On one of his many journeys abroad- there were 30 in all- the Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) was in 1854 as so often before in Germany and Italy, with a brief stay in Austria. On his way home he then spent 12 days in Munich, where he was the guest of King Maximilian II (King Max, as he blithely calls him) from the 19th to the 21st June. On his arrival in Munich he was suffering from swellings from insect bites on his cheek and neck, and was immediately treated by the king's personal physician, Geheimrat Gietl. A week was to elapse before Andersen felt well enough to accept the king's invitation, and now he spent some days with the royal couple at their country residence of Hohenschwangau. A week later he wrote a letter from the castle of Wilhelmsthal near Eisenach- where he was staying with his close friend of many years' standing, the Grand Duke Carl Alexander- to his older Danish author friend, B.S. Ingemann in Sorø to tell him of his stay with King Max:
I [...] was received with infinite kindness and graciousness, a carriage from the Court fetched me, I lived at Hohenschwangau, at table was given a place by the King and Queen, and I went on a drive lasting several hours in the Austrian Tyrol in the company of the King himself; on that occasion no one asked to see my passport, which is such a bother to me; it was so lovely, and the King, who had read Das Marchen meines Lebens, spoke much of my childhood, my development and the various people with whom I had consorted. He was so understanding, and to me myself it was like a chapter in a fairy tale that I, the poor shoemaker's son, was traversing the mountains by the side of a king.
The extremes in an incredible life appear here in sharp relief: the poor childhood home in the provincial town of Odense and the position as a European celebrity, courted by princes and kings.
In an international perspective it might seem remarkable that the proletarian child Andersen, who in the course of his social progress had personally experienced the sharp divisions of the class society, made so much of his friendships in royal circles. Was he a snob? Or worse still, a traitor to his class? His friendships with princes and kings were established of course at a time when revolutions were sweeping through France and Germany, and when the bourgeois intelligentsia was in the process of gaining political power.
There is no doubt that the leap from the little Danish provincial town of Odense to the European cultural "stage" was a great one, but -as would be difficult to imagine today - the leap from an out-of-the-way Danish provincial background to the sophisticated circles in the capital city and in particular from the proletariat to the utter reaches of the Copaenhagen bourgeoisie, circles that were cultured in many respects but quite limited in their way of thinking, was if anything an even greater one. And it was this domestic ascent that created the greatest problems for Andersen and inflicted the most persistent wounds on him. In relation to this, the leap out into the wider European world was almost a liberation. He felt at home there. There, the ugly duckling finally became the swan that he had always felt he was at heart. Occasionally allowing himself to be courted in royal circles there, as he did at home, fulfilled the need for acceptance of this man who at home in Denmark was so often met with superior knowledge, criticism, the urge to normalise him on the part of his bourgeois equals.
But neither must we forget that other internationally renowned artists, such as the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen or the composers Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner (the first two were both friends of Andersen) were at home on the same luxurious surroundings. And finally it is necessary to realise that Andersen's Europe was not to any great extent that of royalty- it was the artists and the intellectuals who constituted his European circle of friends.
The great contrasts and the unique world of experience in what was a very unusual life for an author naturally led to the idea both in Andersen himself and in people around him such as, for instance, the French critic Xavier Marmier- whose essay on Andersen was widely known throughout Europe even by the end of the 1830s- that the Danish writer's life was at least as interesting to the reading public as were his works. In Andersen's case this resulted in his writing no fewer than three autobiographies.
The first of these remained unknown to the general public for almost 100 years and even today is little known outside Denmark. It appeared in German as late as 1993, and in French in 1995. It is a youthful biography, written in 1832 immediately before Andersen was to embark on his grand tour, which took him through Germany and France to Italy in 1833-34. Suppose he were to die while abroad! Then the world would know nothing of his remarkable career! He did not quite finish the autobiography. Before leaving, Andersen entrusted his manuscript to his friend Edvard Collin, with the intention that Collin and a small number of others should read it. After that it appears that Andersen forgot all about the script. And together with so many other Andersen manuscripts it went with Edvard Collin's estate to the Royal Library in Copenhagen, where it was not until 1926 that it was discovered and published- under the title of Levnedsbogen. It is quite definitely the best of Andersen's autobiographies, the liveliest and most honest, and the most interesting also from a literary point of view.
