‘I am not dead’

Christopher Prendergast

  • Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager
    Allen Lane, 506 pp, £20.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9325 1

Can it be, as Jackie Wullschlager maintains, that in the 1840s and 1850s Hans Christian Andersen was ‘the most famous writer in Europe’, and that ‘two centuries after his birth Andersen is still not appreciated as the world-class author that he undoubtedly was, as representative of the European Romantic spirit as Balzac or Victor Hugo’? These are grand claims and, if they’re true, we might well use this lively and informative biography to acquaint ourselves further with Andersen’s life and work. On the face of it, however, the claims strain credulity. I imagine that, for most people outside Denmark, the author of ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Snow Queen’ and the like is strictly for children.

Until recently, he was certainly that for me, although in a somewhat ambivalently memorable fashion. Some fifty years ago, on my seventh birthday, I was given an illustrated edition of Andersen’s fairytales, and swanned off to school excited by the prospect of displaying it to my classmates. But the would-be swan rapidly found himself reverting to the role of ugly duckling. On my way to school I had an embarrassing accident (I spare you the details) and on arrival was immediately sent home, deprived of my moment in the literary sun. The story is one that Andersen, who was deeply versed in the agonies of humiliation (in this respect, though in no others, he resembles Dostoevsky), would have appreciated, and the experience did nothing to damage my enthusiasm for the fairytales: I read the book over and over until it fell apart. That was the end of that, until much later, when I read Andersen to my two daughters. As there is now a third daughter, there will doubtless be a reprise in due course, only this time with a difference. My youngest daughter is Danish and I currently live in Denmark, where, quite against the grain of my preconceptions, I have learnt that Andersen (HC, as the Danes refer to him) is not just a children’s writer, but, in the standard literary histories, a central figure in the 19th-century Danish canon and something of a national icon – the arterial road through central Copenhagen is HC Andersen Boulevard.

The question is whether we can plausibly get from these cultural facts all the way out to Wullschlager’s comparatives and superlatives. For one thing, the 19th-century Danish ‘canon’, when viewed from the European perspective Wullschlager consistently invites us to adopt, may seem small beer. This is in part the consequence of a linguistically imposed isolation. The incentives, and indeed the capacity, to translate from Danish were not very great in the 19th century – even Andersen’s works, the one exception, were normally translated, badly, into English from previous German translations. Denmark suffered moreover from a provincialism that had been consciously assumed. World-historically speaking, the cards fell rather badly in the early 1800s when, from being one of the great trading powers of Europe, it rapidly experienced a series of traumatic misfortunes, in large measure from having allied itself with Napoleon: a drubbing by the English (first in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen, then in the 1807 bombardment of the city, which completely disabled the Danish Navy); a collapse of the public finances resulting in the national bankruptcy of 1813; the loss of Norway in 1814.

These calamities produced a turning inwards on the part of the educated classes, away from the turmoil of politics (King Frederik VI, a firm believer in absolutism, suppressed all political discussion) towards the cultivation of literature and the arts. Thus was born Denmark’s so-called Golden Age. But with controversy and dissent strictly off limits, it was a parochial affair, centred on the values of tranquillity, domesticity and harmony (‘vicarage culture’ is how two Danish historians have represented it). It is often seen as the Danish equivalent of Biedermeier, the gemütlich qualities of the latter lexically reflected in the key term hygge, connoting a stress-free mix of cosiness and comfort – it remains in active use in Danish today.

