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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Royal Physician's Visit

Per Olov Enquist

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To purchase The Royal Physician's Visit

Title: The Royal Physician's Visit
Author: Per Olov Enquist
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 387 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Royal Physician's Visit - US
. The Visit of the Royal Physician - UK
. The Royal Physician's Visit - Canada
. Der Besuch des Leibarztes - Deutschland
Le Médecin personnel du roi - France
  • Swedish title: Livläkarens Besök
  • Translated by Tiina Nunnally
  • UK title: The Visit of the Royal Physician
  • US title: The Royal Physician's Visit

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Our Assessment:

A- : intelligent, rich historical novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Berliner Zeitung A 28/7/2001 Birgit Galle
Daily Telegraph A 19/10/2002 Kathryn Hughes
The Independent A+ 31/8/2002 Boyd Tonkin
The Independent A+ 12/4/2003 Boyd Tonkin
Libération . 5/10/2000 Claire Devarrieux
The LA Times A+ 30/12/2001 Jonathan Levi
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 1/3/2001 Andreas Breitenstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/11/2001 Bruce Bawer
The Spectator A 28/9/2002 John de Falbe
Süddeutsche Zeitung A 10/2/2001 Heinrich Vormweg
Sunday Telegraph A+ 15/9/2002 Caroline Moore
Time . 10/12/2001 Lev Grossman
Die Welt A 17/2/2001 Klaus Siblewski
World Lit. Today A Spring/2000 Anna Paterson
Die Zeit A+ (10/2001) Reinhard Baumgart

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Enquist ist ein großer Skizzenmeister. Er schreibt gleichermaßen dicht wie gefasst -- und dabei frei. So, wie man gewöhnlich mündlich etwas berichtet, so, wie ein Geschehen rekonstruiert wird: vorwärts und rückwärts und quer durch die Zeit. In Begebenheiten. In Bedeutungszusammenhängen." - Birgit Galle, Berliner Zeitung

  • "The remarkable thing, in all cases, is Enquist's delicate, fabular narrative voice, as rendered by Tiina Nunnally's translation from the original Swedish. The feeling is dream-like, the style spare, the effect utterly beguiling." - Kathryn Hughes, Daily Telegraph

  • "Per Olov Enquist has fashioned one of the most dramatic and memorable historical novels to have hit these shores in years. (...) Enquist sketches the background with a light touch that belies deep learning." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (1)

  • "Whatever you may find hackneyed about period fiction, rest assured that Enquist knows just how to avoid it. He shuns hindsight and lets the past safeguard its mysteries. His people never act like periwigged marionettes on an over-dressed stage (although he cleverly explores poor King Christian's obsession with the theatre). Enquist's figures love and hate and plot with an incandescent energy that wipes out emotional distances." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (2)

  • "Le Médecin personnel du roi est infléchi par la métaphore théatrale, malédiction shakespearienne." - Claire Devarrieux, Libération

