The historical novel has been reborn in recent years, and it reaches impressive new heights in this brilliant 1999 fiction from Swedish author Enquist (Captain Nemo’s Library, 1991, etc.).
Enquist’s subject is the royal court of Denmark during the 1760s, when the “madness” of inept young monarch Christian VII yielded unprecedented political power to his personal physician, the handsome and charismatic German intellectual Johann Friedrich Struensee. In an energetic expository style that features gradually intensifying rhetorical questions and repetitions, Enquist creates a patiently detailed portrayal of the teenaged king’s irreversible timidity, credulity, and paranoia. The focus then shifts to Christian’s reluctant bride, adolescent English Princess Caroline Mathilde (whose slow growth to adulthood nevertheless outpaces her husband’s); thence to Struense’s rise to ministerial status, institution of various liberal reforms (such as reducing the size of Denmark’s army), and adulterous possession of the now-wanton Queen (whose child he fathers). The manner in which Struense’s (ardent and genuine) “dream of the good society based on justice and reason” (based on the principles of the Enlightenment philosophers) is destroyed by his own weaknesses is delineated with masterly narrative skill, as are the marvelous extended climactic scenes where the Queen and her lover are exposed and detained, and the terrified Struensee is imprisoned, persuaded to reject his beliefs, and prepared for torture and execution. The absolute authority of the novel’s dramatized history is matched by Enquist’s potent characterizations of the gibbering, softhearted Christian; his impulsive consort and the conflicted Struensee; the aged Dowager Queen who plots to replace (her stepson) Christian with her retarded natural son; and, notably, the Machiavellian minister Guldberg, a dwarfish puritan who makes it his mission to protect a conservative society from the revolutionary attitudes of the European Enlightenment (“As in the Icelandic sagas, he had to defend the king’s honor”).
Scandinavia hasn’t had a Nobel winner since 1974. This may be the book that earns Enquist the prize.