Bybilleder: writers and artists on Copenhagen

Update: I’ve now also had a look at another new find, Her er DK (2017) – see the foot of the post for details

Place writing in the British mould is thin on the ground in Denmark so I have to take what I can get.

Bybilleder: kunstnernes og forfatternes København (2016) consists of 75 snippets from Danish literature over the past 250 years set against 75 paintings, selected and presented by art historian Bente Scavenius and literary critic Bo Tao Michaëlis; 360 pages for DK 399. Reviews: Kopenhagen Magasin, Litteratursiden, Love Copenhagen.

Another of those too-big-to-handle offerings from Strandberg, this one had generøse bidrag from a total of nine fonde, but still could hardly be considered an impulse buy. Borrowed from the library on a 14 day loan, so an academic style read will have to suffice. And I’m not likely to buy it as a trophy to sit on a shelf.

In the authors’ respective forewords there’s lots of the usual glowing prose which sucks the life out of me: for BSc it’s a hyldest to Copenhagen, an oplevelse, noget til inspiration for hjerte og hjerne…then we’re heads down into the paintings and the extracts, some on different coloured paper, mainly poetry, often so short as to feel pointless (probably the shortest contribution is eight lines Uden titel (1969) from Inger Christensen), and in largish print, introduced at considerably more length by our two authors, with brief biographical notes pointing to the subject’s main works.

We are taken chronologically through the great and the good, uncritically and seemingly unselectively. It’s an encyclopedia, a reference book – a text book, even – in presentation and style. What aids are there? Zilch – just an a-z list of authors and source without page numbers, nothing for the paintings. I’d quite like to know there are two pieces from HuskMitNavn, feks, and an index by place and a timeline wouldn’t go amiss either. There are some nice pieces, but it doesn’t come together as a whole, lacking comparisons between the genres and any form of analysis. And psychogeography it ain’t – the excerpts may mention a place, but it’s rare they are _of_ a place. Which tends to be the problem, as identified already.

The usual place related suspects (from Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Anderson to Amalie Laulund Trudsø via Hermann Bang and Tom Kristensen) are represented in the 75 strong selection, of which I have probably heard of around two thirds of the writers and a third of the artists. Sadly, there is no space for Asger Jorn’s Fin de Copenhague – he is instead represented by Døddrukne danskere (1960) –  but there is room for a poem apiece from half-Danish film actor Viggo Mortensen and a certain Prins Henri (husband of the queen), which I originally thought was a performance art style joke. It passes without comment from BTM.

A quartet of artworks which caught the eye:

  • Allan Otte’s Nørrebro udtræk (2014) – a 10m x 1ocm frieze of Nørrebrogade, with places moved around to fit and no people (which is his thing); commissioned by Nørrebro Teater
  • Niels Strøbek’s Gårdparti i seks dele (1970) – representation of a typical apartment building in the brokvartere
  • Peter Land’s Copenhagen 11. December 1999, Hurricane II (2000) – portraying Copenhagen’s great storm, when everything was up in the air
  • Jesper Christiansen’s Ved et torv om morgenen (2013) – Gammeltorv, one of a series of paintings produced for Københavns Byret; Kierkegaard lived nearby, taking his daily menneskebad down Routen, as Strøget was called at the time

This last is complemented by Morten Søndergaard’s M for Marmor (2011), taken from Bakkehusalfabet (in lib) which he wrote while in residence at Bakkehuset, and more than short enough to reproduce here:

M for Marmor

Carrara-marmor med indskrift

Husene taler med deres mærkelige marmorpladstemmer: “Her skrev Grundtvig”, “her boede Søren Kierkegaard”, “her blev Hans Christian Andersen født”. Men hvem er det, der taler? Det er, som om husene er udstyret med stenstemmer, so hakkes ud på gavle og facader. Hvem siger noget? Er det tiden selv? Her! Der! Den! Dengang! Vi går forbi og tænker hvert sit. Aha, det var altså mindeværdigt, aha, den person var altså værdig til marmorens evighed. Stenord og stensætninger finder plads i arkitekturen, det bløde kød skal mindes i hård sten. Men hvem er det, som siger noget med husets mund?

Søndergaard is musing on the voices behind the marble plaques found in Copenhagen, emanating from houses and cut out of facades. Who is speaking – is it time itself? Is one person more worthy of an eternal memory in marble than others? Flesh memorialised in stone…who is speaking through the mouth of the house?

BTM sees the setting of plaques on buildings as the Protestant equivalent of the pilgrimage to relics and shrines. Dating from the 19th century, when public interest in the lives of artists exploded and the enlightened bourgeoisie began to make pilgrimages to cultural places, today it is a form of tourism, encouraged by turistbranchen.

This tickled me, not least because there are so few plaques in Copenhagen, and those there are, are so understated as to be practically invisible. Signage is also limited. Evidence of history is hard to find on the streets.

To finish…the more Danish books I look at the more I wonder at the differences between the UK and Danish markets, a reflection perhaps of general cultural differences. For many Danes the UK is bad taste corner, while Brits gape at Danish lampshades. Style, design, call what you will, is downplayed in the UK in favour of verbal dexterity and understatement. While in Denmark another new place-based title, Her er DK, is hailed for its lovely design.

And Strandberg do lovely things, if shading into something to look at rather than to read. For the record, here’s a pick of their other publications from urbanist corner:


Her er DK (2017; FB): “en bog om ukendte steder og oversete seværdigheder”; 217 writers contribute overlooked places throughout Denmark; examples include Cykelslangen (hardly overset, Martin Zerlang!); for the record, it’s DK 349 for 270 pages, some weird sub-A4 size; reviews: Jyllands Posten (paywall), Søren Ryge in Politiken (seemingly not asked); all very lovely and unlikely to scare the horses.

