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.

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)?

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.

And 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.

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, as 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:

Footsteps and sidetracks: adventures, explorations and reflections

Came across Richard Holmes (1945- ) via a review of his latest, This long pursuit: reflections of a Romantic biographer, “a glorious series of essays on the art of life writing and a worthy successor to his earlier volumes on the craft” (vs DJ Taylor in The Times: a “career-celebrating miscellany”). The library obliged with said earlier volumes.

The first, Footsteps: adventures of a Romantic biographer (1985), at first glance dwelt rather more on nuts and bolts than anything particularly essayistic and didn’t live up to the blurb (“a daring mix of travel, biographical sleuthing and personal memoir”), possibly because biography, or maybe creative non-fiction, has changed a lot in the last 30 years. A further issue was the subject matter, centred around the English Romantics in France and Italy and hence neither my time nor place. Possibly not the best place to start – chronological order doesn’t always work : p

Better luck with the second volume, Sidetracks: explorations of a Romantic biographer (2000), which consists of shorter pieces, described thus in the prologue:

A biographer’s collection of short pieces, rather like a novelist’s collection of short stories, but it has a theme and a purpose. It is the fragmented tale of a single biographical quest, a thirty-year journey in search of the perfect Romantic subject, and the form to fit it. It is my personal casebook…it includes two radio-plays, several travel pieces, a large number of character-sketches, some autobiographical fragments, some formal essays, and a very informal short story. All of them were written as different ways of investigating biographical material; to see how far certain hints and possibilities could be taken down the path, explored and relished.

This is useful, and in the best tradition of curated reading sent me back to Footsteps (which we now know was compiled from sketches written during 1980-85), where Holmes “questions his own art and the impulses which drive him on a quest” through the lens of place.

The first section of Footsteps takes on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes (1879). Holmes retraced Stevenson’s journey in 1964, accompanied by a 1936 textbook edition “on the curriculum of generations of English and Scottish schoolchildren” (including I suspect my mother, a fan of Modestine) and described as a “model of polite essay-writing”. Essay-subjects (clearly a fan of the hyphen) given in an appendix include, delightfully, “What are the respective advantages of a walking, cycling, motoring, and caravaning tour?”

This was Holmes’ initiation into the art of biography, and while he notes that the route of Stevenson’s travels has been marked out, “leading the pilgrim from one point de vue to the next and bringing him safely down each evening to some recommended hotel”, he has no desire to return.

Section two marks 1968, the year of revolution in Paris, with a foray into that earlier revolution of 1789, as witnessed by the English Romantics and the White’s Hotel group of expats. He hits his stride with Mary Wollstonecraft, discussing the various likenesses of her which survive and chronicling her two year sojourn in France (1792-94), when she lived for a period in Le Havre with Gilbert Imlay and the ill-fated baby Fanny.

Holmes sees the impact of the French Revolution for the English as lying in the thirty years after Mary’s death, when the next generation, “one of the most brilliant literary circles that has ever existed”, returned to Europe. This is explored in section three, Exiles, on Shelley, Mary Shelley (who spent some time in Dundee at the age of 15/16) and Claire Clairmont in Italy, anno 1972: “my urge was to go directly to the original materials – and most especially to the places – for myself…I drifted without contact through the tourist crowds of the cities”.

Section four covers unfamiliarly unfamiliar ground, in Paris once more in 1976: “a calm, picturesque city; that is to say, a city of pictures. It celebrated the idea of the flâneur, the man who drifts round the streets, gazing at everything that meet his eye”. This results in an interest in photography, in particular the birth of portrait photography, via the archives of Felix Nadar, and to a new subject, Gérard de Nerval (of pet lobster fame), described by Proust as “one of three or four most important French writers of the 19th century” (he also features in Gros’ The philosophy of walking). At the end of this section Holmes comments: “My taste for travel and my ear for footsteps had diminished, it seemed. I was thirty, and it was time to consider the way I should go myself.”

Sidetracks, made up of seven sections each with a brief introduction, covers much of the same ground, but this time from the angle of how Holmes has moved from subject to subject over a nearly thirty year period. An early essay on 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton, described as “my own version of Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own'”, led Holmes onto his first major subject, Shelley, while a period in Paris in the 1970s resulted in an unpublished 400 page biography and a radio play with the leitmotif of de Nerval.

