The First Bomb-Maker


Dan Agin

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 114 in 2007.

1. Beside the Point

In Stockholm that summer a man in a gray wool suit felt the sweat on his face as he walked into a herring shop in Stallgatan to buy some pickles. He liked pickles. The family physician said pickles were not that healthy. Was it the vinegar? Inside the herring shop, the man in the wool suit pushed the family physician out of his mind and walked to one of the large barrels to have a look. Yes, he liked pickles. And these were healthy pickles, greenish-yellow, tart looking, a barrel full to the brim. I'm thirty-four years old and if I want pickles, I'll eat pickles. This was August in 1867 and pickles had become available again. Last summer hardly a pickle could be found in Stockholm, something bad in the harvest, and he'd missed them. He had no taste for the pickles in Hamburg, and the pickles in St. Petersburg had always been awful. A desire for the pickles here was harmless. Anyway, he had something to celebrate, a sheet of paper now existed in a Kungsgatan patent office and soon he would be effectively reborn, a new man, a new life. Every man had to be reborn to move beyond his youth.
The shop was nearly empty, only an old woman at the counter listening as the man in the white apron told a story about a lost herring boat near Oxelosund, that of a cousin of the wife of the man in the white apron, the old woman clucking as she listened to the story. The shopkeeper, the herring-man, turned his head to look at the man in the wool suit. Was it a new customer, someone new in the district? The man in the wool suit looked ordinary; an ordinary face, a short brown beard; he seemed to be dancing with quick steps around the pickle barrels, almost hopping, maybe still young, with bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes.
The man in the wool suit thought about herring, and he wondered if he ought to buy some herring to accompany the pickles. But, of course, he hadn't chosen the pickles yet, so why not wait? Then he noticed the tongs hanging on the edge of another barrel, a barrel of darker pickles. No, he liked the lighter pickles. But the tongs would do. He took some of the cut newspaper off the hook on the post. He held the newspaper in his left hand and he carefully picked four yellow-green pickles out of the barrel. The water slopped out of the barrel anyway and he had to jerk back a bit to avoid wetting his wool suit. It was really too warm for wool, but he hadn't expected the afternoon heat after the cool morning rain. When he grasped a fifth pickle with the tongs, the water in the barrel slopped again, and this time some of it did wet his trousers. Well, it couldn't be helped. The barrel was filled to the brim with pickles, all the barrels nearly full, and that's why they had the sawdust on the floor. He liked the smell of it: a good carpet of sawdust surrounding barrels of pickles in a herring shop, the sawdust still dry, not yet saturated, although maybe soon there would be too much water and vinegar down there and they'd need to put another carpet of sawdust on the floor.
He wanted a sixth pickle, a full half dozen, but instead he remained with the five pickles in one hand, the tongs in the other hand, his eyes on the floor, on the carpet of sawdust.
The old woman said something to the man in the white apron, paid for the herring she wanted and left the shop. The man in the white apron looked at the man in the wool suit standing at the pickle barrels, the suit much too warm for the afternoon heat. The herring-man tried to hide his impatience. "Yes, good day, can I help you?"
The man in the wool suit turned to the counter, pickles and newspaper in one hand, the tongs in the other hand. "Where do you get the sawdust? Do you have it delivered here?"
The man in the white apron put his hands on his chest over his apron, his thick fingers splayed out on his white apron. "Sawdust? You want sawdust, mister? What about those pickles?"
"Yes, I'll take these pickles, thank you." He handed the five pickles in the newspaper to the man behind the counter. Never mind the sixth pickle now. He would talk to Ludvig. His brother knew more about such things than he did. He'd planned to go to the barge, but now he'd go to Heleneborg instead. Ludvig would know all about sawdust.

