You are here:

Mister von Hancken extract

Published on


Issue number: 2021:1


from Mister von Hancken

by Hjalmar Bergman

introduced and translated by Margareta Horiba

Hjalmar Bergman (1883-1931) is a classic Swedish novelist and playwright whose works continue to be celebrated on stage and screen and as the subject of readings, studies and publications. With a light touch, warmth and humor the author takes his characters to task, laying bare the depth of their inner natures. Very much present in his own works, Bergman does not spare himself this treatment. In spite of his own disillusionment, loss and generally pessimistic outlook, he is able to write about the comical side of life, seeing joy as a transcendental force. In the last shattered year of his life, he wrote in an essay: ‘Cherish joy, you who possess it! Respect joy, you who are without! The very fact that joy exists should be a source of joy.’[1]

Mister von Hancken, a captain and knight errant, is a thoroughly misunderstood character in a novel that has been made into both an opera and a television miniseries. He is a bitter victim of vain ambitions. Nothing turns out the way he expects, but he is steadfast in his own beliefs and doggedly persists in his madcap undertakings on his way to redemption. His chronicler and underling, Benjamin Carlander, is no less ambitious and has no more luck. Resigned to his fate, he is relegated to trying to soften the blows that rain down on his master.

The book, published in 1920, has been characterized as a pastiche in style and atmosphere, evoking an early nineteenth-century Swedish spa setting as the background for historical and human intrigue. It has never been translated into English. It is my hope that the captain and the cast of characters around him are able to convey the irony and misfortunes of their adventures in my English translation. Here is the first chapter.

Hjalmar Bergman in 1908
Hjalmar Bergman in 1908. Photo: Herman Hamnqvist


from Mister von Hancken


Notwithstanding my position as dean, husband and father, I have taken it into my head to set down in writing an account of the social movement, tumult, and curious events that transpired at Iglinge Spa in the summer of 1806, when I, in the company of the family von Hancken, stayed at this very place. I follow my notes, kept at the time and on location, and bring them together without embellishment, only cleansing from them hubris and youthful vanity. I know well that the movement did not amount to anything. Most of the characters involved were for this purpose altogether too insignificant. But as a parable and mirror of major events even a microcosm can be of value. If it is true that each and every subversion in the history of mankind is caused solely by great and widespread discontent, then the episode at Iglinge Spa had the same mother as the French revolution and other horrible events.

Why the family chose Iglinge before Loka or Medevi is unbeknownst to me, for as tutor and companion to the son I did not enjoy a seat or voice on the family council. The kindly household did not rest on great or firm grounds, and cost most likely was the decisive factor. There was no shortage of ailments. The captain suffered from gall stones and kidney stones and possibly other stones as well; the captain’s wife had a goiter-like affliction; and, finally, my disciple Adolph was a case of adiposis, apparent enough, poor lad! Miss Leonora on the other hand enjoyed bountiful gifts of health and charm. It was difficult to imagine anything more wholesome or lovely than that young girl with her graceful hips and what there is underneath, her narrow waist, her firm and maidenly bosom, her perhaps slightly-too-long but exceedingly well-shaped neck, and her dainty little head, with those large luminous gray eyes that laughingly threw glances in all directions! And her purity! Her goodness! Her wit! And that amazingly touchante little nose with its almost imperceptible upward turn! To this day I do not think about it without emotion, my dear wife may lament it as she pleases and is her habit.

That beautiful memory must now be allowed to fade, as this old man has other things to tell. On June 2, 1806 – six months to the day after Austerlitz – we departed. I must mention, however, that the departure had been preceded by interminable discussions regarding my inferior situation. Heaven forbid a man of the captain’s stature should visit even the slightest spa without being accompanied by a servant. At the homestead there were only a middle-aged farmhand, who also served as coachman, and two clumsy boys without sense or manners. The captain therefore got the idea that I should come along not as tutor but quite simply as a domestique. I was silent, half-choked with indignation. Fortunately the captain’s wife had a more perspicacious mind and explained to him that a servant must be dressed according to his station in a smart livery, while a learned man can go around in the poorest outfit without being noticed. It saved me. But when we were about to take our seats in the carriage, new complications arose. The captain said that my place was on the coachman’s seat next to Svensson. The captain’s wife contradicted him out of habit, although without fervor. It was now that my beautiful friend interfered. She said that Adolphen would be awfully fat and hot to have in the carriage, while I with my leaner physique and colder blood would cause less discomfort. This reason was accepted and we all took our places, the captain and his wife on the front seat, Adolphen up with the driver and I on the back seat next to Nora.

