Tuesday, 25 January 2011

New books: Biography gone wild

Few if any books caused such headlines in Sweden last year as the unauthorised biography of the King, Carl XVI Gustaf – Den motvillige monarken by Thomas Sjöberg with Deanne Rauscher and Tove Meyer, which made some rather scandalous suggestions about the monarch’s private life. Now that I have at last wasted some time on reading it, I find it first and foremost a very peculiar book. It has two parts which bear little relation to each other.
The first part, which fills some 2/3 of the book, deals with King Carl Gustaf’s life until he became king. It opens with a chapter on the days in which he succeeded to the throne – the illness and death of his grandfather and the ceremonies surrounding his accession and Gustaf VI Adolf’s funeral. These events are described in great detail, with official documents in antiquated legalese (or perhaps rather officialese) quoted in their full length, which eventually becomes rather tiresome but which nevertheless offers an idea of the rather old-fashioned system which the 27-year-old monarch came to preside over. This might have set the stage for an interesting contrast between the system the young king inherited and how he adapted to it or adapted the system to suit his ideas and his time. But no such reflections are made in this book.
Instead we go on to hear about his upbringing, which is well enough, but which brings little we have not already heard. The exception might be the chapter on the case against his maternal grandfather, Duke Carl Eduard of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for crimes against humanity following World War II, which the authors seem to have done proper research on in German archives and which nuances the picture in an interesting way.
Having been through the future King’s education and military service we reach a chapter on what happened in Torekov in the summer of 1971, i.e. when one reached the compromise whereby the monarchy was retained in the new constitution but the monarch was deprived of almost his entire constitutional role. This is a very interesting topic and again this chapter might have served as a backdrop for what one would expect to find in the second part of a biography of the King, namely how this shaped his role and how he has related to it.
But then the book changes into something completely else. The remaining 120 pages or so do not deal with the reign or with the King’s life after his accession or the development of the monarchy in those 37 years. No single person has been more important to all those three aspects than Queen Silvia and it is perhaps symptomatic that she is mentioned only three times in the second part of the book.
What we now get instead is a loose and rather thin account of parties, extramarital affairs, visits to strip clubs etc in which the King and/or his friends are alleged to have taken part. But we are also treated to long and detailed digressions about the life stories of various other people linked to these claims.
Much of these chapters are made up of interviews, often in verbatim form. Some of those interviewed seem unable to utter a complete sentence (“But, he ... that one ... I don’t understand because he has never been near... I have never had any grip on him... never had... more than said hello to the guy... I don’t understand what he has...”) and some of them do not remember much at all. A waitress at an American strip club King Carl Gustaf is alleged to have visited fourteen years earlier has, among other things, this to tell the interviewer:
Did he tip you?
Yes absolutely, normally...a couple of thousand dollars.
So he gave you two thousand dollars?
Probably, yes.
What happened when he left?
I don’t know.
Do you remember that he left?
I don’t know, I don’t remember seeing him leave”.
And so on and so forth, seemingly without any bells ringing to the authors suggesting that this might not exactly be what one calls and eyewitness to history. There is a foreword dedicated to the sources, where we are assured that the tale told by a notorious gangster must be reliable because co-author Deanne Rauscher “has heard him tell the same things again and again”. But is it really so that something must be true simply because it has been repeated?
At the end of the book the authors try to make a case for why this gossip about King Carl Gustaf and his friends is important – it has to do with no lesser issues than the constitution, democracy and indeed the security of the realm.
An unauthorised biography of King Carl Gustaf might in itself have been an interesting thing as most books on living members of the Swedish royal family have been written by, in cooperation with or under the supervision of the Royal Court’s Information and Press Department and are thus quite one-sided and frequently dull. But as biography this book is an utter failure simply because it does not tell the story of the main protagonist’s life. Instead it relates the first 27 years of his life and then descends into an orgy of gossip about peripheral events and various people’s sex lives.


  1. It is a pity to read this because it sounds like this good have been a good biography. Of course, it is always difficult to write an unauthorized biography of a living monarch, because they seem to have so many ways in which to impede a biographer. Have there been any good, serious biographies of King Carl Gustaf yet?

  2. I would not really say that this could have been a good biography. In order to be so the serious parts of it (2/3 of the book) ought to have been more original and independent of previous published works. It would also have had to adapt a more analytical approach rather than the primarily descriptive prose we find in that part of the book.

    Unfortunately there are no "good, serious biographies" of King Carl Gustaf. There is a mediocre, authorised book by the notoriously unreliable Herman Lindqvist published in connection with the King's 60th birthday, co-authored by the royal court's very own Elisabeth Tarras-Wahlberg. In addition there is a handful of the kind of richly illustrated celebratory books often published in connection with royal anniversaries. So far the most interesting book on him is probably an anthology on Carl XVI Gustaf and the monarchy from 2006. But so far now book which can be called a proper biography.

  3. Hi Trond,

    Have you noticed today, that the communist party "Vänsterpartiet" in their recent review , in their official party newspaper "Vänsterpressen", of this biography calls the king a "horbock" ("whoremonger"), and in no less than ten places in the review associates the king with either prostitutes, escort girls, brothels and the like. Moreover, claiming that the king's consumption of these was funded with tax money. Even though the book itself never makes such claims. See e.g.: http://www.expressen.se/nyheter/1.2313502/experterna-ar-overens-det-ar-fortal


  4. Yes, thank you, I saw it mentioned on TV4 last night, where the new head of the royal court's media department said that they were currently looking into the text, which I suppose suggests that they are considering taking some sort of actions over those allegations. I have myself not read Vänsterpressen's review, but although brothels and escort girls are mentioned in the book it does indeed not claim that King Carl Gustaf has paid prostitutes for sex.

  5. I have found a news article that references the book's abuse-of-power allegations about which I once asked you:

    In some instances, Säpo agents were deployed to search the homes of different women in order to confiscate pictures and negatives from the King’s private parties.

    According to the Aftonbladet report about the book, Säpo agents secretly snooped around in various flats and otherwise pressured women who partied with the King.

    “If the rolls of film and pictures and negatives aren’t turned over some unpleasant things will happen,” reads the book.

    Speaking with Aftonbladet, Säpo spokesperson Patrik Peter would neither confirm nor deny the allegations.

    “We have no information to offer and we’ haven’t read the book,” he said.


    In my eyes, allegations of such serious abuses on the part of any public official, much less the head of state, deserve an inquiry at minimum, but it appears that the Swedes do not agree with me.

    Again, I truly appreciate the time you take to reply to my questions, and I always look forward to your blog entries and comments.


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