Three Danish books in 500 words

Broadly in my area of interest, but oh…

Arkitekturdigte – København (Mussmann Forlag, 2019) by Roald Bergmann

Slim volume of 26 poems, illustrated. The contents page features a map. Most buildings lie between the Lakes and the crimped pasty edge of Christianshavn, although Domus Vista is included. Bergmann is a journalist, artist and author, and has tackled architectural themes in a range of media, he says.

The poems can perhaps can be tracked down individually elsewhere, which might make them feel more accessible, rather than something you might find in your Xmas stocking from a kindly aunt.


George Blecher’s home (Vandkunsten, 2018)

George (US) is a writer and translator from Danish and Swedish (nowt traced). His memoir, published på dansk (only?) as Alene i Danmark. Tanker om hus og hjem, is centred around his summerhouse on Præsto, but also about his family’s various homes around the world and and how he has tried to find an “inner home”. This all sounded promising, but oh that cover…

Some familiar tropes were spotted, inc Danes’ love of rules verging on cultural fascism, the neat-and-tidyness, it’s all so small, the understated nature of Danish prose. Trouble is, when English understates you feel there is something to say. When Danish understates it’s like there’s nothing there.

George also popped up at the Jødisk Kulturfestival: “the farmhouse in some way echoes the farmhouse in the Ukraine where his mother grew up…his own search for his grandparents’ homes in Lithuania and Belarus”.

More; reception | reviews | CPH Post


Træmuseet (Rævens Sorte Bibliotek, 2018) by CY Frostholm

Well-received tome (won Kritikerprisen) by Oulipo type CYF, which would never see the light of day outside Denmark. Unlike UK nature writing, this feels indspist and static, and that’s before we get to Denmark’s anthroprocentric attitude towards nature.

Tips hat to Pessoa’s cypress, mentioned in his 1925 guidebook to Lisbon, noting that all the heteronyms wrote about trees. Likewise, CYF became obsessed with the process of writing and trees, creating four installations over a period of six years (A conversation on trees, Urban botanics, Pessoas træ, Model for a mobile library.

The book’s form is based somewhat on Pessoa’s Book of disquiet, and also influenced by Sebald. Shelve under creative non-fiction, next to Lars Mytting and Peter Wohlleben.

Den eneste attraktion i guidebogen, som interesserede mig nok til at opsøge den, var et træ. Hvorfor undrede det mig, at et træ nævnt i en bog fra 1925 fik lov til at blive stående indtil nu?…Jeg har tænkt på det utallige gang siden, men aldrig rigtig til ende. Fordi det jo bare var et træ?

Jeg kunne aldrig skrive en bog, der kun handlede om træer. Det vill blive for stort of unformeligt…defor handler Træmuseet i høj grad også om litteratur og om den proces, hvor noget åbner sig for en…at lære noget nyt.

More: Tranquebar | Amar:litt | Skønlitteratur på P1

Bybilleder: writers and artists on Copenhagen

\fUpdates: I’ve now also had a look at another new find, Her er DK (2017) – see the foot of the post for details…August 2018 brings Danmarksbilleder, aka more of the same, with five thematic essays (sic)…

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 10cm 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)

Oulipo and Perec: writing with constraints about place

Updates: an Oulipian homage (Verbivoracious Festschrift)…Tony White’s The fountain in the forest (Amazon | Faber | Little Atoms | Gdn | London Fictions), the first of three novels exploring the 90 days between the end of the Miners’ Strike on 3 March and the Battle of the Beanfield on 1 June 1985 through the lens of the French Republican Calendar; crosswords also involved…Dennis Duncan’s The Oulipo and modern thoughtGeorges Perec’s geographies (UCL Press; free)…All that Is evident is suspect: readings from the Oulipo: 1963 – 2018 (podcast)…Playing by the rules: the Penguin Book of Oulipo (Gdn)…TLS roundup50 years of the Oulipo in the TLS

Oulipo (Ouvroir de litterature potentielle/Workshop of Potential Literature; Wikipedia | Words without Borders), founded in 1960, is a loose gathering of (mainly) French writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques.

