Reflections after writing — Hans Christian Andersen European Witness

I gave my study of Hans Christian Andersens oeuvre the subtitle ‘European Witness’ because of my conviction that an important reason for Andersens phenomenal success in his lifetime was his understanding at a deep level of the condition of the diverse but ultimately interlinked countries that made up the continent. Andersens imaginative, one might say near-instinctual understanding was always well served by his lively, ever-curious intellect, which always kept itself abreast of new or distinctive developments in every society he visited. Travelogues, diaries and letters alike show the sharpness of his eyes and ears and his constant need mentally to place and define what he saw or heard. He was attentive alike to those whom he passed by casually in towns and or in the countryside, to chance acquaintances whose life-stories he would either elicit or deduce from his own observations and private wells of experience, and also of course to the many distinguished men and women he met – increasingly as his artistic peers: Tieck, Chamisso, Hugo, Balzac, Heine, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner.

Title page of the German edition of A Poct’s Bazar. Here Andersen is presented as “the author of the novels “The Improvisatore”, “O.T.” and “Only a Fiddler”. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

The famous and the obscure alike could not but bring home to him during the years of his own productivity the huge exponential changes, social and technological, taking place the continent over, with the most profound psychological impact on both societies and individuals. Andersen emerged into his unique hterary personality and created his most idiosyncratic works at a time of the culturally all-pervasive confrontation between ex-Napoleonic France and pre-unification Germany. But persisting in the face of these upheavals and radical reorganisations, particularly as one moved away from the great centripetal cities, were centuries-old beliefs and practices, increasingly in these times of change, and from the opening years of the C19 onwards, the objects of scrutiny, scholarly, politico-nationalist, socially ideological or even plain nostalgic – from Walter Scott and James Hogg in Scotland to the Brothers Grimm in Germany, through to Asbjornsen and Moe and the young Ibsen in Norway, and over to Russia with the huge folklore/fairytale compilations of A.N. Afanasyev made from 1855 to 1864. The strength of the last of these three European preoccupations, its role as some kind of bulwark against such widespread and palpable uncertainty, must of course significantly account for the fairytale (whether one of his Eventyr or his Historier, whether proclaimedly designated for children or not) becoming the dominant form in which Andersen expressed himself, and for which an ever-growing body of readers sought him out. He could inject into them perceptions from his experiences of those areas of the continent, literal and spiritual, which had moved away or even jetttisoned folk-culture, and therefore renew it artistically.

Andersen surely enjoyed great advantages here, as a maker of such harmonising works, which, however disturbing in their details, did justice to local particularities, in being a Dane (and, one might add, a Dane born in social and economic obscurity who never could take for granted what more fortunate or centrally placed members of Danish society could). Denmark’s geographical Situation (conveyed to us memorably in Andersens very first travel-book), at a seagirt angle to the continent proper with which it enjoys only one narrow frontier, was of inestimable importance here – as so obviously it was in the formation of the politico-economic circumstances of his earliest years. Certainly Denmark’s unhappy economically straitened Situation after the defeat of Napoleon, its proven ability to build itself up into a highly educated and creatively energetic society during the Golden Age years, its movement from an Absolute Monarchy into a Constitutional one that could – and surely should – hold up its head against its European peers – all gave a thoughtful travelling Dane, especially one with Andersens heightened perceptions, a very special vantage-point from which to view and imaginatively to penetrate other societies – whether Berlin of the militaristic atmosphere and sophisticated intellectuals which so Struck the budding young writer in summer 1831, evoked in Skyggebilleder (Shadow Pictures, 1831) or the urban anarchy of Naples which (without naming the city) he describes with near-hallucinatory vividness in his story ‘Skyggen’ (‘The Shadow’, written in 1846).