I have often wondered what enjoyment two young people of the opposite sex find in pressing each other’s hands hour after hour until the fingers cramp and turn white. Such is the case, however, and we had barely rolled out from the tree-lined avenue before Nora’s little hand rested in mine, well hidden under the ample folds of her skirt. And now unceasing squeezes and returns of squeezes took place right before the faces of the gracious parents, which was not the least part of the pleasure. But naughtiness has its own punishment, and after the first several miles I thought with horror on the remaining twenty-five, for as cavalier I could not honestly interrupt the play. Fortunately the little mischief-maker was in the same predicament – at least that’s what I thought, although women tend to be more persevering in these things – for at the next rest stop she whispered to me: ‘Don’t take my hand, I am so sweaty.’ How pleasant it was afterwards, with her whole body brushing against my side, aided by the bad road and the constant bumping of the carriage. My bliss would have been perfect had the captain not incessantly complained about my big feet, and had Adolphen not needed help getting up and down from the box, which in the heat was hard work.

After about four hours of traveling we arrived at Sutre Inn. Here the captain had ordered a change several weeks in advance. But what happens! The innkeeper comes out and tells us that, since the mare has colic, he can only give us one horse. The captain’s wife took it calmly and resolved that Svarten should continue and Grållen stay behind. Instantly the captain was out of the carriage, running back and forth as was his habit, with his hands clasped under his coattail and bilious eyes staring into the ground as if searching for a lost gem. And now that swine of an innkeeper found out whom he had stung, what kind of a man this was and what high connections and protection he enjoyed. Here I will note that, as soon as he was talking to common folk, the captain constantly boasted about his favors in high society, while in front of peers there was no end to the complaints of the wrongs he had suffered. By this he thought he might gain advantages and respect from both directions, which I suppose also succeeded on occasion. The innkeeper, however, was not swayed: ‘If your grace will step into the stable and go over that again maybe the colic will leave the mare. Otherwise I can see no solution,’ he said. The captain fell silent and his wife had her say. After some dithering it was decided that we would spend the night at the inn, as the place looked substantial and in good order. The mistress of the inn, who was setting out the food under a large oak, was young and pleasant. The captain pinched her cheek, which did not bother his own wife in the least. The host, however, glared. We settled down. Adolphen threw himself on the porridge bowl while the rest of us served ourselves less greedily.

And now our first adventure took place, or what would be the introductory phase thereof. Down the road, heading straight for our table, came the most curious equipage. The smallest gig that ever rolled on a pair of wheels, it was pulled by a tiny fjord horse, and the driver, a scruffy-looking boy, was seemingly no more than four feet tall. In this carriage sat a female person of formidable dimensions. On both sides of the seat her thighs swelled like a pair of stuffed pillows. Her waist could not be discerned for the large amounts of loose clothing and lace, but the bosom and shoulders bared above it all bulged with puffy layers of fat. Out of this superabundance, like a turnip out of the ground, arose a rather small head with features pleasant though unrefined. And all of this was decorated in the gaudiest colors and with a pair of long shimmering ribbons fluttering gaily in the back. We were sitting there almost speechless with astonishment, but the captain cried: ‘Who is this scarecrow I’d like to know?’ To which the mistress replied that it was Mamselle Arrenander from Karlstad, who every year at this time betook herself to Iglinge in order to fight her adiposis by taking plenty of the waters.