2. Down in the Mouth

"Sawdust?" Ludvig said. He was the older one, but only two years older. Still, he looked more solid. Everyone always said Ludvig looked the most solid, even more solid than their other brother, Robert, who was the oldest.
"I need a few barrels to start with. Can you get them for me? I need them on the barge as soon as possible."
Through the large window, the ground outside the house looked fine, a wide expanse of green and then the forest in the distance. The old shed they had used as a laboratory had been blown to pieces three years before and nothing of it was visible.
Ludvig shrugged. "Listen, I'm leaving in a few days, back to St. Petersburg. What do you want with sawdust, anyway?"
"An experiment, what else? I think it might improve things if it's mixed with the clay."
"Does the clay really work?"
"Yes, it works. Guhr clay, anyway. And today the patent has been approved and I'm celebrating."
Ludvig laughed. "You're celebrating? How are you celebrating?"
"I bought some pickles."
"Pickles? Are you blowing up pickles now? You don't need pickles, Alfred. What you need is a woman. Why don't you find a woman and get married?"
"You're teasing me. I'll wrap a pickle in kieselguhr and have it served to you at dinner."
"Damn the kieselguhr. Emil is dead."
"Yes, Emil is dead. Don't you think I know that?"
He was sweating again. He did not like to be reminded of Emil. No one likes to be reminded of a younger brother blown to bits like that. Now it was he who was the youngest. Alfred the youngest. But thirty-four wasn't so young anymore.
"Your damned barge," Ludvig said.
"Yes, my damned barge. Can you get the sawdust for me? Just a few barrels for now."
"Are you living on the barge yet?"
"It's an idea, but not yet. I'm returning to Hamburg next week. The sawdust?"
"They say you're crazy, you know. If you want to know the truth, I'm happy I'm in St. Petersburg."
"Get me the sawdust, Ludvig."
"You'll blow the barge to the sky, won't you?"
"No, we keep the nitro dry now, more stable. It's much better now."
"Better, is it? It wasn't better for Emil, I think. What are you calling it again? Fancy name, wasn't it?"
"Dynamite, Ludvig. I'm calling it dynamite."
"Anything left of the factory in Hamburg?"
"It's being rebuilt."
"Explosions everywhere. In America last year, wasn't it? Big explosion in San Francisco. My brother's famous blasting oil."
"That was a liquid shipment. They're not careful enough."
"Your blasting oil, Alfred."
"Yes, my blasting oil. I'll have the American patent next year."
"You're doing fine, aren't you?"
"Not yet, not yet. How are things in St. Petersburg?"
"Slow. A few contracts for steam engines."
"I miss St. Petersburg, I really do."
"Ludvig shook his head. "The old man isn't good, you know."
"I know he's not good. That's why I'm here."
"Not since he buried Emil."
"I know that."
He turned away to hide his irritation. He knew all about the explosion in America, the blasting oil leaking in a depot, a huge blast, fifteen dead, a whole brain blown into another building. How does that happen, a whole brain? You'd think the damn thing would fall apart. But, of course, the steamship explosions were even worse. Forty-seven killed on the ocean near Panama. Eighty-four killed at the dock in Bremerhaven. The new method with kieselguhr would put an end to the instability. And now he had the patent and there would be more patents and maybe mixing sawdust with the guhr clay would be an important advance. Yes, it would. He knew it. He knew it in his bones. Fine sawdust in the guhr would be an important advance. Keep the nitro a paste, even a dry paste like putty. What he needed was a good detonator, and he had ideas for that. He wanted to be reborn as a man. His father was almost gone and he wanted to be reborn at last. My name is Alfred Bernhard Nobel and I want to be reborn.

