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The Journey of Anders Sparrman: a biographical novel Wästberg, Per. 2010

 

Carr 1983The Journey of Anders Sparrman: a biographical novel
By Per Wästberg, and published in 2010 by Granta Books. ISBN 978-1-84708-130-8
Translated by Tom Geddes from the Swedish original, which was published as Anders Sparrman Resa: en biografisk roman. Wahlström & Widstrand. 2008. ISBN 978-91-46-21892-0.

I was delighted to be invited to review this book as I had just finished reading Sparrman's A Voyage round the World.1 I had enjoyed Sparrman's style of writing, his scientific approach to various topics, and his various insights into aspects of the voyage to the Antarctic. On finishing his book I wanted to know more about the man, and this biography, albeit in the form of a novel, was eagerly anticipated.

The author, Dr. Per Wästberg, is one of Sweden's most prolific authors with 50 publications to his name ranging from novels and poetry to non-fiction. He has been editor and journalist on Sweden's main daily newspaper, and now at 77 years of age he holds the Chair of the Nobel Committee of Literature.

The title of the book does not refer to Sparrman's voyage in Resolution. The title is allegorical and refers to Sparrman's life, as he "voyaged" for 72 years from his birth in 1748, to his death and an anonymous grave in 1820.

Wästberg had no difficulty in dividing Sparrman's life into a series of chapters that chronicled each of his various expeditions; to China, South Africa, Antarctica, Cape Colony, and West Africa. The records of these adventures provided a rich resource for the author to draw on. From these chapters it can be seen why J.R. Forster held Sparrman in such high esteem that he personally invited the Swede to work for him when Resolution arrived at Cape Town during the Second Voyage.2 In 1783 Sparrman published a Swedish account of his work in South Africa with only minor references to Cook. However, further volumes in 1802 and 1818 make more of his time in Resolution.

The rest of Sparrman's life is more difficult to compartmentalise and the author has used events from Sparrman's life in Stockholm to define further chapters. From them we learn that the friendship with George Forster that had been forged in Resolution, continued for over 20 years until Forster's death in 1794. We see a little of the aged Carl Linnaeus3 pottering around in his garden whilst inspiring his students to extend their studies to far flung lands. The author tells of Sparrman's appointment as curator of the natural history collection of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the vicissitudes that resulted from that role in subsequent years. And finally, Wästberg tells how Sparrman found love late in his life, with the final chapters covering his last 20 years with his partner Charlotta Fries. Wästberg's biography is notable for his discovery of Charlotta Fries, who acted as housekeeper to Sparrman before their relationship became more intimate.

In the book's postscript, the author explains how he became interested in Captain Cook when he was only ten years old. It was his interest in Cook that subsequently led him to Sparrman. The author has done his best to research Sparrman, but there are some parts of his life where no documentation has been found, and Wästberg has resorted to assumptions and relied on his imagination; or, as he describes the process, "I have picked up shards and fragments and joined them together with various kinds of glue."

There is a great deal of fact and some fiction packed into the book's 400 pages. My problem was in differentiating between those "shards" of fact that the author knew and those that he had imagined.

I found Wästberg's writing style to be very variable. At times he creates wonderful images with his words. But at other times I was confused over which character he was writing about. This usually arose as a result of the author writing about Sparrman in the 1st person singular in one sub-section, only to change to writing about him to the 3rd person singular in the following section. All of the book's chapters are divided into short sub-sections.

Why did the author break the chapters down into so many sub-sections, some of which were no more than a page or two in length? I found that some sequential sections showed variations in style as well as the occasional chronological discontinuity, leading me to suspect that the author had compiled his book from many separate writing sessions. I wonder whether or not these problems arose during translation?

The book would have benefitted from some illustrations to reflect Sparrman's adventurous youth.

And finally, was it really necessary for the author to include details of sexual intimacy in such a historical biography?

Despite the above criticisms, the book is a welcome addition to the story of Cook and his compatriots. It is the first biography of Anders Sparrman - I hope that it will not be the last.

Reviewer: Cliff Thornton

Notes

  1. Sparrman, Anders. A voyage round the world - with Captain James Cook in HMS Resolution. Translated from the Swedish by Huldine Beamish and Averil Mackenzie-Grieve. Robert Hale. 1953. (Originally published in English by Golden Cockerel Press, 1944).
  2. See Cook's Log, page 1455, vol. 20, no. 4 (1997).
  3. See Cook's Log, page 31, vol. 29, no. 4 (2006).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 33, number 3 (2010).

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