Tag Archives: Swedish

Blanche et Marie, de Per Olov Enquist


Quick English Comment

Oh my, how to describe this book? Virtuosity, ambiguity, swirl of impressions, constantly folding back on itself and retelling from different angles, Enquist is the antistoryteller… To a much greater extent than Lewi’s Journey and The Visit of the Royal Physician, this book steps out of chronology to follow the narrator’s thought patterns, sometimes random, sometimes organized, always emotional. Based on elements of the real life story of Marie Curie but also wildly imaginative. IMHO, a masterpiece.

Longer French Comment

Blanche et Marie, est un récit basé sur la vie de Marie Curie et Blanche Wittman, une patiente du docteur Jean-Martin Charcot à l’hôpital de La Salpêtrière à Paris, hôpital célèbre pour avoir été un asile de femmes. Enquist fait également de Wittman une assistance de Marie Curie (aucune preuve historique à l’appui selon sources consultées sur Internet).

Le récit est structuré en trois sections qui correspondent à trois livrets rédigés par Blanche Wittman, le jaune, le rouge et le noir, des journaux intimes dont la plupart des entrées commencent par une question qu’essaie d’élucider Blanche. Elle essaie, bizarrement d’y relier la signification de l’amour avec la radioactivité. Les chassés-croisés du récit incluent l’histoire du docteur Charcot et ses recherches sur l’hystérie et l’hypnose, la progression des recherches de Marie Curie, la mort accidentelle de Pierre Curie, et la relation scandaleuse de Marie Curie avec un autre physicien après la mort de son mari.

Ce roman n’est de toute évidence pas un documentaire et le narrateur en fait état à la page 45 : « Voilà toute l’histoire, en un résumé bref et mensonger. » Quelle donc la part du mensonge dans cette histoire? Est-ce les personnages mentent, ou bien est-ce le narrateur? Est-ce que la source supposée du point de vue de Blanche, les trois carnets, un tissus de mensonges? Quand on considère qu’ils sont un journal intime, un document dans lequel en principe on ne ment pas sinon pour mentir à soi-même, où est le mensonge?

Le style particulier d’Enquist, avec les multiples retours au même moment, les phrase tronquées aux multiples points d’exclamation qui donnent un rythme frénétique au texte, est le même qu’on retrouve dans les deux autres livres que j’ai lu. Absolument fascinant!  Je viens de commander le premier volume des œuvres romanesques d’Enquist et une autobiographie, que j’ai vraiment hâte de lire.


Enquist, Per Olov, Blanche et Marie, Babel, 2006. (publié en suédois en 2004)

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Wonderful Women by the Sea, by Monika Fagerholm


Well, yesterday was a busy night with many things to think about, but I mostly need to think about something else than the Quebec provincial election results, so I’d better concentrate on one of my favorite things, books. Much more comforting than politics, IMHO.

Thanks to the always interesting phenomenon of changing European borders and linguistic politics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish-speaking_population_of_Finland , here is a book from a famous Finnish writer who belongs to the Swedish minority in Finland. Well enough about that angle…

Wonderful Women by the Sea was Fagerholm’s first novel. Published in 1994, it starts in 1962 and presents some snippets of life seen mostly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy. His family spends summers in a rented sea-side cottage and little Thomas casts admiring eyes on both parents and endlessly puzzles at the wonders of life around him. He befriends the somewhat odd daughter of a neighboring family, Renee, who accompanies him in his adventures and often instigates some of the stranger things that they do. She eventually becomes a champion sailor.

His mother, Isabella, is nicknamed Isabella Mermaid due to a summer job she had when she met her husband Kayus. The book opens with this paragraph:

One time Kayus was throwing balls at the mermaids at the amusement park. Each mermaid lay or sat on a green shelf above the pool. The shelf gave way and swung down whenever the ball scored a direct hit on the pink board below the shelf. The mermaid screamed, fell, and landed in the shallow water, which was barely higher than her knees. Again and again Kayus aimed at the same spot on the board. Again and again Isabella fell, again and again she screamed, the same brief shrill scream, which was not beautiful but certainly not inaudible, a scream that began to haunt Kayus so that it reverberated in his head all the time, even when he was not at the amusement park.

Kayus is a very serious engineer who loses his sense of fun somewhere in the book.

Isabella befriends Renee’s mother Rosa. They spent many a sunny summer afternoon lazing around together and discussing what they really want from life. Summer after summer, the families return to their “summer paradise” until one day, someone changes the rules… The tone in which the book is written really changes much before the actual event, from one of childish innocence and hopefulness to waiting for something dreadful to happen.