The pleasures of hygge were, naturally, the preserve of an elite. The bulk of the population suffered grinding poverty and, in Copenhagen, some of the filthiest living conditions in Europe. This was the world into which Andersen was born in 1805, arriving in Copenhagen from his native city, Odense, some 14 years later, uneducated, ugly, ill-dressed and virtually penniless, a most improbable candidate for the literary fame which was to take Denmark and parts of Europe by storm. Whatever else they may have endowed him with, Andersen was not physically blessed by the fairies with whom he spent so much of his imaginative time. A contemporary account makes him sound like something out of Beckett’s Murphy: arms and legs ‘long and thin and out of all proportion’, hands ‘broad and flat’, feet ‘of such gigantic dimensions that it seemed reasonable that no one would ever have thought of stealing his boots’, a nose ‘disproportionately large’ and eyes ‘well-hidden in their sockets behind a couple of huge eyelids half covering them’. To which unattractive features there must be added an overweening vanity, neurotic insecurity, a marked hypochondria and an alertness to potential disaster verging on the paranoiac. He rarely travelled without a rope in his bag, with which to escape in the event of fire in his hotel. He was also morbidly afraid of being buried alive and, just in case the hotel were to disintegrate, he would leave a precautionary note on his table: ‘I am not dead.’

So how did this unprepossessing individual make it? Ruthlessly exploiting even the most tenuous of contacts, he was lucky in finding benefactors with whose help he effected an entrée into the bourgeois and aristocratic drawing-rooms of the Golden Age, mainly on the back of an incomparable if mildly lunatic ability to entertain, principally as a storyteller. Andersen spent a great deal of his social life in the homes of the Danish and, later, European upper classes, singing for his supper by reading his own tales out loud. In his talent for public performance, his only rival was Dickens, and one acquaintance who had heard them both reckoned that HC won on points. He played the gift for all it was worth and the returns – in terms of his wish to share in the gilded life – were considerable.

In certain respects the stories themselves fitted the new mood perfectly, contributing by their use of the folk tradition to the fashioning of what came to be called the national-romantic strain in Danish culture. Much of the literary inspiration for this came from Germany and the romantic Märchen: on his first trip to Germany Andersen made a beeline for the well-known author of fairytales, Ludwig Tieck; they hit it off, in a Teutonically effusive sort of way, with lots of hugs, kisses and tears. On the other hand, the Danish version of the national-romantic was relatively tame and possessed little of the potentially lethal mystic nationalism that Heine was to warn against in his Religion and Philosophy in Germany.

Heine, the cosmopolitan exile, was to become a greater love than Tieck. A strong point of Wullschlager’s account is the emphasis she gives to Heine’s importance in Andersen’s literary life and to the existence in some of the stories of the kind of distancing ironies to be found in Heine. This connects with a more general tension in 19th-century Denmark between Golden Age introspection and a developing cosmopolitanism that eventually found its way into public debate, most notoriously in the acerbic attacks launched by the anti-Modernist Kierkegaard against Meir Goldschmidt, the secular Jewish editor of the Corsair. (Andersen himself was always drawn to the Jewish community in Copenhagen and spent his last years living with two generous and enlightened Jewish families.)

Andersen did not participate in these debates – he was too canny to expose himself to establishment displeasure – but it is clear that, for all his cultivation of indigenous folksiness, he felt constricted by Danish provincialism and when the pressure became too great, frustration would erupt into an overwrought hostility: ‘The Danes are evil, cold, satanic, I can feel it in my own blood, and it’s only in that way that I know I am Danish.’ Many of the stories are about someone alienated in or rejected by the community (‘The Ugly Duckling’ is widely interpreted as a parable of Andersen’s discomfort in Denmark). Given this unflattering view of the natives, it was best to be off and so off he went, again and again, a compulsive if incompetent traveller (what with his bodily ailments and fussy paranoia, a fair idea of hell would be to have HC as travelling companion). One of his diary entries reads: ‘Oh, to travel, to travel! If one could only spend one’s life fluttering from one place to another.’ ‘Fluttering’ is hardly the term for it, but in his ungainly fashion, he made his way to Weimar (which he adored), Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Naples, Paris, London, Lisbon, Constantinople. These trips were vital to the forging of his European reputation: fêted by dukes and princes, lords and ladies, he also got to know, in varying degrees of intimacy, Balzac, Hugo, Heine, Dickens, Thackeray, the brothers Grimm, Schumann, Mendelssohn and many others, while assiduously courting and being courted by the publishers and translators of his work.

