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by Steve Almond
The Visit of the Royal Physician, which I cannot stop reading, sometimes even long enough to eat a yogurt, begins like so:
“On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.”
Why do I find this opening line—an unvarnished statement of fact regarding an obscure historical episode—so thrilling?
Ah, let me count the ways. First, because it contains a potent and nearly invisible irony: the man called upon to heal an ailing monarch winds up murdered by his patient. Second, because the reader naturally ponders how and why this gruesome event transpires and is therefore left in an exquisite state of suspense. Third, because the author, the Nobel-Prize winning Swede Per Olov Enquist, has established a narrative style unburdened by the pervasive modern compulsion to gin up the action by plunging us into frenzied scenes of court intrigue. We get history distilled to its essentials.
When he wants to highlight an event of particular importance, Enquist writes simply, “Here is what happened.” The effect is oddly incantatory.
So. Here is what happens: Struensee is summoned to Denmark because the teenage King has been driven mad by corrupt minders, systematically terrorized “to develop powerlessness and degradation for the purpose of maintaining the influence of the real rulers.”
The German doctor helps stabilize Christian and fosters his interest in the nascent principles of The Enlightenment. Struensee soon acquires enough power to issue edicts on behalf of the king, who prefers to spend his time frolicking like a child.
Two decades before the French Revolution, the “filthy little kingdom of Denmark” becomes an unlikely torch amid the “reactionary darkness” of the church. Struensee sets about abolishing cronyism and torture, funding hospitals, granting common Danes unprecedented freedoms, including the right to copulate in public parks once reserved for nobles.
At the king’s urging, he begins to spend time with the young queen, a lonely and spirited Englishwoman named Caroline Mathilde. Enquist captures the rhythms of their courtship with a delicacy that befits the couple’s perilous circumstances. (It’s a capital offense to touch the queen, let alone bed her.)
If you need proof of just how seductive Enquist’s prose is, check out this scene, in which the pair transform a private reading of Ludvig Holberg’s philosophical tract Moral Thoughts into incredibly hot foreplay.
“Touch my hand,” she said. “Slowly.”
“Your Majesty,” he said. “I’m afraid that …”
“Touch it,” she said.
He went on reading, his hand sliding softly over her bare arm. Then she said:
“I think Holberg is saying that the most forbidden is a boundary.”
“A boundary. And wherever the boundary exists, there is life, and death, and thus the greatest desire.”
His hand moved, and then she took his hand in her own, pressed it to her throat.
“The greatest desire,” she whispered, “exists at the boundary. It’s true. It’s true what Holberg writes.”
“Where is the boundary?” he whispered.
“Find it,” she said.
And then the book fell out of his hand.
Holberg, we hardly knew you!
Struensee enjoys a few months of prosperity. He sits at his desk, issuing humane decrees. He soothes the king. He makes love to the queen and soon impregnates her.
Then it all falls apart. The Dowager Queen and a canny religious fanatic named Guldberg conspire against Struensee, who lacks the political guile, and the will, to go after his enemies. The military kidnaps the king in the name of purifying the realm, places the queen under house arrest, and imprisons Struensee.
There is no cinematic intervention. Struensee’s reforms are rescinded and he himself is publicly beheaded, drawn, and quartered. Enquist reports these events without sentiment. The book’s hypnotic power resides in his quiet determination to lay bare the tortured inner lives of those embroiled in the drama.
Struensee is revealed as a well-meaning coward, the king as an unloved waif imprisoned by his court, and Goldburg as a self-loathing zealot who converts his illicit sexual impulses into a pious crusade.
The lone figure to emerge from the saga with some semblance of self-knowledge is the queen. “She had felt a unique pleasure when she understood for the first time that she could instill terror,” Enquist writes. “But [Struensee] did not. There was something fundamentally wrong with him. Why was it always the wrong people who were chosen to do good?”
The broader question is whether noble ideas alone are enough to improve the world or whether bloodshed is the necessary price of such improvement.
On the one hand, the novel is a celebration of the “Struensee era.” Even as the Royal Physician’s head is cleaved from his body and left to lie upon a bloody scaffold in a public square, Enquist assures us that the ideas he advocated will endure in the world.
But the scene that haunts Struensee himself, as he awaits his fate, tells a more complicated story. Here is what happens: At the height of his influence, the Royal Physician decides to take the king on a tour of the countryside, so that he can witness the conditions under which his subjects actually live.
At dusk, they happen upon a severely beaten teenage serf, seated on a wooden trestle. The king, recalling his own abuse, panics. Struensee jumps out of the coach, hoping to secure a pardon for the boy. But a mob of peasants approaches, and he grows frightened. Enquist writes: “Reason, rules, titles, or power had no authority in this wilderness. Here the people were animals. They would tear him limb from limb.” It’s a moment of abject personal revelation. Struensee has only the purest of motives, but deep down he mistrusts the very people he is trying to save.
The lesson is a bitter one. Reason alone will never tame our savage impulses. Moral progress cannot be issued by fiat or legislated. It must be enforced at the price of our own valor and conscience and flesh.
Consider the case of America, a land born of war, and liberated from the sin of slavery only at the price of half a million lives. Even today, the basic tenets of the Enlightenment—scientific reason, tolerance, justice—are routinely subverted by a democratically elected ruling class, happy to exploit the tribal grievances and paranoid superstitions of an ignorant and indentured population.
And because I am crazy in this particular way, I find it impossible to read about Struensee without thinking of another enlightened neophyte who came to office promising change only to be stymied by the feverish obstruction of his opponents.
Am I suggesting that President Obama will need to declare war on the reactionary forces of our country to enforce sensible economic, social, and environmental policies? Yeah, with considerable sorrow, I am.
But the genius of Enquist’s novel resides ultimately in its ability to locate moral struggle not just within the upheaval’s historical saga but also in the private torment of the soul. “Was that what a human being was?” Struensee wonders. “Both an opportunity and a black torch?”
The ultimate war is the one inside us.
This piece originally appeared in Tin House and is reprinted with the author’s permission.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Steve Almond is an essayist, short story writer, and author of several books, including My Life in Heavy Metal, Candyfreak, and God Bless America, which won the Paterson Prize for Fiction. He’ll be teaching a juried workshop on short prose and a Reading as a Writer course on Enquist at Lit Fest, June 3-16.