Purloined from the library, I note that the book is described as “et geografisk opslagsværk”, ie it’s not intended to be read from cover to cover; and it certainly feels like something to leaf through rather than read, although that may be because it’s brand new and from the library. It’s so pristine you feel like you should be wearing white gloves to handle it.

A Peter Plys (aka Winnie the Pooh) epithet at the start sets the tone: “Hvad slags historie holder han mest af? Han vil helst høre en historie om sig selv.”

There’s a geographical arrangement, starting with Nordvest, by coordinates rather than region, now that’s novel. The contributor is noted with initials not by name at the end of each piece. The contributions are often v short, too short to make much of a lasting impression. We have registre by place and name, which cross-refer to page number rather than place, that’s just annoying; I couldn’t be bothered to juggle the book to refer back to some, and I have a hunch that the list is on the website anyway (yes! See Hvem og hvor). As ever, I’m left wondering who the target market is (and how much quasi-public support it got) – for me, disappointing, although alternative forms of presentation might have helped.

While the choice of place tends mainly to the lovely, Vestegnen has three entries:

  • Rødovre: Damhustorvet, or “porten til Vestegnen”, by MSQ (Maria Skov Quistgaard, journalist, Information)
  • Albertslund: photo of Bytorvet, by VCB (Vesle Cosman Brøndum, kunstner)
  • Hvidovre: Friheden by NEO (Najat El Ouargui, strategisk analytiker ved Rigspolitiet)

Jan Christiansen’s Copenhagen

Updates:

book cover

Cykelslangen, obv

Jan Christiansen was Copenhagen’s stadsarkitekt during the boom years of 2001-10, following the traumas of the 1990s when the city was declared bankrupt. His reminiscences, another of those too-big-to-handle style books where form beats function, were published in 2015 by Strandberg (300 odd pages, yours for ~£35; blurb | interview in Berlingske | Politiken review), with the support of Realdania and Dreyers Fond (I mention this because it seems to be the main economic model for Danish non-fiction). There’s lots of tasteful pics and a limited five page index, but no maps or owt. And, as ever, a tighter editor might have made for a more accessible product.

Jan was the functionary to Jens Kramer Mikkelsen’s overborgmester until 2004, when the latter resigned to become chief executive of Ørestadsselskabet (now By & Havn). Mikkelsen was replaced as mayor by billige boliger queen Ritt Bjerregaard (until 2009). Going down a level, Jan served under two sub-mayors with responsibility for things urban, Søren Pind (V) and Klaus Bondam (R; from 2006).

The library has obliged.

Introduction

The noughties saw an explosion of building and architecture in Copenhagen, a third modern gennembrud following the opening up of the city ramparts in the 1870s and the burst of funkis activity in the 1930s. Under Jan’s watch it was all about urban renewal, housebuilding and kulturhuse, plus the beginning of the process of transformation for the city’s former harbour and industrial areas, in particular Ørestad, Nordhavn and Sluseholmen.

This period also saw byens rum (public space), enter the picture, centred round the experience economy and the idea of a more recreational lifestyle, but by the end of Jan’s period of tenure tighter funds meant that a number of prestige projects were put on hold. Some, such as Koncerthuset, Operaen and Skuespilhuset, have come to fruition, while others have yet to see the light of day, and still others have been downscaled to suit the revised concept of the ‘storby’ we have today.

Jan reflects on the question as to whether he, and in particular the city’s politicians, were carried away by economic optimism generated by the boligboble (housing boom), in the process forgetting the solid and refined values of traditional Danish architecture. Were they too impressed by ideas and concepts, out of scale and even insensitive in the Danish context? Or were they successful in translating international ideas into that context?

Copenhagen’s egenart: scale

At the tail end of the 1990s the council sold off some pockets of land to developers at a knock down price, resulting in some projects commonly judged failures – Kalvebod Brygge and Fields usually get mentions in this connection. These projects were seen as going against Copenhagen’s egenart (let’s call it ‘essence’) which, often, comes down to scale.

It’s being small/er which is seen as CPH’s key quality – the historic buildings in the centre are one storey lower even than nearby Malmö (which might help explain why the latter has for me an immediate urban feel compared with CPH). Complementing the small scale is the flatness, oh the flatness, meaning no horizon and no layers.

Light and wind are also claimed to play key roles – the low sun for six months of the year means that buildings are designed to let the sun in, and the famous housing karréer developed as a way of shutting out the constant west wind. (Hmm…Edinburgh is on the same latitude as CPH and is known as the Windy City, but somehow it lacks the enervating qualities found on the other side of the North Sea.)  Copenhagen – making a virtue of the small and sustainable, rather than the more appealing (and perhaps diverse) resilient.

Buildings in Copenhagen have up to now, with a few exceptions, been kept deliberately low rise, in order to protect the city’s historic skyline of slender towers. In 2007 its politicians rejected Norman Foster’s proposed ‘luxury’ skyscraper at Tivoli as not Danish enough, leading Spanish architect Joan Busquets to comment that cities develop themselves over time and that skyscrapers are a sign of a dynamic modern city – resting on the laurels of the icons of the past is not enough.

Where skyscrapers did get an early seal of approval was in Ørestad City, in particular around the station. Nine were originally on the table, and a further 11 were pencilled for Amager East, with its views over the Øresund. Today a new højhuspolitik has opened the door for further clusters in the developing areas of the city, with the recognition that skyscrapers can help develop an identity, as well as create a critical mass of consumers for new facilities. Carlsberg’s højhuse are being placed in strategic points, with the highest a ‘point de vue’ from Søndermarken and other strategic points. New (supposedly) tall and slim towers of high architectural quality are being talked up as creating connections between the medieval city of towers, Denmark’s Golden Age, the industrial architecture of the recent past and the modern city.