Members seek out “new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit”, founded on the paradoxical principle that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The resulting work may be ‘complete’ in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint; exhaustion being the ‘necessary corollary’ of potentiality.

More than tricksy gimmicks? Compare the rules of classical tragedy with the poet who writes that which comes into his head…a great Oulipian work is both a statement of what it knows and a gesture toward something infinitely larger than itself – see for example Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, ten sonnets printed on perforated paper.

The French avant garde loves a game, with rules of engagement and an unknown outcome – but for Oulipo it has to be capable of producing valid literary results. The constraint is not an arbitrary choice but a technique adopted to explore, to the point of exhaustion, a subject within its given parameters. It creates an environment in which creation can be helped along – instead of a blank page the Oulipian can begin with a project. The challenge is to find the virtue in the constraint, a seriousness of purpose.

In Oulipo Lite, her essay in The end of Oulipo? Lauren Elkin asks whether its brand of “ludic literary experimentation” pursued through “wit, humor and public performance” has a future. Like a writer’s workshop exercise inspired by a prompt, Oulipian writing today is all too often mechanical and formulaic, even derivative. The group has become inbred, as concerned with archiving its history and carrying on its traditions as making new literature. Has Oulipo exhausted its potential by becoming a societe de spectacle? Or is it an antidote to “writing programs which produce fully competent and easily forgettable books”?

Sources: Oulipo: freeing literature by tightening its rules | The end of Oulipo? An attempt to exhaust a movement

Perec and s/p(l)ace

Anything vaguely Oulipian I’ve encountered up to now has lacked heft, but when it touches on place and space things get more interesting, due in the main to Georges Perec (1936-82; Wikipedia).

One of those irresistible figures (see pieces by Tom Payne and Lauren Elkinthe cat pic), there’s a further personal appeal due to the librarian within me. With temporary jobs in market research giving early experience in classification, Georges worked as a research librarian (“a low-paid position”) from 1961-78. His taxonomies of the everyday “use excess to slip the bounds of realism” (Elkin) and draw attention instead to the infra-ordinary.

His writing goes beyond the merely quirky. See the Gdn’s best of Perec, or this non-exhaustive list:

  • Portrait of a man (1959; rediscovered 1993, published in English 2015)
  • A void (1969; Wikipedia/La disparition) – uses a lipogram, ie the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language; the missing e, pronounced eux (them) in French, refers to all those (including Perec’s parents) who went missing during WW2; as Dennis Duncan put it on R3’s Free Thinking, the most difficult way to write is without an E, while the most difficult way to live is without the m/paternal; 50th anniversary (tweet)
  • The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise (1968; in lib)
  • Life a user’s manual (La Vie mode d’emploi, 1978; Indy) – ‘to exhaust not the world’ but ‘a constituted fragment of the world’
  • The winter journey (1979) & Winter journeys
  • La Boutique obscure: 124 dreams (Joanna Walsh) – a ‘nocturnal autobiography’
  • on crosswords
  • 2018: Lauren Elkin in the TLS on Lucid meets ludic, Perec in the prestigious Pléiade series (paywall; try here)

In 1974 Perec spent three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris observing what happens when nothing happens, resulting in An attempt at exhausting a place in Paris (Lauren ElkinKarl Whitney | Jacket2: “a nonambulatory flâneur” | Soundlandscapes: “a contra-flâneur” | Jimmy Lo’s 2010? attempt at re-exhausting the same place | James Riding’s Writing place after conflict: exhausting a square in Sarajevo, on Academia.edu | Mitch Karunaratne in Milton Keynes | writer Tom McCarthy was born OTD | Adam Scovell).

the Place Saint-Sulpice (3 Jan 2017)

An attempt… is part of Lieux (Places) a grand projet aimed at systematically recording memories and descriptions of twelve Parisian locations over the course of twelve years, one of those self-imposed personal projects which all too easily slide…

Perec

(from Eight glances past Georges Perec, p25)

Perec’s/Perecquian geographies have become a thing, with a conference at Sheffield in May 2016, and his influence is noticeable in much writing about place. Perecquian fieldwork in Copenhagen awaits, with lots more to plunder in the collection Species of spaces and other pieces/Espèces d’espaces (Amazon; Angela Last | Toulisan).

