A Very Strange Episode of Danish History


By Per Olov Enquist.  Translated by Tiina Nunnally.  

314 pp.  Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press.  $26.95.


The royal court of Denmark.  A usurper.  An adulterous queen.  Whispers of regicide.  And, at the center of it all, an intelligent, perhaps mad young man who alternates between anomic withdrawal and a passionate if unfocused impulse to take arms against a sea of troubles.

     No, I’m not speaking of Hamlet.  In fact the young man in question is King Christian VII, who ascended to the Danish throne in 1766, at age 16, and who is now remembered in his country for the “Struensee era” (1770-72), during which his German court physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, served as the kingdom’s de facto ruler.  During that Copenhagen spring, as it were, Struensee, a student of the French Enlightenment, introduced hundreds of liberal reforms – including freedom of the press and of religion – by means of which he hoped to turn oppressive, poverty-ridden Denmark into a pioneering model of liberté, egalité, et fraternité. Meanwhile, with the apparent approval of the king, he carried on a more or less open affair with the queen, Caroline Mathilde, who bore him a daughter, Phebe.  The Struensee era came to a swift end when the physician’s enemies at court, led by a palace tutor named Ove Høegh-Guldberg, ordered his arrest, accusing him (falsely) of having plotted to kill Christian, and had him executed.

     It is one of the strangest chapters in all of Scandinavian history, and the more one examines the historical record – which is surprisingly rich in intimate particulars about each of the principal figures – the stranger it gets.  Now Per Olov Enquist, a veteran Swedish novelist and playwright, has shaped this remarkable story into a gripping, fast-paced narrative, The Royal Physician’s Visit, that is crammed with bizarre incidents – and that is, as it happens, entirely consistent with the known facts.  Though the book is labeled a novel, questions about its generic status are perhaps inevitable; Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night subtitle may say it best: “History as a Novel/The Novel as History.”

    Certainly Enquist’s four principal characters are as realized with a vividness and subtlety that places the book in the front ranks of contemporary literary fiction.  There’s Struensee, the unlikely reformer – a small-town doctor and theologian’s son with extremely good intentions but absolutely no political instincts.  There’s the king, a gifted, elfin youth who speaks fluent French and English and corresponds with Voltaire (the  author of Candide, he tells Diderot, “taught me to think”), but who, as Struensee consolidates his power, increasingly spends his time either spewing anxious gibberish or escaping into childish play with his pet schnauzer and his African page, Moranti.  There’s Caroline Mathilde, sister to George III of England, still in her teens but far more strong-willed, fearless, and shrewd than either her husband or her lover. And there’s the fanatically devout, Machiavellian Guldberg, who – outraged by Struensee’s unholy revolution, his liaison with the queen, and his presumed manipulation of Christian – plots to put an end to the whole scandalous business and return Denmark, as he sees it, to God.

     At first blush, Enquist’s rendering of the face-off between Struensee and Guldberg strikes one as, if anything, overly schematic.  The gnomish, Iago-like Guldberg comes off initially as a textbook villain, while the tall, handsome Struensee – who flatly refuses to use his position to reward friends, punish enemies, or enrich himself – seems, like Melanie Wilkes, too good to be true.  Yet eventually the two men seem less antipodes than Doppelgängern.  Each considers himself a selfless agent of truth and justice, acting in the best best interests of Denmark as well as its King – whom they both sincerely love.  To Guldberg, the fact that he and the king are diminutive is a sign of divine favor (“The lowliest were the chosen”); for his part Struensee, though an atheist, cannot express his own sense of mission without employing the language of faith, finally concluding, tautologically, that “the sacred is what the one who is sacred does.”

     Almost everyone here meditates on purity: Guldberg regards Struensee as an enemy of it; the Queen (convinced that the pure of heart are “doomed to destruction”) thinks Struensee has too much of it for his own good; as for Christian, he cheers Struensee’s reforms as a means of purifying his kingdom, an action that he equates, unsettlingly, with destruction: “Smash! Everything to bits!!!…The temple must be cleansed!”  (Enquist, like Tom Wolfe, is partial to multiple exclamation points.)

     But nothing human and alive, of course, can be absolutely pure.  (“The dead were pure,” muses Guldberg, an undertaker’s son, with creepy admiration.  “They did not roll in filth.”)  Among this book’s merits is its perceptive treatment of the collision between the sheer purity of absolute ideas, whether religious or philosophical, and the stubborn impurity, complexity, ambiguity – in many cases, indeed, the sheer weirdness – of actual human lives. This collision generates an abundance of ironies.  Struensee institutes press freedom only to see it exploited mainly by his enemies, who flood the country with pamphlets attacking him.  A poem by Voltaire, praising Christian for his wise and virtuous embrace of Reason, arrives one day when His Majesty is in bed, playing an infantile game in which he, his dog, and Phebe are courtiers and Moranti is king.  (“Was this the absolute ruler with the torch of reason in his hand?” wonders an unsettled Struensee.  “Or a madman?”)  The physician’s fast-lane revolution, intended to benefit the proletariat, only earns him the mob’s enmity; on the one occasion when he is actually faced with a suffering peasant, he flees in fear.  Believing at the outset that inaugurating an Age of Reason in Denmark will be as simple a matter as lighting a candle, Struensee comes to see reason as possessing a “dark heart” that Christian’s insanity – of all things – somehow illuminates.

     One of the striking facets of this account of a people’s revolution is that we see almost nothing in it of the people.  Indeed, with the exception of a handful of brief walk-ons by celebrities – among them David Garrick, whom Struensee talks out of performing Hamlet for Christian, fearing the play might hit too close to home – Enquist gives us few glimpses of life beyond the royal household. When he does introduce dramatically promising scenes involving ordinary folk (Struensee’s terrified encounter with the suffering peasant; the queen’s brilliant handling of some restive sailors), he moves past them faster than one might wish.  He also skimps on descriptions of clothes, manners, and other specifics that might give us a richer sense of the time and place.  

     Yet Enquist knows exactly what he’s doing.  He’s plainly less interested in serving up period details or providing a portrait of peasant life than he is in exploring his protagonists’ minds; he doesn’t want to transport us to 18th-century Denmark so much as he wants to help us see these figures from history as our contemporaries.  This, it must be said, he does with admirable virtuosity.  His prose, skillfully translated by Tiina Nunnally, is brisk, lucid, vigorous, penetrating, rich in arresting epigrams, and marked by calculated repetitions that give the novel a touch of hypnotic power.  And he does offer some evocative vignettes, including one that captures the peculiar but touchingly familial nature of the royal inner circle during the Struensee era: while the physician works at the table in the cabinet room, “the boys, as he was in the habit of calling them whenever he thought of them, meaning the King and the Negro page,” play under the table with the schnauzer.  “He thought: they see me as a father who must not be disturbed.  They play at my feet and they hear the scratching of my pen, and they whisper.”  Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all about this story that astonishes at every turn is that it took this long for someone to come along and tell it.  We are fortunate that it is Per Olov Enquist who has done so.