shallow, sentiment-driven Lars dominate the narrative far more than is good for it. He delivers a novel-length confession, a partly self-obsessed, partly self-mocking tale of an exciting, successful life with its full share of mistakes and misdeeds – including raping Liten after the King’s death.The nakedly told rape scene is oddly unreal, compared to the snapshots of life on the stage and the episodes from the lives of the French actors, who changed the stale court presentations into real, popular theatre. Do these two books get us any closer to finding an answer to the questions about what draws Agneta Pleijel to write inside a framework of history? She is quoted as having recently said: “[my books] are tales told by the camp-fire ... made from an alloy of my language, knowledge and experience ... with religion and history as my tools and my aids on the road towards maturity.” Religion features hardly at all in these two books; it was a sceptical age and neither the surgeon nor the actor care very much. Gustav III loved the great Enlightenment writers, even if he had little sympathy for any populist political ideas. But both novels demonstrate elegantly how history can aid maturity through observing and identifying with the humanity of shadowy figures from the past.