Monday, September 09, 2013
Opening Line: The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist
This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of the Opening Line series can be found here.
Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII on April 5, 1768, and four years later he was executed.
Sounds like the beginning of a popular history book, doesn't it? But in fact, this is The Visit of the Royal Physician, an historical novel by multi-award-winning Swedish author Per Olov Enquist. If the setting sounds familiar, it's probably because of a surprise hit film last year, A Royal Affair, directed by by Nikolaj Arcel and starring Mads Mikkelsen. Of course, it might also sound familiar because you have Danish connections; according to Mikkelsen, 'It's part of our history, everybody knows about it, but how many details is very individual. Everybody knows about this guy, Struensee the doctor, the German doctor who took over the country, had an affair with the queen, got a baby, and he got beheaded. But details - that's very individual how much you know.' It's a story the more remarkable for being true: an ambitious doctor named Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed royal physician in Denmark to the then king, Christian VII. Christian was mentally ill, although exactly how remains a matter of speculation, and Struensee, an Enlightenment thinker in a country still based on serfdom, succeeded first in calming the king and then in gaining such influence over him that for a brief period, the German doctor became de facto ruler of Denmark. Struensee was prolific and remarkable in his reforms, which tended to be truly excellent ideas, but he was also rash enough to fall into an affair with the queen, Caroline Mathilde, and he evidently lacked the political skill to protect himself with alliances. Early in 1772 he was arrested and imprisoned, and an executioner chopped off first his right hand and then his head. It's a remarkable moment in Danish history, and it's also significant on the international stage. When the French Revolution began in 1789 its Enlightenment thinkers had a severe example to consider. This is what happened to a man who tried to break aristocratic power by non-violent means. Our guillotine for them, or their axe for us.
So the story is an intriguing one, and it's gained international interest in recent years. A Royal Affair is not, strictly speaking, based on The Visit of the Royal Physician; its makers tried to buy the rights, but they'd already been sold elsewhere and the film credits another novel, Prinsesse af blodet by Bodil Steensen-Leth, but Enquist's novel was influential enough that they had to double-check and do some rewrites on an earlier draft of the screenplay. (You'll have to run that article through Google Translate unless you happen to speak Swedish.) Most significant are the changes the film makes to Caroline Mathilde's character, which Enquist writes as ... well, as one of those female characters who are very obviously written by a man, primarily defined by sexuality and her instinctive rule over men, and while she's a well-executed version of that, to this reader at least it's a weakness in the novel, and the film's portrayal of Caroline Mathilde as Enlightenment herself is, if a romantic view, at least more humanising. But that said, the novel is fascinating - and it's not just because of the story. It's also a truly unusual feat of style.
Now, analysing the style of a work in translation is always a provisional business. The translator in this case is Tiina Nunnally, which puts us in pretty safe hands; she's another multi-award-winner, translator of another famous adapted work, Smilla's Sense of Snow, and she's evidently highly regarded in Sweden: it's hard to say which is the bigger tribute, her 2009 award for 'the introduction of Swedish culture abroad' or the fact that in 2007 she got to do a new translation of the beloved classic Pippi Longstocking. Any translation has an element of admixture - I'm sure the foreign editions of my books owe much to their respective translators, and I always remember the story of my friend's mother who first read Wordsworth through the translation of a famous Japanese poet and was deeply disappointed when she finally read the original - but while Nunnally had many choices to make about phrasing, the real feature of Enquist's style is one that survives translation. It's his use of flat, repetitive declaration.
The Visit of the Royal Physician is a deadpan book. Enquist is quite capable of metaphor and poetry when he chooses - Struensee thinks of the long-abused, confounded Christian as having 'frostbite of the soul', for instance - but he makes that choice only rarely. Instead, as befits the Enlightenment theme, the tone is strongly rational, confining itself to dry statement of facts - yet at the same time, it's fraught with emotional tension. In The Spectator, John de Falbe described the style thus:
Enquist writes in short, jerky sentences which often seem to repeat themselves. Although disconcerting at first, the technique works brilliantly. The atmosphere is suitably nervy, while the shifting ground beneath the apparent repetitions is vibrant with stealth and subterfuge.
While not all the sentences are literally short and jerky, he's right that it creates a 'nervy' atmosphere. I'd go further; I'd say it's doom-laden.
