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

Updates: 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 Bakkehusalfabetet (exhibition) 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 TLSDarran Anderson on on the lasting importance of georges perecMorten Søndergaard does the Place Saint-Suplice (P1)…Lauren Elkin on the busKevin Boniface’s Species of spaces (@_KevinBoniface_)

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)
  • I remember (Amazon; review; Tredynas Days): via the Joe Brainard original (1975); Perec found rules a way to blast through writer’s block; 479 word games, advertising slogans, mnemonics, westerns, quiz shows, cycling events and old bus routes, expertly translated by Philip Terry with notes by David Bellos explaining the original French; the prompts are an invitation from Perec to add your own examples, and there are blank pages for you to do just that
  • 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; FB) 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

#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

 

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.

Note: one quick way to keep up with trends in Danish literature is to keep an eye on Skønlitteratur på P1, which in 2021 has yielded epis on old debutants (sic) and on two novelised lives of painters, neither of which I’ve listened to (Danish is very presenter-centred, shall we say).

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

2020/21 updates: inter alia, Wild swims: stories (trans. Misha Hoekstra; på dansk?); En linje i verden (DK 349) w Henrik Saxgren (FB; excerpt & another); English trans. by Caroline Waight (Oct 2022; single author; sans photos; note cover)

More general updates:

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

Last updated: 15 March 2018; 2022 update: more weather with a paper at NorLit 2021 on It’s in the air: what clouds tell us about space and place 

Dan’s latest, Årsværk. En kritikers dagbog (2017), a diary of books Dan read in 2015, looks sort of interesting, but heck, it’s 460 pages long…it was, it seems, if a tad ironically, part of a way of stripping back (maybe he had a sabbatical year, seeing as three months apiece were spent in LA and Buenos Aires). By 13 January we’re already with Walter Benjamin, and by 15 January we’re on the Place Saint-Sulpice, but it’s a dense affair, NFM, at least.

Turning to the back, I find a list (a to z by author) of litteratur mentioned in the text, including all the usual suspects along with some DVDs and other less weighty items, although as there are no date or page references it’s a trophy at best. A note states that the diary was written under a version of Dogme rules, using only full stops and commas, and avoiding italics, paragraphs etc.

Dan is clearly into #envhums; a further note tells me that the diary kicks off with a version of his 2014 article At læse vejret, while the Perec piece was published as Gaden, hverdagen er fælleseje, and a reading of JP Jacobsen’s Mogens, also discussing theories of weather by Michel Serres, Jane Bennett and Tim Ingold, was published as Vejret i ‘Mogens’ (and can be downloaded FOC).

He also co-wrote the introduction to Danish literature as world literature (2017), co-edited and contributed to Nordic literature: A comparative history. Volume I: Spatial nodes (Amazon, also 2017; “devotes its attention to the changing literary figurations of space by Nordic writers from medieval to contemporary times organised around the depiction of various ‘scapes’ and spatial practices at home and abroad”) and, of course! a chapter on Pessoa in Vide Verden on Lisbon (2016).


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:

sted = lokalitiet + menneske –> mening, fortællinger

place = the locality + man –> opinion, 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, the sense of wonder at new places and seeing familiar places in a different light, provins as in umodern vs udkant, and other weighty matters.

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:

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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.

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 plus Paul Celan’s poem Todtnauberg, also discusses inter alia Lefebvre and Edward S Casey…
  • 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 pace with not more than a couple of paras per reference, 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; see also Hjemme i Europa (2015); known as a difficult writer; 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 Vidne – Carsten Jensen 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:

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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’.

Ludvig Feilberg: Denmark’s philosopher of walking

Ludvig Feilberg (1849-1912; Wikipedia | Litteratursiden) was an engineer and philosopher. He was known as the fodtursfilosof (philosopher of walking), because he was so skilled at identifying the feelings and atmosphere encountered on a walk.

Perhaps the nation’s greatest walker, but how known is Feilberg today? He does get a mention in Nu begynder det maniske, where Mikael Bertelsen tries to recreate the feelings invoked on a 500km walk in Spain.

Notes from a kronik by Per Lindsø Larsen on Feilberg, published in Politiken on 13 May 1989 and reproduced in Fodnoter (see Footnotes: rambling in Denmark).

