Scandinavia and Nordicism

I picked up on Scandinavians: in search of the soul of the north (Amazon) by Robert Ferguson via a review in the TLS. More reviews: Scandi gloom | Irish Times.

Hailed by Richard Eyre as essential reading “for anyone interested in the allure of the Scandinavian landscape, character, history and literature”, I was interested to see how the book would tie in with the UK’s Scandimania, so availed myself of a review copy.

Ferguson has lived in Norway since 1983 and has a largely Norwegian-focused back catalogue. As he himself attests, his Scandinavia is based on “a 19th century dream”.

His first idea was to take a road trip along European route E6 from Trelleborg in Skåne to Kirkenes on the Norwegian-Russian border in a quest for the Scandinavian sense of melancholy. This might have worked, but instead the book is a retelling of historical episodes from the Vikings to WW2, combined with lengthy sections rooted in the literary life of Oslo.

While the commonalities of the three core Scandinavian countries, a crucial part of their self-image, cannot be denied, I’m wary of seeing them as essentially the same. A glance at the map shows puny Denmark at the bottom left hand corner of a landmass stretching, well, true north, an obligatory side-step on Ferguson’s road trip. This geographical difference has implications which are frequently overlooked due to the Danes’ lengthy political dominance of the region. Further, Sweden features very little in Ferguson’s retelling, and with the book’s acknowledgements including one “for help with questions on matters of Danish culture and language” it seems that perspectives may be a little constrained.

The dust jacket (re)states that the quintessential Scandinavian is perceived as “tolerant, socially progressive and possessed of a gently introspective melancholia”. The bagside of the first two is touched on, with a discussion of Janteloven (“the requirement for a degree of social conformity that some found – and still do find – oppressive”), noting that famous Scandinavian artists, writers and filmmakers tend to be extreme figures, “ferociously individualistic and fuelled by a kind of cornered anger”. (Likewise, celebrities tend to go over the top at the drop of a hat.)

Where we are really in trouble though is with the issue of melancholy, supposedly the heart of the book. I’ve never connected this with Denmark, and indeed fairly early on Ferguson is told in one of his name-dropping conversations with writers, here with Danish poet Jesper Mølby (can’t trace), that “we Danes aren’t melancholic”. Bleak maybe, it is conceded, but lacking the romance of melancholia. Ibsen is with me on geographical determinism, “convinced that it was the topography of Norway that made its people so secretive, so brooding, so guilt-ridden”, but we can also see an element of correlation not causation at work: “it was almost as though Scandinavians had embraced the cliché as truth”.

Danish culture offers up two gloomy personalities for discussion. Of the first, the melancholia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be attributed to English fashions of the time and a popularity for all things Danish following the marriage of James VI & I to Anne of Denmark, an early example of Scandinavian allure. The character of Hamlet may even be based on John Dowland, an English lutenist at the court of Christian IV.

The second gloomy Dane, Kierkegaard, is presented here as a cautionary tale on individuality. Ferguson’s interlocutor descriibes him railing against “the Christianity of the Danish state church [which] took all the power and danger and challenge out of stuff”, resulting in an ‘asymmetrical paternalism’ which refuses to recognise the existence of bad or even alternative thoughts and treats the thinker of them as a ‘victim in need of treatment’. Today, substitute the welfare state and a system of unwritten social rules for the church and you have a society where diversity is as rare as it is welcomed. Ironically, in Denmark the popular view of Kierkegaard is as doomed lover.

Ferguson has a subscription to glossy Danish archaeology magazine Skalk, and Vikingery features large, as well it might. As far as I’m concerned all that was done and dusted in Primary 3, along with Robert the Bruce and his spider, although I have re-visited things slightly after trips to Orkney and the Faroes. It’s notable though that Scottish/Celtic Viking connections are Norway related, while England’s Viking invaders hailed from Denmark. Their heartlands are to be found on Jutland, a small world away from today’s Copenhagen, if not exactly rugged or remote. If William the Conqueror had sailed east, things could have been rather different. (For the full Viking experience, see Destination Viking – based in Lerwick – and the accompanying Viking Routes.)

Moving on, of the 15 chapters a good handful have a Danish story at their heart – Denmark is the one with the history, albeit one of constant shrinkage all the way up to 1864 (“tensions over Slesvig and Holsten had flared up again”), a national trauma recently commemorated in a Sunday evening TV series which didn’t export too well. With Copenhagen a centre for German culture in the 18th century and many Spuren (traces) to be found in the city, Germany’s influence on Danish culture feels generally under-explored.

Many of the retellings in the book are reproduced in the form of conversations with local literati – this framing device doesn’t work for me, not least because it comes over second hand, with a touch of the unreliable narrator about it. Other chapters, in particular that on the Scandi experience of WW2, may well be mainly the output of diligent desk research, while a 50 page interlude, a play called Ibsen’s ghosts, is out of place. All in all it’s a bit of an oddity, and not one for the Scandi fanbase looking for the comforts of hygge (nary a trace) or Booth-like repartee. Plus it cites Norway as the world’s happiest country, surely some mistake?

At the end of the book Ferguson reflects on his experience of moving to another country:

I began thinking again about immigration and the rootlessness that comes when it doesn’t work out. I was lucky. Even though I was an immigrant, I never thought of myself that way. I had chosen to come to Norway out of a deep attraction to what I knew of the culture. For me, it was and remains a peculiar sort of honour simply to be allowed to live here.

This sums up the book, focused on the allure of the classic Scandinavian dream and ranging too widely to present a more nuanced picture. As Ferguson is finally almost happy to concede, the narrative of melancholy is a cliché, a literary illusion based on “all the outside world ever knew about the Scandinavians” and an expression of Nordicism. The local experience may be rather different.