  • "Mixing reportage with philosophy, barbarity with eroticism, the masterful Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist has fashioned an extraordinarily elegant and gorgeous novel" - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Fast eher denn als Roman möchte man den Besuch des Leibarztes als Meditation bezeichnen. (...) Wie das Gute durchsetzen, ohne zu den Mitteln des Bösen zu greifen ? -- Per Olov Enquists Roman ist ein elegischer Abgesang auf das 20. Jahrhundert und seinen demiurgischen Traum von der Weltvollendung. Wo es sich dem Prinzipiellen ergibt, verwandelt sich das Licht der Aufklärung in jene "schwarze Fackel der Vernunft", wie sie der Irrsinn König Christians verkörpert. Ohne das vermittelnde Spiel der Politik gerät der utopische Moralismus leicht zum Desaster." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Yet Enquist knows exactly what he's doing. He's plainly less interested in serving up period details or providing a portrait of peasant life than he is in exploring his characters' minds; he doesn't want to transport us to 18th-century Denmark so much as he wants to help us see these figures from history as our contemporaries. This, it must be said, he does with admirable virtuosity." - Bruce Bawer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Enquist has imagined this appalling drama with immense sensitivity and intelligence. (...) Enquist writes in short, jerky sentences which often seem to repeat themselves. Although disconcerting at first, the technique works brilliantly. The atmosphere is suitably nervy, while the shifting ground beneath the apparent repetitions is vibrant with stealth and subterfuge." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "Mit großer Genauigkeit, einfühlender Intensität und bitterer Leichtigkeit vergegenwärtigt Per Olov Enquist das historische Geschehen in all seinen Widersprüchen, bei offensichtlicher detaillierter Kenntnis aller überlieferten Dokumente und Stellungnahmen. Doch Der Besuch des Leibarztes ist weit mehr als ein historischer Roman. Es geht um die Möglichkeit der Aufklärung, darum ob Vernunft, Freiheit und Humanität sich in der Welt, wie sie war und ist, verwirklichen lassen." - Heinrich Vormweg, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "It is peculiar yet absolutely compelling, hovering brilliantly and most strangely between bald historical fact and poetic fiction. (...) Yet though one knows how The Visit will end, it still grips with pity and terror, and intrigues through its psychological shadings." - Caroline Moore, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Enquist, a celebrated Swedish novelist, turns this actual historical incident into an enthralling fable of the temptations of power -- and a surprisingly poignant love story." - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "Bewundernswert, mit welcher Ruhe Enquist die Fantasieräume seines konfusen Personals durchschreitet, wie leicht er seine geschichtsphilosophischen Überlegungen auszubreiten versteht und beides in feinster Balance hält." - Klaus Siblewski, Die Welt

  • "Livläkarens Besök is an almost perfect historical novel. The author is an outstanding writer, as imaginative as he is knowledgeable, sensitive about people and deeply interested in political processes. There is just a hint of mannerism in the by now elegantly honed language, with its recurring "enquistesque" images, but the excitement of the story and the incisiveness of the narrative prevent any preciousness." - Anna Paterson, World Literature Today