  • Larsen notes the lack of people going for a proper walk, which he defines as a kunstart with its own krav and indre udvikingsforløb, which it can take years to become ganske fortrolig med
  • it’s a matter of much regret that fitness/running has pushed the art of walking out of our culture, not least because it represents a form of mental wellbeing not found in any other sort of physical activity
  • Feilberg’s scattered notes on how to take a proper walk deserve to see the light of day again, before the art of the walk completely dies out
  • the most essential and mandatory requirement is that you walk alone – and in areas and at times of day where you are least likely to meet anybody
  • being close to people results in etablering – even passing another person on an untrodden path in the woods pulls you out of your thoughts, meaning you have to samle, fatte, etablere sig, if even for a short moment, suffocating the inner thoughts essential on a hike (see quote starting “Det var en stille nat” in Information’s Fodnoter review)
  • there is something refreshing about skille sig ud fra den store masse og finde sig en lille afsides plet for sig selv
  • Feilberg was not a misanthrope and enjoyed going for a stroll in the company of his friends – he just knew there were some things best done alone
  • after 6-7km a barrier occurs which needs to be overcome – a certain nausea or physical bryd, which tempts you to stop, go for a coffee or whatever; if you don’t give in to this temptation you will be able to continue for several hours without further need for interruption
  • this barrier has nothing to do with tiredness or physical weakness – it’s just a question of laziness
  • real tiredness is characterised by a leaden feeling in the legs – in this case you may notice a light nervous shaking or trembling, followed by sweating and thirst – if you don’t give in to temptation these feelings will pass and you will be able to continue for many hours without getting tired; you may well notice a change in densification and are already vædret op til nye etager
  • the second barrier is of a quite different nature, mental rather than physical – it occurs gradually, appearing typically soon after the first
  • consists of your thoughts changing from being circular to a ligeløb – ideas from everyday life, small and large, going through your mind in relay? will become more difficult to catch hold of: tankerne flygtigt hæfte sig ved alverdens ligegyldige småting
  • four further phenomena of high mental value in this phase:
    • strakthed – the feeling that the soul is stretching out into the surrounding nature as far as it can and returning refreshed; not a supernatural out of body experience, more the simple result of the end of the closed circle, giving a feeling of ligeløb/equanimity?, openness and fresh air for the soul, likea snail emerging from its house after light rain and stretching up a blade of grass, extending a fine silken thread to be able to breath in the freshness…
    • frihedsfølelse – an almost euphoric feeling which can drive you to dance down a path with a inderlig trang to leap from stump to stump like a street urchin, if discreetly; too much kredsning closes and clenches a person, while ligeløb loosens and opens up; problems which seemed large and insoluble at the beginning of the walk become a mere bagatelle by the end
    • selvfødelsesværdi – expansion of possibilities, new ideas and thoughts come to mind, solutions like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky, with problems seen in a new light – why didn’t I think of that before?
    • hjertevarme – a peculiar feeling which overshadows everything – in winter even the most deserted villa can look so attractive that one is tempted to embrace them, every turn in the path takes on a loving form, every puddle smiles back at you  – a love of nature in its purest and precious form, revealed in all its glory – wake up, this is how life should be!
  • it’s preposterous that we believe we have to attain higher levels of consciousness through the accumulation of knowledge, or descend to lower levels of childish nonsence in order to find livsglæde – just go for a walk!
  • it will happen even if you don’t believe in it, although some experimentation may be required – no two walkers are the same; some prefer woods, some open landscapes; some walk at dawn, some in the twilight; as the man said:

Man skulle aldrig level anderledes end man gør på en fodtur: Levende, men forbigående. Så man til sidst kunne tage hatten af i forbigående: ‘Jeg skal ikke længere have den ære…’

LitLong Edinburgh: exploring the literary city

last updated: 23 April 2019

Edinburgh has just celebrated its 10th anniversary as UNESCO’s first city of literature. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, 30 March saw the launch of LitLong (@litlong), the latest output from the AHRC funded Palimpsest project (@LitPalimpsest) at the University of Edinburgh (see Nicola Osborne’s liveblog and #litlonglaunch).

An “interactive resource of Edinburgh literature” currently based around a website with an app to come launched for iOS, LitLong grew out of the prototype Palimpsest app developed three years ago, taking a multidisciplinary team 15 months to build — geolocating the literature around a city is no trivial matter!

550 works set in Edinburgh have been mined for place names from the Edinburgh Gazetteer, with snippets selected for ‘interestingness’ and added to the database, resulting in more than 47,000 mentions of over 1,600 different places. The data can be searched by keyword, location or author, opening up lots of possibilities, such as why is Irvine Welsh’s Embra further north than Walter Scott’s Edinburgh? Do memoir writers focus on different areas than crime writers? See too Mapping the Canongate.

Part of the point of Palimpsest is to allow us to explore and compare the cityscapes of individual writers, as well as the way in which literary works cultivate the personality of the city as a whole.

On the down side, while there is a handful of contemporary writers in the mix, the majority of the content necessarily comes from copyright-free material available in a digitised corpus, ie old stuff they made you read at school. Plus search results can be rather overwhelming (339 hits for the Grassmarket) — filters for genre, time period, might be an idea. However the data is to be made available enabling interested parties to play around as they wish, with open source code and data resources on GitHub.

I’ve had a look at the data around Muriel Spark, who would surely be delighted to be considered contemporary. The prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) has a section set in Cramond, near where I grew up. Drilling down using the location visualiser quickly brings us to:

“I shouldn’t have thought there was much to explore at Cramond,” said Mr. Lloyd, smiling at her with his golden forelock falling into his eye.

Searching the database brings up three pages of Cramond results to explore, including 17 Brodie snippets. Note that here you can filter by decade or source.

A search for Cammo, even closer to home, brought up a quote from Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys, although the map shown was different depending on which tool I used:

Edinburgh is a city of trees and woods; from the magnificence of the natural woodlands at Corstorphine Hill or Cammo, to the huge variety of splendid specimens in our parks and streets, Alexander argued, a pleasing flourish to his rhetoric. — Trees and woodlands have an inherent biodiversity value, whilst providing opportunities for recreation and environmental education.

location visualiser map - quill not in park

location visualiser map – quill in back gardens rather than the “natural woodlands” #picky

database search map - not Cammo!

database search map – not Cammo!

At the other end of the scale a search for ‘Bobby’ brings up 72 snippets from Eleanor Atkinson’s book, that’s a lot to handle…TBH I don’t really want them, I want a nice map of locations mentioned in the book, or at least a list, to create my own Greyfriars Bobby trail. At the moment it’s not possible to switch between the text and the map from the location visualiser, although you can do this snippet by snippet from the database search.

As things stand LitLong feels like an academic project rather than a user friendly tool – some use cases might be an idea.

Updates: LitLong 2.0 launched at the 2017 Embra BookFest, now with paths …at Being Human 2017, inc a Wikipedia editathonPalimpsest: Improving assisted curation of loco-specific literature (article)