Nordicism and its clichés

So, the Scandinavian dream and its attendant Nordicism is an external creation of a familiar type – see Edward Said’s OrientalismOccidentalism and a list of other isms, right down to nesting Orientalisms. Nordicism is less explored, awaiting critique akin to Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (review), or Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania (Misha Glenny reviews both). I haven’t even come across a ‘how to write about’ piece (The BalkansAfrica…).

Maybe Nordicism is just in a different place on the hype cycle. A handful of titles examine the allure of the north and the UK’s relation to it, going so far as to ask: Is the UK really in Scandinavia, with an ancient geographic link via Doggerland (article | Unofficial Britain)?

The Nordicist image of Scandinavia/Denmark (they tend to blur together) is a weird combo of Nordic noir (why the long face) and hygge (why so happy) – both through a distorted lens. Resorting to linkage:

For me the happiness thing comes down to glass half full vs glass half empty countries. Being ironically negative is part of the British DNA, one reason why the Danish gritted teeth style of happiness may grate on some. On the other side of the coin we have Bulgaria, 134th out of 158 countries in the 2015 World Happiness Report. Risa Buzatova explores Bulgaria’s consistently poor scoring: while happiness, or perhaps contentment, can be found in countries rich (Denmark) and poor (Bhutan), “Bulgarians cultivate pessimism with an almost peculiar sense of care and national pride”. (Update: the 2017 World Happiness Report has Denmark slip below Norway at 2nd, with Bulgaria up a tad at 105th, the sixth highest rise.)

Finally, The Conversation debunks hygge by invoking Vikingery. It seems the allure of the Scandinavian dream will be around for a while yet.

And just to clear things up…

  • purists define the Scandinavian countries as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, perhaps with the addition of Iceland and the Faroes, both of which were under Norwegian and then Danish rule for centuries
  • include Finland at your peril, although it was under Swedish rule until 1809 – now you are talking about the Nordics
  • Orkney and Shetland were under Norwegian rule until 1472 and hence have Scandinavian heritage – they form a nice contrast with the Faroes, originally settled by Celts
  • Nordicism is not a purely UK phenomenon – it has certainly reached Belgium, and my US based cousin is currently experiencing the arrival of hygge on the other side of the Atlantic

Updates: came across a 2012 piece, which basically says look how European we areImmigration to Denmark is nothing new – just ask the Vikings…Knut Skjærven, a Norwegian photographer living in Copenhagen for many years, asked in a kronik in Berlingske (2 March): Hvordan undgår jeg at blive dansk? (how do I avoid becoming Danish; via Infomedia) – a slightly misleading title, however the piece underlines some of the differences between the two countries outlined above:

I Danmark tænker man horisontalt over flade marker. I Norge tænker man vertikalt op og ned ad bjerge. Neuronerne er koblet forskelligt. Og det er ganske vist.

Here’s Times Resonant on the range of ‘loci’ where identity between cultures can be expressed:

…language (a Norwegian novel), the physical body (performance art), the natural world (imagined Swedish pines), and the built environment (that bridge in that crime series). Stepping back from that, there follows the fact that what ‘outsiders’ might refer to collectively as ‘Scandinavia’ is actually bound together by perceived differences in identity as well as commonalities.

And AHRC/R3 New Gen Thinker Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, who fronted R3’s True Norse in 2016 (which I remember as being poor on Denmark), has a book out, Beyond the northlands: Viking voyages and the Old Norse sagas, which might spread some more light on things. Sadly, the Vikings episode of DR’s Historien om Danmark (temasite & book | reviews & viewing figures | Historier om Danmark | Giv det videre | Museum Lolland-Falster) was a pretty whistle stop tour and didn’t offer any insights. The series is a very Danish affair.

 

A Walter Benjamin moment

We’re visiting Paris in the New Year. So this seems like an appropriate time to revisit Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the touchstone for misplaced migrants and restless walkers, who as it happens also spent some time in Denmark.

Benjamin stayed at Skovsbostrand, Bertolt Brecht‘s house in Svendborg, in the summers of 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1938. In September 1938 he was in Copenhagen, where he obtained some transparencies from a “master tattoo artist”. On 18 September he visited the Brechts in Dragør. He also spent a weekend in Gedser, just across the Baltic from Germany, with Gretel Karplus (later Adorno), between 22-23 September 1934(?).

Like Brecht, Benjamin wasn’t taken with Denmark, finding the southern tip of Fyn “one of the most remote areas you can imagine”, with its “unexploited” nature and lack of links to the modern world a mixed blessing. The summers in Skovsbostrand were isolated and lonely, and drab compared to the likes of Ibiza. Maybe he got on better in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen’s arcades

Obviously every self respecting urban walker has to have a go at walking with Walter, so last year I launched my Copenhagen Arcades Project. First, an aside on arcades. The standard English translation for Walter’s passage, the word arcade evokes something grand, probably glazed, involving arches. Passage: not so much; think back passage, ginnel, jitty, wynd.

With a couple of exceptions Copenhagen’s arcades are definitely passages, or even smutveje (shortcuts), definitely not designed for lingering. Much of the city centre is made up of karréer, a (usually) five storey building complex encircling an inner courtyard, a space somewhere between public and private. This part of the cityscape is hidden from view, unvisited by the passer-by. A smutvej can open up this terrain.

Having said that, our first stop, August Bournonvilles Passage, is already an anomaly. Named in 2005 when the stretch was pedestrianised, this shortest of shortcuts is most notable for Stærekassen, a chunk of Art Deco built for Statsradiofoni (now part of DR) in 1931. Its mosaic roof portrays four cultural worthies, Hans Christian Andersen, Johannes V Jensen, Carl Nielsen and Adam Oehlenschläger, with the last also to be found as a statue just round the corner.