We watched with amazement as the mamselle alighted with ease from the gig, led the horse by the bridle to the stable and generally behaved as if at home around the place. She was expected, for the mistress immediately laid a new table not far from ours. But what delicacies didn’t she offer the mamselle! My notes are far more complete, but here I will just mention six exceptionally tender and exceptionally well-cooked chickens. The captain’s wife, who up to this point had watched the mamselle with disdain and without even a nod to acknowledge her polite greeting, now became mightily anxious. She wriggled around, sighed and puffed, chewed and smacked. The woman, alas, was a great gourmand. The captain on the other hand was galled that a man of his stature would be sitting by the porridge bowl, while only a few feet away six fried chickens were being served to a mamselle from Karlstad. He at once hit the table hard with the silver knob handle of his stick and ordered chicken. But the mistress replied that she had offered all the rooster chickens to the mamselle, and the hens she was not about to touch for the life of her. Then the captain yellowed severely, lowered his head like a bull and bellowed: ‘What now? Is it the devil himself who is governing this place? Must a man of rank break the neck of the chickens himself?’

He would certainly have gone to extremes, had the mamselle not in the politest fashion settled the contention. She got up and approached us while curtseying repeatedly, quite like a toad jumping along the road and with the same surprising power and ease. At the distance of a few steps she curtseyed even deeper and asked most humbly if the gracious family would not share her meal. She had already finished two of the chickens but would gladly part with the remaining four. She was not the glutton that the generous amount of food might indicate. But, as she was to begin the following day a fasting cure at Iglinge, she had – as she expressed it – ‘really wanted to eat a farewell.’

The invitation was accepted in the best possible manner: the captain’s wife gave voice to a ‘my dear’, and the captain ordered the tables be joined. That way we were able to share many other delicacies. The captain’s wife got two chickens, as the captain was not allowed fried food because of his many stones. Adolphen got the largest chicken and Nora and I the smallest, which Nora split according to the combined penchant of her good heart and her small stomach.  The captain retrieved on his own from the carriage box a bottle of red, and the meal turned out as happily and pleasantly as could only be possible, whereupon the captain began to talk, delighted at having a fresh listener. He delivered his entire litany consisting of twelve reasons for discontent. 1) The great intrigue which had separated von Hancken from the cavalry and at the same time derailed his promotion at the infantry, to which end no one less than the general, baron G. M. Arnfelt, is supposed to have been active, along with several other well placed gentlemen from the inner circles of the late king. 2) The pitiful state of justice in this country, which had cheated aforesaid von Hancken out of aunt Fredrika’s inheritance. 3) Contentions with the State, the pension board, as well as with several authorities and private parties regarding unsettled claims. – I always paid attention to the last two items, for the sums grew like pumpkins and I thought that if this gentleman were granted his clear rights then the rest of Sweden would have to prepare for the poor house. 4) Inn-keeping regulations. 5) Bonaparte’s strategic mistakes, at which point, however, recognition of his tactical instincts was given. 6) The foreign policy. 7) The system of soldier allotments. 8) Mothers’ way of breastfeeding their children, which is usually carried out without method as soon as they cry. 9) The decline of the medical profession, from Hippocrates and Galen to Professor Berzelius. 10) The overbearing pride of the peasants, and the small distinction maintained between the social classes. 11) The arrogance and insufferable condescension of counts and barons. 12) The misanthropy of the useless and the miscreants and its harmful effect on society. These were only the main points, and other reasons were always given on a temporary basis. And while these two cuckoos were crowing together, the rest of us listened breathlessly to all their knowledge, which was certainly great, although I don’t know if it was correct.  The mosquitoes were biting us all horribly, except for the captain who was protected by his gall. Her ladyship closed one eye but kept the other wide open in order to blink now and then in support of her husband. Nora sprinkled the speech with sighs, Adolphen huffed and puffed and I opened my mouth slightly, producing the look of an engaged listener.

But something peculiar was happening to the mamselle. As the captain was extending his discontent, she gradually paled, her head sank into her bosom and her whole figure was slowly flattened from above. I thought at first that she was sated from eating and drinking and was about to fall asleep, which would have been perilous for the newly won friendship. But soon I saw with amazement her whole flesh begin to heave, and finally she brought forth an indescribable sigh. At the same time her tears flowed, large and quavering, like water drops on a goose. Never before had the captain’s litany had such an effect; he seemed rather content and continued with a new item of discontent, which happened to be the verger’s occupation and its mismanagement. Then the mamselle called out: ‘No, don’t talk about vergers, please don’t talk about vergers!’ The captain wondered what was the matter, and she said:

‘Alas, here I am listening to the captain speaking, and when I look at his gracious wife and dear children, I realize what I have known for a long time; that everything is not right with the world.’

