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Fukta din aska. C M Bellmans liv från början till slut
(Moisten Your Mortal Ashes. C M Bellman's Life from Beginning to End)
Bonniers, 2002. ISBN: 9100580260
Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2003:1
This novel is a first-person account of Carl Michael Bellman, or rather a fictional autobiography of the eighteenth-century poet and troubadour, “genius of the Swedish Rococo”, whose songs continue to fascinate successive generations of Swedes. They were sung to tunes already familiar to contemporary worshippers of Bacchus; Bellman was adamant that his two most famous song-cycles, Fredmans epistlar (Fredman’s Epistles, 1790) and Fredmans sånger (Fredman’s Songs, 1791), must be published together with their music. This was extremely costly, and goes some way to explain why it took so long for them to appear in authorized print. His vivid glimpses of life, love and Bacch-analian excess in and around Stockholm are not simply drinking songs; there is more to them than mere toasts to pleas-ure before death knocks on the door.
Ernst Brunner, who lives in the same district of Stockholm as Bellman did in his younger days, has obviously researched his subject thoroughly; the result is a fascinating and colourful depiction both of the poet and contemp-orary Stockholm. Rarely, the publisher’s blurb says, has poverty with its accom-panying sound and smell – not to say stench – risen so powerfully from the heart of the City; never has Bellman been portrayed in so many facets. The author has drawn on existing Bellmaniana, historical writings and other source material, stressing that his book is fiction, and therefore does not claim to be “true” according to the strict rules of scholarship; a comprehensive, scholarly Bellman biography still has to be written. The novel is an admirable achievement that adds imaginative but plausible details to the bare bones of known fact by chronicling Bellman’s thoughts and reactions throughout his life in “this journal of trifles and great things that was to be my time on earth”. One’s lasting impression is the images of poverty and squalor, of starvation and non-existent hygiene behind the glittering Rococo facade with its lice, gnats and vermin, disease and high infant-mortality at every level of society – no doubt an essential background to the Bellman story.
Born in 1740, Bellman died in the bitterly cold winter of 1795 of consump-tion, the same disease that took the lives of his parents and some of his surviving siblings. The eldest son, he had a happy and sheltered childhood in comfortable and intellectually stimulating surroundings with private tutors, influential family friends and older relatives of status and wealth. Brunner dwells on the five-year-old’s playful taste for the musical qualities of words and his pleasure in music, and how he developed a talent for mimicry and performing. On his fourteenth birthday his father, already immensely proud of the ease with which his son could handle rhyme and verse, presented him with his grandfather’s cittern, the instrument that was to accompany him throughout his life until a year or two before his death when he had to pawn it to settle a tavern bill.
Completely unsuited to the humdrum duties of a bank official or civil servant, Bellman preferred life in the taverns with wealthy and titled friends, as well as dedicated fellow-servants of Bacchus. Soon he was making a name for himself as a court poet among the nobility and gentry, fellow artists and the royal household. As Brunner says: why not be their funny man when he was a nobody and they had everything and wanted to be amused? As a mimic, improvisor and entertainer Bellman was unsurpassed; he composed countless songs on the spur of the moment. Not one to deny himself the pleasures of the flesh and the fair sex, his office was the tavern. It was here that he first met Fredman, the former royal watchmaker and now a decrepit drunk close to death from consumption; he was soon to rise from the dead and be immortalized in the Epistles of St Fredman, a new project that was artistically much superior to Bellman’s earlier drinking songs. He was already suffering from consumption himself when he married Lovisa Grönlund in 1777; it was to be a happy and harmonious relationship, blessed with four sons, the second of whom died tragically of smallpox at the age of two.
Their worsening financial situation forced them to move into ever poorer lodgings, in spite of an annual pension granted by the King, and Bellman died destitute in his home in February, 1795, after a spell in the debtor’s jail in the Royal Palace guardhouse the year before. Brunner portrays Bellman’s last public performance in the autumn of 1794 at a private dinner-party in the home of the Opera director; by then he was a pathetic sight in his old-fashioned, worn clothes and the make-up that Lovisa had tried to smarten him up with. He felt shy and tired of always being the jester for fine ladies and gentlemen, but after he had emptied a bottle or two, he sang for his supper yet again, as he had done so many times before throughout his life. A fiasco was averted, and he brought the house down by singing some of the Epistles, imitating a wide range of wind instruments – a final fling of true artistry.
Also by Ernst Brunner
- Yngling på guld (Youth on Gold). Reviewed by Kerstin Schofield in SBR 2008:1.
Other reviews by Birgitta Thompson
- Lotta Lundberg, Ön (The Island). Reviewed in SBR 2012:2.
- Carl-Johan Vallgren, Havsmannen (The Merman). Reviewed in SBR 2012:2.