3. Needless to Say

In Hamburg, Alfred is in his Kruemmel factory when news arrives that he's been granted the American patent. Alfred Nobel of Hamburg, Germany, assignor to Julius Bandmann of San Francisco. Patent number 78,317, dated May 26, 1868. Improved Explosive Compound. Be it known that, I, Alfred Nobel, of the city of Hamburg, Germany, have invented a new and useful Composition of Matter, to wit, an Explosive Powder. The nature of the invention consists in forming out of two ingredients long known, viz, the explosive substance nitro-glycerine and an inexplosive porous substance, hereafter specified, a composition which, without losing the great explosive power of nitro-glycerine, is very much altered as to its explosive and other properties, being far more safe and convenient for transportation, storage, and use, than nitro-glycerine.
He feels joyous, a great excitement. In America they will use dynamite for construction and not for war. They will build railroads and tunnels and mines and bridges, all with his dynamite. He runs with the news to Stoessel, the factory manager. "We need to celebrate," Alfred says. "Let's go somewhere and celebrate."
The small factory in Kruemmel, outside Hamburg, has been rebuilt after the last explosion, and they are now shipping orders to nearly every corner of Germany, including the War Ministry.
Stoessel takes him to a noisy brauhaus in Hammerbrook near the docks, a place filled with smoke, beer, pipers, and sweating painted women who pounce on them as soon as they make their entrance.
All right, Alfred thinks, it's a celebration and Stoessel is a good manager. Alfred never drinks too much, but he thinks this time he should relent. Maybe it would be good for his nerves. They start drinking, first beer and then schnapps, and then beer and schnapps together, and before long Alfred imagines his nerves have improved and he's drunk enough so that the room spins around his head whenever he turns to look at something. The women arrive and depart in twos and threes, with Alfred continually fishing in his waistcoat for money, until finally one girl with blue eyes and a red mouth discovers Alfred is a Swede and she speaks to him in a perfect Goteborg dialect.
"Come to my room," the girl says.
Alfred stares at her, barely able to make out her face. "Impossible."
"Why impossible? Don't you like me?"
"I'm too drunk." His last thought is a decision to visit his parents in Stockholm to tell them the good news about his American patent, and after that he slumps forward, drops his head on his arms and closes his eyes.

4. Movers and Shakers

So one week later, Alfred is on a ferry to Malmo and then on a train to Stockholm. Spring is in the air. What he remembers of the so-called joys of spring is springtime in St. Petersburg, where he spent his childhood. Fate had not given him a youth in his homeland. He gazes at the young woman who sits on the opposite bench. She's handsomely dressed and probably from a good family. Alfred wonders if he'll ever marry and have his own children. He wonders about the ways people choose to live their lives. He has no religion. As for the afterlife, what afterlife can there be except that provided by a family? What waits at the end of it all except a hole in the ground? His greatest fear is to somehow be buried while still alive, and he wonders how often that happens these days. Do the people who look after such things have the proper technical means to be certain that someone in a coffin is actually dead? Once they seal the coffin you're finished, alive or dead, it's the same. How many dead there must be in Niflheim, the Land of the Dead in Norse mythology. How many dead now from dynamite explosions? Maybe only a few hundred. Hardly anyone believes that his dynamite will eventually do away with war. Does he believe it himself? What do you want, Alfred? Does he want to save the world from itself? He smirks as he turns to gaze through the window at the passing scenery. Be truthful. He wants riches and glory, and then maybe afterward he'll see about saving the world from itself.

5. Hold Your Own

"He's a little old man," his mother says. "Your poor Papa lies in bed and can hardly move."
Alfred sits with her by the bedside and he tells them about the new American patent. A brief smile passes across the old man's face, but it's apparent he can barely understand the details. Alfred provides the details anyway. He thinks about his ancestors as he talks to his father. The old family name was Nobelius. "The American patent will be the best," he says. "Already the orders are keeping us busy."
He holds his mother's hand. Her hand always feels so wonderful when he holds it, like a little bird in his palm.
His mother says: "Ludvig and Robert will be happy for you."
"How are they?"
"Robert may be returning to St. Petersburg."
Alfred knows about that. He helped Robert start a dynamite factory in Finland, but the Russians stopped all Finnish production of explosives. So Robert is finished in Finland now.
"And Ludvig?"
"Mina isn't well and Ludvig writes he's worried about her."
They all have families, wives, children. Only Alfred is unmarried. He's the most successful now and still alone.
"You ought to find a wife," his mother says.
"I'm not forty yet."
"Thirty-five is fine also, it's time."
Emil would have been twenty-five this year. No one in the family talks about Emil, the name hanging over them in every room, his fair-haired, laughing brother. Alfred hates to think about the explosion that killed Emil. Was it only four years ago? They had such little understanding of nitro-glycerin. They thought it safe until detonated. And then on a Saturday in September the whole factory blew up to the sky, yellow flame and smoke and pieces of the old building everywhere. Broken windows as far away as Kungsholm. His father wrote a report to the police and called it negligence. Mutilated corpses produced by negligence about temperature. A thirteen-year-old girl who had worked in the factory torn to pieces by the blast. Alfred had been a hundred meters away from the building, but he'd been thrown to the ground by the blast and found himself bloodied by fragments of wood and glass. Emil and four others blown apart. His laughing younger brother. Then a month later the old man had the stroke and the old man's life stopped.
His mother gently withdraws her hand from Alfred's hand and she rises. "You ought to see the drawings he does. He still does his drawings."
Alfred knows what they are: Fantasies about new inventions.