One day, Bella and Rosa decide to go to Copenhagen for a few days. Apparently, Bella decides not to return to her life as wife of Kayus and mother to Thomas, and abandons them.  Her dissatisfaction with the routine of her life as a mother and wife wins out over her loyalty to her family and all the wonderful moments they had created together.

Maybe she felt that those moments had imprisoned into a definition of herself, Isabella Mermaid, that was limiting and she needed to search for herself again.

Eventually Thomas grows up into a quiet young man, while Renee meets with a stupid, tragic end that quite reflects the recklessness with which she approached all situations even as a child.

So, this is where how it ends up for Thomas, in 1973, which the promise of a life rich in experiences to come:

But now Kayus has turned up the sound on the television because he is anxious not to disturb Thomas. He is pleased that his son has a girlfriend, a sensible girl who comes to see him.

Whereas Renee, who meets with one of the kids from the seaside cottage days, goes on an ill-fated boat ride with him:

Renée and Lars-Magnus Lindbergh are clinging to the foredeck. There, somewhere, Lars-Magnus Lindbergh loses sight of Renée. She just disappears, swept off deck, sinks, is lost. Then Lars Magnus is alone in the cold and the dark, drifting with the boat. Then there is no longer a boat.


Fagerholm, Monika, Wonderful Women by the Sea, The New Press: New York, 1997. (original published in Swedish in 1994)

The Visit of the Royal Physician, by Per Olov Enquist


This is my second book by Per Olov Enquist and I do have a third one awaiting me on the bookshelf, which I very much look forward to reading. I have already read Lewi’s Journey (see my comments HERE) and I thought it was a difficult book to read. Not so with The Visit of the Royal Physician… It was thoroughly enjoyable, a very engaging read.

The plot: This is a historical novel. We are in the 1760s in Denmark. The king dies and the new king, Christian VII, is really not up to the task. He is very young, terrified of most social situations, and extremely easy to manipulate. The skillful politicians at court do that. The king is married off to the young sister of George III of England. The king decides to go on a grand tour of Europe. The hidden purpose is to find a prostitute he had become attached to who has been exiled by one of his senior advisor in order to get rid of her. A medical doctor is hired to accompany the king on this tour and to take care of him. Upon their return to Copenhagen, the doctor stays on as a senior advisor to the king and rapidly acquires more power than others at court. The medical doctor was called Struensee. His greatest fault may have been his desire to effect change by following the ideas of the enlightenment and to have been guided by them in his policy-making. This creates him many enemies. He also becomes the lover of the queen and they produce a daughter together. One senior court advisor and the queen mother devise a coup to get rid of him and this ends with his beheading and the exile of the young queen.

Enquist uses the same devices in this writing as I saw in the first book I read. He teases the reader by frequently announcing that some piece of the plot can be used to explain subsequent events without specifying which one. This helps carry the plot forward and gives it a sense of urgency. He also uses some amount of repetition throughout the text. He repeats some expressions, or restarts the telling of an incident by using the same words but then describes a different aspect of it. I love the rhythm of his writing.

The intensity of this “court drama” based on a real-life story makes it compelling reading. There is certainly no need for added fantasy like what is found in George R.R. Martin… Reality does make a great story and the novel form enables the author to speculate about emotions and intentions.

King Christian VII has been described as mentally ill, or as a “half-wit”. What Enquist describes is not a lack of basic intelligence, but an inability to deal with social situations, difficulties in managing anger and frustration and an inability to “read” social situations. The metaphor that he uses is that of the theater. The king can “learn his lines” and interact with others in highly scripted situations but finds himself unable to “improvise”. He is correspondingly terrified of the unknown and of ambiguity. The author also repeatedly describes a concern with being an imposter, with having been born a peasant child and having been put in this role of a member of the royal family has a mistake. This is used as a way to manifest a desire for greater freedom that that allowed in his role as a royal.


Enquist, Per Olov. The Visit of the Royal Physician. Vintage: 2003. (Original publication in Swedish in 1999)

Superb translation by Tiina Nunally.

Web sites of interest:




The Celtic Ring, by Bjorn Larsson


Fun sailing adventure book. The main character is Swedish, lives in Denmark, and go off on an adventure sailing across the North Sea to Scotland, through the Caledonian Canal, and up and down the west coast of Scotland. Mystery involve celtic nationalism, druidic orders, and arms smuggling.

There are several references to how much more friendly the Scots are compare to Swedes. I wonder how friendly I will find the Swedes on my vacation.

While this was an easy, fun read, I am not at this point in time eager to read more by this author.


Larsson, Bjorn. The Celtic Ring. Sheridan House: Dobbs Ferry, NY, 1997. Originally published in Swedish in 1992.

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