All of which brings us to tæthed (density), seen as the essential for creating city life. Density levels in a parcelhusområde are 20-30%, in central CPH it’s 120-200%, but under the new tæt-høj model in parts of Ørestad, with tower blocks of 8-12 storeys, it’s up to 350% (where there are lots of tower blocks it can rise to up to 500%; at Teglgårdsstræde in inner CPH it’s up to 600%). Jan claims you can get away with increasing density without affecting quality of life when other essentials (shops, culture, transport, parks, byliv) are close at hand.

Finally, homes in CPH are small – the average size per person in Denmark as a whole is 60m2, while in CPH it’s 32m2.

New Copenhagen

There then follows a run-through of key projects masterminded by Jan, some familiar, some less so. Many are included in the Copenhagen X Gallery, another of Jan’s legacies. There’s lots on the minutiae of communal politics, plus ample room for Wikipedia fact listing.

Here are some titbits I picked up:

  • HC Andersens Boulevard – until 1954 known as Vester Boulevard, with a parkstrøg and haveanlæg; today a busy thoroughfare
  • the metro – seen as the solution to the traffic issues caused by CPH scale, so much so that a new area was built to finance it (although to save money the stretch along the Øresund to the airport was built over ground, or rather half buried behind screens)
  • the harbour, aka Den Blå Plan – what to do? it couldn’t just be a big park; issue re houseboats, seen as messy and making the harbour inaccessible, hence limited mainly to Sluseholmen; claimed these days as a success, in particular the improvements in water quality, but still lacks decent connections and a proper sense of its cultural heritage
  • Operaen on Dokøen – brickbats aplenty for not being bymæssig, and does rather loom seen from Amalienborg, but more unique than Skuespilhuset; maybe it’s just not CPH scale

Most interesting was the concept of Metropolzonen, a now unlikely sounding project coined in 2006 to transform the area around Rådhuspladsen, Tivoli and the central station (see Magasinet KBH’s map) into a bigger, higher and noisier byens foyer. Attention seems to have shifted away from this area of hotels, offices, restaurants and Tivoli, and it’s all the better for it. You can still wander round untroubled by much in yer face small scale CPHery, although there’s no denying it can feel rather empty – hordes of tourists dragging suitcases does not equal buzz. It remains to be seen what the opening of Axel Towers will bring, a project which has been on the go since 2012, but generally Denmark doesn’t scale up well, it lacks a bigger picture.

Hvad så, København?

So, what next? In the last couple of years there has been a particular stress on nature and landscape in the city, with projects to create cycle paths, rainwater solutions, pocket parks…but at the same time a lot of construction activity aimed at housing the estimated 1000 people moving to the city per month – although those figures are beginning to come under some scrutiny. Gentrification has entered the Danish vocabulary, and there has been a certain amount of muttering about the number of historical buildings being pulled down in Carlsberg.

The city is increasingly being pulled in two directions, and it will be interesting to see how long the current ‘happy CPH’ discourse can hold. Few dissenting voices are to be heard, but the point has recently been made in CityMetric:

The “cities are great but they could be nicer” band dominate everything…we are all being mocked when the case studies to forge 21st century urban policy are very modestly populated 15th century Italian towns like Pienza.

For more on New Copenhagen see the (undated) Linje C podride with Jan and the 2014 Sharing Copenhagen city walk with Tina Saaby, the current stadsarkitekt.

For more on Denmark’s special sense of scale, see Mastodonternes fremmarch, a recent article in Jyllands Posten, bemoaning the new architecture in Aarhus, and new find Nordic Design Review on scale and proportion, with showcasing inter alia Grundtvigs Kirke and Israels Plads.

See also an article by DF’s cultural spokesman critiquing contemporary architecture, plus responses from Arkitekektforeningen, KADK (calling both the National Bank and the SMK extension fejlplaceret/misplaced) and Politiken.

three towers

Carlsberg’s new skyline: Bohrs Tårn (completion date: 2017), Carlsberg Hovedkontor (1961/97). Kongens Bryghus (1957/97)

#FLfairytales: HC Andersen and place

Updates:

  • Walking the same streets: Hannah’s postcard from Copenhagen
  • Henriette Steiner at Writing Buildings (Friday session 6): “tracking down Andersen’s ‘home’ in Copenhagen can be a rather perplexing undertaking as he lived in around 25 different places in the city (vs James Joyce’s 2o Dublin homes, then 10 in Trieste, eight in Zurich and 19 in Paris)…writing about these very concrete buildings, allows a range of themes, such as representation, temporality, daily life and urban order, to be approached alongside questions concerning the value placed at buildings for being sites of production of writing, the role of these sites in the experience of the literary tourist, and how this negotiates themes left-over from Romanticism and thus from Andersen’s own time” – in this connection it is interesting to note that proposals for a HC Andersen visitor centre on Langelinie were put forward by the government in 2014, aimed particularly at Chinese tourists, however Politiken reports that nothing has happened as yet; meanwhile Odense is planning on opening a new HC Andersen Eventyrhus in 2020
  • Anne Klara Bom (Academia.edu) on HCA as cultural phenomenon, glocal traveller etc; A story of experience (from p22; uses discourse analysis)
  • Hans Christian Andersens Orient – interesting ARTE doc; in 1841 HCA traveled east, tapping into Orientalism and Classicism on a sort of Bildungsreise; one of the first to visit Athens as a traveller; interesting factoids: his mother described him as a ‘wilder Vogel’, an Einzelgänger with an ‘unruhiges Ich’ who wanted to be famous, HCA visited 29 countries in Europe and North Africa, spending nine years of his life on the road and buying his first bed at the age of 61; fame came first in Germany and Sweden, then France and England, and last in ‘totbringende Dänemark’; he made sense of the world through the eyes of a child
  • new Danish biog out (732 pages)…the CPH Post has an update on all those statues

Notes from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, from the Hans Christian Andersen Centre (English) based at SDU in Odense, new on Twitter for the MOOC. Six weeks, started 19 October. New translations of nine (of a total of 157) fairy tales (defined as an original tale written by a specific author, central in German Romanticism) covering 17 years of HCA’s life (1805-75) on offer.

