Albert Bonniers förlag, 2013.
Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious
Håkansson’s masterly novel, set in Regency London and post-Napoleonic Europe, is a Grand Tour of sweeping ambition. A fascinating blend of fiction and historical fact embracing classicist aesthetics, rumbustious lowlife and Enlightenment political thought, it draws the reader into an enthralling world of intellectual hedonism.
The eponymous heir, William Aldermann, is one of a cast of eccentric and often disturbing figures. His teenage mother’s agony in childbirth and her subsequent death cause the superstitious household servants to regard the baby as semi-diabolical. Orphaned at three, the child inherits old Gideon Aldermann’s vast wealth, the product of Jamaican sugar plantations, and his magnificent neo-Classical mansion, ‘the Temple’, in fashionable Harley Street.
But the inheritance extends far beyond this palatial residence with its galleries of priceless Greek and Roman antiquities and extensive library of classical literature. Gideon Aldermann was the prime mover of a strictly fictional version of the Society of Dilettanti, a secretive, exclusive coterie of aesthetes who worshipped the art and literature of the classical world. More controversially, they also fomented religious, social, political and sexual freedom. Gideon Aldermann leaves minutely detailed instructions for William’s education, designed to equip him for a future leading role in this radical society. He appears also to have left his son a mysterious ‘Grand Oeuvre’, consigned to a hidden cabinet or ‘secretum’, the location of which is destined to pique the curiosity of those around William for years to come.
The novel falls into two parts, the first of which focuses on William’s childhood and early adolescence in the opulent but claustrophobic setting of the Temple, while the second narrates his adventures on the continent. Håkansson conjures up a colourful array of characters, some of them historical figures such as Richard Payne Knight, author of a scholarly work on the cult of the phallic god Priapus in the ancient world, the scabrous Pierre Hugues d’Hancarville, libertine supreme, a Lady Emma Hamilton gone to seed, and young William’s idol, Napoleon Bonaparte. She is particularly successful in depicting sinister figures such as the tutor Josias Gebhardt, a former Dilettante hardened by long years of labour in the salt mines, and the sordid denizens of London’s underworld.
Indeed, Håkansson’s writing is almost Dickensian in its vivid evocation of the sights, sounds and smells of nineteenthcentury London. This is an author who excels in bringing a scene to life in every detail. Though her knowledge of the period seems encyclopaedic, she wears her scholarship lightly; the reader is rarely reminded that this is a historical novel. The dialogue rings true and the omniscient authorial voice sounds authentically nineteenth-century, skilfully avoiding the twin traps of false archaism and obvious anachronism.
One of Håkansson’s overarching themes – which some of her Swedish reviewers identify as a key issue in her three earlier novels – is the nature of freedom. Gideon Aldermann and the Society of Dilettanti were supposedly devoted to the ideal of freedom in all its facets. But freedom for whom? Aldermann’s fortune was built on plantation slavery. Moreover, the supposed radicals in this novel show precious little concern for the lot of servants, workers, the poor or women – an irony which constantly struck this reader. The theme of freedom emerges more convincingly through young William’s efforts to forge his own destiny rather than simply fulfilling his late father’s dictates, a struggle which seems likely to continue in the sequel, the eagerly awaited Kättarnas tempel (Temple of Heretics).
Aldermanns arvinge, rapturously received in Sweden, is a tour de force of the storyteller’s art which is likely to appeal to fans of Umberto Eco and Donna Tartt. Given its fascinating portrayal of early nineteenth-century London – from velvet-curtained salons to flea-infested taverns – and its highly original perspective on our cultural history, it should find a natural audience in Britain.