Fate and inevitability weigh heavy on the novel. Christian himself is a figure of profound pathos, a sane boy systematically tormented into helplessness at the hands of a court preferring to keep the king weak enough to leave their power unchecked; his preoccupation with acting and theatre, of which the film makes much play, is presented not as an aristocrat's vanity but as the utter confusion between reality and performance of a boy who has spent his entire life required to speak the lines given to him and kept ignorant of anything else. Struensee is, for a man who managed to revolutionise a country not his own, a curiously passive figure: it is Caroline Mathilde who seduces him and guides their sexual encounters, and his regency is unmixed with any desire for power:
It was as if he saw the aperture of history open, and he knew that it was the aperture of life, and he was the only one who could step through this opening. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was his duty.
Fear rather than ambition rules Enquist's Struensee, just as it rules Christian; Enquist's imaginative sympathy is entirely on the side of the frightened, and the Queen's fearlessness is presented as a strength of which Struensee himself is 'afraid', another way in which she dominates him. Struensee is afraid, and he's also 'doomed to destruction' because, as the Queen sees it (and the narrative tends to support her) he's too 'pure-hearted': fear, innocence and virtue are conflated, and those who do not fear, including the instinctual, physical Queen, have an element of monstrosity to them. The entire tone of the novel has a kind of impassioned caution, the desperate restraint of one who has much to say but fears to say too much.
We can hear it in the first sentence, though the style is so unusual that it takes a little time, a little practice getting one's ear in to Enquist's rhythms, before the emotion starts to strain through the facts. It deviates from plain history in one notable omission, for example: it doesn't say which country Christian was 'King' of. A popular textbook, especially one written in Swedish, would more likely say 'King Christian VII of Denmark,' just to make sure that everybody had all the relevant information at the outset. By omitting the reference to the country, the narrative assumes a certain knowledge from us.
Which, in turn, has a curious effect on the names. 'Johann Friedrich Struensee' and 'King Christian VII' are obviously formal, nothing anyone actually speaking to them would employ. But at the same time, leaving out that all-important location - it only crops up in the next paragraph, in which there's mention of 'the Danish court', still expecting the reader to do a little mild deduction, and even then it's only mentioned because it's about to quote the opinion of 'the British Ambassador to the Danish court', locating the sense of Danish foreignness in a character rather than the narrative - sounds as if, in some way, we were hearing about people we all knew. We hear their full names, but we apparently don't need telling who they are. It creates a weird sense of formality, a disconnected courtliness, as if the narrative itself is reluctant to commit straight away to calling them 'Christian' and 'Struensee' as it later does. Knowing already how Struensee's career ended - for this first sentence delivers him dead on arrival - it almost feels like reading a transcript, a statement to the police from a speaker not quite sure he won't be arrested himself if he says the wrong thing.
And we can see why when we consider the sentence's content. A man's 'visit' opens and closes in a few short years, and the close of his visit ends his life. Fortune's wheel is revolving fast in this world: to be near to power - as we must be as readers of stories of the powerful - is to be near to danger, near to death. Caroline Mathilde acknowledges this to herself in the reflection that:
To desire the queen was touch death. She was forbidden, and desired, and anyone who touched the most forbidden of all would have to die. It excited them; she knew that. She saw it in their eyes. And once she was aware of it, all the others seemed to become ensnared, ever more strongly, in an intense and silent radiance.
Enquist adds that this thought 'filled her with a tremendous sense of power', and as moments like this predominate when it comes to our insight into Caroline Mathilde's thoughts, you can see why I described her as feeling very male-written - but thematically it's central to the book and sexuality is only part of it. Life and death are intermingled, and to live too vividly is to court disaster. In a sense, the opening sentence links Struensee's rise and fall almost as cause and effect: had he not become Royal Physician, he would not have been executed. We open, in a sense, with the beginning of the end. (An impression that's heightened by the fact that the first few chapters following describe time after Struensee's death. Death hangs over Struensee before we ever meet him.)
In the face of this morbidity, performance and concealment are key: spontaneous expression tends to be destructive, as in the 'great furious confused rape of Copenhagen' that takes place in anti-Struensee riots, or self-destructive, as when Struensee sleeps with the Queen or his ally Brandt defends himself against a frantic attack from Christian, a defence that will later sign his death warrant. The narrative does not court such destruction. 'Johann Friedrich Struensee' and 'King Christian VII' are not so much naming the people as quoting their names, using an official version that no one could be blamed for saying.