As with #FLwordsworth it’s the place and cultural heritage stuff I’m after – fairy tales aren’t my thing, although the one about the hens (Det er ganske vist) came as a pleasant enough surprise when I was learning Danish.

In week 1 HCA was presented as a ‘mouldbreaker’ in the established literary community, having come from a working class background, with his fairy tales both universal and culturally specific. Still read all over the world, they are rooted in a Christian culture confronted with modernity.

We were asked to take a moment to consider the man behind the writer:

  • How did he think of himself as an artist? In what way can we understand his role as a mouldbreaker in the established, literary community in relation to his background as a working class lad?
  • What is the connection between HCA’s special use of the fairy tale genre and the way his life was shaped?
  • How can we understand the fact that the author never really – not even as a confirmed celebrity – succeeded in settling down, neither in the outside world, nor in his own imaginary world?

HCA achieved fame and acknowledgement as an artist in both Europe and America while he was in his prime. He was a traveller who undertook long journeys in especially Europe, but he also reached North Africa and Turkey. In his native Denmark, he also travelled a lot, taking residence at manor houses and castles which were, at that time, significant cultural meeting places.

HCA was a restless person who did not create a home for himself but felt ‘at home’ in the journey itself. He travelled in a Europe that was getting ready to become modern. This HCA registers with both delight and fear in his writing. This is also registered in the form of artistic reflections on time, place and distance. When HCA said To travel is to live, he was not only referring to outer journeys but to travelling as a form of existence.

HCA had many homes, for home was the artistic universe and the journey itself, one could say. He travelled all over Europe, time and time again, something that is reflected in his novels, travel accounts, fairy tales and stories as a treasure trove of localities. HCA visited counts, kings and artists, locations and landscapes, because he was full of an insatiable thirst for experiences and a restless longing for the inner balance he probably found in his art, but never wholly in his life.

On 28 October the team sent out a message with details of HCA’s three autobiographies, not least The fairy tale of my life (1871): “HCA wished to present his own life as a fairy tale and wrote in a poetic style. All this lead to a “a strong interest in the personality…during his lifetime and the fantastic story of his life…the beginning of the creation of a myth surrounding the author, which appeared to be a kind of mythologization of the relation between life and art. It offers strong evidence of the romantic belief in genius.”

Then a definite tut tutting about this approach, not helped by word order and general obfuscation: “to judge Andersen from a biographical point of view only is to reduce his great and challenging work. It has been and still is the task of interpreters of Hans Christian Andersen’s life and work to adjust this picture and to try to discover his work independently of the romantic figure of the author – and not least to evaluate the modernity of his original fairy tales.”

Biographies (which the team may/not approve of) include Jackie Wullschlager (2000; Amazon) and Paul Binding (2014; reviewAmazon). Internationals in Denmark in particular will enjoy Michael Booth’s Just as well I’m leaving (2005; Amazon), his first riff on Denmark and its idiosyncracies, framed round HCA’s European travels.

The fairy tales

Week 2 looked at the folk tale inspiration and two analysis models (how many?), comparing The tinderbox and the Grimms’ The blue light with the folk tales that provided inspiration:

  • the actantial model: the quest
  • the narrative pattern ‘home-away-home’, also found in the Bildungsroman

actuant

The protagonist – or hero – of the folk tale is the key element. The upper axis represents the fact that a donor gives an object to a receiver – the latter being the protagonist. This is often the king which gives his daughter, the princess, to the protagonist. The lower axis represents the fact that the protagonist has to overcome various obstacles in his quest for the object and that he will have to face and conquer an antagonist and will receive assistance from a helper as a part of this process.

Much was made of HCA’s humour and irony, plus the violence found in many tales, all of which I’m thinking has a specific Danish flavour, although the Grimms had their moments.

Week 3 contrasted two versions of the same tale, drawing out HCA’s particular narrative style and language:

The spectre (1830) adopted the sophisticated style typical of the literary fairy tales (Kunstmärchen) developed by German Romanticism (writers like Chamisso, Tieck and ETA Hoffmann), whose approach was often marked by ironic reflection. Far from reproducing the impersonal style of the folk tale, The spectre was a piece of literary art, showing the signature of a cultivated writer cumulating explicit references to the Arabian Nights, the Bible, Goethe and Danish contemporary authors.

Its reception, however, was negative, with HCA accused of having missed “the epic tone” of the folk tale. Disappointed, HCA gave up this kind of experimental rewriting and decided to revisit the folk tale genre as part of a literary project of another kind: storytelling for children.

The travelling companion (1835) adopted the more familiar form of the folk tale. HCA purified and simplified his narrative style, aiming to revive the folk tale material and to refresh its imagery. The style resulting from this effort became HCA’s special signature, and to some extent imitates the tone of the folk tale. Nonetheless, he still wrote literary fairy tales. His art was to develop a strategy of storytelling that appears to be simpler than it is.

The ‘exemplary’ analysis of The Spectre makes it sound a gadzillion times more interesting than the more popular fairy tale, almost modernist, a fairy tale about a folk tale. Chief linguistic differences highlighted are general verbosity and description – place and nature writing, very on trend! – vs simplifying the artistic expression.