Update, June 2017: the latest issue of Literary Geographies (vol 3 no 1) has a focus on transdisciplinary approaches to Perec, examining the impact of in particular Species of spaces on approaches to space and place in the visual arts, dance and music.

Tempting titbits:

  • home vs not-home, the ambivalence between two different modalities: feeling at home, connected to a place, and feeling not-home, in a place that has to be conquered each time
  • map streets on an x axis and level of alienation/mood on a y axis

Oulipo in Denmark

In 2015 Oulipian Jacques Jouet (article) sent 101 poems to random residents in Aarhus over the course of nine days as part of Fresh Eyes 2015. The poems were published in book form at Fresh Eyes 2016 (På…/En…event | review | another | yet another).

Jouet (RU sure that’s yr name?) is also known for his Poèmes de métro (Subway poems), and once spent 16 hours in the Paris metro on a route taking him through all 490 stops – the CPH metro is rather more limited, however fans/emulators include Martin Larsen (CPH Metrodigte aka Noter til det mere perfekte liv), Danish artist books curator Thomas Hvid Kromann (see arkiv uden titel, ditto in Paris) and Christian Yde Frostholm (Cyf), author of Paris en brugsanvisning (2013; inspired by Life…, and in 2017 Paris et appendix; Bakkehuset) and translator of Espèces d’espaces et al (2016).

In Eight glances past George Perec, his essay in The end of Oulipo?, Scott Esposito is cutting in his critique of the metro poems:

the least pleasurable kind of automatic writing…of little literary value; the quality is so middling that I find it all too believable that Jouet hurriedly jotted them on the train…his conceits are simple, beguiling creations that enable his followers to believe that they too can create literature, just like he does…the only grounds on which the metro poems might be interesting as art is as conceptual art

Museums and the experience economy

Updates, 2020’s Formidlingsseminar has the theme of Kreativitet og viden (creativity and knowledge; programme), with the usual stream on chidren and youth, plus others on research (inc Vores Museum) and comms (aka Facebook)…see also noms for Formidlingsprisen 2019 (again), won by Forstadsmuseet (FB; again), hurra!

Updates, 2019’s Formidlingsseminar has the theme of Det grænseløse museum (the borderless museum; programme), with streams on surprise! children and youth, Facebook and the role of museums today…Turisterne kommer, museums and tourism…see ODM’s materials page for presos…

Update, Sep 2018: report on the European Museum Academy’s 2018 prizes, doled out in Aarhus’ Den Gamle By (submissions | winners)…NORDMUS (more), Danish and German museums working together

Update, May 2018: Denmark’s National Museum is soon to introduce a kedsomhedsknap (boredom button) for children. Spotted this in an article profiling director (and professor at CBS) Rane Willerslev (Politiken Kultur, 2 June 2018), who even has a reality show on DR 2, Ranes Musuem. All part of an effort to get rid of the museum’s stuffy image and attract more paying guests; tivolisering? Other ideas put forward by the Must advertising agency included an historic pick n mix, a pet cemetery and a ghost tour. Updated update: ´mixed reception for a new Viking exhibition curated by reality star Jim Lyngvild (Danish Design Review | Kristeligt Dageblad (again) | Politiken).