And here is perhaps the place to say, that, as an English hterary critic, I also feit that the Danish Andersen was peculiarly fortunately placed to appreciate (running the gamut of feelings and moral responses) the atmosphere and culture of that other seagirt nation-state at a tangent to the continental mainland: the United Kingdom. Andersens diaries give a, for me, quite unparalleled picture of what arrival, up the Thames Estuary, at the Port of London feit like to the newcomer of 1847, inspiring as it must have done excitement, awe, admiration and anxiety. His entries of both that year and of his more famous (and fraught) visit to England ten years’ later combine wonder at the (British) national energy and ambition with a shrewd eye and ear for blights in the dazzling picture and for discords in the national variegated chorus respectively. Can it be an accident that, for all the sad ending to their friendship, and the sorry misunderstandings responsible for this, the Contemporary writer to whom Andersen can be most likened – for width of readership enjoyed and for depth of insight revealed – is English Charles Dickens (who, for his part, feit a compulsion not dissimilar to Andersens for travel away from his native country, and often feit that he could only do his best work when temporarily domiciled abroad)? Could there be a more beautiful hterary tribute from one great writer to another, distilling the imaginative essences of both while remaining true to the individuality of the actual author himself than ‘Det gamle Huus’ (‘The Old House’, 1848), which Dickens read and reread? And we know – from the remarks the English writer made to Andersen during that grand reception which was the occasion of their first meeting) that Dickens knew Improvisatoren (The Improvisatore, 1835), even if it was in Mrs Howitt’s imperfect (but to my thinking somewhat maligned) translation. I argue in my book that key features of David Copperfield (1849-50) can be traced back (with no charge intended of even innocent plagiarism!) to Andersens first novel, told in the first person, intended to be read as the autobiography, the growth to satisfactory adulthood, of its central figure.

‘Novel’ – mention of the word forces one to remember that the years of Andersen’s growth towards becoming a nationally and internationally recognised writer were precisely the years of the growth of the novel as the dominant hterary form. If one had to mention the major cultural means through which a ‘European Witness’ expressed him/herself it would be the novel, the novel as it evolved from works reflecting the ubiquitous and tremendous influence of Scott into attempts to portray the lives and spirit of the writer’s and reader’s own times, to deal with the ‘aktuell’, often, indeed usually, taking in the impact of the immediately preceding years, their public events, their private challenges.

There could, of course, scarcely be a greater example of a Creative admirer of Scott than Andersen himself who in his first (privately paid for) book put the great Scottish novelist’s first name as part of his pseudonym (‘Villiam Christian Walter’) as well as including a story clearly deriving from The Heart of Midlothian (1818). In my study of Andersen I have paid much close attention to Scotts persistent influence on his work, in particular to that of The Heart of Midlothian itself, by long-term common consent the greatest, the most universal in appeal, of the Waverley novels. For example I explore the kinship of Gerda’s time with the robbers in ‘Sneedronningen’ (‘The Snow Queen’, 1845) with Jeanie Deans’ experience of a robber band in that novel. And when it comes to Andersens fourth novel, De to Baronesser (The Two Baronesses, 1848) I remind readers how Andersen makes his heroine deliberately emulate her beloved Scott’s Jeanie Deans by undertaking a self-sacrificing dangerous journey to beg from her king a reprieve for her convicted loved one. And the marvellous opening chapters of this novel, of stranded sea-travellers on a wild, lonely coast, immediately remind readers of comparable pages in another great Andersen favourite among Scott’s works, The Bride of Lammermoor, 1819, and were surely intended to do so. In fact Andersen was actually at work on this novel when visiting Edinburgh and Scott-associated places in its vicinity in 1847.

But in the 1830s – Scott himself died in 1832 – writers realised that such were the tumults of the years immediately behind them and the questions posed by their wake, the present and future, that it was to these they had to address themselves, while honouring Scott’s interest in the complexity of an entire society, in the need to deal with its complex layers, and with the traditions and aspirations motivating these. Stendhal actually subtitled his novel Le rouge et le noir‘a novel of 1830’ (it was published in the November of that same year). That most intent Student of Scott’s works, Balzac produced in the 1830s two of his finest novels, studies in provincial and Parisian life respectively, and of individuals striving to be the true to their own given natures in the conditions in which they had inextricably been placed: Eugenie Grandet (1833) and Le pere Goriot( 1834). Neither masterpiece could have been written by Scott, they are the fruit of Balzacs intense application of his own mind and art to the people and mores all about him. The ‘novel’ was being true to its name, doing something new about a society that was making demands new in themselves.