Week 4 and The little mermaid (1837), one of HCA’s first self invented tales. These meant something special to him and marked his breakhrough as a writer, making him an international star. The tale touches upon traditional questions related to Christianity and ‘modern’ questions such as the identity crises of the main subject. It doesn’t conform to the models (above), doesn’t have a Happy Ending and is open to many interpretations. OTOH Disney’s 1989 version does, and isn’t.

Published along with The emperor’s new clothes, now that is a good one.

Week 5 focused on HCA’s ‘modern’ approach, via two new fairy tales: The story of a mother (1847) and The snow queen (1844):

From 1835-42, HCA carried out his project of writing a series of Fairy tales told for children with increasing success. However, in 1843, he gave his work with the genre a different orientation. The appellation ‘told for children’ disappeared as he published a collection entitled New fairy tales, composed of four tales of his own invention without any immediate debt to folk tales, including The ugly duckling.

In these tales HCA managed to raise religious questions by the means of apparent transgressions of genre conventions, eg qualifying tests, the fight with the antagonist, religious meaning…His intention was to fictionalise – or allegorise – a ‘basic idea’,  a project completely incompatible with the folk tale’s perception of the world.

Week 6 looked at The red shoes (1845) and invited participants to write an essay on HCA’s topicality and cross-cultural relevance, quite interesting as it goes. A quick look at the sections on The red shoes confirms that it is just as traumatic as remembered.

The longer the MOOC went on the more distressing the tales became – are the later ones read to children today, undoctored? Part of the Danish canon? They seem to belong to another time, with the illustrations on the MOOC and most collections evoking the last century.

Perhaps as a result retellings abound – see Angela CarterTransformations (1971; Anne Sexton’s retellings of the Grimms; article inc a diagram by Kurt Vonnegut) and A wild swan and other tales (2015; Michael Cunningham retells the Grimms and HCA; “The steadfast tin soldier turns out happy”; interview). Also Marina Warner’s Short history of fairy tale.

The course took a standard litcrit line, seemingly very popular in Danish higher education, however more innovative approaches must be around somewhere, for example #corpus analyses, distant reading, dataviz of the models? A social network of the Golden Age, based on who HCA rubbed shoulders with, not least Kierkegaard? Should anything be read into the fact that the last conference seems to have taken place in 2005, the year of his bicentenary? Also, how about HCA’s reception and (re)interpretation in Denmark, influence on eg Lars von Trier? How much are his other writings read and performed today? While at rejse er at leve gets cited fairly frequently in newspaper travel sections, is it more than a quote?

As Most Famous Danes HCA and contemporary Kierkegaard make a troubling pair. What is quite fun is that both enjoyed a walk in the city, but while Kierkegaard relished his menneskebad HCA became an old snob, preferring to hobnob with the nobility, or to travel.

HCA and place

HCA plays a key role in Denmark’s (rather limited) literary tourism offerings, focused exclusively around the fairy tales. See Visit OdenseVisit Fyn and HCA’s Odense (app and PDF) for full coverage. I have paid duty visits to his hus (aka museum, opened 1908) and barndomshjem (childhood home, opened 1930) in Odense, officially Denmark’s fairy tale city – even the pedestrian crossings pay homage.

It’s possibly all a bit much, a theme explored by KØS, the museum of public art, in their tour of Denmark’s memorials. See the talking statue version of the 1888 HCA statue in the city and accompanying debate.

pedestrian crossing in Odense

pedestrian crossing in Odense

HCA left Odense in 1819 aged 14 for the big city. He lived in countless/18 places during his 56 years in Copenhagen – see Indenforvoldene for details. Highlights include the kvistværelse (attic room) at Vingårdsstræde 6, now part of shopping mecca Magasin’s museum, where he lived from 1827-28, and three locations on Nyhavn. From 1834-38 he lived at nr 20 – an unreadable plaque marks the spot on the first floor. From 1848-65 he lived at nr 67, and from 1871-73 at nr 18 (reconstruction), now housing an HCA themed shop in the ground floor, plus smart apartments owned by the National Bank upstairs. He is buried in Assistens Kirkegård.

There are two statues in CPH, on HCA Boulevard and in Kongens Have. The eternally disappointing Little mermaid perches on a rock on Langelinie (1913, a gift from Carl Jacobsen) – the domestic reaction may perhaps be seen in Bjørn Nørgaard’s genetically modified twin, installed just round the corner in 2006. We also have Hanne Varming’s Hyldemor on Kultorvet, and the story of The Ugly Duckling appears on Carlo Rosberg’s mural in Hvidovre town hall.

HCA elsewhere

Museums Odense offers full details of HCA’s travels, with 30 itineraries from 1831-73 and contemporary maps. Having done a double take in Bratislava in December it’s nice to confirm that HCA visited Pressburg on 3 June 1841 on his way home (journey 6). When asked to write something about the city he said that there was no need to, as it was already a fairytale. Bless.

HCA statue in Bratislava

HCA statue in Bratislava by Tibor Bártfay, erected on the 165th anniversary of his visit in 2006

Another anecdote to enjoy is HCA’s relationship with Dickens. A search brings up their first meetings in London and Ramsgate, and then HCA’s doomed visit in 1857, where he over-stayed his welcome by nearly a month (story) – according to the CPH Post the “bony bore” with the “clammy hand” was the model for Uriah Heep (rhymes with…).

At rejse er at leve has a full list of his travel writings for further exploration, while writing about Denmark includes Fodreise fra Holmens Canal til Østpynten af Amager i Aarene 1828 og 1829 and Fodrejsen (1829).

Linkage:

My struggle with Danish writing

Updates:

I really struggle with contemporary Danish literary fiction. Following on from my rant about literary non-fiction in Denmark, or rather lack of same, here’s more. (But see the foot of the post for a positive turn.)

The cosy literary scene in Denmark feels like yet another closed shop for Team DK only. (OTOH Ken Follett is bizarrely popular.) Whatever happened to life experience and suffering for your art? Issues around creativity, originality and innovation do come up in dispatches now and then. This year we’ve had the Mette Høeg debate (good take from Labeet), plus Peder Frederik Jensen getting it in the neck from the great and the good.

Anyway, here’s some bile on three books which in theory should be right up my street, but which in the end were just another disappointment. The cultural gap here is more Atlantic than North Sea.

The coffee table book

Many books are brick sized (is there a quota?), produced in the best possible taste.

Københavnerne (Copenhageners; excerpt) by Pernille Stensgaard with photos by Anne Prytz Schaldmose, is a portrait of the people and places of Copenhagen. Published in 2013 by Gyldendal with a cover price of DK 350, running to 400 pages and weighing in at 2.2kg, the book is an updated version of København: folk og kvarterer (2002 and 2005), which also appeared in an English edition. Large piles of said edition were on sale at the airport last time I passed through.

Reviews and articles: Politiken | Weekendavisen | Magasinet KBH

The price of Danish books may mean that pple expect something for their buck, but this is ridiculous. You couldn’t even really call it a coffee table book – open, it is the coffee table. Its sheer size is a disincentive to picking it up, let alone to reading it. You can’t exactly curl up with it on the sofa, read it in bed or the bath, or take it with you on the train to dip in and out of. Actually, how can you read it other than at a desk?

I tried that and failed. I wish they’d consider publishing it in separate bits. The prelims will have to tell the story of the 11 areas portrayed – Sydhavn, Vesterbro, Frederiksberg, Nørrebro, Nordvest, Østerbro, Christianshavn, Amager, Ørestad, Islands Brygge and Indre By. Valby must be in there somewhere.

The front cover is of happy Danes bathing in the harbour at Islands Brygge, with the back cover an arty shot of people on bikes. The back endpaper is of Frederiksholm at Sydhavn, but the photo on the front endpaper (?that doesn’t sound right) is something I recognise as closer to reality – a grey portrait of slush on an empty Kalvebod Brygge in front of the Tivoli Hotel doubling as a Soviet apartment block, punctuated by red traffic lights. Leafing through this is pretty much reflected throughout – a minority of RL among the usual city branding shtick. Next, lug the thing back to the library.

The hyped debutante

Koordinater: Københavnertekster (Copenhagen pieces) was published in 2013 by Rosinante with support from the Danish Arts Council. It marks Amalie Laulund Trudsø‘s debut. (Debuts are big in Denmark. Why?) Amalie, born in 1988, recently completed her studies in Danish and Rhetoric at Copenhagen University. In the literary fiction genre, the book retails at DK 149,95 for 92 pages, and is made up of 60 short pieces named after a street in central CPH. Litteratursiden went bananas about it, with analysisdebate, more debate, a  book club and a review.

From the publisher’s blurb:

A book about moving to the city – and about the city moving into you…in 60 short pieces, each named after a street in Copenhagen, we follow a young woman getting to know the streets which one after another become part of her daily life. As the seasons change, so do her home and relationships. There’s a bonfire in the park, graffiti in the streets and a hamster on the draining board. And, of course, dancing, kissing and ample red wine.

This sat on my bookshelf for months, until I conceded that I was unlikely to read it. About leaving home and making a home in the big city, it verges on YA fiction not least given the author’s youth (you may identify with her). Then there’s the paragraph free texts presented in the best possible taste, which just evoke worthy dullness. It’s instructive to note that the place motif was not enough to provoke me to read it. Mind you, in the spirit of transmediality it would be possible to map the 60 streets…

2016 update: Amalie’s svære toer (difficult second), Sommerhus, has just been published, lots more small pieces on a significant place in the Danish soul, the old chestnut which is summer house (book list). From the review it looks just as much NFM (not for me) – one book blogger commented that it’s more about the language than anything else. On Litteraturlyd Amalie mentioned that she wrote her speciale on place in literature, and now there’s a guide for school students on Koordinater, drawing out some of these connections. See also Humanisten.

The read deal, but…

Harald Voetmann feels rather more interesting, not least because he has a degree in Latin. (Ironically, in my 20s I practically refused to read books by men. Now I’m going the other way.) Alt under månen (Everything under the moon), a bijou 168 pages for DK 180 (knocking on £20), is an historical romp about three Danish mystics from the 15th century, set on Hven. It takes the form of a diary kept by Tycho Brahe’s assistant and combines an exploration of man’s desire to understand and control nature with a Danish nobleman’s flight from his debts, the hunt for wild sex and the Philosopher’s Stone. All in 168 pages, remember.

If you read Danish there’s a 20 page extract on a journey to Hamburg. Unfortunately in a font to accentuate its historicity, which serves to accentuate Danish’s resemblance to an undeveloped Germanic tongue. Another of my problems with the Danish.

Update: Dorthe Nors!

Dorthe Nors (@DortheNors | Litteratursiden) seems to be on some sort of UK media retainer. Her latest, Mirror, shoulder, signal, came out in no short order in early 2017 (extract | interview), but tends a bit to the self consciously minimalist for me. In a nice twist, Janteloven means that she has been largely downplayed in the motherland (again) up to now – big feature in Politiken (14 May 2017; more).

More broadly, she gives good critique, coming with familiar concerns – perhaps she gets frustrated that no one seems to be listening. Here’s a selection:

Place writing in Denmark: stedssans

Update, Nov 2015: in I anno 2015 skal også fagbøger skrives som personlige fortællinger Politiken explores the storytelling turn in non-fiction. Out with the encyclopedias, in with something rather more accessible. On a related note, a lengthy article from Videnskab.dk explores the role of academics in the Danish media. So many rules, written or not.