Update, Dec 2017: nice work in Edinburgh museums – the 2011 remodelling of The Museum is a triumph, while the City Art Centre offered an Edinburgh Alphabet, more than 300 objects grouped around a letter of the alphabet, and Edinburgh’s 101 objects, the ultimate city heritage tour…report from a seminar in Aarhus on sociale rum og brugerinddragelse i udstillinger…

Update, Nov 2017: Sharing is Caring 2017 in Aarhus (#sharecare17 | programme) was on digitisation and impact, with day 1 offering a CULTour to Dokk1Museum Jorn and Gammel Estrup, day 2 with papers and ignites, and day 3 with workshops in ARoS; note the links are in the top menu and not on the main page, which also didn’t advertise that livestreaming was available; #poor

Update, Mar 2017: the theme of ODM’s Formidlingsseminar 2017 (programme | vids) was Hvad er museerne værd (#MuseetErTilFor) exploring how museums demonstrate their social value. Examples: work with people with Alzheimers (demente) in Den Gamle By, educamore bting the young about democracy at Arbejdermuseet, initiatives for refugees at Nationalmuseet. Day 2 included streams on communication and research…Vestegnen’s very own museum, Kroppedal, has got itself an objects exhibition: 99xVSTGN (objectsarticle | Tingtale catalogue by Harald Voetmann), although Forstadmuseet objected: På besøg på VestegnenBorgmestre: Vi er ikke bare dem med falske øjenvipper)…

Update, Sep 2016: on a trip to Hamburg and Ratzeburg we lunched in BallinStadt, Hamburg’s emigration museum, and went photo amok in the Grenzhus Schlagsdorf and Kreismuseum Herzogtum Lauenburg, as well as any number of art galleries on the Ernst Barlach trail…here’s an interesting article on museum locationsAroS has got itself a formidlingscenter, a Danish version/not of the Hamburger Kunsthalle’s Transparentes Museum…the outgoing director of Medical Museion posits The point of museums is to play with material stuff…interesting piece on the National Trust, if tl;dr, and Treasure palaces, a book of essays in which celebrated writers revisit museums, inc Alan Hollinghurst at Thorvaldsens…OH at Crystal Palace Museum: “it’s just things in glass cases”…CPH’s newest museum, Enigma (lives up to its name)…the American Writers Museum opens (story)…

During June and July 2015 I audited Leicester’s Behind the scenes at the 21st century museum MOOC, resulting in a suite of #flmuseums posts. Since then I’ve cast a rather more critical eye on the museums I visit (see Museums and me in Poland) and begun to explore the Danish curatorial scene.

Previously mostly confined to childhood and holidays, in the era of the experience economy museums have moved into a different place. This is not necessarily positive – the refurbishment of what I know as The Museum at Chambers Street in Edinburgh has caused widespread consternation among those who grew up with the goldfish. For many something is lost as museums (like cities) become homogenised.

On my 2014 trip to Embra I noted that the two old art galleries, the portrait gallery and the national gallery, had made some concessions to fashion but maintained a traditional feel. This meant they didn’t feel too dumbed down – it’s a gallery not a visitor attraction, or maybe it can be both? The displays were a little folkelige in places, but we’ll let them off. The Minette display in the portrait gallery was a treat for Jean Plaidy fans. There was also any number of new museums-cum-experiences I’ve never heard of – Museum on the Mound, Dr Neil’s Garden…and the Saltire Heritage Centre in Athelstaneford.

Often it’s the quirk which works – put a newly polished museum experience next to the Cork Butter Museum or the homemade relief maps in the NVA-Museum in Prora, and I know which I prefer. For now the two styles coexist – compare and contrast Helsingør’s achingly trendy Museet for Søfart with the rather more traditional Værftsmuseet.

Museums are playing their role in the spatial turn, with the city/urban museum increasingly de rigueur. A breathless post on the Gehl blog highlights museums “sharing exhibits in the public realm [and] acting as a catalyst for public life” via  events, entertainment, educational programmes, cafés and shops. Opening up facades, improving wayfinding and overall integration plus offering opportunities to linger is seen as key, together with collaboration between institutions – see Copenhagen’s Parkmuseerne and proposed ‘museum island’. Rethink Museums, a project by digital agency MMEx, is charged with exploring ways of rethinking stories in public space. The museum as place, but where’s the art?

Art isn’t always about participation and popularity and relating everything back to us. Museums shouldn’t be, either.