The title page of the Danish 1. edition of “Only a Fiddler”. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

And right in the middle of the 1830s Hans Christian Andersen published Improvisatoren, his own first novel, exactly a week after his thirtieth birthday and a month minus one day before his first booklet of fairy-tales. The novel had been begun in winter 1833 when he was away from Copenhagen (with, for him, its constant atmosphere that he was being judged as an emerging writer and found wanting) and had learned of the death of his mother in Odense (from alcoholism). I find the position of Improvisatoren in Andersens oeuvre enormously significant and perhaps insufficiently stressed. Posterity has agreed with H.C. Orsted’s remarkably prescient judgement that of the two publications the book that appeared first would bring him fame (it did; his doubters were triumphantly proved wrong) but the second, following so hard on its heels, would bring him immortality. But every page of Improvisatoren exudes the thrilled confidence of the writer having achieved something he believed to be new, a fresh presentation of existence in its Contemporary manifestations, and that it was truthful too – above all to major features of his own nature and experiences, which perhaps could only be expressed through the medium of fiction. It is the work, in other words, of someone ardently believing in the form of the novel as the most enterprising writers of the day were using it. Andersen had not sooner seen Improvisatoren into the public domain than he admitted he was at work on a second novel O.T. (published 1836) while a third – during the writing of which he admitted to a friend that he intended to be Denmark’s ‘top novelist’ – came out in November 1837, Kun en Spillemand (Onlya Fiddler). I intend therefore to devote this article to these three novels, produced in such dazzling succession, the last of which brought about, through its splendid reception and sales in Germany, the first wave of Andersen’s international reputation, novels written moreover when there must have been some balancing act going on in the writer’s mind as to which form, novel or fairy-story was most suitable for his view of life and of his part in it and for his feelings for and thoughts about the people and society around him.

The figure of the ‘improvisatore’, the Italian improvising artist who performed in city streets, seemingly appearing from nowhere, and who yet also could command huge, ecstatic audiences in major theatres (as Andersens Antonio will do in the Teatro San Carlo, Naples) and enjoy the Company of progressive intellectuals seems from Andersen’s diary-entries to have been right there from the novels inception. Its immediately hit-on title and its subsequent Contents thus show – as indeed the economy and the precise, thoughtful ordering of the narrative will do – a singleness of purpose unusual and commendable in so young a writer. Antonio will be excited by the Improvisatori he sees in the streets of the poor quarter of Rome in which he was born and he will seek to emulate them, just as Andersen himself had been struck by the theatre-folk who visited Odense in his childhood and roused his latent ambitions. This enabled the ‘Jeg/I of the novel to be a satisfactory analogue for the writer himself while keeping his fictive seif very much there in the Italy in which he was then living – with its own traditions, religion (ritual-punctuated Catholicism rather than Lutheranism), its palpable visible long past (manifest in buildings from Roman and pre-Christian times) and its Codes of manners originating in different priorities for human behaviour than any of Northern Europe’s. The art of the ‘improvisatore’ depends on spontaneity, a certain adaptability of mind and spirit combined with an individuality of style that would be immediately recognisable as his own, on a palpable responsiveness to the wishes and moods of unknown other people, on a disciplined mastery of technique for all the ‘ad hoc’ nature of the displays, and – not least – on a willingness to give vent to emotions, fears, hopes. Andersen’s art would depend likewise on every one of these, and earn its huge reputation on account of this.