Walking past Nyhavn and up Bredgade brings us to Sankt Annæ Passage, between two of the city’s most fornemme (exclusive) streets. Opposite the eponymous plads, this passage is promising from the outside with a wrought iron sign, but disappoints within, mainly giving access to offices housed in the courtyards.

Sankt Annæ Passage

Emerging out of the far end of the passage brings us onto Store Kongensgade. A short stroll back towards the city’s main shopping drag of Strøget takes us to Pistolstræde. Glazed over in a recent refurbishment with smart signage, this web of backstreets is populated by shops and cafes mainly at the luxury end of the spectrum, and feels a tad self-conscious. How do these shops stay in business? There’s never anyone in them. (One answer: they move to the suburbs. Konditori Antoinette moved to Hvidovrevej, just down the road from us, in August, and feels a bit out of place.)

Finally, time for the real thing! Five blocks further down Strøget lies Jorcks Passage, as good as it gets. Built between 1893 and 1895 by Vilhelm Dahlerup, responsible for countless Historicist buildings in the city, this arcade is worthy of the name, housing a pleasingly eclectic range of premises as well as mini toddler statues in bays along the walls.

Jorcks Passage

Jorcks Passage

The buildings surrounding the arcade link back to our first smutvej, with DR broadcasting their first radio programmes from the premises in 1924, and forward to our last. KTAS (now TDC) opened their first telephone exchange here in 1896. It remained in operation for a scant 13 years, replaced by Telefonhuset at Nørregade 21. This lasted 5o years, from 1909 until 1959, before moving to Borups Allé 43. That building is still owned by TDC, although their current HQ is at Sydhavn.

Left behind is Sankt Petri Passage, allegedly offering public access through the karréer from Nørregade to Larslejsstræde, although it has always presented me nothing more than a massively closed wooden door.

What other options are on offer today for the city centre flâneur? In his Travels through Germany Michael Gorra “subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin’s Arcade project”:

Most German cities have reconfigured their central shopping districts into pedestrian zones, in a way that makes the arcade seem merely an extension of the street itself, a space far less odd and magical than it had been for Benjamin, liminal only in the way it opens onto an underground parking garage.

In Malled: 60 years of under cover shopping Will Self describes shopping centres as non-spaces, abolishing time and space (is a table outside a cafe in a mall inside or outside?). With a limited retail offering they are all the same, places where nothing happens by accident. The design ensures that you can only progress forward, slowly, encountering a series of fixed scenarios and then moving on.

Benjamin’s arcades were designed for shopping and strolling, places to see and be seen. For me Copenhagen’s central shopping district offers little room for flâneurie, celebrated for its early pedestrianisation but lacking the brio of the passeggiata. Likewise its malls lack allure, with Fields, once the largest shopping centre in Scandinavia, rising in a grey desert and neighbourhood centres built in the 1950s and 60s tending to the functional.

When I think ‘arcade’ I’m at Glasgow’s Argyle Street or Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade, and before you know it you are in a something shiny like Princes Square. So my arcade of choice is instead the heart-achingly stunning Párizsi Udvar in Budapest, currently in need of restoration and resembling rather more a cathedral.

Párizsi Udvar

The Arcades Project methodology

Benjamin started his research for what is known in English as The Arcades Project in 1927, before he moved to Paris in 1933. When he left in 1940 he entrusted the result, a vast compendium of notes and reflections assembled from a range of sources and arranged in 36 categories with multiple cross-references, to his friend Georges Bataille, then working at the Bibliothèque Nationale. What could Walter have done with a database package and a customised taxonomy?

Much has been postulated about this approach to writing, which Benjamin himself called ‘literary montage’. As “the strolling spectator who collects mental notes taken on leisurely city walks and transcribes them into written form…he does not just write about the flâneur but he writes as a flâneur” (source). Further, “to read Benjamin’s key work is in itself analogous to the practice of flâneurie” (source).

Certainly his methodology can bring some comfort to every writer of endless drafts (I’ve had this post in my drafts for more than a year) and random notetaker – to what extent is The Arcades Project Walter’s notebook? He himself expected his research to result in a small article, polished off in a couple of weeks, and did at least succeed in siphoning bits off into published essays. His exhaustive approach can perhaps also shed new light on issues of #curationism.

But still, his belief that you don’t properly understand something unless it passes bodily through you rings very true: if you are blocked, write out your work again, in a fair copy. In that process something will happen, new connections will surface as you quote yourself, a different person in time and space. It’s like going for a walk and seeing things more clearly.

Why Paris? 

From a 1929 essay, quoted by Edmund White in The flâneur (full quote):

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved…The great reminiscences, the historical frissons – these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist.

The flâneur is in search of experience, not knowledge. Most experience ends up interpreted as – and replaced by – knowledge, but for the flâneur the experience remains somehow pure, useless, raw…Practical Romans…show no curiosity about their city’s past…Parisians are the ones who wander their own city.

We’ll see how we get on.

Update, Jan 2017: as well as a draft on our trip to Paris I’m now embarking on Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss, not least to follow up on WB’s Frankfurt years (my own: 1982-83) – he presented (and withdrew) his post-doctoral dissertation to the Germanistik department at the university in 1925…WestMarket, Copenhagen’s new food market, essentially an arcade…

Primary Benjamin:

Secondary Benjamin:

Benjamin in Berlin: Berlin chronicle (review snippet) | Berlin childhood around 1900 | In search of WB’s BerlinA stroll through WB’s Berlin

After Benjamin:

Bauhaus in Denmark: it’s funkis

Update: out and about in Næstved at the weekend we came across an unexpected funkis cluster, documented in Huse i Næstved. This included Farimagsvej 10, which I was unable to photograph but would look quite at home in Gdynia, and the spectacular Staalgaarden from 1934 – it’s out there! See Farver i funktionalismen (2008) for more about funkis in Denmark.

