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Ernst Brunner, Fukta din aska. C M Bellmans liv från början till slut (Moisten Your Mortal Ashes. C M Bellman's Life from Beginning to End)

Bonniers,  2002. ISBN: 9100580260

Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2003:1

This novel is a first-person account of Carl Michael Bellman, or rather a fictional autobiography of the eighteenth-century poet and troubadour, “genius of the Swedish Rococo”, whose songs continue to fascinate successive generations of Swedes. They were sung to tunes already familiar to contemporary worshippers of Bacchus; Bellman was adamant that his two most famous song-cycles, Fredmans epistlar (Fredman’s Epistles, 1790) and Fredmans sånger (Fredman’s Songs, 1791), must be published together with their music. This was extremely costly, and goes some way to explain why it took so long for them to appear in authorized print. His vivid glimpses of life, love and Bacch-analian excess in and around Stockholm are not simply drinking songs; there is more to them than mere toasts to pleas-ure before death knocks on the door. Ernst Brunner, who lives in the same district of Stockholm as Bellman did in his younger days, has obviously researched his subject thoroughly; the result is a fascinating and colourful depiction both of the poet and contemp-orary Stockholm. Rarely, the publisher’s blurb says, has poverty with its accom-panying sound and smell – not to say stench – risen so powerfully from the heart of the City; never has Bellman been portrayed in so many facets. The author has drawn on existing Bellmaniana, historical writings and other source material, stressing that his book is fiction, and therefore does not claim to be “true” according to the strict rules of scholarship; a comprehensive, scholarly Bellman biography still has to be written. The novel is an admirable achievement that adds imaginative but plausible details to the bare bones of known fact by chronicling Bellman’s thoughts and reactions throughout his life in “this journal of trifles and great things that was to be my time on earth”. One’s lasting impression is the images of poverty and squalor, of starvation and non-existent hygiene behind the glittering Rococo facade with its lice, gnats and vermin, disease and high infant-mortality at every level of society – no doubt an essential background to the Bellman story. Born in 1740, Bellman died in the bitterly cold winter of 1795 of consump-tion, the same disease that took the lives of his parents and some of his surviving siblings. The eldest son, he had a happy and sheltered childhood in comfortable and intellectually stimulating surroundings with private tutors, influential family friends and older relatives of status and wealth. Brunner dwells on the five-year-old’s playful taste for the musical qualities of words and his pleasure in music, and how he developed a talent for mimicry and performing. On his fourteenth birthday his father, already immensely proud of the ease with which his son could handle rhyme and verse, presented him with his grandfather’s cittern, the instrument that was to accompany him throughout his life until a year or two before his death when he had to pawn it to settle a tavern bill. Completely unsuited to the humdrum duties of a bank official or civil servant, Bellman preferred life in the taverns with wealthy and titled friends, as well as dedicated fellow-servants of Bacchus. Soon he was making a name for himself as a court poet among the nobility and gentry, fellow artists and the royal household. As Brunner says: why not be their funny man when he was a nobody and they had everything and wanted to be amused? As a mimic, improvisor and entertainer Bellman was unsurpassed; he composed countless songs on the spur of the moment. Not one to deny himself the pleasures of the flesh and the fair sex, his office was the tavern. It was here that he first met Fredman, the former royal watchmaker and now a decrepit drunk close to death from consumption; he was soon to rise from the dead and be immortalized in the Epistles of St Fredman, a new project that was artistically much superior to Bellman’s earlier drinking songs. He was already suffering from consumption himself when he married Lovisa Grönlund in 1777; it was to be a happy and harmonious relationship, blessed with four sons, the second of whom died tragically of smallpox at the age of two. Their worsening financial situation forced them to move into ever poorer lodgings, in spite of an annual pension granted by the King, and Bellman died destitute in his home in February, 1795, after a spell in the debtor’s jail in the Royal Palace guardhouse the year before. Brunner portrays Bellman’s last public performance in the autumn of 1794 at a private dinner-party in the home of the Opera director; by then he was a pathetic sight in his old-fashioned, worn clothes and the make-up that Lovisa had tried to smarten him up with. He felt shy and tired of always being the jester for fine ladies and gentlemen, but after he had emptied a bottle or two, he sang for his supper yet again, as he had done so many times before throughout his life. A fiasco was averted, and he brought the house down by singing some of the Epistles, imitating a wide range of wind instruments – a final fling of true artistry.

Also by Ernst Brunner

  • Yngling på guld (Youth on Gold). Reviewed by Kerstin Schofield in SBR 2008:1.

Other reviews by Birgitta Thompson

Other reviews in SBR 2003:1

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