His extemporisations become also conductors for Antonios own feelings as he journeys – and, too, surveys how he has journeyed – from the infancy with which the first pages of the novel are concerned through years determined to an important extent by events over which he has no control but which shape the formation of his ‘soul’: the sudden death of his mother, the sudden arrival of his patron-to-be, the Eccellenza in the Campagna farmstead which is his then home, the sighting of the blind girl in the Blue Grotto of Capri. Yet Antonio also records – and as an Improvisatore expresses – reactions to events and people which can be attributed only to that mysterious phenomenon we have to call the individual personality, which includes of course the persona for daily use, which may or not fully reflect the innermost workings of the seif. Andersen exhibits an amazing honesty here; he knew, and doubtless others had made it clear to him, that for the ordinary quotidian social play between male and female, those of courtship leading to marriage and the establishment of a family, there were far from easily surmountable difficulties in both his exterior and his interior selves. No conversation in the book therefore makes a greater impression on the reader looking for signs of Andersen himself than that Antonio has with his well-born school-friend Bernardo, at once something of a hero to him, with all his panache, and yet an inadequate role-model (for perhaps the very same quality). Bernardo teils Antonio a truth about himself: ‘Du er jo ogsaa et af disse aandelige Amphibier, man ikke veed, om de egenlig høre Legem- eller Drømmeverdenen til.’ – ‘You are also one of those spiritual amphibians, one doesn’t know whether they belong to the body or the dream world.” Andersen would later speak about himself in similar terms.

Yet not one of us is free from complex feelings where sexual and social identity are concerned, and so, interesting though the novel may be in what it can tell us about Andersen, it also Stands out as a (remarkably modern) stimulating and sympathetic account of the very process every male has to undergo as he confronts both the realities of his body and the expectations any and every society will have of him, not only in body but in mind and capabilities too. Paradoxically the very firmness of the rendering of Italy – of which Andersen was so ardent and admiring an explorer – aids the physical/psychological presentation of the narrator. We all of us after all have to live through our development in specific places at specific times. Andersen’s novel adheres very strongly and strikingly to what it announces in its subtitle, that it is in two parts. The division of these narratalogically occurs after Antonio has, as he believes, killed his admired (perhaps even loved) Bernardo for the sake of another love, the singer Annunziata whom he had known in childhood. This incident obliges him to flee Rome – for the perilous safety of the Pontian Marshes (with dangerous outlaws hanging about nearby) and it is here that Part Two begins. This is a very different Italy from that of Rome and the Campagna with which we have been hitherto familiar – as indeed politically it was. We now exchange (if not for the entire length of the book) the Papal States for the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies. And we witness a consequent transformation in Antonio, a growing maturity formed by the looser-fabric of this more reckless, less reactionary, less conventionally cultured society, where the outlaw and marginalised have more open social parts to play, where the erotic is accepted more frankly, where Nature presents more dangerous faces such as that of erupting Vesuvius, and yet there is palpable movement towards the future (Naples was one of Europe’s premier and most innovative ports.) The amphibian, the swamp-plant will not only survive – as it has to, as Andersen did, for all his vulnerability – it will prove itself resilient, tough but Creative.

Improvisatoren amounts then to a satisfying fictive metaphor for human growth, not least because Andersen has brought all those with whom Antonio comes into contact so vividly to life – so that we see them as he does and yet can appreciate they have lives beyond his: Domenica, his foster-mother, Annunziata so tragically disappointed in her artistic hopes. Yet, interestingly, there are respects in which its successor O.T. is an even more adventurous and imaginatively provocative work.

Painting of Odense Gaol (to the left) by a local shoemaker Johan Peder Thomsen, c. 1840. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