I am an all round Bauhaus freak. Imagine my distress when Nan Dahlkild stated on the Valby Bedre Byggeskik walk that there was no Bauhaus in Denmark – not a surprise, but worthy of further exploration.

While there are links between Bauhaus and contemporary movements in Denmark, the latter tended – and tend – to take a less utopian and internationalist approach, being rather more design led.

Vi lader os ikke imponere af Størrelse, Tempo, det grandiose, det gigantiske.

(Trans: “We will not allow ourselves to be impressed by size, pace, the grandiose, the gigantic.”)

Between 1926-28 the journal Kritisk Revy, edited by Poul Henningsen (of PH lamp fame but also a formidable cultural commentator) published a series of articles critical of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and De Stijl in the Netherlands, accusing them of formalism and the lack of a human (or even practical) dimension. The 1928 visit to Copenhagen of Hannes Meyer, shortly to succeed Walter Gropius as leader of the Bauhaus, and publication of his manifesto in Danish gave rise to an article in Arkitekten likening Gropius’ house in Dessau to a dentist’s waiting room.

There were some exchanges on the ground though. Edvard Heiberg, who had previously worked under Le Corbusier, taught at the Bauhaus for three months in 1930, lending his expertise to designs for housing in Tørten and the furniture for the Trade Union School in Bernau. He lived in one of the masters’ houses, which he described as “badly insulated and undemocratic in form”. Resigning shortly after Meyer was deposed, he wrote a feature article in Politiken on 6 December 1930 about his Bauhaus experiences.

Painter Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen was a student at the Bauhaus from autumn 1930 to spring 1931, where he was taught by Klee and Kandinsky. This influenced his graphical style in particular. Petersen later adopted surrealism.

Links between the Bauhaus and Denmark can also be seen in furniture design, in particular the stress on good craftsmanship. In 1942 the Danish Cooperative Movement (FDM) created a popular range of wooden furniture which continued in production until 1983. In contrast to the architecture of the period, the furniture has made a popular return, going back into production in 2013.

It’s funkis

So what was different about modernist architecture in Denmark in the inter-war period? Generally known as funktionalisme or funkis for short, two main styles can be identified.

Buildings more akin to those found outside Denmark, often in white cubist style with flat roofs, experimenting with concrete and other new materials, such as Arne Jacobsen’s white factory at Nordre Fasanvej 215 from 1935 (international functionalism):

Frederiksberg - Novo Nordisk (1935)

Buildings incorporating Danish traditions and materials, making use of brick and tiled roofs, such as Virum Torv (1937; national functionalism, rather more widespread):

Virum Torv 2/Frederiksdalsvej 70 (1937)

The design for Aarhus University, with its staggered blocks following the undulating terrain, is a prime example of the connections and divergences between the Bauhaus and Denmark. The design follows the Bernau Trade Union School layout in a freer form, making use of the Danish vernacular such as yellow bricks and curved roof tiles.

While the first funkis house in Denmark was built as early as 1924 (by Heiberg for himself and his family), it was the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition which really kickstarted things. New housing complexes such as Arne Jacobsen’s iconic Bellavista (1934-37) and numerous smaller projects, based around the idea that housing should suit the residents’ needs rather than be based around old tropes such as spisestue, salon og herreværelse, were built during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Rather than traditional karréer (blocks around an internal courtyard) the new housing was built in parallel blocks, offering better ventilation. The keywords were lys og luft (air and light), with bigger windows to let in more light and balconies facing the evening sun. These features are just one of those which make funkis buildings out of step with today’s Denmark – the energy required to heat these less well insulated houses is just too expensive.

Modernism and Danish scale

The funkis buildings of the 1930s are also out of step on a more abstract level. A booklet produced for the 2008 Golden Days festival has portraits of 20 buildings from the period. It’s a little book with a big agenda (and, once again, no map). The language frequently feels negative and subjective, utilising words such as “naked”, sober”, “factory like”. At the foot of each entry is a carefully chosen contemporary quote:

Vi forstaar, at Tyskerne nu har den fastest muligt indstilling til Arkitekturproblemet imod de sidste Tiders eksperimentelle og sentimentale Funtionalisme…men ikke har Evne til at skabe det varige og det ophøjet skønne. (Vilhelm Wanscher, art critic and author, on Arne Jacobsen’s Bellavista)

Der er noget troldsk over sceneriet. Ungerne sidder nogne og brune – som en samling grillstegte hanekyllinger – omkring de hvislende flammer. Det er det skinbarligste og pudsigste djævelsskab, man pludselig er dumpet ind i. (Erik la Cour Halved, journalist, on Kaj Gottlob’s Skolen ved Sundet)

For me modernist buildings, not least the Bauhaus, are Mozartian in their perfection, everything exactly as it should be, catching your interest and admiration in their simplicity. But in Danish discourse they are cold and clinical, ‘ungenerous’ and lacking ‘human scale’, features extolled ad nauseam in the architectural press, where smallness is lauded as a key quality.

