Per Olov Enquist, who has died aged 85, was a major figure in the Nordic literary world, and was perhaps best-known beyond it for his historical novel The Visit of the Royal Physician (1999).
Enquist made his name in Sweden in the 1960s as part of the Documentarism movement. This combined techniques of fiction and journalism to investigate the nature of fact, often taking the complexities of history as a starting point.
Accordingly, Enquist caused a stir in The Legionaries (1968) by revisiting the controversial decision to repatriate to the Soviet Union after the war dozens of Balts who had served against the Russians with the SS before seeking refuge in Sweden. None the less, in the book, objective truths, even the verifiability of Enquist’s narrative, remain elusive.
He ascribed his method, in which a particular incident sheds light on a more universal condition of society, as deriving from a country upbringing where he had learned to pay close attention to the world around him.
Besides political concerns – he was considered a pillar of the intellectual Left for decades – Enquist frequently found inspiration in wider Scandinavian history and culture. Written in his characteristically spare, poetic style, and grounded in substantial research, The Visit of the Royal Physician compellingly recounted the affair between Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark, sister of King George III of Britain, and the German doctor treating her mad husband, King Christian VII.
Johann Friedrich Struensee used his position to institute liberal reforms, but he was executed and the Queen banished after a counter-revolution at court. Their illegitimate daughter – brought up as Christian’s – was the ancestor of many of today’s European royal families.
The story was filmed as A Royal Affair (2012), with Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, while the novel won both Sweden’s prestigious August prize and the Independent’s award for foreign fiction.
Per Olov Enquist was born on September 23 1934 at Hjoggbole, near the Bothnian coast in northern Sweden. He was given the same name as a brother who had died at birth two years earlier.
Six months later, Per Olov’s father, a lumberjack, succumbed to a burst appendix and the boy was brought up by his mother, the local teacher. His upbringing was lonely and spartan; the only privy was outdoors and on winter nights he had to use a bucket in the corridor instead, emptying its frozen contents in the morning.
When his Uncle Aron decided to commit suicide by drowning himself in the lake, he first had to spend several hours hacking a hole in the ice. He weighed himself down with a sack of potatoes to make sure he sank.
Evangelical Christianity had a strong hold on the North, and Per Olov’s mother was fiercely pious. His copy of Kim vanished when she learned that one of the principal characters, the lama, was a Buddhist. Per Olov had no idea what a cinema was until he was 16.
Among the children with whom he played was the grandfather of Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. At 15, Enquist had the key formative experience of his life when he lost his virginity to a 50-year-old woman on the floor of a house she was renting from the Larssons for the summer.
His discovery of the possibilities of love was so transformative that he was only able to address it towards the end of his life, in The Parable Book (2013), which revealed the encounter for the first time.
After military service, Enquist studied literature at the University of Uppsala. He was by then one of the leading high jumpers in Sweden, finishing fourth in the national championships, but after failing to qualify for the Rome Olympics he became a journalist.
His first novel, The Crystal Eye, influenced by the French nouveau roman, was published in 1961. Its questioning of what was actually true was a theme of the books which followed, notably The Magnetist’s Fifth Winter (1964).
This examined the place of faith in an age of science through a protagonist based on the father of hypnotism, Franz Anton Mesmer. Hess (1966) looked at the deputy Nazi leader’s life, while The Second (1971) was inspired by a sporting scandal in which a hammer champion gained an unfair advantage by hollowing out his implement.
Enquist turned to the stage in the 1970s, notably with The Night of the Tribades (1975). Briefly staged on Broadway before being sunk by a review in the New York Times, it explored the marriage of his fellow Swede August Strindberg, about whom Enquist later wrote a television series.
Marriage was also central to Enquist’s play about Hans Christian Andersen, and to Hamsun, the film he wrote in 1996 about Knut Hamsun, whose much younger wife encouraged the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer to support the Nazi occupation of the country.
The film starred Max von Sydow, who also appeared in Pelle the Conqueror, a historical story of Swedish immigrants to Denmark, co-scripted by Enquist and directed by Bille August, which won the 1988 Oscar for best foreign film.
After the end of Enquist’s first marriage, to Margareta Ersson, whom he married in 1960, Enquist was married to the director Lone Bastholm in 1980. He lived with her in Copenhagen, when she was head of the Royal Danish Theatre, and subsequently in Paris.
By then, however, he was in the grip of alcoholism and later recalled nothing of the period, during which at one point he fled barefoot through the snow from a drying-out clinic in Iceland.
When, after more than a decade, he returned to writing prose, he had become a bolder, more experimental writer, pushing at the boundaries of fiction. His later books included The Book about Blanche and Marie (2004).
This described the (probably imaginary) relations of the physicist Marie Curie and the celebrated hysteria patient Blanche Wittmann, who progressively lost three limbs to radium poisoning. The Wandering Pine (2008), an “autobiographical novel”, brought Enquist a second August prize.
Enquist had a stroke in 2016 and had been suffering from cancer for some years. He was rarely, however, the gloomy Swede of cliché. When his fellow writer Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander detective series, was himself mortally ill he cited approvingly Enquist’s upbeat take on life and its end: “One day we shall die. But all the other days we shall be alive.”
Per Olov Enquist’s second marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Gunilla Thorgren, a journalist and politician whom he married in 1995, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage.
Per Olov Enquist, born September 23 1934, died April 25 2020