It is, simultaneously, a sentence that speaks of characters more than of history. Note the order: not, 'On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII,' but 'Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII on April 5, 1768...' The subject is the man, not the date. Now, this is a decision made by Nunnally, not Enquist; the original sentence ran thus:
Den 5 april 1768 anställdes Johann Friedrich Struensee som den danske konungen Christian den sjundes livläkare, och avrättades fyra år senare.
- and according to my Scandinavian friends, it would have been grammatically acceptable to put Struensee's name at the start. (And the Danish translation begins with the date too.) Not being a Swedish speaker I'm in no position to comment on the subtleties of Enquist's choice - very probably it involves nuances of language and literary tradition about which I can say nothing sensible - but Nunnally's makes it clear to English eyes that this is a novel, and that Johann Friedrich Struensee will be at the centre of it.
There's an added ironic emphasis that shows up on rereading, especially when we consider the title. Struensee's execution takes place a few pages from the end of the novel, in a section that concludes, '...the axe at last found its mark and severed the head of the German royal physician; and his Danish visit was over.' 'Visit' is one of those words that Enquist charges through repetition, and when we've read the entire book, we can see its significance: the 'visit' is a fatal one, not just a consultation with a patient but his engagement with an entire country and culture which will ultimately destroy him. 'The visit of the royal physician' is, in effect, summarised in the first sentence: we begin with the moment he could first be called 'royal physician', and end where he ends. The 'visit' is, like many other words in the novel, a word that contains more implication, more weight, more inevitability than a single word can comfortably contain.
And it is, indeed, an uncomfortable read, linguistically as well as narratively. This is not a fault in the book: Enquist is evidently a fine writer and Nunnally does a fine job with the translation: discomfort is an effect it works to produce. To take an example: while touring Europe, Christian has a habit of smashing furniture in fits of hysteria, and Enquist describes it thus:
In the end [Christian] was practically certain that he was a prisoner who was being escorted, in a gigantic procession, to his punishment.
Look at the final paragraph, that dry, repressed sentence, 'That was the summary.' We can hear it it both condemnation and resignation. Yes, that summary is accurate and contains within it a swathe of destruction, and in describing Christian's behaviour, more hardly needs to be said. And no, that description is a summary and nothing more, and what it omits - Christian's inner experience, the pain that motivates him and the abuse that created the pain and the profound cynicism that motivated the abuse - are the important things, and a 'summary' that omits everything important comes out of a culture that is itself the cause of the destruction. A single sentence, isolated in its own paragraph to give it weight, both affirms and blames the summary, not disagreeing with it factually, but challenging it morally - but a challenge that could, if pressed, be denied. After all, it's just a plain statement of fact.
Interpretation, then, is key. The plain statements of fact are always understatements: 'It would be a long night. First dinner. Then tea. After that the masked ball. Then the coup d'etat.' And they're understated because they take place in a narrative that has already anticipated its end. We already know when we hear a comment like 'That's how things were at the best of times,' the worst of times are in view. More or less everything is 'summary', in fact; the closest we get to authorial explanation is the odd bald description like 'The atmosphere was charged and hostile, but courteous', a description that's once again isolated in its own paragraph, too frozen to expand. Expansiveness only takes place in the characters' private reflections, and the narrative voice just quotes them rather than confirming or denying. It's clear which characters the narrative prefers, but we have to deduce that from the evidence: it isn't going to tell us directly.
The characters themselves tend to be obsessives of some kind or another, often defined by epithets - 'the wine treader', 'the Silent One' - and ruled by single guiding ideas. It's a device more commonly seen in comedy, where monomania is the staple of humour: think of Mrs Elton's 'Maple Grove' in Jane Austen's Emma, for instance, or Madeleine Basset in the P.G. Wodehouse novels and her preoccupation with rabbits, fairies and God's daisy-chain of stars. Here, though, it's frightening: while comic characters amuse us by finding endless variations on their central trait, in The Visit of the Royal Physician, variation isn't possible. The 'wine treader' Guldberg, for instance, who eventually orchestrates Struensee's overthrow, is driven by a ferocious commitment to punishing the impure who have failed to appreciate his value, and when Caroline Mathilde asks him why he destroyed them, he quotes long sections of the Bible with the air of finally revealing his character. Christian's preoccupation with unreality isn't funny: it's ridiculous, but it's also a prison that prevents him from saving his friend. When obsessives jostle against each other, it's only funny if it's survivable.