6. Sooner or Later

In Portsmouth, Alfred stands on the dock, pacing with impatience as he waits for his luggage and trunk to be brought down from the ship. The trunk has contraband, twenty pounds of dynamite in two cases. He feels a sudden anxiety. Has he gone mad to take such a risk? If he's caught, it means two years in a British prison. It occurs to him that he likes the British less than he likes the Germans and French. His favorite people are the Russians, but, of course, he spent his childhood in St. Petersburg, so what else can one expect? He's fond of English literature, especially of Shakespeare and Shelley, but all that's irrelevant in the context of business affairs. The British are more difficult than the Germans and French. They will not allow him to produce or sell dynamite because of its supposed danger, but this time he'll demonstrate that dry nitro is as safe as a barrel of coal.
Meanwhile, he has to smuggle the dynamite into England to make the demonstration, and the subterfuge annoys him.
When the luggage and trunk arrive on the dock, two customs officers approach him.
The younger one requests his papers. "Are you British, sir?"
"No, I'm Swedish."
The younger one studies the papers. "Traveling from Hamburg, are you?"
"Yes, I live in Hamburg. I'm here on business."
"What sort of business, sir?"
"Industrial equipment."
"Traveling to London?"
"No, to Aberdeen. But I'll return to London in a week."
They seem satisfied. It's an ordinary trunk, not too large, similar to any trunk one might travel with on a ship from Hamburg to England. The younger one tips his hat. "Enjoy your visit, sir."
Alfred is relieved. He tells himself never again. From now on, his career as a smuggler is finished. He can feel his heart racing. Ludvig and Robert would both say he's crazy. But they always say that.
Now he needs to get his trunk and luggage to a hotel and make arrangements for the trip to Aberdeen. It occurs to him that if the nitro were to blow at this moment, the dock would be gone. But, of course, it can't happen. He's in control. With nitro dry, he's in control.
You're a vagabond, he thinks. A true vagabond.

