Engelmann, Karen. The Stockholm Octavo. New York: Harper Collins-Ecco. 2012.
Have you ever considered just how little of the history of countries other than our own we actually know? I think this question was my initial reaction as I began reading Karen Engelmann’s The Stockholm Octavo. Just what did I know of Swedish history other than vague memories of remembering that Christianity came to Norway and Sweden quite late, that Queen Christina (1626-89) had converted to Catholicism, and that her father Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) had been a general to be feared; that Sweden had, I think at varying times, ruled Norway and Finland. A brief trip through the catalogues of my memory recalled high school classes in European history, but their focus had been on France, Germany, and Britain, not on Scandinavia. My sense of Sweden, I realised, has been constructed by Bergmann, Strindberg, Kenneth Brannagh playing Wallander, and by the late Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander: none of which seemed apt preparation for engaging with a novel set in Stockholm in the late 1790s.
Fortunately, a detailed knowledge of Sweden’s history wasn’t necessary to help me enjoy the work. The events of The Stockholm Octavo take place against the backdrop of the last years of the reign of Gustav III, a king who might be described as a benevolent despot (there’s a term recalled from those European history classes so long ago) in the mould of Catherine the Great of Russia or Frederick the Great of Prussia. I’m not sure that Gustav’s absolutism is made totally clear in the novel. Those who would plot against him are aristocratic, resentful of his reforms and desirous of a return to more aristocratic administration in place of monarchical autocratic rule, no matter how benevolent. Neither side is interested in anything that would resemble a contemporary democracy, and, indeed, among Gustav’s failures were his attempts to rescue Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Engelmann tells the story of a young civil servant, Emil Larsson, a sekretaire in the Customs Department whose relatively comfortable bachelor existence of petty corruption, drinking, and gambling is doubly challenged. Mrs. Sparrow, fervent supporter of Gustav and the patronne of Emil’s favourite gambling establishment is also a seer and cartomancer who lays out his fortune for him as an octavo, an eight card spread. She foretells “love and connection” if he can work out who the eight characters revealed in his octavo are and how they relate to each other and to him. His superior also demands that in order to keep his position he must find himself a wife.
Emil’s quest to fulfil his destiny leads him into the political conspiracies against Gustav III and into the dangerous orbit of “Baroness Kristina Elizabet Louisa Uzanne—fan collector, teacher, champion of the aristocracy and of Duke Karl [Gustav’s brother]” (npag.)who aspires to the throne. The Uzanne’s loss at cards to Mrs. Sparrow of Cassiopeia, a fan reputed to have belonged originally to Madame de Montespan, mistress of Louis XIV and alleged poisoner, precipitates Emil into a deadly world of deception and murderous intrigue.
So far, I suppose, it sounds rather as if The Stockholm Octavo is a political thriller in historical costume, and I certainly found the work to be “a page turner.” I also enjoyed the illustrations of Mrs. Sparrow’s cards and the diagrams of how an octavo spread is laid out. Internet research (http://historicgames.com/RPcards.html ) quickly revealed to me that if I want I can buy a replica of the Jost Ammon deck used (except for the Under Knave of Books that comes from another source) by Mrs. Sparrow. I also discovered from www.karenengelmann.com/the-octavo-handbook.html that I can buy the “original and only official guide to this unique method of divination, devised by MRS. SOFIA SPARROW with a preface by Master Fredrik Lind” and I have a choice among two paperback editions, black and white or colour, and a hardback colour edition. How the worlds of contemporary commerce, imagination, and socio/historical research do collide.
It is in this convergence of accurately researched historical/cultural background with the imagined world that The Stockholm Octavo transcends genre fiction historical romance. I was impressed by Engelmann’s knowledge of eighteenth century pharmacy, of the culture of the fan, of Masonic Lore, and, if I am reading her website page “About the 8”correctly, by her creation of a personal cartomancy. She claims, “I am not sure that I found the 8 as much as the 8 found me” (http://www.karenengelmann.com/the-number-8.html). The octagon “inspired the notion of eight characters surrounding a narrator, and served as a template for . . . [her] first draft structure. It also inspired pages of diagrams that [she] worked on for hours, drawing . . . [her]way to meaning alongside the writing. I was also impressed with how she manipulates our expectations of novel form. She constructs the novel in short chapters and shifts the point of view from Emil’s first person recollections to a more omniscient third person. In both cases, however, the beginning of each chapter is predicated by its various “sources,” identified sometimes only by their initials, suggesting that the work is a historical record. But, as Emil tells us at the beginning of the work, some of what he “will relate is built on speculation and hearsay.
This is otherwise known as history” (npag).
From the beginning of the novel, therefore, Engelmann reminds us of the possible unreliability of texts. The book’s illustrations further underscore this point. Emil’s octavo is pictured for us card by card as night by night Mrs. Sparrow adds another card to the spread. Emil’s future is set out for him to read, if only he can read its signification accurately. Just as Emil is sometimes mistaken in interpreting his octavo, we may be mistaken by what we read into a text. There are dangers in interpretation. One senses that Engelmann is very aware of her craft; she draws attention to the fictive quality of her writing both in her merging of the imagined with historical truth and in her chosen structure for her novel. She offers us character, context, and fragments of time. What precise narrative we construct from these elements is our quest as readers.
The novel’s plot reaches, I would say, a satisfactory resolution, perhaps or perhaps not as we might expect, and, dare I say it without spoiling everything for those who may care to read the novel and haven’t yet, still leaving us with room to construct our own ending. The last section of the book “Mrs. Sparrow’s Vision” tells us the fate of the Swedish monarchy after the events outlined in the book. Once again, Engelmann places the imagined world into the world of historical record forcing us to consider what we understand about narratives both personal and political, fictional and not. An intensely thought-provoking book.