I fear that the difficulties of rendering in English the ‘De’/’Du’ antithesis in any way that conveys their social and, even more importantly, their emotional significance for 19th Century Speakers of Danish will always operate against a satisfactory translation of O.T. in a language that would aid to its being better-known. This is a great pity since it is a novel of real force of feeling, served, as in Improvisatoren, by strictness and also originality of design – and unlike that first novel directly and emphatically concerned with the mores of Andersen’s own contemporary Denmark, with their strengths, even their charms, and also their severe limitations. The novel certainly didn’t deserve the comparative disappointed tone of its reception nor its cold-shouldering by Edvard Collin, to whom – with his refusal of ‘Du’ usage to Andersen – the whole novel is to a significant degree a retort (if, paradoxically, a fundamentally affectionate one). Otto – with his paternal heritage of a Jutland estate – feels uncomfortable using ‘Du’ to his best-friend Vilhelm, scion of a well-connected family and himself a Baron, with property both in Copenhagen and on the island of Fyn. While Danish readers must have found somewhat risible Andersen’s own elevation of himself (for Otto is clearly the character with whom the author identifies), to someone of such social Standing and ability to move in society wherever he chooses, it requires no hindsight to appreciate the reason for Otto’s uneasiness about the intimate form of the second person. Heir of a west-coast estate he might be but Otto has tasted from literally his earliest days the degradation, the expulsion from ‘normal’ conventional society (of whatever social Order) into the domain of outcasts commemorated, for the rest of his life, in the initials branded on his torso. O.T. Stands for ‘Odense Tugthus’ (‘Odense Gaol’), as well as for his own own name, Otto Thostrup. What therefore prompts his equivocation over use of the ‘Du’ form is, ironically, his remembrance, his knowledge of his dark secret early life, of the terrible, criminal Company of social rejects with which he was then familiär, people utterly unknown to the comfortable, cultured, socially easy Vilhelm and his family – and therefore uni-maginable to them. To us now reading the novel with biographical Information to hand this seems a remarkable piece of table-turning by its author – for Edvard himself, at the time of his denial of ‘Du’ to his friend, would have been ignorant of the part Odense Tugthus had in reality played in Andersen’s life, and not tili a far later date was he aware that Andersen had a blood- (half-)sister, who haunts O.T. as Otto’s putative sister, the alarming, seemingly predatory, infinitely pathetic Sidsel (who, in an authorial psychological betrayal, turns out satisfactorily not to be Otto’s sister at all).

Yet the tragic deaths by drowning of Sidsel and her true father ‘tydske Heinrich’ – given us, at the very close of this very originally constructed book, in a literary stroke of great brilliance, just before Otto congratulates himself on how well things have turned out for him (even though Heinrich is still, as he believes alive) – leaves us curiously disconcerted. We are made to feel, as we close the book with its eerily ambiguous last words, that we should never bask in our (apparent) satisfactory personal Situation while declining to acknowledge the far from satisfactory characters and experiences of others, more especially of those to whom we are demonstrably connected (even if not, in this case, actually by blood).

Whatever Andersen’s or Otto’s attitude to his own earlier life and kinsfolk, there is no doubt that O.T. is a morally charged fictive reprimand of any kind of social exclusiveness. The terrible, wholly undeserved end, alongside Sidsel and Heinrich, of the charming, talented boy, Jonas (whom the generous Vilhelm had helped with his music) brings this point home heartrendingly.

It therefore is no accident that O.T. has, running through it, awareness of revolutionary activity in mainland Europe, beyond Denmark, whether Copenhagen, Fyn or Jutland. When Otto (who, as a youth, penned a play about Napoleon) hears of the July Revolution in Paris – 27-29 July 1830, ‘les trois glorieuses’ – brought about by Charles X’s refusal to accept the victory of the liberals on 13 July – he is filled with tremendous excitement. He reads everything he can about it – first of all in the German papers which in his rural home are all he can get hold of. His friend Vilhelm – though more naturally conservative in temperament and outlook- is in fact as interested in the events in Paris as himself. This is because he has received letters from his cousin Joachim, a Paris-based military officer, who indeed wants actually to join the French revolutionaries and their brethren (opposing Russian authoritarianism) over in Poland. Andersen is moved at this point to quote lines from Victor Hugo (whom he would later meet) ‘Ceux qui pieusement sont morts pour la patrie’. Both Otto and Vilhelm will travel to Paris together (continuing on to Switzerland and Italy), but there is a curious, challenging reversal of their roles at the novel’s end. The once Napoleonic-minded Otto sees his imminent life in terms of living on, and looking after, his inherited Jutland estate, with the help of a loving wife, while the more conventional Vilhelm declares himself unsatisfied with such stasis. ‘Til Paris vil jeg!’ (‘To Paris I will go.!’) he exclaims.

