Emil Larsson has a problem. He needs a wife or he will lose his job as a sekretaire in 18th Century Stockholm; a job that has brought him a good income, legitimate and illegitimately taking bribes from the ships he inspects at night in the harbor of “The Town,” Gamla Stan. To help him find an answer to this most pressing romantic problem, despite the upheaval of revolution in France that is spreading its message toward Sweden, he turns to his friend Mrs. Sparrow and her unique brand of fortune-telling: The Octavo.
“I have come to believe that we are ruled by numbers, Mr. Larsson. I believe that God is no father, but an infinite cipher and that is best expressed in the eight. Eight is the ancient symbol of eternity. Resting it is the sign that mathematicians call the lemniscate. Raised upright it is man, destined to fall into infinity again. There is a mathematical expression of this philosophy called the Divine Geometry.”
Emil begins his search for the eight who make up his Octavo, encountering a cross-dressing calligrapher, a French fan-making emigre, a runaway bride, and most fascinatingly, the Uzanne, a widowed baroness, fan collector, instructor of maidenly “arts” and defender of the aristocracy. The Uzanne uses every means within the realm, and some that are not of an earthly nature, to enforce her dogmatic will. Her favorite tool in waging her own war is a mysterious and beautiful fan called “Cassiopeia.” Oh, and magic.
It the book sounds like an intriguing 18th Century mash-up of The DaVinci Code and The Witches of Eastwick, that’s what I thought too. It is not. Amid all the interesting references to card reading, the revolution in Europe, the mysteries of the Divine Eight, how to use a fan to cause men to pass out-do your bidding-fall madly in love in an instant, etc., I found the novel lost momentum about halfway through and became rather a chore to finish. The elements of fascination were there, and I definitely would like to read more about fans. But ultimately, Emil was not a protagonist that garnered my sympathy. He was too foolish and easily swayed to root for him in his quest. Mrs. Sparrow went AWOL for much of the novel. And no other central character in Karen Engelmann’s novel proved particularly sympathetic
The much more interesting conflict, and one less focused, in this book: against the backdrop of revolution and class warfare … and ultimately war, Emil’s friend calligrapher Fredrik Lind, the French fan-maker Christian Norden, and the Uzanne herself, attempt to preserve art in the face of war. In The Stockholm Octavo, the artists are conquered by the magicians and warriors at least temporarily.
The Monuments Men explores a based-on-real-life story of another eight men tasked with saving art in a time of war. George Clooney, who wrote the script with his buddy Grant Heslov, gives himself a wonderful monologue that is at the very crux of art and war.
“While we must and will win this war, we should also remember the high price that will be paid if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed. They tells us no one cares about art. But they’re wrong. It is the exact reason that we’re fighting, for culture, for a way of life. We are at a point in this war where that is the most dangerous to the greatest historical achievements known to man. You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still find a way back. But if you destroy their history, destroy their achievements, then it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants. That is exactly what we’re fighting for.”
If you decide to choose “The Stockholm Octavo,” for your book club, I offer a delightful recipe from my grandmother’s recipe box, written in her own hand. It’s a meatball soup, chosen by me due to the Swedish meatball refrain that has run continuously through my mind. I would serve this with wine, lots of wine in the book, and make sugar cookies in the shape of fans for dessert. A lovely soundtrack for your evening would be George Winston’s Winter into Spring c.d. (1982). Of course, if you want to be tongue-in-cheek and/or prior to discussion, ABBA would be fun!
Cover several beef bones with 3 quarts water, bring to boil, simmer 4 hours. Strain, chill and skim off fat. Add to broth, 1/2 cup diced carrots, 1/2 cup thin sliced onions, 1/2 cut fine cut celery, 1/2 cup sized white turnips, 1 package frozen corn and 1/2 can of tomatoes, 4 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon basil.
For meatballs: 1 pound ground been, 4 slices stale bread (soak in water and squeeze dry), 1 egg (slightly beaten) 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, 3/4 teaspoon thyme. Make 3 dozen tiny meatballs and add to soup. Simmer about 30 minutes.