Danish literature as world literature

Update: KU hosted a literary festival on 1 September, with a paper by Anna Sandberg on German-Danish transnational literature and a panel on TOPOS, issue 123 of Kultur og Klasse on literary topology (nice to see but nowt of particular interest). A further nod to poetry festival Reverse, with Sunday sessions on the anthropocene, writing through networks and the Nordic literary journal. Sadly was away for both so no networking for me.

As part of my struggle with Danish writing and investigation into place writing in Denmark I availed myself of Danish literature as world literature (2017; Amazon w long excerpt) from the library. But just what is world literature?

  • David Damrosch (2003) defined it as literature circulated beyond its culture of origin, ie a phenomenon of reception; what is gained in translation – works take on a new life as they move into the world
  • Pascale Casanova (2005) explored economic factors, eg Marx as world literature characterised by markets and production dynamics

See LJMU’s World literature critical toolbox for more. VG! There are however two threads at work here: the reception of Danish literature in the wider world and, conversely, the reception of ‘world’ literature in Denmark.

“The much-willed international orientation of HC Andersen and Karen Blixen stand out”, sighs the introduction, while Georg Brandes‘ 1871 lectures on Hovedstrømninger i det 19de Aarhundredes Litteratur offer up a cosmopolitan view of literary history founded in Hegelian dialectics of action and reaction and the metaphor of the wave. (See also Om verdenslitteratur, 1899.)

The wave of action from the French Revolution never quite made it to the European periphery of Denmark, but the Romantic reaction did reach its shores, “never left and wound up as a poor replica of itself”. This is typical of the literatures of small nations – some currents never reach them while others linger too long: “people have felt and thought, only on second hand, weaker and more feebly than elsewhere”. However Brandes’ Det moderne Gjennembruds Mænd (1883; kicking off Det Moderne Gennembrud) led to the flourishing of a common Scandi literary culture (challenging his understanding of centre and periphery), an intermediate context as defined by Kundera in Die Weltliteratur, (2007), helping literature to think beyond itself.

Lots of hat-tipping to Moretti, whose tree metaphor is seen in the Danish Golden Age; influenced by German idealism, founded around Oehlenschlager, Steffens and Ørsted, embraced by Andersen, Kierkegaard and Grundtvig, passé by 1871. Using distant reading techniques Julie Kjær Markussen has measured the reception of Danish literature from data on translations (UNESCO’s Index Translationum) and literary holdings (WorldCat; see Ireland example), plus Google search, Google Books Ngram Viewer, Google Trends, Amazon Sales Rank, Goodreads…

Being brought up with the border ballads (Get up and bar the door!) of passing interest was the chapter by Lis Møller (Aarhus). Robert Jamieson’s Popular ballads and songs (1806) included a few Danish ballads, which he translated himself into a Scottish idiom of sorts, followed by 18 more in 1814. Jamieson was an associate of Walter Scott, whose Alice Brand (1810) was inspired by a Danish ballad. Shifting gaze to Germany, Goethe’s Erlkönig is based on a Danish ballad collected by Herder. Grimm also translated several, and Heine cited or paraphrased several more.

The chapter on HC Andersen by Karin Sanders (Uni of California, Berkeley) finds him impatient to plant his words in a wider world; he saw himself as an “orange tree in the swamp” and Denmark as a “duck yard”, stating in 1836: “I am doomed to write for a small country”.

As one of the 10 most widely translated authors in the world HCA “practised two sets of double articulations”: he wrote simultaneously for both a local and a global audience – several of his novels were targeted at a foreign (German or English) audience – and, in his fairy tales, for the child and the adult.

Andersen’s life was a perpetual self-promotional book tour, counter to the accepted social norms of the Danes. His travels allowed him to escape the cultural conformity of a small nation, seeing more clearly what would be muddled up close.

Moving on to Kierkegaard, Isak Winkel Holm (CPH) notes that his reception in Denmark starts out with the peculiarities of his biography and ends with the power of his terminology, in particular im Einzelnen, giving meaning to a lawless and shapeless modern world. His influence on world literature came in three waves:

  • Scandinavian – Georg Brandes’ 1877 monograph, influence on Ibsen, Strindberg, JP Jacobsen and Pontoppidan; later on Karen Blixen
  • Germanophone – on the fin de siècle generation, inc Rudolph Kassner (1906), Lukacs (1909); Rilke learnt Danish to be able to read the original; also Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler and Karl Kraus
  • French – Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus, via Kafka

His Anglophone reception was smaller, via WH Auden.

Back to Brandes once more with Annegret Heitmann (Aarhus), who notes that the international significance of the ‘Brandes generation’ was long neglected in Denmark. Once again the Germanic world played a pivotal bridge-building function, with key roles also for Ibsen and Strindberg (the Scandi – transnational – context), leading to a wide overseas reception for all three, with citations by influential readers inscribing them in the global canon.

The prolific Brandes (cf Nietzsche) travelled widely and was possibly the best connected intellectual of the 19th century, writing books on Berlin, Poland and Russia, although his heart belonged to France. Despite his early use of the term ‘modern’, his writing may be seen as akin to naturalism, ie pre-modern.

Of Brandes’ contemporaries, JP Jacobsen (cf Rilke) also travelled, but his life was short and overshadowed by disease, while Herman Bang (cf Thomas Mann) had a curious and cosmopolitan outlook, which together with his homosexuality, led to long periods of exile. He died in an American railway carriage while on a lecture tour intended to span the globe.