7. Sound and Fury

Four kilometers from Aberdeen, a Scot named Dugal is dubious about the planned demonstration.
"If the stuff explodes, you'll be finished here."
"It won't explode."
"And maybe I'll be finished also."
"You'll have your money one way or the other, but nothing will explode."
A dozen men stand back a hundred paces as he carries one of the cases to a rise overlooking the sea. They watch as he sets the case on a pile of dry brush and wood chips. After he starts the fire, Alfred calmly stands with his hands in his pockets. He feels the warmth of the fire. The men are waiting for the nitro to blow him to the sky, but nothing happens. His nitro will not explode unless it's detonated.
Later, he tosses the second case of nitro off a sixty-foot cliff to a pile of rocks and nothing happens, no explosion. Are they convinced? He hears a few grumbles, but the demonstration has been successful. Dry nitro and the old liquid nitro are not the same: the dry nitro is safe.
In a week, he has permission to manufacture and sell his dynamite in England. The first investors in the new British company are several Scots who witnessed the demonstration in Aberdeen. The factory will be located at Ardeer near Glasgow, on a bleak patch off the Firth of Clyde.
So it's another factory. He has no liking for the people or the climate, but it's another factory and he will build it as fine as the one in Hamburg.
In London, he meets with more British financiers. The outlook for investment grows more and more favorable.
"What about war?" someone says.
"Yes, what about that, Mr. Nobel? Land mines? In cannon?"
"Yes, it's possible," Alfred says. He does his best to mumble in his beard like an Englishman, gives them careful optimism. He's good enough at business now, and he knows when to be level-headed.
At a dinner party one evening, he meets a Swedish woman, the Baroness Helga von Sachsen, a widow of nearly fifty who lives in Paris. They banter across the table, and later they sit beside each other isolated from the others, and they talk about the Continent. She's visiting a sister in London and will return to Paris in a week. The room is too warm and he's had too much red wine. He can see beads of sweat on her upper lip. Her bust looks impressive. How enchanting to find a Swedish woman like this one in London. When she invites him to call on her in Paris, he's delighted. He takes her card and carefully tucks it into a pocket of his waistcoat.
In a few weeks, he's in Paris again, and he finds the apartment of the Baroness near the Avenue de l'Opera. A maid leads him to a sitting room, and before long Helga appears with her hands extended in greeting. They have tea and little French cakes and talk endlessly. After a while, they move into another room and they sit beside each other on a comfortable sofa. Her eyes bore into him, and she makes him feel as though she knows his inner soul. He's enchanted by her scent, the lovely boots, the imposing curve of her bosom.
She seems amused as she touches the back of his hand with her pale fingers. "You're a lovely man."
He's pleased. This is certainly more pleasurable than the chill air in Scotland. "Thank you."
She laughs. "You're blushing."
"Yes, it's a weakness."
She holds his hand. "I find you charming. Like a happy poodle. The way you walk sometimes. Are you a poodle?"
His collar feels too tight. He looks down at his hand clasped by her fingers, at the large silver ring on one of her fingers. Is she teasing him? She reminds him so much of his mother years ago, the way his mother would hold his hand as they sat beside each other in the garden. He looks at Helga's smiling face, at the rounds of her bust.
She squeezes his hand as she leans forward. "Why don't you kiss me?" she whispers. "Are you afraid?"
Her scent is in his nose, perfume and powder and musk. He glances at the closed door, and then he leans toward her and he kisses her lips. Immediately, her mouth opens and the kiss becomes passionate. She releases his hand. She murmurs against his mouth. "No one will come in here."
He's in a daze of surprise and excitement, thrilled by her kisses.
She makes a sound of delight. "So eager! Like a bull!"
His face flushed, he feels overwhelmed, as though his heart will give out at any moment.
She laughs. "Yes, you're a happy poodle."
When he clutches at her again, she pushes him away with amusement, pushes him to the carpet at her feet. He crouches on the carpet and looks up at her. She gazes at him a long time, her eyes fixed upon him.
Finally, she says: "You're a man with desperate needs. Isn't that true?"
"I don't know."
"I think you need to overcome your shyness with women. And your feelings of incapacity."
He's annoyed and he rises to his feet. "Am I incapable?" He thinks about his dynamite, the explosions.
"Sit down," she says. She makes him sit beside her again. "How many women have you loved?"
"Not many."
"Not enough. Maybe the way you are now makes you incapable of a real love. Some men want to see a woman as a goddess, someone high above them. It's a pity because the goddess usually isn't benevolent. Isn't that so?"
He feels anger growing in his chest. "I don't know."
Then she tells him she wants to see him occasionally, but not too often. Now he feels rage and he bursts out: "You're absurd!"
He storms out.
But a few days later he calls on her again. She receives him as though it's expected and they pass a few hours locked in her bedroom.
Is it a craving? Never mind, he has other cravings. His craving for wealth is more important. He wants to be rich; and not just casually rich, but extremely rich. There's never any doubt in his mind about the engine that drives him forward from one day to the next.