- Mikael Niemi, Skjut apelsinen (Shoot the Orange). Reviewed in SBR 2011:1.
- Sigrid Combüchen, Spill. En damroman (Waste. A Ladies' Novel). Reviewed in SBR 2011:1.
- Marianne Jeffmar, En vass obändig längtan. En norrländsk roman (A Sharp Ferocious Longing. A Norrland Novel). Reviewed in SBR 2009:2.
- Lena Törnqvist and Suzanne Öhman-Sundén (eds.), Ingen liten lort. Astrid Lindgren som opinionsbildare (No Little Bit of Filth. Astrid Lindgren as a Public Opinion Campaigner). Reviewed in SBR 2007:2.
- Håkan Nesser, och Piccadilly Circus ligger inte i Kumla (and Piccadilly Circus Is Not in Kumla). Reviewed in SBR 2002:2.
- Merete Mazzarella, "Då svånger sig sommaren kring sin axel." Om konsten att bli gammal ("Then Summer Turns On its Axle". On the Art of Growing Old). Reviewed in SBR 2001:1.
- Merete Mazzarella, Där man aldrig är ensam. Om läsandets konst (Where One is Never Alone. On the Art of Reading). Reviewed in SBR 2001:1.
- Henning Mankell, Danslärarens återkomst (The Return of the Dancing-Teacher). Reviewed in SBR 2001:1.
- Clas Zilliacus (ed.), Finlands svenska litteraturhistoria. Andra delen: 1900-talet. Upslagsdel (Finland's Swedish Literary History. Part Two: The 20th Century. Reference Section). Reviewed in SBR 2001:1.
- Henning Mankell, Pyramiden (The Pyramid). Reviewed in SBR 2001:1.
- Tove Jansson, Meddelande. Noveller i urval 1971-1997 (Message. Selected Short Stories 1971-1997). Reviewed in SBR 1998:2.
- Carina Burman, Den tionde sånggudinnan (The Tenth Muse). Reviewed in SBR 1996:2.
- Anita Goldman, I själen alltid ren: om Sigrid Hjertén (Always Pure in Heart: on Sigrid Hjertén). Reviewed in SBR 1996:1.
- Thomas Millroth, Molards salong (The Molard Salon). Reviewed in SBR 1993:2.
Other reviews in SBR 2003:1
- Gerda Antti, Livet skriver kapitel (Life Writes its Chapters). Reviewed by Sarah Death.
- Majgull Axelsson, En stad av slott (A City of Castles). Reviewed by Linda Schenck.
- Stewe Claeson, Rönndruvan glöder (The Rowan's Cluster Glows). Reviewed by Charles Harrison-Wallace.
- Stig Claesson, Efter oss syndafloden (Après nous le déluge). Reviewed by Henning Koch.
- Åke Edwardson, Segel av sten (Sails of Stone). Reviewed by Irene Scobbie.
- Anna Ehn, Man ska vara tyst när man önskar (Make a Silent Wish). Reviewed by Sarah Death.
- Per Gunnar Evander, Plötsligt medan dimman lättar (Suddenly While the Mist is Lifting). Reviewed by Rick McGregor.
- Theodor Kallifatides, Den sjätte pasageraren (The Sixth Passenger). Reviewed by Peter Linton.
- Maaret Koskinen, I begynnelsen var ordet: Ingmar Bergman och hans tidiga författarskap (In the Beginning Was the Word: Ingmar Bergman and his early writings). Reviewed by Annika Lindskog.
- Björn Larsson, Den sanna berättelsen om Inga Andersson (The True Story of Inga Andersson). Reviewed by Tom Geddes.
- Ulla-Lena Lundberg, Marsipansoldaten (The Marzipan Soldier). Reviewed by Silvester Mazzarella.
- Henning Mankell, Innan frosten (Before the Frost). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson.
- Jan Myrdal, Gubbsjuka. Reviewed by Eivor Martinus.
- Cilla Neumann, Dem oss skyldiga äro (Those Who Trespass Against Us). Reviewed by Linda Schenck.
- Håkan Nesser, Kära Agnes! (Dear Agnes!). Reviewed by Stig Olsson.
- Johanna Nilsson, Rebell med frusna fötter (Rebel With Frozen Feet). Reviewed by Sarah Death.
- Elisabeth Rynell, Till Mervas (To Mervas). Reviewed by Irene Scobbie.
- Niklas Rådström, Kvartett (Quartet). Reviewed by Anne Born.
- Friedrich Strindberg, Under jorden i Berlin (Underground in Berlin). Reviewed by Eivor Martinus.
- Jerker Virdborg, Svart krabba (Black Crab). Reviewed by Stig Olsson.
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