For lurkers, the Organisation Danske Museer‘s programme of events are well amplified (not so though for the Nordisk Museums Forbund’s Dialog- og udviklingsseminar in September 2016, tsk). The vids for #formidling16, an annual seminar held in conjunction with Formidlingsnet (ODM’s digital platform) and Museumsformidlere i Danmark, came up in no short order. MiD’s leader centred around the LCD vs elitism debate, which has a slightly different slant in Denmark, while Pelle Guldborg Hansen (@Peguha), chair of the Danish Nudging Network, expounded on oplevelsens tyranni (the tyranny of experience; basically, research is lacking on the relationship between experience and behaviour, memory and storytelling).

Worth a watch was artist Jesper Rasmussen, who asked whether the elusive formidling (broadly curation and its dissemination) has become an end in itself, more important than content, in the hunt for visitors and coverage. He criticised labyrinthine, dark exhibitions where the lone visitor is passively taken onwards – it’s not possible to discover your own route without a torch. In this scenario objects are reduced to tools in the service of iscenesaettelse (staging/presentation- the story). Instead of making connections or showing something in a new light there’s sensory overload for its own sake, in particular sound, “because we can”. While this can work – for me at the Northern Lights exhibition in Rovaniemi – it’s over-use makes it often plain annoying.

Jesper also highlighted installations as frequently banal, making the objects they present equally banal. Perhaps learning can happen via the senses, creating a mood and a context for the objects, came a comment. It’s like soundmaps and scent maps, the latest way to experience architecture. He also criticised the extensive use of user surveys, paraphrasing Steve Jobs: customers don’t know what they want until they see it.

An SDU seminar on The post-representational museum gave examples of “forms of curating that challenge representation and relate to the concept of the assembly”, with presos discussing the new role of the museum, changed means of communication and the tensions between “knowledge, sensation/affect and agency”. Interesting looking paper by Ida Brændholt Lundgaard (Aarhus) on museums, atmosphere and sense of place, plus presos on a number of projects funded by Velux, including one from Jakob Ingemann Parby (Københavns Museum/RUC; Academia.edu) on Urbaniseringens møder og mennesker. No coverage, sadly.

More: Museerne vil holde på dig | Et bud på 5 megatrends for kulturarv

#FLfairytales: HC Andersen and place

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 (2020: Forskere skal kortlægge HC Andersens litterære tricks), 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.

pedestrian crossing in Odense

pedestrian crossing in Odense

 

HCA statue in Bratislava

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

 

More tangible things

Week 2 of  Tangible Things (@tangiblethings | Facebook) considers the value of stopping to look at things around you, specifically A toga in the archive, exploring clothing and contemporary political, economic and social phenomena, and John Harvard’s toe:

Just looking is never enough. Question what you see.  Questions about John Harvard’s statue take us many directions—to art, to early American history, and to the Houghton Library. The John Harvard statue also invites us to look at how the meaning of a person or an event changes over time. His memorial was created nearly 250 years after his death, raising the question of what aspects of his life were being remembered and what was being forgotten.

John Harvard’s statue helps us to consider the difference between history and what scholars call “memory,” or the ways in which people memorialize the past.  Memorials acquire new meanings from the ways history is remembered, imagined, or forgotten over time.

Find a memorial, monument or statue in your own area. Consider when it was made, what it commemorates, and how it has changed over time. In what ways is its history like and unlike that of the John Harvard statue? If you can, include an image.

Here’s my post on memorials.

Week 3! Looks at some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce and define culture.

Given up on the social side – feels anonymous and impersonal. Needs curating.

First, a look at collections organised around a specific person or a place (see also Placing the author). Such things may seem personal and local, but can also lead to broader themes. Points from the vid:

  • room interpreted (sic) as a bedroom although it was a dairy
  • layering of different histories – what’s left out?

Memory making:

That’s what a good memory maker does. You don’t see the labor that goes into creating it. And it’s pieces of the past, fragments of the past, bits of oral tradition, artifacts, documents that they pieced together so patiently. And by looking closely, we can trace some of those fissures and cracks, and we can begin to understand that history in a much deeper way beyond just the memory.