For all the delightful liveliness of its scenes of Student life, friendships and satisfactions, and its insights into tensions in personal relations, engendered by difference in early experiences, a good case could be made for considering O.T. as Andersen’s most polidcal novel, and the ‘Du’/’De’ difficulties between the two friends at its centre as a workable metaphor for the very real dass distinctions and the ongoing challenges to them palpable the whole continent over. I find the book a remarkable anticipation in many respects of Turgenev’s masterpiece of 1862, where inevitable social change is also viewed through the prism of a Student friendship, Fathers and Sons.) Of course by the time Andersen wrote O.T., he knew only too well – not least through his conversations with Heine who nevertheless stayed on in Paris to the end of his days (1856) – that the July Revolution, the enforced abdication of Charles X and the succession to his throne of Louis Philippe of the House of Orleans had resulted in no significant change to the moral timbre of French life. Not for nothing would Louis Philippe’s sobriquet be the’ Bourgeois Monarch’; with his collusion venality and material greed flourished.

This betrayal of the ideals of an important and vocal section of the French population finds its way into Andersen’s third novel, Kun en Spillemand the last section of which actually takes us indeed to Paris in 1833. The officially orchestrated anniversary celebrations of the July Revolution reveal in their hollow pomp the ethical failure of the then still comparatively new regime; deprecatory caricatures of the Bourgeois Monarch himself are everywhere to be seen. All this fills Naomi, the novel’s heroine (or at any rate principal female character), with a sense of futility bordering on despair, not least because she is herself morally compromised through her marriage to a rich amoral Parisian socialite. A woman of passionate temperament and keen intellect, she can appreciate only too well that she is witnessing nothing less than the cynical triumph of the moneyed Establishment – for whom ‘enrichissezvous’ was an actual mantra – without being able to do anything about it (without maybe even really wanting to). The peace of obscurity in rural Denmark, the lot of him she once was close to and lost, the novel’s hero, Christian, appears a preferable condition to this vulgär and heartless charade, and the novel ends with a desolate troubling image of a continent distressingly divided, between the haves and the have-nots, between the rieh and the poor, between those intent on success and those kinder souls, too easily defeated.

Remarkable as it is for its extensive movement in time and place – taking in as it does the (for Denmark) tragic War of the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon, Denmark’s last pogrom (September 1819), and both Vienna and Rome in the 1830s, Kun en Spillemand is however less of a political novel than I believe O.T. to be. Rather it is a psycho-social one, to be treasured for its showing of shifts in culture and in the changes these bring about in its representative characters than for the accounts of specific events, or specific ills in societal structure (though neither of these are absent from it). Kun en Spillemand is for me the greatest of all Andersen’s novels, the one most deserving of the epithet ‘European’, the firmest and most innovatory member, in both preoccupations and artistry, of the mounting continent-wide ranks of serious fictive scrutinies of contemporary life. Yet it is also the most flawed; we cannot quite accord it quite the praise for formal beauty and narrative logicality given already in this essay to its two predecessors. Though we will return to this matter, it’s important here and now to declare these flaws are secondary to the book’s outstanding virtues.

One of these virtues is apparent in its beautiful opening pages which stand among Andersen’s supreme achievements in prose: the evocation of the storks whose annual migration and whose conduct as a flock, for whom this procedure is an earnest life-ensuring necessity, have their correspondence in human behaviour and the drives that govern it. Balzac learned from the great French naturalist Buffon; for the next two decades, advancing, so to speak, towards the publication of Darwins Origin of Species in 1859, the relation of human beings to members of the natural world would be a growing obsession for inquiring creative minds. Andersen’s use of the storks here, intelligent, lovely, capable of great solicitude as partners and parents – but who, he says, will kill those fellow-creatures too weak to undertake the great yearly southward journeys – brings something new into the mainstream novel. As we become more and more mindful of the kinship of both the hero, Christian and his father, the tailor, to storks, at an instinctual yet profound level, we feel we have already entered realms of insight that Emile Zola, J.P. Jacobsen, Thomas Hardy among others will stäke as novelists. Yet Andersen the fairytale maker, the mythopoeic genius of the best-known Eventyr is very much present here also — more than he was in his first two novels.

The Pontian Marshes. Drawing by Hans Christian Andersen March 22 1834. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

Christian himself, repeatedly likened to a stork and actively moved by his sightings of the birds, has, as his last true companion in his lonely, unsuccessful but honourable middle age, a single lame stork. He discovered him in his chimney; a leg injury has incapacitated the bird for the year’s southward journey. For a year the pair live together, then when the next September comes round, with glorious weather, Christian feels he must do his duty and let the bird go – in time to join a migratory flock. But before releasing him he ties a red ribbon round the bird’s leg so that he can know him again on return. But less than a day after he has set the stork free, he finds him nearby, dead, alongside others of his kind judged by the other birds incapable of great taxing flight. “Nu er jeg igjen alene!” Christian exclaims, “Du kommer ikke til mig med Vaaren! Død! Alt skal døe! Alt skulle vi miste!” (’Now I am alone again! You won’t come back to me with the Spring. Dead! Everything has to die! Everything we have to lose!’) These lines move us because we feel we have had made perceptible and tangible for us a distressing feature of life seen ‘sub specie aeternitatis’. We can do nothing about it except entertain compassion.

The account of Christian and the stork points to another major feature of Kun en Spillemand, its continuous poetry of both incident and subject-matter – present in scenes which cannot be done justice to on a rational, factual level. All the encounters of Christian with his godfather (and Naomi’s blood-father), the Norwegian violinist (clearly inspired by Ole Bull whose elemental playing Andersen much enjoyed) are charged with this poetry, most dramatically of all the appalling discovery by Christian of the older musician’s suicide. And, perhaps most impressively of all, and anticipating such later successes as those in Iisjomfruen’ (‘The Ice-Maiden’ 1862) or ‘Dryaden’ (‘The Wood-Nymph’, 1868) we have the curiously compelling confrontations with erotic. Nowhere is this more effective than in those scenes involving the prostitute Steffen-Kareet to whom Christian is introduced by a sailor who takes him ashore from their ship in Copenhagen. Of course the young boy is not aware of the woman’s (economically enforced) profession, but he feels her charm – and her ultimate pathos too. Her death enters his psyche (and the reader’s), never, we feel, to be extinguished, a burning icon in some inner shrine to both Eros and Thanatos.

So in what way is this rich, powerful book flawed? Answers to this question make us turn to Søren Kierkegaard’s even at the time notorious attack (it is nothing less than that) on the novel in his own first book, Af en endnu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of One Still Living, 1838). Kierkegaard’s complaints centre largely on the characterisation of Christian himself; he finds him essentially a poor wretch, with an unwarranted amount of vanity (clearly a crack by the rival writer at Andersen himself), and he cannot discern anything of the musician, actual or potential, in him. This last is surely a most unjust accusation. Christian’s comparatively late discovery of musie’s deep appeal to him – Standing outside the Norwegian violinist’s house – is most touchingly and convincingly done. Such is Christian’s natural sensitivity and virtue that we can believe in his excellence, some years on, as both teacher and player. But like-wise we realise certain key temperamental and circumstantial factors will keep him away from any bold fulfilment of his talents, let alone from public confrontation and recognition. He suffers from what one might call ‘lame stork syndrome’!

