The Stonehenge Letters

The Stonehenge Letters

by Harry Karlinsky


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781552452943
Publisher: Coach House Books
Publication date: 06/03/2014
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Harry Karlinsky is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. His first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects (HarperCollins UK), was longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

Read an Excerpt

The Stonehenge Letters

A novel

By Harry Karlinsky, Scott Pack, Alana Wilcox


Copyright © 2014 Harry Karlinsky
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77056-383-4



For those readers unfamiliar with the early history of the Nobel Prizes, the man in whose honour they were named – Alfred Bernhard Nobel – was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833. The third eldest of four sons (two younger siblings died in infancy), Alfred's childhood years in Sweden were spent in relative poverty. His father, Immanuel Nobel, a self-taught pioneer in the arms industry, had been forced into bankruptcy the year of Alfred's birth. Immanuel subsequently left his wife Andriette and their children in Sweden to pursue opportunities, first in Finland and later in Russia, that would re-establish the family's wealth. It was not until 1842 that the Nobel family was reunited in St. Petersburg. By then, Immanuel had convinced Tsar Nicholas I that submerged wooden barrels filled with gunpowder were an effective means to protect Russia's coastal cities from enemy naval attack. This was surprising, as virtually all of Immanuel's brightly painted underwater mines failed to detonate, even those brought ashore and struck severely with hammers.

Due to the ongoing military tensions that eventually led to Russia's involvement in the Crimean War (1853–1856), Immanuel's munitions factory prospered and Alfred's adolescent years in St. Petersburg were privileged. With the assistance of private tutors, he became fluent in five languages and excelled in both the sciences and the arts. At age seventeen, Alfred was sent abroad for two years in order to train as a chemical engineer. In Paris, his principal destination, he was introduced to Ascanio Sobrero, the first chemist to successfully produce nitroglycerine. On Alfred's return to St. Petersburg in 1852, he and his father began to experiment with the highly explosive liquid, initially considered too volatile to be of commercial value.

Despite initial setbacks, Alfred Nobel quickly established himself as a talented chemist and aggressive entrepreneur. His most important discoveries – the detonator, dynamite and blasting gelatin – would form the lucrative underpinnings of an industrial empire. By the time of his death in 1896, Nobel held 355 patents and owned explosives manufacturing plants and laboratories in more than twenty countries. According to his executors, his net assets amounted to over 31 million Swedish kronor, the current equivalent of 265 million American dollars.

As his legacy, Nobel directed in his will that his immense fortune be used to establish a series of prizes. These were to be annual awards for exceptional contributions in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The will then ended with a curious closing directive:

Finally, it is my express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium.

It was Freud who stated that there was no better document than the will to reveal the character of its writer. Nobel was terrified of being buried alive, a phobia termed taphophobia (from the Greek taphos, for 'grave'). The triggering stimulus, at least as cited in Nobel's conventional biographies, was Verdi's opera Aida. Nobel had attended its European premiere at La Scala, Milan, on 8 February 1872 and was deeply affected by the closing scene. Aida, a slave in Egypt (but, in truth, an Ethiopian princess), chooses to join her condemned lover Radamès as he is about to be sealed within a tomb. Horrified by the imagery of their impending immurement, Nobel immediately developed a deep-rooted fear that he, too, was destined to die while sentient and trapped. To address his anxiety, Nobel first carried a crowbar on his person. He next relied on a 'life-signalling' coffin of his own design. In the end, Nobel trusted on the certainty of cremation. It was only on realizing he was now at risk for being burned alive, as opposed to buried alive, that a cautious Nobel also stipulated that his 'veins shall be opened' prior to his cremation (i.e., exsanguination by way of phlebotomy).

Years later, Nobel was to die suddenly in San Remo, Italy. As his will, the provisions of which were unknown to others, was on deposit in a private Swedish bank, it took three days before his executors learned of his morbid last wishes. By then, Nobel's corpse had been embalmed, a standard funerary practice in Italy during the 1890s and a process that, by good fortune, begins with bleeding the veins of the deceased.

Sadly, even Nobel had recognized he was troubled throughout his life by more than an operatic death scene. Though capable of congenial social interactions and outright levity in the right company, Nobel had lived a lonely existence without a lifelong partner or children. It was a lament he would frequently share, even in letters to strangers, as evidenced by the following admission:

At the age of 54, when one is completely alone in the world, and shown consideration by nobody except a paid servant, one's thoughts become gloomy indeed.

With bitter insight, Nobel accepted his unwanted isolation as central to his melancholic outlook and the frequent episodes of depression that were particularly prevalent in his middle years. Nobel would refer to these periods of despair as visits from the 'spirits of Niflheim', the cold and misty afterworld in Nordic mythology and the location of Hel, to where those who failed to die a heroic death were banished.

Remarkably, Nobel failed to consider the root cause of his isolation, which was directly attributable to the loss of the many family members and colleagues who had died sudden violent deaths (i.e., were blown to smithereens) as a result of their association with him. In 1856, the Crimean War had ended unfavourably for Russia, in no small part due to the failure of Immanuel's ineffectual mines to cut off crucial enemy shipping lanes in the Baltic Sea. The financial circumstances of the Nobel family declined accordingly. After retreating hastily to Stockholm with only limited resources, Alfred and his father continued their experiments with nitroglycerine. On 3 September 1864, five individuals died in a horrific explosion; among the casualties was Emil Nobel, Alfred's younger brother. To compound the tragedy, a grieving Immanuel suffered a debilitating stroke just one month later. Yet within two months of Emil's death, Alfred was defiantly exporting the world's first source of industrial-grade nitroglycerine. Due to the concerns of government officials about the dangers of the unstable compound, its preparation was restricted to a barge anchored on a lake located beyond Stockholm's city limits. Despite such safety measures, a distressing loss of lives would continue to accompany the commercial production of nitroglycerine, which Nobel quickly extended by establishing factories throughout Europe. Although Nobel refused to express remorse in public (possibly on the advice of his lawyers), the deaths of so many of his employees and innocent bystanders would have a lingering impact on his sensitive disposition.

Nobel's poor physical health would also constantly undermine his fragile temperament. As a fragile and sickly child, Nobel frequented health spas while still in his late teens. Troubled by chronic indigestion, he was once diagnosed with scurvy, and for a period of months consumed only horseradish and grape juice. In his late forties, Nobel developed severe migraine headaches, and then, more seriously, the onset of paroxysmal spasms of chest pain. Though the latter symptoms were initially assumed to be hysterical in nature, he was eventually diagnosed as suffering from a debilitating form of angina pectoris. As he aged, his attacks worsened. While visiting Paris in October 1896, Nobel had a particularly severe episode. As he drolly wrote,

Isn't it the irony of fate that I have been prescribed nitroglycerine to be taken internally! They call it Trinitrin, so as not to scare the chemist and the public.fn8

Within two months of returning to his winter residence in San Remo, Italy, Nobel suffered a catastrophic cerebral haemorrhage. On 10 December 1896, agitated, semi-paralysed and attended only by Italian servants unable to comprehend his last words, which were uttered in Swedish, Nobel died as he had feared, trapped within his body, frightened and alone.



The challenge of implementing Nobel's will fell to his two designated executors.

As Executors of my testamentary dispositions, I hereby appoint Mr. Ragnar Sohlman, resident at Bofors, Värmland, and Mr. Rudolf Lilljequist, 31 Malmskillnadsgatan, Stockholm, and at Bengtsfors near Uddevalla. To compensate for their pains and attention, I grant to Mr. Ragnar Sohlman, who will presumably have to devote most time to this matter, One Hundred Thousand Crowns, and to Mr. Rudolf Lilljequist, Fifty Thousand Crowns.

Nobel had only recently met Rudolf Lilljeqvist, a Swedish civil engineer, in May of 1895. Their initial discussions had revolved around the electrolytic decomposition of salt. Nobel and Lilljeqvist developed an instant rapport, likely due to a shared antipathy towards lawyers. Years of litigation involving alleged patent infringements, charges of industrial espionage, and a series of wrongful death lawsuits had left Nobel with a fierce aversion to those in the legal profession. Lilljeqvist was equally wary, a victim of incompetent lawyers who had undermined his previous efforts to court potential investors. After only three months of congenial negotiations, conducted without legal advice, Nobel agreed to fund Lilljeqvist's proposal to establish an electrochemical plant in Bengtsfors, a village in north-west Sweden. Nobel had obviously been deeply impressed with Lilljeqvist, and despite their brief acquaintance, had developed an immediate confidence in his new partner's acumen and ethical principles.

Although Lilljeqvist subsequently declined Nobel's invitation to take up a well-paid managerial position at a weapons foundry (AB Bofors, see here), the two men engaged in a second collaboration just prior to Nobel's death. The impetus was the unpredictable and explosive nature of nitroglycerine at temperatures higher than 180 degrees Celsius. As the chemical production of nitroglycerine created heat, the temperature of the nitration vats within Nobel's factories required careful monitoring. In practical terms, this meant that one employee was assigned the task of staring at a thermometer throughout the production process. Not surprisingly, the hypnotic nature of the activity frequently induced sleep, and lethal gaffes were prevalent.

In an effort to reduce fatalities, Nobel had first mandated that the relevant workers must complete their shifts without shoes and wearing only a single sock. The principle was simple: Nobel knew from the privations of his early childhood that it was impossible to fall asleep if one foot was colder than the other. It was only upon learning that this prescription contravened nascent employee safety regulations that Nobel rescinded the directive. To gain a first- hand impression of the inherent challenge, Nobel then joined his own labour force. Struggling to stay alert during one shift, an exhausted Nobel realized that it would require a high degree of wakefulness for a worker to remain upright while seated on an unstable surface; should a worker still manage to fall asleep, there would be an obligatory tumble and abrupt arousal. Nobel subsequently conceived of the exact solution – the one-legged stool – while enduring the last act of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Nobel patented his invention and Lilljeqvist undertook its manufacture. Despite worker protests, the one-legged wooden stool became an immediate and effective industry standard.

The other executor appointed in Nobel's will was Ragnar Sohlman. In contrast to his purely professional relationship with Lilljeqvist, Nobel's association with Sohlman was more personal. Sohlman, a Swedish-born chemical engineer like Nobel, was only twenty-five years old at the time of Nobel's death. The two men had first met three years earlier. In 1893, Sohlman had moved to Paris to begin work as Nobel's personal assistant. After efficiently reorganizing Nobel's reference library and his extensive files, Sohlman was precipitously transferred to Nobel's new laboratory in San Remo, Italy. Sohlman had little choice but to move: the French government had accused Nobel of stealing a formula from a French competitor and had forcibly closed his laboratory on the outskirts of Paris.

Sohlman's tenure at San Remo was brief. Within a year of his arrival, Nobel acquired controlling interest in AB Bofors, a large Swedish ironworks and weapons foundry located on the outskirts of Karlskoga, a town in western Sweden. As part of the purchase price, Nobel also acquired ownership of Björkborn Manor, a comfortable but slightly worn residence on the grounds of the property. With the assistance of his nephew Hjalmer, Nobel planned to refurbish the Manor as his permanent home. After years of an unsettled and itinerant lifestyle, Nobel had finally grown nostalgic for the country of his birth and had resolved to spend his remaining years in Sweden.

Both Nobel and Sohlman moved from San Remo to Karlskoga in early 1895. Sohlman had, by then, favourably married. With Nobel's permission, he had taken a short holiday the preceding year to pursue his courtship of Ragnhild Strom, a Norwegian woman he had met through family friends. Once living in Karlskoga, the young couple began to dine with Nobel, an arrangement then unusual in an employer–employee relationship. Soon, Nobel was inviting Sohlman to address him as Father. Though Sohlman was too embarrassed to do so, he did begin to greet Nobel by his Christian name and to refer to himself as 'your affectionate friend R' when signing his letters to Nobel.

Nobel's tender feelings for Sohlman would prove lifesaving. In the early 1890s, Salomon August Andrée, Sweden's first balloonist, had roused patriotic fervour by proposing to pilot a balloon to the North Pole in order to claim the iconic destination in the name of Sweden. Anticipating the arrival of aerial warfare, Nobel envisioned that manned balloons might one day become effective vehicles to drop bombs on enemy positions. Eager to participate in all aspects of the explosives industry, Nobel became one of Andrée's earliest and most generous financial backers.

In the summer of 1896, Andrée visited Bofors at Nobel's invitation. During the ensuing discussions, in which Sohlman also participated, Nobel encouraged Andrée to persevere with his dream of Arctic sovereignty. Earlier that spring, Andrée's first attempt to launch his balloon had failed and there were critics who now viewed the entire notion as foolhardy. Nobel's optimism, however, was infectious and a re-energized Andrée assured Nobel he would re-attempt the flight in the coming year. As Andrée's large hydrogen balloon required a three-man crew, Sohlman volunteered – unexpectedly – to join the proposed expedition. The following day Nobel, concerned for Sohlman's safety, spoke to Andrée privately and threatened to withdraw his financial support should the flight proceed with Sohlman on board. Andrée duly informed Sohlman that, in light of Sohlman's meteorological inexperience, his participation would no longer be possible on what would ultimately prove to be a doomed expedition.

