The Budapest Bookfair

Breakfast with Per Olov Enquist
Per Olov Enquist spared Anna Paterson an hour over breakfast in Hotel Gellert.

Per Olov Enquist spared me an hour over breakfast in Hotel Gellert. He had been chased round the clock by Festival organisers and the Swedish Embassy, which puts its cultural programme into extra high gear during the Festival. The famous 'art deco' hotel has had the equivalent of a short-back-and-sides, except for its extravagant thermal spring pools: The Enquists loved them: 'like swimming in a cathedral'.

Determined not to get caught up in Enquist's writerly insistence on being 'just a story-teller', I brought some baits: 'the writer and politics', 'novel of ideas', even 'non-fiction fiction'. I wanted to ask about his interest in ideas with mass-appeal, now the evangelical movement, in the past sport and working class socialism.

Smartly avoiding most of this, Enquist answered with an anecdote. At the Nobel Prize dinner in last autumn, a high-level chat had taken place between Enquist, Imre Kertéz and the boss of their Swedish publishing house, Svante Weyler of Norstedts. Kertéz was keen that the Book Festival in his hometown should include a discussion between the two of them ...

Interesting, but... What about the German political novel? Enquist has written one of Europe's best documentary novels, The Legionnaires (Legionärerna). What does he think about Alexander Kluge?

Not a lot, it turned out. Sterile, with political intent showing through weak, fragmented story lines, weighed down by detail. As for his own The Legionnaires he seemed almost to have forgotten it.

Agreeing about Kluge, I asked about the difficulty of balancing fact and invention in his two recent historical novels, The Royal Physician's Visit and now Lewi's Journey. Both have been carefully researched, both deal with powerful strands of thought woven into northern Europe lives.

He liked the question. In spite of just having spent days speaking about Lewi's Journey, he wanted to talk about it in particular. He began by comparing it to its predecessor. The royal physician's story followed a clear sequence of historical events. It stimulated his imagination, forming a backbone strong enough to carry invention. Researching it, he had visited Christiansfeld on the Danish-German border, still recognisably the late-18th century village created by pietistic brothers and sisters in Christ. The archive holding the stories of each villager's life, his or her 'Lebenslauf', had moved him.

He created a 'Lebenslauf' for an invented colleague to the two leading figures in Lewi's Journey, both real enough, who comments on the developments in the story. The knowing but detached narrator is a figure that recurs in many of Enquist's novels. He described this character as a 'fixed point from which he could view the landscape of the narrative'.

He loved starting to write Lewi's Journey, but it turned difficult. Starting three times, he discarded thousands of pages as he went along. The motif of the journey became important, partly - but not only - as a device for dealing with 'black hole in Lewi's [Pethrus] history'.

My last effort to get Enqvist to admit to wanting to 'enlighten' his readers, or at least involve them in debating ideas failed: 'I'm 98% as story-teller', he said, and 'I never think of readers or even of a single reader, it would just complicate things, hinder the movements of the narrative'.

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