Exercises:

  • describe an object; what aspects of family history may have been forgotten?
  • often the achievements of male inhabitants are highlighted rather than that of the women who preserved the house or persons of color who labored there or contributed to the family’s possessions – select a museum or historical site in your own area and consider whether it too might contain evidence ‘hidden in plain sight’

Next up, the museum in a box, used in American schools in the 19th century to teach children about “useful things”:

It appears systematic, but on close examination we discover the impossibility of confining any group of objects to just one story, to just one category.

Which appears to be the message of the MOOC so far. The discussion question: Choose a museum that you have visited. What were its objectives? How do those goals influence the organization and display of objects?

The museum in a box is related to world fairs and the categorisation of knowledge. Hence the exercise is to create a modern day drawer for the box, on Pinterest or Dropbox.

Week 4 considers methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking. This  sounds interesting and has big crossovers with librarianship, however I’m off on holiday so will need to run through the last two weeks double quick on return.

First up, how anthropology museums have confronted the ways their own collections reflect the conquest of native peoples, then a look at how natural history collections are conventionally organised around material attributes. The team has been involved in connecting objects to things from other kinds of collections in order to situate them in human history, and in adding ‘guest objects’ to three popular galleries.

  • If you had the opportunity to add a ‘guest object” to each of the three galleries that we examined, what would you choose? If possible select things with which you have direct experience and explain how they might alter, enlarge, or disrupt the meaning of the current exhibits.
  • If you were to create a museum, what would it be about and how would you organize it?

Week 5 looks at organising collections by broad theme rather than through traditional taxonomic categories, allowing us to see new meanings and new connections. The Time and Time Again exhibit moved beyond conventional museum boundaries to bring a variety of objects together around a single theme, showing the complexity of something as fundamental to human experience as time:

  • Find and list at least three time-keeping strategies or devices in your own environment that are not included in the Time and Time Again catalog
  • Consider the different ways you experience time. Which are more culturally influenced and which are more biologically rooted?

An early 2oth century sewing machine showed the impossibility of containing the meaning of a single object in just one collection – almost any object can connect aspects of the past that often seem unconnected, and even an ‘ordinary’ object can open up multiple ways of understanding the world and the people in it. There’s an awful lot of stuff on sewing machines, where I was looking for some sort of conclusion. The content was fine, but it didn’t really go anywhere and there was little theoretical background. Plus it was really really American. Maybe the team were present in the discussions, but the absence of any form of weekly wrap-up or any email contact meant the whole thing feel very anonymous.

My struggle with Danish writing

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:

2018 update: They want a wolf-free Denmark. Will migrants be next? (trans. Misha Hoekstra)…Dorthe on Little Atoms, after which I picked the USEng translation of Mirror… off the shelf – enjoyed all the toponoyms, which gave me a sense of place at least, a couple of good points made while dragging those metaphors out; it’s a six from me, and nominated for the International Booker, really??

2019 update: on the BBC World Service’s World Book Café Dorthe revealed that she gets hate mail, and everyone debunked hygge; surprisingly enjoyable; tweet

Update 2: Martin Glaz Serup!

What’s this? Læsesteder (launch | 2016 piece | Skønlitteratur på P1 | extract | Weekendavisen) from Martin Glaz Serup (@GlazSerup | Insta | Academia,edu), dunno really, but his 2015 CROWD profile gives some clues. He has place writing chops – see The city and the writer and The field (PDF), also on translation as literary practice, childrens’ books…Plus he lives in Valby, is possibly from Rødovre., and leads a writing group for people affected by psychiatric disorders.

Update, 23 Jan 2019: Pure as the driven snow, Læsesteder comes in at 122 pages, offputtingly both left and right aligned, largely without paragraphs. Sigh…can’t imagine grafisk layout, although credited, amounted to that much. Sadly, the word pretentious is hovering right there, but let’s persevere. OK, there’s no blurb, content page or any indication of what it is you have in your hands; you have to know before you pick it up. It feels exclusive, for your tribe of people in the know, and I’m feeling cross.

More general updates: