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Review – The Stonehenge Letters, Harry Karlinsky

May 12, 2017

Published by The Friday Project, 2014

What? Don’t look at me like that, I didn’t say that the next book I reviewed would be Men from the Ministry. I may have implied that it would be, but I didn’t promise anything (I’m carefully not providing a link just in case I did say this!) Anyway, don’t judge me, we’ve all been ill and when we recovered it was time for the dreaded SATs,  I – literally – didn’t have the stomach for serious reading, I needed entertainment. Martyn recommended this to me a while back and having a look on AbeBooks I found a cheap second-hand copy almost immediately. This availability made me wonder if perhaps it was going to be a waste of my hard-earned pennies (as I say, it was cheap) but it turns out that Martyn was right and it was whole pence very well spent.

The premise of the novel is that in the Nobel Archives in Stockholm is a file containing all the unsolicited (largely self-)nominations for the various Nobel prizes. While searching through the archive a psychiatrist, who is trying to determine why his hero, Freud, was never awarded a prize, comes across this ‘Crackpot’ file. Within the file are a series of letters from various laureates pertaining to Stonehenge and, finding these more interesting than his original enquiry, the psychiatrist begins to unravel the mystery of their presence.

And, that’s about it. Of itself this doesn’t sound very interesting or amusing. But, it gives Harry Karlansky the excuse to write short pastiches in the style of Rudyard Kipling, Ivan Pavlov, Teddy Roosevelt and Marie Curie while introducing various theories about the origin of Stonehenge and to play around with ideas about archives, history and biography. And, parts of it are very funny, my favourite is Appendix II Acute Radiation Poisoning – Psychosmatic Variant, Rick’s favourite parts were the Teddy Roosevelt and Marie Curie letters. It’s not A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, the playfulness is limited, but to anyone dealing with archives/history/biography (and I imagine that’s all of us) it is familiar territory given a humorous twist.


Alfred Nobel Copyright Getty Images

Inevitably, there’s a lot about Alfred Nobel and his life – not a subject I knew anything about and quite possibly still don’t given this is a work of fiction despite the inclusion of letters, photographs and extracts from various books – as Karlansky points out in the afterword he has gleefully taken words from one author and ascribed them to someone completely different. He plays with Nobel’s alleged susceptibility to pretty, intelligent women, the idea being that it was his meeting with (and attraction to) Lady Florence Antrobus that led to his decision to award a prize to anyone who could best explain the mysteries of Stonehenge

Oh look, you can read her A Sentimental and Practical Guide to Stonehenge and Amesbury here.

Having decided on this addition to his prizes Nobel died before adding the codicil to his will – and there’s a whole subsection about Nobel’s fear of being buried alive and his attempts to prevent this – but his executors resolved to honour his intentions. Under an oath of secrecy (so as not to demean the more mainstream Nobel awards) laureates allocated prizes between 1901 and 1910 were to be invited to submit explanations for Stonehenge, with the idea that a monetary prize would be awarded in 1911. Very few laureates took up the offer and, inevitably given the ‘Crackpot’ file, there were unsolicited letters. This gives Karlinsky the chance to go through various Stonehenge theories proposing dates and/or function as well as playing fast and loose with historical figures and events. Montelius makes an appearance as a judge of the proposals’ worth, as does Einstein and presumably Nobel’s executors are real people even if imagined for Karlinsky’s purpose. Hmm, I probably should have looked that up and checked fact against fiction, rather than just happily reading away and enjoying the characterisation.

So, The Stonehenge Letters is a jolly read. I felt slightly short-changed at the end, not because there is no resolution – how could there be? we still don’t really understand Stonehenge – but because Karlinsky felt the need to include an Epilogue explaining where the different theories supposedly proposed by the laureates really originated. This is the part I enjoyed least, Rick pointed out not everyone will know this and otherwise it might be confusing, but I know very little about Freud or Nobel and even if what I’m reading is invention this isn’t a long term problem, I have access to libraries and the internet*. This section jarred, but maybe that’s just me, maybe as a historian of British archaeology I already know too much about the modern history of Stonehenge so I can see the joins and the reliance on Stonehenge Complete?

On the whole I would recommend it, in fact I’d go so far as to say that if you want to read it let me know and I’ll post you my copy. We’re still trying to de-clutter HARN Towers.


*Which reminds me, I have to go and look up Alfred’s father Immanuel Nobel (he invented plywood – who knew?) and the underwater exploding mines and Saul Bellow and the Orgasmatron.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Martyn permalink
    May 15, 2017 9:06 am

    The link to Lady Florence’s guide book takes you to a copy of the ‘second thousand’ – it’s well worth looking at later editions as she added ‘things’, most notably a section called ‘Pot-Pourri’. In the ‘sixteenth thousand’, this included items headed “The Socialistic Radicals and the Game of Grab”, “The Sale of Honours”, “The Decay of the Art of Cookery”, and “Books that have interested, amused, or charmed me”. No mention of Nobel anywhere…

  2. May 15, 2017 3:18 pm

    Honestly, your review is so well written that you’ve left me confused if it is fake or not. Better find myself a copy of the book to get convinced.

    • harngroup permalink*
      May 15, 2017 6:06 pm

      I’m sorry, I should have said it’s fiction. It’s good though, I can send you my copy if you want?

      • May 16, 2017 3:12 pm

        Well done, reversing the joke back on me. I meant that I thought you might have written a fake review, about a book you would have liked to write. Now I am really confused.

  3. harngroup permalink*
    May 16, 2017 4:23 pm

    Erik, my apologies! I completely failed to understand what you were asking there, no intention of reversing the joke at all, I’m too slow on the uptake for that!
    It’s a real book, it truly is, there’s reviews of it here
    Harry Karlinsky is a real person, he’s a Canadian psychiatrist and author, his website’s here – And, while it’s a strange book, it’s an interesting oddity, although how they thought it would sell I have no idea – how many people are there interested in Freud AND Stonehenge with a side order of Nobel?
    Let me send it to you before we leave the Union and can’t afford to send anything within Britain, never mind to our former allies.
    You have now raised the prospect of complete badness by the way, it hadn’t occurred to me to write fake reviews . . .

    • June 2, 2017 3:46 pm

      Thank you for offering me to send it but I think you should try and find someone else (or keep it yourself). The number of books that I can read is very limited because of an eye condition (and I don’t think I would read this one very soon), I even struggle to find time to read anything for my own research (without having other priorities as an excuse). I’ll have to make do with intriguing blog entries.

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