A bit hurt by the ambiguity, the captain asked what could be weighing on the mamselle’s heart. Perhaps a suitor had had the bad manner of withdrawing? But the mamselle answered that she had admirers enough to hang one on each finger and each toe. She too had been engaged to three of them, successively to be sure, so that was not the problem. But it was marriage that caused her anxiety. Three times she had been en-marche to the altar and three times she had run away. As the day was getting closer, her fears and trepidations would grow; vapors would strike her frequently, with daily fainting spells. Finally she would have to excuse herself, feigning poor health, and go back on her word. The captain now wanted to know what had caused the trepidations; whether the fiancés had been careless characters or what else might have been the stumbling block.

‘Oh, no,’ she said, Lars, Emil and Olof had worthy hearts and good finances. She could not have wished for better men. But there was something in marriage itself that bothered her. When the captain got whiff of a brand new reason for discontent he became rather spirited and wanted to know more about it. The mamselle burst out:

‘It’s this fearful intimité, captain. Marriage, I tell you, is not the way we imagine it, and I cannot believe that the good Lord could have meant it this way. I have been brought up in strict obedience, for which I shall be my dear papa and my dear mama forever grateful. For what useless creature would I otherwise be? But must I then close ranks with a male person who is neither my father nor brother nor cousin but a complete stranger, and spend every day alone with him? And that is still not the worst part. Alas, isn’t it a terrible thought, captain, to go to bed with a man that one respects?’

She uttered it with a sadness that could have moved stones; but the effect was otherwise. The captain put the whole silver handle in his mouth. The captain’s wife shouted: ‘But consider the children, mamselle!’ Adolphen clucked and cooed like a dove – that was how he laughed. And Nora roguishly got a bad case of the giggles, cured by pinching hard my behind. But the mamselle was not ruffled in the least. She laid out the subject in all its details and I would never have guessed that an honorable woman would harbor such deep and knowing thoughts in matters such as these. Finally the children were ordered from the table, and when I now saw Nora disappear behind the carriage shed I trailed after her. Here a flowering lilac grew so large that it formed a perfect shelter. We sat down. I did not make detailed notes of what happened next, but draw from memory that the two cuckoos crowed all afternoon, one louder than the other. Besides, I remember that the mosquitoes were troublesome and that Adolphen now and then panted past our hiding place and with all sorts of winks and gestures letting us know the lay of the land. Most of all, perhaps, I remember the fragrance of the lilacs.

The captain and Mamselle Arrenander continued to exchange thoughts, and every time the latter raised her voice in a fearful outburst we both exploded in laughter. It also gave me motive to search Nora’s eyes whether she harbored the same fears and reservations as those of the mamselle. She found my keen interest impertinent and closed her eyes stubbornly, so I never gained full wisdom. I had to settle for hope and a reasonable assumption and what else I might find to settle for.

In this way passed a few blissful hours at Sutre Inn, and we would certainly have lost all sense of time had Adolphen not gotten our attention by swinging his arms and uttering some of his usual sounds. We leaped up, brushed off the dust and went out to the road. Adolphen had caught sight of a carriage approaching the inn at a fast clip. It awakened our curiosity. But the carriage as well as its contents will be the subject of a new chapter.

  • [1] From the essay ’Örebro-bekanta och bekanta Örebroare’ (’Familiar Faces in Örebro’) in Bergman, Hjalmar, Det har berättats mig (’It has been told to me’), Stockholm, 1935, Bonnier
Old manuscript of Mister von Hancken

Herr von Hancken

First published in 1920 by Albert Bonniers Förlag

Herr von Hancken has been adapted into a popular opera and television series. It has never previously been published in English.

Hjalmar Bergman (1883-1931) was one of Sweden's foremost writers working in the early twentieth century.

With an avocation for translating Hjalmar Bergman’s classic novels, Margareta Horiba received the Leif and Inger Sjöberg prize for translation in 2005 from the American-Scandinavian Foundation. She is a retired librarian living in Baltimore.