The second autobiography- the first to be published by Andersen himself- was done by arrangement with the publisher Carl B. Lorck in Leipzig, who in 1847 embarked on a German edition of Andersen's collected works (as they were at that time), for which purpose he wanted an autobiography with which to introduce the project. So the first two volumes of Gesammelte Werke were Das Marchen meines Lebens ohne Dichtung, written here and there in hotel rooms during the course of an almost year-long journey through Europe, without Andersen having his source material to hand. It was this autobiography that was known all over Europe during Andersen's own time, both in the German version and the English translation, The True Story of My Life, that appeared in the same year, 1847.
Only in 1855 did Andersen write a Danish version, Mit Livs Eventyr, also on this occasion for a collected edition of his Samlede Skrifter, that started appearing in 1853- that is to say a whole six years after the start of the great German publication. So only after a delay of eight years were the Danes thus able to read about Andersen's remarkable career, and it is no coincidence that Andersen's fame was first established in Germany, which together with Sweden and Holland was the first country to acknowledge his genius, and where he was read as an author for both adults and children. From here his fame spread to the English speaking world, to Central and Eastern Europe, and even reached as far as India during his own lifetime.
The remarkable thing is that this definitive version of his autobiography, written at the height of his writing career, is the one that betrays the greatest human insecurity. It is one long self-defence, a demonstration with testimonial after testimonial of his abilities and merits. The result is a human document, but a less satisfying book. And why should this be? Because Andersen intended it for his Danish public, where it was only a few years before the publication of Mit Livs Eventyr that the critics had begun to acknowledge him with fewer reservations, in a manner in keeping with the reception he had been given abroad.
Andersen jibes at this petty criticism in several of his fairy tales and stories, from "The Ugly Duckling"- the ducks in the duckyard and the cat at the old woman's house- and "The Fir Tree"- the rats who do not think much of the fir tree's stories- to "The Gardener and the Fine Family"- in which the family is filled with enthusiasm for everything coming from abroad, but fails to see the value in what their own humble gardener Larsen produces; people from outside have to tell them before they will believe it.
The later Danish critic Georg Brandes, who was known throughout Europe, published a major article on Andersen's work in 1869, at the same time writing in a private letter to him that he was the Danish writer who had most seriously undermined the respectability of the critics. Brandes wrote this with a view to the many occasions on which Andersen had ridiculed petty and uncomprehending criticism. However, as said above, there was good reason for Andersen's many attacks on his critics. This was another of the paradoxes in his life: he was feted abroad, yet often treated condescendingly at home, where other "major writers", who are more or less forgotten today, were being celebrated. And this was not only a paradox, but also one of the many unhealed wounds which he received on his sudden rise from the bottom of society to fame.
This fame, resulting especially from the fairy tales, is in itself also one of the great paradoxes in his oeuvre. For what was it he became famous for? For being a children's writer, something which he had most decidedly not wanted to be- at least not at the expense of his real mission of being a writer on an equal footing with other writers, a writer for adults.
Admittedly, Andersen called his first collections of fairy tales (1835-42) Fairy Tales, Told For Children. But as he fashioned it in a completely original manner with a mixture of fantasy and down-to-earth realism, it quickly became obvious to him that this modest genre gave him a freedom to say things that he would not have been able to say in the same way in genres addressed exclusively to adult readers. And it was thus also clear to him that his fairy tales were at least as much for adults as for children. Much later, he argued in what he called his "Comments" on the fairy tales and stories, that children understood the trappings in them, whereas the more profound ideas were for the adults.
A world-famous fairy tale like "The Little Mermaid" first saw light in a collection of these Fairy Tales Told for Children (1837), but from end to end it is a literary fairy tale about the urge for immortality, for God, that lies hidden in nature, awakens in human beings and continues its spiritual journey beyond the boundary called death. A story for children? Both yes and no. Certainly not if we are to believe the Disney version that has transformed the story entirely and turned it into a "proper" fairy tale about the mermaid who longs so much to have a part in the human world and ends by getting her prince.
There is plenty of scope for tragedy in Andersen (e.g. in "The Story of a Mother"), but in many of his stories there is exuberant humour, irony and satire which to a certain extent only come into their own in his play with the linguistic potential of the Danish language, but which nevertheless can be sensed to a certain extent in the translations, and all this is obviously something extending far beyond a child's horizon.
The rare quality in Andersen- and one that is easily misunderstood- is then that he speaks to adults through a mask of childishness, and that he tells children about experiences that rightly belong in the world of the grown-up.