Happily though on the ground it’s a different story. We often go funkis spotting – below is my current favourite, Ole Falkentorp’s exquisite Hotel Astoria from 1935, just outside the central station:

CPH - Hotel Astoria (1935)

Sources: ‘Bauhaus og Danmark: fra eksperimenterende håndværk til industrielt design’ (in Architectura 2006:28:23-52) | Edvard Heibergs eget hus | Den store bog om Brugsens møbler og historien om Det Gode Liv | FDB-stolen: Folkets klassiske møbler genoplives | Ideernes Kobenhavn: en guide til mellemkrigstidens byggeri (Golden Days 2008) | Rasmus Friis: Rentemestervej 14

Update: VINK on the Astoria

Brecht in Denmark

Updates: On thinking about hell in Los Angeles, disrupting utopian images of California, and Concerning the label emigrant continue some of the themes of  the Svendborger Gedichte…meanwhile, the Danes went Brecht crazy in autumn 2016, with Immigranten, an interpretation of Flüchtlingsgespräche performed på dansk by Xenia Noetzelmann and Katrin Weisser to music by Bent Fabricius-Bjerre, at Louisiana (11 Oct) and Karens Minde (20-28 Oct), plus Svendborger Gedichte, in a new – and complete – translation as Svendborgdigte set to music by Saybia’s Søren Huss, at Baggård Teatret (Svendborg, 17 Nov – 2 Dec) and at Teater Grob (6-10 Dec); coming to Valby in January 2018.

Skønlitteratur på P1 featured the Svendborgdigte on 7 June 2017, with an interview with translator and old Brecht hand Hans Christian Nørregaard. Nørregaard visited Helene Weigel in East Berlin in 1963. Following several radio broadcasts he made a film for DR2 about Brecht’s Danish exile, Under stråtage (review), in 1998. He has also published several works on German exiles in Denmark in the 1930s, including På flugt fra nazismen and Tysksprogede emigranter i Danmark fra 1933. (In this connection see also 2016’s Networks of refugees from Nazi Germany.)

It seems that Brecht as poet was/is? less known in Denmark. In the 1930s he was viewed  as having had his time with Die Dreigroschenoper – it was only later that it became clear that his Danish exile represented a period of transition, with his next great work, Mutter Courage, written under that thatched roof in Svendborg, heralding a new epoch in theatre.

Nørregaard highlighted Til efterkommerne (An die Nachgeborenen; Wikipedia | English) as one of the Danish poems which has stood the test of time (it seems that in Danish literary circles Brecht was for a time known as Bertolt Brugt). A snippet of BB reciting the poem (in an unexpectedly high-pitched voice) can be heard at around 13 mins in (here’s a full reading), followed by a Danish reading.

And finally, it turns out that Svendborg has its own kulturkanon, featuring Brecht and other writers including Karin Michaëlis, owner of the house on the nearby island of Thurø where Brecht first stayed in 1933. Five times Nobel nominee Johannes Jørgensen (1866-1956) was born and died in Svendborg, while Danish modernist poet Tom Kristensen (1893-1974), born in London, lived on Thurø from 1946  until his death in 1974.

On last autumn’s Golden Days festival programme I spotted two bouts of German cabaret songs, at Frederiksberg’s Revymuseet and Riddersalen, where, hold the front page! Brecht sat at the back during the final rehearsals for the Round Heads and Pointy Heads premiere on 4 November 1936. The thing itself even got a performance in Den Sorte Diamant, as part of an Eisler 2015 conference.

It turns out that Brecht lived in Svendborg, a fair sized town (pop: 26K) on the drive-through island of Fyn, from June 1933 to April 1939. He was invited to Denmark by journalist and writer Karin Michaëlis, who during the 1930s had several German emigrants as houseguests in her house on the nearby island of Thurø.

While in Svendborg Brecht wrote Mother Courage, The life of Galileo (with the figure of Galilei initially based on Niels Bohr) and The good person of Szechwan, and was visited by Hanns Eisler and klaxon! Walter Benjamin. The Brecht family also had a summer house in Dragør (update: according to Ekstra Bladet of the 29 September 1934 the Brechts spent that summer at Dragør Badehotel, which feels more likely). In 1939 they upped sticks to an island near Stockholm, then to Finland, ending up in the USA from 1941-47.

Other pining Germanists may enjoy Re-thinking Brecht, an international research project, responsible for some new translations into English. I watched Songs of Exile and War, a film launching the project in 2013 with poems and songs set to Eisler’s music – see the rather moving Visit to the banished poets and Children’s Crusade 1939. While the style can feel a little over-egged today, I still had an urge to reach for my Dagmar Krause cassettes. And I can visualise a volume of Brecht poetry I owned in the 1980s (why does one get rid of books, really?), which was surely John Willett’s translation part 3.

Brecht’s Svendborger Gedichte (1939, published in Copenhagen) also got a couple of run-outs at Golden Days courtesy of Oktoberkoret. Here’s the Motto to the ‘Svendborg Poems’:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956 (trans. John Willett, 1976)

Motto der ‘Svendborger Gedichte’

In den finsteren Zeiten
Wird da auch gesungen werden?
Da wird auch gesungen werden.
Von den finsteren Zeiten.

Svendborg hosts an annual-ish Brecht festival, Dage med Brecht (Facebook), running this year from 24-28 February. I visited Svendborg back in the day, it’s pleasant enough if crashingly dull; Benjamin described the southern tip of Fyn as “one of the most remote areas you can imagine”, with its “unexploited” nature and lack of links to the modern world a mixed blessing. This year’s festival has lots of music and a bit of a refugee focus, as well it might, and there’s a tour round Brecht’s house at Skovsbo Strand 8, which looks a world away from 1930s Berlin.