Where Kierkegaard is on firmer ground is his harsh criticism of the novel’s third part in which as he points out Christian’s appearance is comparatively brief and summary-seeming, at the expense of his de facto sister Naomi. Unkindly Kierkegaard suggests that this section of the novel is basically a cobbled-together collection of sketches from Andersen’s own European travels. In fact, as we have already inferred, the scenes in which Naomi is a major player are vital to the communication of what is shallow, revanchist, materialist and class-ridden in Europe. And Naomi herself – in her ruthless vitality and intelligence – is an infinitely more living, interesting and independent character than the females of Improvisatoren (too coloured by Andersen’s own romantic chivalry, even the most interesting of them, Annunziata) or of O.T. (the frightful Sidsel apart, too much the objects of Andersen’s own psychological day-dreams of membership of the Danish upper dass through love and marriage). And Naomi’s survival at Christian’s literary expense could be well justified as mimetic of the latter’s inevitable retreat into passivity, obscurity and premature demise. The quiet ending to his life has, as we have noted, both beauty and imaginative strength in its delineation. But that there is an imbalance in Part Three versus the rest of the book cannot, I’m afraid, be denied. Our attention has been too much diverted, as we feel the author’s own has been, by Naomi and by corruption in presentday France. And we also feel that certain areas of Christian’s life – how, for example, was he able to reconcile himself so easily to a mother depicted earlier as undependable to the point of treachery ? – that the author has drawn back from, perhaps for intimate reasons of his own he could never, even through fiction, acknowledge.

Yet – contra Kierkegaard – Kun en Spillemand remains a work of both striking amplitude of scene and social groups combined with a depth-probing that does justice to the mythic element of human life (found in those events and situations which we seize on as embodiments of the unknowable truths about how our lives take the shape they do). Nowhere is this more feelingly shown than in the presentation of the perverseseeming trajectory that the life of Christian’s father, the tailor, forms – his bargaining his way into the war on behalf of Napoleon, his capture and escape (all so different from the story he fabricates about it), his discovery of his wife’s re-marriage, his bemused inability to cope with Christian, his son, his further travels, his concluding attachment to the German Nazarenes in Rome. He appears a victim at once of his own nature and of the instabilities of the times, and yet in his very infirmities, espe-cially when taken in conjunction with his not unsympathetic dreams of adventure and self-realisation, he can stand for ourselves – as workably as many a fairytale figure can. And yet there is something further to be said – his similarity, so memorably conveyed at the very outset of the novel, to those male storks preparing for their journey to winter quarters. This similarity serves to emphasize the intricate inter-relationship of all sentient beings, and successfully does so because he is also completely realised as an acceptable real person in a demonstrably real landscape (the countryside just outside Svendborg on Fyn). Only a true novelist, perhaps only one who aspired to be his nation’s top novelist, could have created him together with his many fellows in the book – and at the time of the novel-form’s first spectacular flowering.

One would not wish to conclude this essay without making it clear that the three later novels – De to Baronesser, “At vaere eller ikke vaere ” (“To Be or Not to Be”, 1857) and Lykke-Peer (Lucky Peer, 1870) – are far from negligible. Quite the contrary. The first of these is perhaps most memorable for its depiction of life in the Halligen Islands, and for the heroine’s own literary ambitions, but is uneven in its maintenance of plot and interest in the different characters. Lykke-Peer, fascinating though it is as a study of the arts in the Denmark of its times (with the Wagner cult in full swing!) is in truth more of a fable than a novel proper, and works on us through fabular rather than through novelistic means. But “At være eller ikke være” is a very considerable achievement indeed, its hero Niels Andersen’s füllest portrait of a serious-minded but divided intellectual, and its canvas impressively extended to include devastating and utterly convincing accounts of the battlefields of the First Schleswig War and those who fought and suffered on them. Only in its determination to come to terms – and to make the hero do so – with the theological disputes of the day, particularly those brought about by Strauss and Feuerbach, does the novel creatively falter. Not only do these become, even though rendered in terms of the characters, at times extraneous to the true body of the narrative, they too openly exhibit the author’s hopes for some kind of saving syncretism within contemporary Christianity and thus detract from the fictive situations and people too much. But by the time Andersen wrote this fine book he had realised that even his most complex inner wrestlings would find their most satisfying realisation within the shorter form of his Historier. As they did.

- Anderseniana - Fynske Minder - H.C. Andersen - H.C. Andersen - Tegninger og Illustrationer - H.C. Andersens Hus / Barndomshjem - Museum Odense


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H.C. AndersenCarl NielsenArkæologiNonnebakkenHistorieDen Fynske Landsbyflere...