We can perhaps better understand this duality if we know that Andersen had actually never expected to make a name for himself as the writer of fairy tales. He wanted to be a novelist, and dramatist. The novels he wrote- six in all- were a success, not least abroad. It was such that even as late as 1852, when he had long been famous as a writer of fairy tales, he met some Americans in Munich who could tell him that his novels could be bought on any railway station in America. Today, his novels are mainly of historical interest, but we must remember that he was the first Danish author to write contemporary novels. Here, as in many other respects, he was at the forefront of his time, a modern spirit, an author conscious of his time.
He had his heart in drama throughout his life, and he wrote a great number of plays and ballad operas and a few opera libretti. He experienced a number of fiascos, but also a few major successes in the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, and later he experienced a number of huge successes in the popular theatre, the Casino, and these continued long after his death. Andersen was wildly enthusiastic about the theatre, but he really only managed to transform his theatrical ambitions into great art when he created his fairy tale form, for with their lively scenic and spoken quality the fairy tales are a kind of prose drama. They were something never seen before, transgressing all the norms for writing good prose and introducing the style of modern prose into Danish literature
His drama has been forgotten, but not his travel accounts. He went on altogether thirty journeys abroad, some short, some long, which took him far and wide in Europe, to Constantinople, Spain, Portugal, twice to England, several times to Italy, and so on and so on.(See Map) Some of these journeys gave rise to travel accounts, colourful, poetical portrayals of a writer's encounter with the Europe of his day. On his early journeys he drew what he saw. He had a certain talent for that, too, just as he was phenomenally gifted in cutting out fantastic paper cuts, making collages, etc. This visual skill is something we come across again in the fairy tales and novels. One of his friends, the physicist H.C. Ørsted, remarked to him that he was a painter with the pen, and this is true. Andersen's prose is amazingly visual, and he also worked consciously to apply a painterly technique to his descriptions- something he probably picked up from his Danish and foreign painter friends. No wonder, then, that so many artists, Danish and non-Danish, have been eager to turn to Andersen's fairy tales and illustrate them. They simply cry out for it.
Andersen was also a poet, and it is a matter of simple fact that many of his poems provide the texts for songs that are among the most loved and widely sung in Danish to this day. They are sung in schools and at all kinds of gatherings and are known by all and sundry.
So today there is a Danish Andersen and an Andersen known to the world outside Denmark. In Denmark, having entered the cultural life of his day as a social outsider, a man and an author whom people long found it difficult to accept properly, he has become the national writer above all others. His humour and irony are felt by the Danes to be very Danish and almost untranslatable, and they know perfectly well that they are really the only ones to know Andersen, his problems, his enormous range and his subtle humour. And yet there is an Andersen outside Denmark, even an Andersen in fundamentally different cultures such as those of Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam or, for that matter, Brazil.
Perhaps the very most striking difference between the Danish and the non-Danish Andersen is to be found in the fact that in Denmark the focus has constantly been on Hans Christian Andersen the man, ably helped of course by his autobiographies, but also by later comprehensive editions of his letters and, in recent years, of his diaries (from 1825 to his death) and notebooks. Andersen the author has almost been hidden by the ferocious interest in the most intimate details of his private life and guesswork concerning things about which we know nothing for certain after all. The Danes know Andersen better than they know their neighbours.
The Bulgarian or the American or South African Andersen is not overshadowed by Andersen the private individual, partly because there has not been the same access abroad to the vast amount of material by and on him that has been published in Danish. And that is not a bad thing, either, for there he is allowed to be Andersen the writer of fairy tales. The only problem here is that it is only a tiny handful of the altogether almost 190 fairy tales, stories and other prose pieces that are known. Many of the most exciting and thought-provoking ones are completely unknown.
So however we look at it, Andersen has become a victim of his own fame both at home and abroad. So incredibly well known- whatever it is he is known for- and yet, paradoxically enough more or less unknown for what is essential.
Perhaps he had a presentiment of this, too, when, sitting beneath the Neapolitan sun in 1846, he set about writing the anti-fairy tale "The Shadow"- a cruel story about a learned man who is overshadowed by his own shadow, which finally has him put to death.
Hans Christian Andersen has certainly achieved what is called immortality. But would he have been happy with the basis on which he has achieved it?
- Johan de Mylius