Update, 9 March: the library has duly delivered two publications on Brecht in Denmark:

  • Bertolt Brecht i Danmark – pamphlet published by the Brecht-Zentrum der DDR in cooperation with Svendborg Kommune in 1984 as a celebration of the setting up of a memorial plaque in Svendborg in 1981, currently languishing in the Stadsbibliotek’s Depotbibiliotek; includes reminiscences from journalist Frederik Martner and actor Dagmar Andreasen
  • Brecht på Fyn – in two parts (Under det fynske stråtag covering mainly his life on Fyn and De alt for små øer on his work and its reception in Denmark at the time), by Harald Engberg, published in 1966 by Andelsbogtrykkeriet i Odense and acquired by Hvidovre libraries on publication, now smelling a bit fusty TBH
  • see also Die Welt geht hier stiller unter: Das Brecht-Haus im dänischen Svendborg

At the front of Under det... there’s a great photo of Brecht in June 1934 in flat cap and what looks like my father’s cardigan, holding a cigar, plus a picture of the house in 1966 (“der er kommet lidt småpynt til siden Brechts dage, som ikke er hans stil”); other photos include Brecht at the typewriter in his study and behind the wheel of his ancient Ford Model T, in which he took drives to stave off restlessness, but not the money shot of Brecht playing chess with Walter Benjamin in the garden.

Brecht left Germany on 28 February 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire, travelling first to Prague and Vienna, before looking for somewhere to live in Switzerland. Finding Zurich too expensive, he next checked out Paris where Kurt Weill was living, but he was no Francophile and did not settle. He arrived in Denmark on 20 June 1933 and bought the ramshackle fisherman’s house in Svendborg on 9 August 1933 for 7000 kr., moving in on 28 December. In a letter to Walter Benjamin on 22 December he wrote “Der er behagligt her”, and that it was possible to survive on 1oo kr. (6o Reichsmarks) a month. In addition, Svendborg library would get you _any_ book you want. The language was unusually easy, and above all “verden går under mere stille her”. (Any links to the original German of these and other quotes below appreciated.)

Brecht brought his own world with him into exile, making no great effort to learn Danish or mix with the locals. He also travelled widely – in 1934 to London and again in 1936, in 1935 to Moscow and New York, to New York again in 1936, plus several visits to Paris.

The Svendborg VI poems Zufluchtsstätte, Gedanken über die Dauer des Exils and Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten underline his feelings of flight, coupled with impatience and restlessness:

Immer fand ich den Namen falsch, den man uns gab: Emigranten.
Daß heißt doch Auswanderer. Aber wir
Wanderten doch nicht aus, nach freiem Entschluß
Wählend ein anderes Land. Wanderten wir doch auch nicht
Ein in ein Land, dort zu bleiben, womöglich für immer.
Sondern wir flohen. Vertriebene sind wir, Verbannte.
Und kein Heim, ein Exil soll das Land sein, das uns aufnahm.
Unruhig sitzen wir so, möglichst nahe den Grenzen
Warten des Tags der Rückkehr…

The Danish idyll was not for him. No Romantic, the delights of Fyn, the garden of Denmark, did not entice him to reverie, although his sojourn in “isolated Svendborg” was paradoxically productive – perhaps a reaction to that very peace and stillness – and he was able to enjoy a stable family life with his two youngest children for the first time. The Danish stråtag (das dänische Strohdach – thatched roof) offered him a form of camouflage, and became a frequently employed metaphor during his years of exile.

Brecht received a residence permit from Sweden on 14 April 1939, leaving Denmark on Easter Monday and selling the house to a sheet music dealer. While in Sweden he wrote his reminiscences of his time in Denmark, collected as De alt for små øer (can’t trace), and continued his satirical writing as Herr Keuner, a version of which was published as Flüchtlingsgespräche after his death in 1961.

One of the 18 conversations tackles Dänemark oder der Humor. Brecht was particularly piqued by the Danes’ sense of humour, maintaining that “han ville gerne være venlig, men hans Widerspruchsgeist lod sig ikke mane i jorden”:

Sie haben immer betont: Wir sind zu schwach, um uns zu verteidigen, wir wir müssen Schweine verkaufen…Sie waren alle überzeugt, dass der Faschismus bei ihnen nicht geht, weil sie zuviel Humor haben.

His Danish friends told him that “deres humor desværre lod sig ikke oversætte, fordi den bestod af ganske små sproglige vendlinger”, to which he retorted that “når man kun kan sige små ting på et sprog, kommer man let til at skrive om små ting”.

The worst thing about Denmark was not its size, but the fact that it had everything, just on a very small scale:

Her eksisterer intet, som man kan måle det med, fordi selv målestokken er for lille. En ‘høj’ bakke i Jylland hedder som bekendt Himmelbjerget, men den er knap 200 m. høj.

While Brecht never returned to Denmark, the day before his death in 1956 the sale went through in his name on a small house in Humlebæk. Was the restless Brecht once more seeking camouflage, or simply a bolthole to work in?

Brecht’s house in Svendborg

Writing about a city: Berlin

Berlin has a sort of Three Sisters resonance in my mind. I’m particularly envious of its international writing scene, with place writing and cultural heritage galore.

Readux Books has published six and a half little books/essays about Berlin –  four in its Berlin series and two in its Urban voids series. The half is Eliot Weinberger’s The wall, the city, and the world, a good chunk of which is set in Berlin.

While the books are beautifully designed and all, at $1.99 a snip I thought they would work well as ereading experiment. I’ve never been drawn to ebooks, with years of trying to scan needless PDFs leaving me a digital reading sceptic. As Julian Barnes says, “books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information”, definitely a work thing. Having purchased five I was left wondering what the e/book format really added to these short pieces – take out the prelims etc and you have a rather different proposition.