  • "Ein großes Buch, ein mächtiges Buch, souverän und selbstbewusst überragt es die landläufige Produktion der Belletristen. (...) Der Leser wird provoziert, diese Personen für sich zu entdecken, sie vollständiger zu imaginieren, als der Roman sie zeigt, und sich ihnen zu stellen mit seinem eigenen Urteil. (...) Ein ungeheures Pensum, und um es zu inszenieren, bietet Enquist ein reiches Repertoire an Bildmotiven auf, mit denen er seinen Roman immer wieder verwandelt in Gedankenmusik, die Motive variierend, modulierend, repetierend." - Reinhard Baumgart, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Royal Physician's Visit is based on historical fact: it recounts the story of Denmark's King Christian VII and his personal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee.
       The degenerate Danish royal family did not make for the fittest leaders, and Christian VII followed readily in that line -- with some help from less than well-meaning members of the court. Brutal pedagogic methods were ostensibly meant to inculcate the necessary knowledge and character; in fact they were meant to break the heir to the throne. The Danish Kings -- lazy, alcoholic, profligate -- were expected to delegate their duty, and Christian VII's will had to be broken to fit this style of government. Christian VII's education was focussed almost solely on bringing on the moral decay that would make for a power-vacuum that those at court could then fill, becoming the actual rulers behind the figurehead-king. The vacuum was created, but the power was filled by another: the outsider, Struensee.
       Christian VII ascended to the throne at age sixteen. He was also soon married: to Caroline Mathilde, youngest sister of the king of England, George III (another occasionally mad royal man). Christian VII was a passionate, even manic, masturbator and married life did little for him. He showed little interest in consummating the marriage, and didn't really know what to do with his wife. They finally did get around to that royal union -- but just that once. Fortunately, she immediately got pregnant.
       Christian VII did, however, find affection elsewhere -- in a woman named Anna Catharine Beuthaken, who had started out as an actress and then become a prostitute. She became the king's mistress, giving him some happiness. It was, however, an unacceptable relationship, as the king forgot all decorum, treating her however he saw fit. And though previous kings had enjoyed similar liaisons, none displayed their whores quite so prominently. The affair was not nipped in the bud, but eventually she was paid off and sent abroad, behind the king's back.
       Christian VII was devastated. Eventually he would go off in search of her, travelling through Europe, hoping to find her. Because of concern about his health and mental well-being (always precarious, at best) it was decided he needed a personal physician. Enter Struensee.
       The doctor warrants barely a mention in the first quarter of the novel, as Enquist describes the setting into which he will then be thrust. The king is the central figure, a frail but wilful puppet, supposedly all-powerful, yet beaten into submission as a child and then manipulated by the politicians at court. He is a petite person -- even as an adult he could be mistaken for a boy of thirteen, or even a girl, several people comment. He is clearly mentally unstable. And deep down he is not even sure he is the king, imagining constantly that it is all a terrible mistake, that he is, in fact, an undeserving commoner. But he can not escape his royal prison.
       Struensee is a German doctor. He is also a firm believer in the Enlightenment. It is his guiding philosophy, his hope, and his ambition. Denmark -- a feudal and almost entirely unenlightened hinterland -- then offers him an opportunity to put his ideas and ideals into practice, to the chagrin of the powers that be.
       Struensee is a good choice as personal physician. He understands the king as well as anyone, and is sympathetic. Christian VII still goes on rock-star-like rampages in the hotels of Europe during their travels, but Struensee is a helpful presence whom the king comes to trust and like.
       Struensee is a doctor, a healer of bodies -- but also tempted to heal this very ill society. As one of the characters tells him: "All of Copenhagen is sick." Struensee can not help but take advantage of the situation he finds himself thrust into. He merely wants to do good, and the king -- preoccupied only with himself, indifferent to policy and politics -- willingly becomes an instrument for him to test his enlightened philosophy. Struensee quickly becomes the de facto ruler, and forces his decrees upon the land. He institutes a large number of them -- over six hundred. Freedom of the press, freedom of religion, emancipation of the serfs, the abolition of torture during interrogations (the first thing that will be reinstituted, his enemies vow) and much more.
       Enlightened policies, all, -- Voltaire pens a famous poem hailing wise Christian VII for instituting these brave changes -- but they don't go over well with the powers that be -- notably Struensee's greatest enemy at court, Guldberg.
       Complicating matters, Caroline, the queen, turns out to be both cleverer and more devious than anyone anticipated. She and Struensee become lovers -- a situation that the king does not seem to mind, but which outrages the court and the commoners (especially when she bears Struensee's child).
       An idyllic summer is spent at the castle at Hirschholm. The insanity of court life, the madhouse of Danish politics, is escaped. Everything is easier, pleasanter. Even the king, who can barely differentiate between theatre and reality, finds it more agreeable.
       The end comes as it must, Struensee's brief reign is abruptly cut short, Guldberg orchestrating a coup in which the king, as ever, is merely a pawn. Freedom of the press also meant freedom to attack the German who had too much power, cutting back the armed forces enraged those whose employment depended on it: the people were not ready for the enlightened policies, and others were all too ready to use them to cut down Struensee. Ridiculous policies -- like Denmark's predictably ill-fated attack on Algeria (!) -- could rouse more passion than sensible domestic reform.
       All Struensee's good work comes to naught, it seems, as all the laws disappear as if never enacted. Of course, the seed of enlightenment had been planted, and Guldberg's regime ends similarly ignominiously only a few years later.
       Enquist relates the story well, sympathetic to the childlike Christian VII and the idealist Struensee. It is an interesting story, and Enquist's embellishments -- scenes from behind the scenes, motives, conversations -- are plausible, suggesting how it might, in fact, have been. It is an historical fiction, but also a literary work, and Enquist presents both aspects well. There are a multitude of layers here, carefully structured. The tone is almost dispassionate, yet Enquist clearly is passionate about much of the material -- the injustices, the senselessness, the small-mindedness, the outright insanity.
       It is a wild story -- and largely true. It was an interesting turning point in European history, a small, false start from the dark corners of northern Europe, overshadowed within a few years by the French Revolution. Enquist makes the most of this rich material. Worthwhile.

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The Royal Physician's Visit: Reviews: King Christian VII: Per Olov Enquist: Other books by Per Olov Enquist under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Scandinavian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Per Olov Enquist was born in 1934.

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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