Sketches and essays written for The Times present a series of experiments with style and storytelling aimed at ‘sidetracking’ the reader, such as “different narrative voices, entering at odd angles, reading facts through fiction or poetry, risking melodrama, facetiousness and sentimentality”. Holmes also returns to Mary Wollstonecraft, persuading Penguin to republish William Godwin’s memoir coupled with the essay she wrote on her travels in Scandinavia (invaluable material for another day) – the piece here is his expanded introduction, a blend of historical research and literary criticism.

Two further sections consist of more Shelley, with pieces written during research for a biography on Coleridge (“a case of pure sidetracking” in the form of an account of a found manuscript and a radio play on Shelley’s last days in Italy) and more Paris in the form of three pieces celebrating the city during 1994-95 while enjoying a “long dreamy trail of daily walks and wanderings” with novelist Rose Tremain. (My personal sidetrack from here leads us back to Tremain’s Music and silence (1999) about Christian IV of Denmark, which I have failed to read several times, and once again the story of Caroline Matilda – and now its contemporary reception via Mary Wollstonecraft – described in A royal affair, a novel I did read by Stella Tillyard, remembered as by Tremain…)

The final section, with the title Homage to the Godfather, consists of three pieces on (or around) James Boswell, written during a research period on Dr Johnson (1990-94). This is where things start to get really meta, with biography as a literary form increasingly popular, a new sub-section of creative non-fiction.

So where did Holmes go next? As it turns out to the bestselling The age of wonder: how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science (2008) and Falling upwards: how we took to the air (2013; review), on the history of ballooning. This breaks his hitherto meticulous chronology, which resulted in a major work around every 15 years and roughly four year periods of research, not necessarily overlapping.

His latest however continues the 15 year cycle of meta-works on the art of biography. Now in reflective mode, it consists of five personal confessions, five restorations and five afterlives, including a “fantasy alternative of Shelley’s middle age”.

The Amazon excerpt dishes up two approaches to writing biography:

  • the Footsteps principle: the biographer must physically pursue his subject, going to all the places s/he has lived, worked, travelled or dreamed – the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places
  • the two-sided notebook concept: a notebook with a form of ‘double accounting’, consciously dividing between the objective and the subjective (in Footsteps he describes the fragments of his own travels becoming scattered and disjointed, while those of Shelley’s become “ever more intricate and detailed and dark”

Taking the three volumes together gives an interesting insight into the work of the biographer, with in Holmes’ case 200 working notebooks used and reused over a period of decades.

And while it’s still a moot point for me how far you need to have an active interest in the subject, it proves the adage that the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes. I’ll be taking a look at Holmes’ latest just as soon as the library can supply it.

Postscript: on a YouTube vid from 2008 Holmes gives his 10 commandments for biography. Worth a look. Plus The long pursuit is R4’s Book of the Week from 12 December.

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…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 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):

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 (1937) 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

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.

Other people’s countries: the malady of time and place

Last summer I discovered Patrick McGuinness and read his Bucharest set novel The last hundred days – see Belgitude in Bucharest. Now it’s time for the book which set the whole thing off: Other people’s countries (reviews: Amazon | Guardian | Observer | Independent | Literary Review | Spectator | Caught by the river).

Disarming, eloquent and illuminating, this meditation on place, time and memory, could only have been written by a poet, or a novelist, or a professor. Happily, Patrick McGuinness is all three, and Other People’s Countries is a marvel: a stunning piece of lyrical writing, rich in narrative and character – full of fresh ways of looking at how we grow up, how we start to make sense of the world.

A very special book of short, Proustian pieces on childhood and how the places of our childhood are embedded in us.

It’s a truly lovely thing made up of 50+ short sketches, or dare I say drifts, some from McGuinness’ two previous books of poetry. The book includes those twin devices beloved of curating readers – a dramatis personae and a map of the Walloon town of Bouillon, but no index (another project?). The list of personae includes visitors, tourists and passers-through (“everyone passed through, not many stayed”), including, intriguingly, Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and Jack Warner – I’m sensing war film. We’ll see. In the afterword McGuinness cautions about “things you tell yourself, that you invoke and perform for yourself in order to be and to remain yourself…I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday”.