The Danish book market is very different from that in the English speaking world. For starters, it’s a very small market, receiving large cash injections from the state via 25% VAT on books, hefty grants and subsidies for the fortunate (some sort of payback for your taxes, perhaps) and an eye wateringly high Public Lending Right Scheme (max UK payment: £6.6K).

The dominance of a single Authors’ School, Forfatterskolen, rather than different flavours of creative writing throughout the higher education system, can be criticised for stifling creativity and producing identikit authors with interchangeable names all writing the same thing in the same style. It would be fun to do some analysis of Litteratursiden’s Årets bedste bøger and ditto fagbøger – eg how many received state support, how many are translations and from what language, how many by women in shifts with n legater…?

And for this UK reader, books are painfully expensive – no £7.99 paperbacks here, or three for two offers, tempting you to impulse buy. Danish books tend to the encyclopedic and the huge, perhaps to justify the cover price. Thank goodness for the excellent Danish library service.

Then there’s the lack of literary non-fiction, my genre of choice. This year’s winner of historical book of the year (Årets Historiske Bog), Ellen og Adam (news story), was praised for taking a ‘new turn’ in literature and being, perhaps, readable. More common is a new publication at  the other end of the scale, a four volume set of diaries written by a member of the Danish government during WW2 – a tad niche, surely? According to P1’s Skønlitteratur, itself rather more highbrow than your average R4 prog, this approach is due to Denmark’s educational tradition, based on the German, with history seen as a science – Wissenschaft – see #sagasandspace, rather than the more populist British approach, public engagement (aka formidling) and all. The Danish higher education system does come over like a mighty dinosaur.

So it’s no real surprise that there’s a lack of writing in the Sinclair/Macfarlane mould in Denmark. (Neither of these two have been translated into Danish, and there’s surprisingly little Sebald on offer). And with Facebook (and Instragram) being the Danish #some of choice, there’s no Twitter or blogging to tap into either. (The blogging thing is weird. Maybe it’s because writing a blog doesn’t make you an Author, plus it’s free in a country where everything has a cost.) Which isn’t to say there is no writing about place or walking, rather that it comes from a rather different…place.

Denmark’s two big cultural exports, Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, were both walkers. Rather less familiar is Ludvig Feilberg, Denmark’s philosopher of walking, and doubtless Grundtvig had a hand in it all too. A vandringsessay by Kim Skotte in Politiken illlustrates the issues perfectly. Coming in at just over 2K words, I loaded this into OmegaT as a translation exercise, the first time I have used a CAT tool rather than parallel columns in GoogleDocs. The essay was inspired by Frederic Gros’ book  The philosophy of walking, recently published in Danish as . Familiar issues from the start. For example, very short sentences. Alliteration which doesn’t carry over. And at the end of para 3:

Og mens vi går, indhenter vi langsomt os selv.

This is a Kierkegaard allusion. Never mind the spatial turn, this is the philosophical turn.

Turning to books on place, several approach the topic from the perspective of literature, reminiscent of the secondary literature I read on my first degree in German. It feels derivative and unoriginal, and TBH I’m unsure why would you want to read litcrit unless you were studying the lit. Odd.

Anyway, I’m now pulling together the main references on place writing in Denmark I have found – see Stedssans (a sense of place), with posts in the stedssans category.

Update, Oct 2015: some explanations for the lack of place writing in Denmark can be found in the issue of Ecozon@ on European new nature writing. From the editorial:

Nature writing…has played a significant role as a minor genre in AngloAmerican culture over the last two and a half centuries. However, there is no term for it in most European languages, and no comparable literary tradition, despite the existence of individual works since Rousseau and Humboldt which might be regarded as classics of nature writing… Are the ‘new’ developments in British nature writing…such as depiction of the experience of wildness in urban and marginal settings, populated landscapes and everyday life, notions of transnational eco-citizenship and transient, dynamic dwelling in a changing world rather than timeless, exclusively national forms of inhabitation, and postmodern formal innovations, then to be found in contemporary European writing?

And from the introduction:

But when we came to frame the call for papers for this special issue of Ecozon@ we found that ‘nature writing’ was not a category that translated easily in the rest of Europe. Indeed, the term ‘pastoral’ was often a cultural mode more associated with music than with literature. The lone writer, such as Robert Macfarlane, making trips into the countryside for personal epiphanies of engagement or enlightenment, often in dialogue with a writer from the past, was not a common mode of literary production.

On a more basic level, it turns out that half of Danes live less than 10km from where they were born (source). I don’t have comparative statistics, but this feels like a rather limited national self geography.

Dan Ringgaard’s sense of place

Dan Ringgaard is a lecturer in Nordic literature at Aarhus University. He is author of Litteratur in the Tænkepauser series (review) and has undertaken some broader formidling aka public engagement, but as is typical in dansk highered doesn’t blog or tweet.

In an interview from 2013 with Limfjordlitteratur (a little gem!), annoyingly divided into numerous teeny tiny segments, he comes up with the rather fab:

sted = lokalitiet + menneske –> mening, fortællinger

place = a locality + man –> meaning, hi/stories

He also talks about the “national places” found in Danish literature during the 19th century, such as Axel Sandemose’s portrayal of Jante (aka Nykøbing Mors) and its småbymentalitet and Johannes V Jensen’s Himmerland, how place is represented (eg by description, by its interaction with character and plot etc), the resonance of places you know well and the sense of wonder at new places , seeing familiar places in a different light, provins as in umodern vs udkant, and other weighty matters. Good stuff!