Yet the accumulation of friends and readers does not of itself answer the question as to what precisely that work amounts to. Wullschlager reminds us, at length, that Andersen was not just a writer of fairytales, but also a novelist, playwright, poet and autobiographer. The oeuvre is copious, but, as far as I can gather, even in Denmark no one apart from specialists now reads any of the rest of it. The fairytales caught the 19th-century imagination, and they are what remain. The best of these are arguably among the very best in the history of the genre, although for sheer malevolent complexity they rarely match those of his predecessor, E.T.A. Hoffmann, another of his early heroes). Where the connection between the life and the work is concerned, what stands out is a deep-seated refusal to grow up, most notably in his sexuality. Andersen was oscillatingly bisexual, with his homoerotic attachments the stronger. But even here his feelings were generally confused and tentative, and it is likely that he never had full sexual relations with anyone. The great Danish critic Georg Brandes observed that this was crucially related to his work: ‘his strength lies in portraying children, in whom the conscious sense of sex is not yet prominent.’ Brandes later took the sterner view that ‘his personality is scarcely ever occupied with anything greater than itself, is never entirely free from the ego.’ Even the determined social climbing has something infantile about it, being motivated less by a calculated arrivisme than by the desire to be cherished and pampered.

To her credit, Wullschlager never loses sight of this aspect of her subject, but it rarely deflects her from trying to persuade us that, as a writer, Andersen was also grown up. Yet the fact that there are ‘adult’ overtones and implications in his writing – to do with sex, betrayal and death – doesn’t mean that the work is properly adult. It could simply mean that Andersen used his tales as vehicles for the expression of fears and fantasies that themselves remained essentially childlike or adolescent. For instance, in the tale that has a gingerbread girl who is ‘honey-cake all over’ and a gingerbread boy who dreams of ‘eating her up’, honey-cake may mean more than honey-cake, but the supplementary meaning is unlikely to detain our thoughts for long. True, in some of the stories there are tremors of loss and desolation, and some even end unhappily (‘The Fir Tree’ and ‘The Ice Maiden’). But this was not Andersen’s preferred mode of closure. Generally, the stories are narratives of wish-fulfilment, sustained by the belief that the ugly duckling is really a swan and that in the end the sun will come out to melt the Snow Queen and the Ice Maiden. Sunshine, appearing or reappearing at strategic narrative points, especially at the end of a story, is a recurring image. ‘The Snow Queen’ ends after long adventures in icy regions with the return of the boy, Kay, and the girl, Gerda, to the warm world of earth and sun. Although they don’t realise it, Kay and Gerda have grown up. The story concludes: ‘And there they both sat, grown up yet children, children at heart, and it was summer – warm, beautiful summer.’ Take ‘The Red Shoes’, a tale of chillingly malevolent violence: the little girl seduced by the red dancing shoes has her feet chopped off for her ‘sins’ by an executioner. The mutilation is set off by her redemptive transfer, in the last paragraph, to the sunshine state: ‘The warm sunshine streamed brightly in through the window, right up to the bench where Karen sat; her heart was so over-filled with the sunshine, with peace and with joy, that it broke. Her soul flew with the sunshine to heaven, and no one there asked about the red shoes.’ This is how Andersen wanted to see life, including his own: the autobiographical texts display similar delusions, most notably the instructively titled Fairy Story of My Life, which Wullschlager rightly describes in terms of ‘the relentless false sunshine of his autobiography’.