Which, as we know from the first sentence, it is not.
Pulling off a trick of style like this, and sustaining it through an entire novel without boring the reader, is a truly remarkable feat. For Enquist's style to work, we have to read at a slow pace, listening for the resonances and echoes in apparently ordinary words. By beginning as he does, with a single-sentence paragraph that contains both dry facts and the history of a man's terrible fall, he slows us down. It's as if the book is saying to us, 'Stop. Tread carefully. Listen to every word I say.' Fate is hanging over our shoulder from the very beginning, giving every word an invisible weight. In plain language, we are told that we are on borrowed time, and like condemned criminals awaiting execution, we find ourselves in a world where everything is magnified as if it were our last moment.
Writing a work of historical fiction is always a case of compromise. Every era has its values that are held too deep to see, and a writer must balance their own era's preconceptions against the foreign preconceptions of the era they depict. At the same time, every historical novel is a novel of the present day: we interpret the past according to our own lights, and what we say of it, we say of ourselves. Struensee is an interesting case of this: the Enlightenment is an era that has shaped our own and most of us accept many of its new ideas as unquestioned truths; a man like Struensee is an easy choice for our identification. Yet at the same time, he must have had a will to power - nobody becomes head of state without one - and that sits uneasily with Enlightenment values: personal advancement is the stuff of aristocracy, and an Enlightenment ruler is supposed to be ruling for the sake of the people in the name of reason. It's interesting that a 1935 film of the same story, rather than choosing the more neutral 'A Royal Affair' or the straight-faced 'The Visit of the Royal Physician', was called 'The Dictator'; Struensee was, for a brief time, a dictator, and while his reforms seem to have been all to the good, the twentieth century has taught us to fear any man who claims to be dictating for the benefit of the people. Arcel and Mikkelsen deal with the issue by creating a Struensee mostly driven by human connection - by liking for the aristocrats who press him to apply for the royal post, by compassion for the demented Christian, by love and admiration for the enlightened Caroline Mathilde. Enquist takes our fear and relocates it in Struensee. We have nothing to fear from him because he is more afraid of his power than we are.
You can see a useful contrast between the two approaches in the 'wooden horse' incident - a moment that A Royal Affair must have taken from Enquist, but adapted. If you've seen the film, you may remember it: riding together, Struensee and Caroline Mathilde pass the dead body of a peasant strapped to a torturous trestle, his widow sitting hopelessly beside him and running away in terror when she sees the aristocrats approach. Struensee dismounts, tries to reassure the widow, then unties the dead man, releasing him in death from the horrible device. In the book, it is Christian who accompanies Struensee, and the victim is alive, in the process of being whipped, probably to death. Struensee tries to explain to Christian that, 'That's the way things are in your kingdom, Your Majesty ... An entire peasant class is sitting there on that wooden horse ... That is reality. Liberate them. Liberate them.' Yet Christian is too horrified to make sense of the scene, unable to grasp its abstract 'reality', and Struensee, faced with Christian's panic, is too afraid to intervene. The boy - younger than depicted in the film, his age is guessed at sixteen - is left to his fate. All that Enquist is prepared to acknowledge is the power of Struensee's values, 'something left that could not be chopped off' after Struensee himself has been beheaded and quartered. Actual people are not saved. Enquist's novel is uncomfortable with granting any moments of hope to the past: ideals and ideas alone are safe. It's one of those novels that is as much a hymn of praise to the present, or to the future, as it is a commentary on the past. Struensee, in the abstract, is the eternal intellectual, frightened by the pragmatic brutality of the world and more potent as a symbol than as a man.
You can see why this wouldn't translate very well into a film. A Royal Affair has many influences, and cinematically it's somewhat akin to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon: visually lush, verbally understated, steady-paced and merciless. When you can see the people up on screen, their inner thoughts can only be expressed by actors' performances, and to perform a character is to render them specific, intimate, more particular than symbolic. To shoot in beautiful fields and palaces is to treat of beauty and expansiveness. What Enquist gives us, instead, is the entrapping repetition of obsession and fear, a voice that lives in the little breaks between reason and madness that make an oppressive world. What we have in the first sentence is the novel in microcosm, an ingrown fractal of fate. A man is appointed, he is executed, and the narrative voice can add no rhetoric that could possibly communicate more than the bare events. We, like the characters, must see what has happened and draw our own frightened, confused, hopeful conclusions.
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