He was also at the helm of the section on Litteraturens steder from Litteraturens Huse (dunno; adult education resource? most now locked).

As well as all this we have Stedssans (2010; eReolen | review | another; won the Georg Brandes prize), made up of 19 essays on three themes in five sections (too complex, Dan!) concluding with Ti teser om stedet, the whole thing based round a critique of Heidegger’s Bauen Wohnen Denken:

2015-06-30 16.18.01

Ringgaard’s Ten theses about place

There’s a bibliography (aka Litteratur) but no index. It’s all a bit elitær again, with some travel writing but largely based around litcrit rather than an approach friendly to your average Guardian reading flâneuse. Here’s a gallop through the chapters from the outlines at the start of each (plus I’m going to give it another go shortly) an overview from my second shot, where I didn’t give up until page 112, although it increasingly felt like an effort for very little reward. Maybe I’ll dip in again at some point via eReolen.

We start with a section entitled Pausen (a stop, or maybe rest), mainly concerning det gode sted. Four chapters:

  • Paradisisk begyndelse –  concepts of forundring and resonans as seen through a journey to Brasil (palmeøen), Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and VS Naipaul’s An enigma of arrival; see Stephen Greenblatt’s essay on wonder and resonance (and New Historicism)
  • Heideggers Hytte – discussion of Bauen Wohnen Denken (summary | Heidegger’s topology), a lecture Heidegger gave in Darmstadt in 1951 to a symposium of architects, plus Paul Celan’s poem Todtnauberg, which some interpret as Celan’s wish for Heidegger to apologise for his behavior during the Nazi era (the eponymous hut/chalet is in the Black Forest and is where Heidegger wrote much of Sein und Zeit; Celan visited on 25 July 1967 and the two went for walks in the woods, with Celan writing the poem a week later in Frankfurt); the chapter also discusses inter alia Lefebvre and Edward S Casey…my head hurts; just who is all this aimed at?
  • Maigrets Ekstaster – place in crime fiction; skipped
  • Efterretninger fra Greeneland – ie Graham of that ilk, focusing on the exotic and exile; skipped

On to Kloden (the globe), three chapters concerning the historic foranderlighed of place in the face of globalisation, which has moved place from the vertical axis where it is relatively selvhvilende and connected with jorden and history to a horizontal axis where place is a knudepunkt for global kredsløb:

  • Transit, tourist – airports as ikkesteder (Marc Augé’s non-places), namehopping at a pace with not more than a couple of paras per reference, a deeply odd style, touching on inter alia JG Ballard and Alain de Botton; offered up Night mail – not Auden’s but a collection of eight essays by Jens Christian Grøndahl from 1998 on Europe in the 1990s, split between globalisation and nationalism (on eReolen); see also Hjemme i Europa (2015); known as a difficult writer, and I’m pretty sure I started one of his novels back in the day…
  • Globalt talt – Foucault, Calvino…a ‘global perception of place’; more of the same, skipped
  • Fra en stol i Minas Gerais – more Brazil, seen from inside and outside via a reading of Henrik Stangerup and Joao Guimaraes Rosa (eller omvendt); ditto

Kroppen:

  • Byens fortælling, byens puls – the big city: Salvador, Brasil
  • Byvandringer – NB, but still litcrit
  • At holde et landskab gående – Morten Søndergaard and AN Other
  • Palimpsest – pot pourri

Rejsen:

  • Rejsebrevprovinsbyen
  • Rejsens Sted – Thomas Boberg
  • Stedets VidneCarsten Jensen (closest DK gets to travel lit but old style), and others

Kortet (the map):

  • Kort over Boipeba – palm  island, again
  • Litterær kartografi – Michael Chabon + the usual suspects
  • Korttegnere – novel by Per Olov Enquist
  • Landmålere – Lykke-Per and others

Finally, Ti teser om stedet, see image above.

Hvor litteraturen finder sted: an encylopedia of place

Hvor litteraturen finder sted (2010) by Anne-Marie Mai is a three volume colossus covering Danish literature from 1000 to the present day. It’s a literary history from the perspective of the places where literature was written, read, disseminated etc: up to 1800 the cathedral, the herregård, the court and the akademi, from 1800-1900 the præstegård and the salon, and in the 2oth and 21st centuries the bladhus, the metropol and the Internet:

2015-06-30 15.13.49

from Udgang, vol 3 p393

This is an interesting concept, but is written in an encyclopedic style making it a far from inspiring read. Crucially, it lacks an index by place, favouring the German classics of Litteratur and Personenregister listings instead. For reviews see Litteratursiden | Berlingske | Politiken | Videnskab.dk. Accompanying TV series(!): Litteraturens åsteder, possibly worth a watch but just can’t face it.

Anne-Marie is a lecturer in Danish literature at SDU, celebrated in a 346 page festskrift (those Germans again) with the title Litteratur på stedet in 2013. It appears that she was awarded DK 100,000 to compile her three volume masterwork, but the total price on the street is still around £100, and the scale of the thing is daunting. Who is the target audience? Is it meant to be a reference work? Who knows. Like so many Danish cultural outputs in dire need of an editor with a Big Red Pen.

Update, Sep 2016: just published (and reviewed in/by Information | Politiken | Klaus Rothstein | Litteratursiden) is GALLERI 66. En historie om nyere dansk litteratur. (sic; 393pp, DK 299,95). According to Gyldendal the book represents a new way of writing about literary history, presenting the (457) publications of one year within their (global) artistic and political context, of both 1966 and up to the present day. Rothstein finds it too academic, and with her encyclopedic approach this ‘text’ doesn’t sound likely to be Mai’s break-out from the Danish ivory tower, however much the reviewers hail her as a ‘fantastisk formidler’.