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Malte Persson, Edelcrantz förbindelser (The Liaisons of Edelcrantz)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2008. ISBN: 9789100115524

Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2009:1

In 1802, the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth, while visiting Paris, received a marriage proposal from a certain Swedish Count Edelcrantz. She turned him down, yet apparently started on her next work, Leonora, with the aim of writing just the sort of novel Edelcrantz would like. The resulting book, writes Persson, ‘came to be known as her dullest’. This says more about Malte Persson’s version of Edelcrantz that of any failings on Edgeworth’s part. Abraham Edelcrantz, born Clewberg and the unlikely hero of this historical novel nominated for the August Prize, comes across as rather a dull man. Although he arrives in Stockholm from Finland and makes a career for himself at court, becoming the de facto manager of Gustav III’s opera house, member of the Swedish Academy, a nobleman and introducer of the telegraph into Sweden, he evinces little in the way of personality beyond his constant efforts to cultivate personal contacts who may be useful to him and to keep on the right side of whatever the current regime happens to be. His nervous fussing over liaisons continues throughout his career; his fixation on the telegraph network is surely an extension of his fixation for connecting with people. Though an uninspiring man, he lives in exciting times.The novel starts slowly, but soon, like a more solemn and scientifically-inclined Mrs. Dalloway, Edelcrantz is surrounded by interesting individuals with stories of their own. One of Edelcrantz’s main attractions lies in its steady stream of historical personages and events that come into Edelcrantz’s field of vision.The cast of Edelcrantz is almost a ‘Who’s Who’ of late eighteenth century and Napoleonic Europe: Louis XVI,Talleyrand, the inventor James Watt, the poet Johan Kellgren, Gustavs III and IV, Choderlos de Laclos of Dangerous Liaisons fame, historian Edward Gibbon, and salonnière Mme de Staël. One by one they circle around, towards and away from Edelcrantz, who somehow always misses the action. Gustav III is assassinated at the opera; Edelcrantz is elsewhere in the building, possibly fussing over the accounts. Louis XVI abdicates before the crowds at Champs de Mars; Edelcrantz is in bed ill, so we hear about it through his manservant Charles. Kellgren dies; Edelcrantz has not found the time to see him. Stockholm itself comes alive too, with a vivid backdrop of filth and smells (one of the first things Edelcrantz does in Stockholm is to buy higher-topped boots to protect his trousers from the brown sludge on the streets), a city where coffee is periodically banned, public executions are a fact and royal ministers secretly let clairvoyants read their palms.The hardship of the boat trip between Finland and Stockholm (Edelcrantz bonds with a fellow passenger when both vomit over the side) is another piquant detail. Linguistically, Edelcrantz has lots going on. Puns, alliteration, poetry, and snatches of English, Latin and French. A dull protagonist, but by no means a dull read.

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