Jon Helt Haarder (SDU) looks at two Nobel winners whose novels were at odds with genre conventions and had the general success of Scandi naturalism as a prerequisite:

  • Johannes V JensenKongens fald (1900-01), set in the 15th and 16th centuries, voted best Danish book of the 20th century (Nobel 1944; known also for Paa Memphis Station, poem written in 1903, and his prose poetry)
  • Henrik Pontoppidan – Lykke-Per (1898-1904) voted 2nd best; see also Danske Billeder (1889); one of the greatest chroniclers of his own country, working with irony, hidden narrators and unreliable narration (it says; Nobel 1917, co-winner with the lesser known Karl Gjellerup)

Which brings us to Karen Blixen (Lasse Horne Kjældgaard, RUC). Known under several names, it is easier to assign her to the category of world literature than any single national literary tradition. Her Danish reception has focused on biographical and literary approaches (and canonical status), while overseas she has been subject to relentless post-colonial criticism.

Blixen’s works do not fit into any of the conventional narratives of Danish literary history. Her Danish authorship even consists of derived texts – she wrote all her major works in English first (with phrases and syntactic structures which betray her Danish background) and then translated them (with ample Anglicisms) into Danish (a citizen of nowhere, perhaps). As an emigrant she could perceive Denmark and Europe from both the inside and the outside. She did not see herself as a ‘Danish’ author, with Seven Gothic Tales written for a global audience.

She also used intertextuality – Seven Gothic Tales contains more than a thousand literary quotations and allusions. Working like a bricoleur, she used all available ingredients including pieces from classical Danish literature, recycling characters and places imbued with literary significance. Interesting.

Anne-Marie Mai (SDU) looks at Danish poets “in the intersection between modernism and postmodernism”, reflecting a global orientation after WW2. Klaus Rifbjerg travelled to the US shortly after the war, while Villy Sørensen was more into Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kafka and Thomas Mann.

However Rifbjerg quickly became the father figure to revolt against, with new influences from post/structuralism, Japanese poetry and European avant-garde art – see Per Højholt and Inger Christensen, followed by inter alia Hans-Jørgen Nielsen, Dan Turèll, Klaus Høeck (trans John Irons), Peter Laugesen (see Konstrueret situation, 1996), Johannes L Madsen, Kirsten Thorup and Charlotte Strandgaard.

Turèll’s 12 volumes of crime stories were widely translated, although he was so humbled by the Beats he did not even attempt to have his poetry translated: “There are lots like me in America”. It was not until 2016, when Thomas Kennedy translated 24 pages of Vangede Billeder for New Letters (RU sure; also see article in Politiken), that his other writing appeared in translation, perhaps a broader reflection of a revived interest in place.

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s enter (personal favourite) SUT and Michael Strunge in a more open literary landscape, erasing the division between high and popular culture.

All the above are barely published overseas, although occasional Nordic Literary Festivals are staged, and Louisiana Literature, where “world literature becomes a Danish cultural context” attempts to fly the flag. (This does surprise me, as Danish is eminently well suited to #mopo. Maybe it’s tricky too translate without sounding just too barsk.)

As a final hurrah, UCL’s Thomson and Stougaard-Nielsen) look at cultural mobility, crime fiction and television drama. Just what is fuelling Scandimania, beyond the endless media content? Answer: form, in the narrative sense, but also “the material, technological and institutional forms in which they are instantiated, the forms that are the condition of possibility for their mobility”.

Denmark is currently enjoying culturally and historically significant zones of contact, mobilisers who facilitate cultural exchanges and exploit the tension between individual agency and structural constraint, the balance and tension between local and global, new and familiar, setting and story:

Literature does not travel solo and nor does it travel light; it is carried and accompanied by films, television series, translators, publishers, state subsidies, and all manner of lifestyle goods stamped Brand Denmark…and by interlingual and intermedial translation.

Both HCA and Nordic Noir are framed by internationally recognisable genre conventions plus an elementary simplicity of form and content. Danish film and TV drama policy since the 1980s has also played an important role, but key is the concept of the other local, “a kind of tamed local, an aspirational Nordic otherness which returns as a utopia in the guise of a dystopia”, articulated in the shared experience of live blogs and #some, with lots of handy memes:

a process of imagining Denmark, projecting their fantasies onto the dreary backdrop of crime-ridden CPH and its exotic artefacts…in doing so they are also (re-)imagining their own society, often by identifying what is different and lacking…a peculiarly distilled and nebulous version of wider British utopian imaginings about Scandinavia”

Media convergence fostered by social networking, increased mobility and disposable income, a cycle of conversation, ‘buzz’ and consumption understood as a participatory culture or collective intelligence, has led to a world where the at best workmanlike Dicte: Crime Reporter can be featured in the Gdn’s Watch this column.

See also Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen at the Rethinking Scandinavia conference in June 2017, exploring Nordicness noir: the British construction of a Scandinavian utopia for the 21st century and coining his own neologism, a utopian Nordientalism: “Nordic social realities are here treated as alluring, homogeneous, utopian and exotic tourist destinations” (my bolding). Interesting. He also made points re the British creation of its own Nordic culture, eg (the rather less homogeneous) Fortitude. Note also that in a further stab at renaming Scandimania we have Beyond Borealism.

And finally…the latest issue of Scandinavica has the theme of Peripheral figures: British and Irish receptions of Nordic literature and culture, with an historical survey (full text) and articles on inter alia Nordic literary traditions in Orkney and Shetland, poems by RS Thomas on Kierkegaard and Seamus Heaney on the Danish bog bodies.

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