The Berlin series

The four essays in the Berlin series portray the city in the 1910s, 1920s, 1990s and the present day. The two early works, Cities and city people: Berlin 1919 (excerpt), by critic and literary historian Arthur Eloesser and translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and In Berlin: day and night in 1929 (excerpt), by Franz Hessel (“a Francophile intellectual who brought the concept of the flâneur to 1920s Berlin”) and translated by Readux’s Amanda DeMarco (update: Walking in Berlin, now rewalked), feel of their time, while the later two are rather more interesting.

Berlin TriptychBerlin triptych (excerpt), by David Wagner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, visits three Berlin locations in 1998/2000 and 2013: Friedrichstraße in the centre of the city, Schönhauser Allee in the east and Café M in the west. The text previously appeared in DW’s Mauer Park (2013; KD’s post), an update of his In Berlin (2001). For another excerpt see An ode to Mauerpark (translated by KD), and finally Welche Farbe hat Berlin (KD’s post), short pieces written between 2001 and 2011.

In May 2013, in one of her sadly missed Going Dutch with German writers series, KD and DW go for a walk, DW’s preferred mode of exploring the city. (KD: “The poor guy must get tired of going on walks with people who want to write about the experience, as he’s one of those great walker-writers everybody loves.”) This walk makes an appearance in Mauer Park, how fab.

For more David, see the interview on Deutsche Welle and listen to his episode as part of R4’s recent Reading Europe series (highlighting the “tourist streets” of the former East Berlin, marked by stands with postcards of romantic ruins and charming Modernist architecture; the seriousness of German literature, making translations especially from English popular; how Sebald’s emigrants are now being replaced by immigrants, which may mean that subject matter finally moves on from Die Wende). For more Katy as flâneuse see The shadowboxing woman, a site accompanying her 2011 translation of Inka Parei’s novel, with photos matched up with quotes.

The texts are perhaps rather too rooted in the place for non-Berliners, but the overall themes of transience and transformation, currently most often expressed as gentrification, explore how history makes the city anew:

[Mehringplatz] is a remnant of a time that felt over-zealously obliged to make everything new and do everything better. Each era gets the architecture it deserves: the circle is lined by a double row of residential bunkers.

Construction sites serve as a motif, with empty spaces and the gaps between buildings gradually filled in. What happens when these constructions start to be pulled down and replaced by something new? Will Berlin ever ‘find itself’ – is the city ever finished?

Actually we all miss something. Or it’s invented in retrospect. (source)

City of RumorIn City of rumor: the compulsion to write about Berlin (2013) “Gideon Lewis-Kraus struggles with the very act of putting anything about Berlin into words”. A fine entry in the expat writing canon!

Gideon Lewis-Kraus lived in Berlin for three years and City of rumor gives an account of his “shifting understanding” of the city, which finally took shape in the Berlin chapter of his first book, A sense of direction (2012), a travel memoir about pilgrimage and restlessness.

Katy Derbyshire has familiar issues:

A while ago I wrote about Anglophone visitors writing about Berlin and perpetuating a certain image of the place, those journalistic pieces citing budding microbrewery cultures and proclaiming that “nobody in Berlin” gets up before the afternoon. That’s a Berlin I have never really recognized. (source)

As it turned out she didn’t hate City of rumor at all: “it’s less an attempt to describe his version of Berlin than an exploration of his – and others’ – compulsion to do so”. We all see  a different Berlin and experience a place differently, even if some prefer a “fantasy life of a country”. It’s a question of ownership and home vs restlessness and exile.

The urban voids series

The urban voids series examines “the places that are marginal, ignored, vacant, or destroyed…walking their fraying edges, or probing the absences that lie at their centers”.

Suburban wonder: wandering the margins of Paris and A little guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the use of phantoms tackle Paris and are hence on my backburner of prejudice for now, while the third title is an English original, The idea of a river: walking out of Berlin (extract) by Paul Scraton, also to be found Under a grey sky and Elsewhere.

City SpacesCity spaces: filling in Berlin’s gaps, by Annett Gröschner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, “explores the lacunae at the heart of our city…the history of erasure, demolition and annihilation that has shaped the face of Berlin” with pieces taken from Parzelle Paradies (2008).

Pleasingly, AG can be found on t’Web described as Die Stadtführerin. Her other works include Mit der Linie 4 um die Welt (2012; Amazon; review | video), the result of riding bus/tram nr 4 to the end of the line in a series of cities (latest: Rotterdam), and two collaborations with photographer Arwed Messmer: The other view: the early Berlin Wall (2011) and Berlin, Fruchtstraße on March 27, 1952 (2012). Time to dust off my German reading skills. See also KD’s Going Dutch from December 2013 and Berlin: alienated city (trans: Katy Derbyshire; auf deutsch) in Slow Travel Berlin:

Gone are the coal trucks and the outside toilets, but also what fascinated me back then: the traces in and on the buildings, grown over each other in several layers, which told countless stories into which one could enter like Poe’s man in the crowd, wandering until one no longer knew were one was or how to get back. The traces have been obliterated, the old men and women with their memories as if swallowed up by the ground, all is the present…In some inner-city neighbourhoods, Berlin has already lost its diversity; the individualists all look the same.

So much for curated reading! The issues articulated and explored in the two series are just as valid in Copenhagen, if on a rather smaller and less striking scale. With a different mythology, Copenhagen seems to attract a different style of writing, an issue to explore further in 2016, along with an overdue return to Berlin.

One Danish tree: Klopstock’s Oak

For once a positive tale about trees in Denmark! On Sunday we visited Klopstocks Eg, a reputedly 850 year old oak on Prinsessestien in Lyngby, not far from Sorgenfri Station off Hummeltoftevej at Åmosebakken, or thereabouts – you can’t miss it!