Nobel summered at Björkborn Manor in 1895 and 1896. Although he had initially intended to live year-round within its poorly insulated quarters, Nobel found he could no longer endure the bitterly cold Swedish winters. To avoid the inhospitable weather, he would stay instead at his Italian residence in San Remo. On 7 December 1896, in a letter mailed from Villa San Remo, Nobel would write his last words to Sohlman:

Alas, my health is so poor again that I can only scribble these words with difficulty. But I shall come back as soon as possible to the subjects which interest us both,

Affectionately, Alfred Nobel

One day later, Nobel collapsed into a state of semi-consciousness. Although Sohlman was alerted of Nobel's abrupt deterioration and immediately left Sweden for Italy, he did not arrive until shortly after Nobel's death. It was there, while assisting with Nobel's funeral arrangements, that Sohlman first learned of the provisions of Nobel's will and his unexpected responsibilities. When Lilljeqvist was informed by telegram one day later that he was also an executor of Nobel's testamentary dispositions, he was as surprised as Sohlman.


Excerpted from The Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky, Scott Pack, Alana Wilcox. Copyright © 2014 Harry Karlinsky. Excerpted by permission of COACH HOUSE BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
About This Book,
Introduction: The Knäppskalle File,
Part One: Alfred Nobel's Last Will and Testament,
Chapter 1. Alfred Nobel,
Chapter 2. Lilljeqvist and Sohlman,
Chapter 3. Nobel's Last Will and Testament,
Part Two: An Unexpected Prize,
Chapter 4. 'Frau Sofie' and Countess Bertha Kinsky,
Chapter 5. Stonehenge for Sale,
Chapter 6. Florence Antrobus,
Chapter 7. The Secret Codicil,
Chapter 8. The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities,
Chapter 9. A Sentimental and Practical Guide to Stonehenge,
Part Three: The Mystery of Stonehenge,
Chapter 10. Great Stones Undermined by Worms,
Chapter 11. When Stonehenge was New,
Chapter 12. Seaborne Stones,
Chapter 13. The Curve of Knowns,
Part Four: Deliberations,
Chapter 14. 10 December 1911,
Chapter 15. The Grand Hôtel,
Chapter 16. Trivial and Flawed,
Chapter 17. Albert Einstein,
Chapter 18. Dear Lady Antrobus,
Part Five: Epilogue,
Appendix I: A Psychological Autopsy – A Diagnostic Listing of Alfred Nobel's Dominant Personality Traits, Defence Mechanisms and Primary Mental Disorders,
Appendix II: Acute Radiation Poisoning – Psychosomatic Variant,
Author's Notes and Acknowledgments,
Sources for Quotations,
About the Author,
Credits for Illustrations,

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The Stonehenge Letters 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
MaraBlaise More than 1 year ago
What if Alfred Novel beside the usual prizes also had a "secret" prize for whoever could explain the origin of Stonehenge? A psychiatrist stumbles over some letters from Nobel laureates with explanations for Stonehenge when he is researching why Freud never got a Nobel Prize. Harry Karlinsky has really written a book that feels like it could be real. It really feels like reading a thesis and I had to double-check to see that this was fiction. Just to be sure. LOL I mean it sounded ludicrous, but hell, who knew. The problem I had with this book was the thesis feeling. It made it very dry to read. The part of the book I liked best was actually the biographical part, getting to know the basic fact about Alfred Nobel, Marie Curie, Teddy Roosevelt and Rydyard Kipling. The whole Stonehenge part, the letters from the Nobel laureates was the dry part that and that was unfortunately since that is kind of the point of the book. But it was interesting to read and I would very much read more about Alfred Novel.
druidgirl More than 1 year ago
This story is about Alfred Nobel setting up in will a prize for solving the mystery of Stonehenge. It all begins when a doctor in Sweden discovers a folder called "the crackpot files". many notable people submitted their theories to the committee but no one ever one. ***I received this book in exchange for an honest review***
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love books that infirm and insipre and make the time just fly by. Great story that would make a greay history special. I highky recommend