8. On the Fly

In 1869, dynamite is in demand everywhere and Alfred Nobel is touted as a great inventor. Money pours into the various Nobel factories from Europe, America, South America, and Asia. Fuses and percussion caps remain the important patents for Alfred's various enterprises. Then, in 1870, Prussia and France are at war, and the Germans buy great quantities of dynamite from the Kruemmel plant outside Hamburg. The Germans use dynamite to blow up French roads, bridges, and fortifications. The Germans learn how to put dynamite into bombs, and they use dynamite bombs that cause heavy damage and many French casualties.
In Paris, Alfred acquires a French partner, Paul Barbe, and they succeed in obtaining a license from the French government to produce dynamite in France. When the Franco-Prussian war ends, it's the French who have lost and France is forced to sign a peace treaty advantageous to the Prussians. With the war ended, the French government again forbids all private manufacture of explosives within France, and the Nobel-Barbe dynamite factory is shut down. But the military importance of dynamite is now accepted. Alfred's factory at Ardeer in Scotland has become the world's greatest dynamite plant. Alfred and Paul Barbe soon set up factories in Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Hungary, with local investors supplying capital and Alfred and Barbe holding controlling shares.
Alfred's father dies in September 1872, and after the funeral Alfred has an argument with his brothers Ludvig and Robert when they urge him to marry and live a settled life.
"You need someone to look after you," Ludvig says. Robert nods and Alfred is irritated. Robert always does what Ludvig wants. It occurs to him that both brothers are annoyed because he's the youngest and yet the most successful. Well, they had their chance, didn't they?
"I'm quite all right the way I am," Alfred says.
Ludvig scratches his beard. "Why don't you come to St. Petersburg? You'll have a better life there than in Hamburg."
"I don't stay that much in Hamburg anymore. I've spending a good deal of time in Paris."
Robert grunts. "And what's happening in Paris these days besides silk cravats and syphilis?"
"Don't be absurd."
Ludvig laughs, but there's mockery in his laugh and Alfred is angry. "Don't laugh, Ludvig."
"Why not? It's amusing."
Alfred turns away. He hates their disdain for Paris, London, literature, the arts, and whatever else he himself thinks important. Ludvig is intelligent but a complete philistine. As for Robert, Alfred isn't certain Robert has ever had an original idea in his entire life. Then he feels guilty for his disloyal thoughts: they're his brothers, after all.

9. A Man After My Own Heart

In 1873, Paul Barbe convinces Alfred to settle in Paris. Alfred is forty years old and now rich enough to live anywhere in a high style. He buys a house in Avenue Malakoff near the Arc de Triomphe and the Bois de Boulogne. The house is sumptuous, with an arched gateway leading to an inner court, a stable for his imported Russian horses, a garden with a glass roof and glass walls, a small laboratory and a large library. He grows orchids in the garden and uses the three horses to draw an elegant carriage down the avenue to the Bois. He has a butler and a housekeeper. He begins the life of a rich Parisian, becomes a familiar figure in Parisian society, a man who hosts occasional elegant dinner parties. His dynamite has given him the life of a prince.
But he works without rest. His life belongs to his dynamite. In the Malakoff laboratory he invents a new blasting gelatin that quickly makes him even more rich and famous. The poor little Swedish boy hopping on the streets of St. Petersburg during his father's first bankruptcy is a distant dream. Did that boy ever exist?
He's also lonely, with a true loneliness that manifests itself as an inner hunger, a knot in his chest when he's alone in the evening, a shivering sadness when he awakens in the morning. Sometimes his work is enough to keep him moving forward, a new puzzle to solve, a new business arrangement, new negotiations. Then everything suddenly seems useless and he pulls into himself, looks for affirmation of his misery in literature and the arts. People see him seated alone at the theater.
"Who is that man?"
"Oh, that's Alfred Nobel, the Swede who makes explosives."
"Not much to look at, is he? You would think him a little doctor from Bordeaux."

10. Last Resort

Alfred Bernhard Nobel, born in Stockholm in 1833, died in San Remo, Italy, in 1896. He died alone. He never married and had no known children.