Known to all Germanists, Frederich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) lived in Denmark from 1751-70 on the invitation of Frederik V, residing in Lyngby in the early 1750s. Like all good Romantics he liked a walk, and the area inspired not least his poem Die Frülingsfeier. Klopstock’s brother also lived in Lyngby, owning a silk factory.

Prinsessestien (the Princess’ Path), which first appeared on a map in around 1800, was probably created for the use of Princess Sophie Hedevig, brother of Frederik IV, who gave her a mansion at each end of the path (Sorgenfri and Frederiksdal) in 1716. In 1743 his successor Christian VI passed Frederiksdal on to his advisor, Johan Sigismund Schulin.

The wife of one of Schulin’s descendants, another Sophie Hedevig, owned Frederiksdal Slot from 1781-1807. She built a well, Louisekilden, close to the path, for the 50th birthday of her sister, Louise Warnstedt, in 1791.

The oak was protected in 1958 and is in reasonable condition, although a large bough fell off in 2013 and is lying to the side. Every July members of Det Danske Klopstockselskab (the Danish Klopstock Society) meet at the oak for a reading.

Denmark’s most famous oaks are probably those planted by Christian V in the countryside north of Copenhagen in 1669 (see Fodnoter) – around 1800 remain, including Kongeeg (The King’s Oak), reputedly 1500 years old and the oldest tree in Denmark, and part of a group of three with Storkeegen (a stump after the storm of 1981) and Snoegen. Christian V’s personal oak stands at the crossroads between Ndr Eremitagevej and Chausseen, and is so named because it was under this tree that he was kicked on the left foot by a stag on the Hubertus Day hunt in 1698, which contributed to his death a year later, or so the story goes.

The oak has been a symbol of Danishness since the 19th century. In 1915 many valgretseger were planted to mark women’s suffrage – Dendron.dk lists nine, with Kvindeegen in Viby one of the last surviving.

All this inspired Jens Blenstrup and Ole Lejbach to investigate in a four year project, Ege-ekspeditioner (oak expeditions; Facebook). The resulting text and images are on display in three galleries around Denmark.

More på dansk…Klopstock: Den glemte digter i egetræets skygge | Klopstock – en sporty digter…Ege-ekspeditioner in Magasinet Kunst | Nordea Fonden.

Copenhagen’s paternoster lifts

Update: more lifts – New York’s elevators define the city

Paternoster lifts, God bless them. First encountered in Dr Murke in 1979, and seemingly a significant part of Heinrich Böll’s legacy – the very lift that inspired the story is the setting a WDR 2 interview show. Definitely a German thing – the final scene of Doris Dörrie’s 1985 film Männer has also stayed with me, and as evidenced by the 789 comments to the recent Guardian story, a thing for many other people too.

It turns out that Copenhagen boasts five paternosters, three of which are easily accessible. Some Google action brings up videos of three of them.

Easiest to visit is probably the KVUC building at Vognmagergade 8, a stone’s throw from Nørreport and just round the corner from the Danish Film Institute. KVUC is an adult education centre, so access shouldn’t be a problem.

Built for a public utility company in best National Romantic style in 1913, the building certainly looks like it should have a paternoster. Heritage Elevator’s video shows students getting on and off in orderly fashion.

Vognmagergade 8

Vognmagergade 8 (pic: Arkitekturbilleder)

Next up, the Axelborg building, at a plum spot opposite the main entrance to Tivoli. Dating from 1920, Axelborg houses a number of agricultural organisations and hosts conferences and other events. Getting into the foyer at least is easy enough. Heritage Elevators has bagged this one too, and there’s a further vid from January 2015. Note however that this paternoster was the scene of a fatal accident in May this year.

While you’re there take a look at the plaque on the wall of the pub on the ground floor, marking the spot where Børge Thing, leader of Danish resistance group BOPA, narrowly escaped arrest in 1944. Axelborg is named after Absalon, the founder of Copenhagen (Axel is the Danish equivalent), and has some notable neighbours. On one side is Arne Jacobsen’s 1960 SAS Royal Hotel, while the other will shortly be occupied by the 16 floor Axel Towers, replacing the Scala building pulled down in 2012.

Axelborg and the SAS Royal Hotel

Axelborg and the SAS Royal Hotel

Getting out of the city centre and moving on a few decades brings us to Frederiksberg Town Hall, inaugurated in 1953 after a 12 year building process. Frederiksberg is well worth a visit – a separate council area with a population of over 100K it is surrounded by Copenhagen but retains a rather different feel, due not least to its own brand of street furniture and a profusion of street trees.

There are tours of the town hall on the first Saturday of every month (see pics), but it is a public building so more than likely you can take a look during working hours. Failing that, there’s a two part video.

Frederiksberg Town Hall

Frederiksberg Town Hall

Paternoster no 4 can be found in Denmark’s parliament building, aka Borgen. Originally all Borgen’s lifts were paternosters, but all bar one were decommissioned in 1990. Assorted parliamentarians have used the lift to make a sharp exit, if not Birgitte Nyborg, while in 2014 a TV 2 reporter lost his equipment down the shaft. There’s a video showing the full circuit.

parliamentarian and paternoster

parliamentarian and paternoster (pic: Kasper S)

The fifth and final paternoster can be found in Danske Bank’s HQ in Holmens Kanal, or so they say. It’s in all the listicles, but no further information can be found.

On a related note, I’m pretty sure Danish escalators go at a faster lick than their UK equivalents, and the ones without steps are really steep – have a go next time you are at CPH airport.

Sources: Arkark.dkArkitekturbilleder, EkstrabladetFrihedsmuseets VennerInden for voldene, Kristeligt Dagblad.