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Bo Carpelan: Axel (Axel)

A wonderful novel about art, particularly national art, and the price of failure, much of this novel is written in the form of a diary. Baron Axel Carpelan is the real-life great-uncle of the author but was little known even in his own family. His one claim to fame was that Sibelius dedicated his Second Symphony to him. Finding out little about him, Carpelan has created a fictitious diary and story of the Baron. Though most of the work is in the form of a diary, each chapter is introduced with a narrative section.

Baron Carpelan has a relatively undistinguished life, apart from his friendship with Sibelius. The key motif in his life seems to be a word that he uses – sorrow. He is born at a difficult time in Finland’s history, when it is under Russian occupation, and he suffers malnutrition and ill health as a child, leading to health problems throughout his life. This factor, coupled with the problems of his country under Russian occupation – a key theme in this work – perpetual financial problems and family problems (including premature deaths and his own failure to start a satisfactory relationship) contribute to his own inability to become an artist. Like Sibelius, he yearns to be a performer and composer but cannot bring himself to do what is necessary and ends up being a minor critic and friend to great musicians and nothing else.

Despite his failure to achieve any great work, he remains a man of firm conviction, decency and, above all, a man committed to his country and its art. And it is Carpelan’s portrait of this relatively ordinary, unhappy man, living in a time when his country is under foreign occupation but committed to his country’s art (and not just its music but its literature and painting as well) that makes this novel somewhat special. We feel how he reaches out to Sibelius and how he is deeply worried about his country while, at the same time, he is clearly unhappy and sorrowful (we would probably call it depressed nowadays but it is not quite the same as depression). But, ultimately, he has achieved little except to be the friend of a great man and that is his sadness.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Bonniers
First published in English 1989 by Carcanet
Translated by David McDuff