These of course are precisely the qualities that many of Andersen’s readers wanted to find in his writings, above all in Victorian England where, as Wullschlager shows, the taste for his work coincided with the cult of sentimental projections of childhood. But this merely helps to explain Andersen’s popularity: it tells us next to nothing about his achievement. Where and how is that to be aligned in the European literary history to which Wullschlager claims it importantly belongs? It makes no sense to place Andersen in the company of Balzac. They got on well when they met in Paris but this cannot be taken to mean that as writers they had much in common (Wullschlager occasionally strays close to the notion that literary acquaintance signifies equality or comparability of literary stature). Balzac may have been charmed by Andersen, but it is difficult to imagine the author of Lost Illusions dwelling for long in the land of the fairies. Of all his contemporaries, the writer Andersen was perhaps closest to in spirit was Dickens, not just by virtue of their similar histrionic gifts as public performers but also in the link both made between the fairytale and anti-utilitarianism. Dickens wrote that ‘in a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy Tales be respected.’ Andersen took this sentiment about as far as it can go, and it defines both the nature and the limits of his imaginative world.

It also helps place him in a broader literary and cultural context. In his reflections on the fate of the European Bildungsroman in the 19th century, Franco Moretti has shown that, as social images of ‘maturation’ were increasingly infected by Gradgrindery and other forms of machine mentality, the virtues of ‘immaturity’ were correspondingly celebrated – Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo are perhaps the outstanding examples. Andersen was no Stendhal, just as the comparison with Dickens ends where an account of the latter’s greatness begins, with his power as a novelist and his willingness to take us to places Andersen’s vision could not have coped with. Yet Andersen’s refusal to grow up in the face of the new order of the ‘reality principle’ is almost certainly what Dickens liked and admired in him, and in any remotely generous version of the canon, there should surely be a place for stories which speak not just to children but also to the child in the adult. I cannot now exactly recall what it was that I found so appealing when I read Andersen as a child. It was probably in large measure the narrative combination of a world made initially dangerous and ultimately safe, the classic mix of the fairytale: the nightingale which sings the emperor back from the dead; the girl with the red shoes whose soul flies with the sunshine to heaven; the little matchstick seller who freezes to death on New Year’s Eve but whose soul also soars ‘in a halo of light and joy, far above the earth, where there was no more cold, no hunger, no pain’.

A world without cold, hunger or pain is an appealing one, and its narrative articulations doubtless lend themselves to structuralist reduction to simple functional schemata, whether by way of Propp’s morphology or Greimas’s grid (the two main functions being those of Harm and Help, with the latter almost invariably triumphing over the former). But there is more than this to the childlike in Andersen’s vision. In reaching for the memory traces of my childhood reading, why, I kept asking myself, was it ‘The Tinder Box’ that resurfaced most powerfully? So I read it again. It is the story of a poor soldier who meets a witch. She provides him with a fabulous means of acquiring a fortune: all he has to do in exchange is retrieve an old tinder box for her. On returning with both fortune and tinder box, he kills the witch and makes off for the high life, which finally involves using the magical powers of the tinder box to enlist three crazed dogs to help him take possession of a beautiful Princess against the wishes of the King and Queen, both of whom are killed by the dogs in very nasty ways. Because there has long been a prophecy that the Princess will marry a common soldier, the King has incarcerated her in a ‘copper palace’, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the Princess shows no dismay at the slaughter of her parents and that becoming Queen ‘pleased her very much’. She doesn’t seem to mind that her husband is a murderous thief.

This is scarcely a tale of Harm met and vanquished by Help in any of the edifying senses that typically inform the structure of the fairytale. The witch is benevolent and the King and Queen, while ill-disposed – not unreasonably, all things considered – to the soldier’s designs on their daughter, are not otherwise hostile to him. The form of childlike fantasy at work in ‘The Tinder Box’ is anarchic and amoral, the fantasy not of salvation achieved but of desire gratified, the ego rampant in an almost Ubu-esque way. How we reread this when ‘grown up yet children’ is an interesting question, and, when the time comes for me to read ‘The Tinder Box’ to my daughter, I wonder which of us will enjoy it more.