We’re in memory country again, and partly a stranger in a strange land, although less so than Gorra. And memory is tied to place:

When I’m asked about events in my childhood, about my childhood at all, I think mostly of rooms. I think of times as places, with walls and windows and doors.

As for most people, “plenty of nothing” happened, a childhood characterised by Essence of indoors, “that sublimate of all that’s gone”. The family house itself “is now empty most of the year, and sits marinading in its past”.

The cover of the hardback edition (above) shows an owl flying out from a wallpaper of green leaves and flowers, characterising the Ardennais fondness for animal parts, “not just for eating but for home decoration”. The cover for the paperback edition is a stock image of keys, tied up in a metaphor for how you remember the past:

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you could make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite so well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.

More musings in My suits, a two page meditation on the nature of anticipation: ” I could already imagine myself gone, so that everywhere I went I could only think about what it would be like without me there”, putting a “black border” around days: “even as you live them forwards, you’re looking at them from behind, seeing them as they would be if they were over.” And as an aside:

I think every child tries that experiment where, faced with a date in the future they dread, and believing the old adage about time going faster when you’re busy or having fun, they slow down and avoid enjoying things too much, hoping to put the brakes on Time. This in turn means they don’t enjoy the present, which gives them another thing, other than its pastness, to regret about the past.”

Some sketches are more factual, but with a twist in the tail:

  • Corbion: the art of “composing sweepingly universal rules from minuscule amounts of unrepresentative data”, Corbion is a town where the inhabitants “were reputed to be unable to gender their nouns”, while the population of Paliseul is sensitive to the cold
  • Triage: “my parents often misused ready-made expressions not only in each other’s languages but, by the end, in their own…by dint of living with the other, each became gradually unmoored from their native tongues”, and for their children, “an exhilirating world of malapropism and cross-purposes”
  • Centenarian: “an old school photograph keeps turning up in Le Cercle d’Histoire de Bouillon, where the same photographs and reminiscences keep turning up anyway (this is why we keep reading it, for the sameness laid over change)”

The tone is not donnish, taking unexpected turns on places, feeling at first misplaced but then more personal. References are also made forward to other sketches, giving the book a dynamism not often found in writing in this style.

Growing up with two countries is different from moving to another, although there is clearly much in common, not least a feeling of being adrift, of superimposing time and place. Bouillon is the home of McGuinness’ parallel Belgian self, it is someone else’s country. In Naturalisation he quotes Simenon: “there was no reason for me to be born Belgian”, seeing this as “a refreshing antidote to the usual stridences of belonging”. And Belgian writer William Cliff, not Belgian but “from Belgium”.

What of Gordon Jackson and friends? McGuinness retells the story of Against the wind, a 1946 film, “as it was felt, in that hybrid long-finished but real-time-unfolding present tense that reflects the inside of our lives far better than those three stooges, the past, present and future”.

The book concludes, inevitably, with Déjà vu:

Two tenses grappling with one instant, one perception:

forgotten as it happens, recalled before it has begun.

opc

Flâneur in Copenhagen

Back on 19 February I attended Flanør, an event hosted by the Goethe Institut and the Forening af Danske Kulturtidsskrifter, co-hosted by (and at) upscale newspaper Information. Speakers were Ricarda Messner (interview) and Fabian Saul from Flaneur Magazine, and Ulf Peter Hallberg, a Swedish writer living in Berlin since 1983. Here are some photos.

Kicking off proceedings Peter asked Ricarda (publisher) and Fabian (editor) to define “flâneur “. Cue much shifting in chairs, ending up with:

  • Ricarda: doing something without an aim
  • Fabian: dealing with things which could be lost, on the edge of time; ahead of time, avant garde

Frankly I’m with them on this, it is all more than a tad nebulous and open to interpretation, plus it’s really hard not to come over all pseud’s corner. Looking back my notes are pretty gnomic, and I reckon we’d all do better reading one or more of these articles: William Helmreich in Aeon | Paris Review praises the flâneur | The urban observer.

But Flaneur Magazine (Facebook | Twitter) is a lovely thing, internationally focused and published in English. Each issue explores a single street, so far in Berlin (review), Leipzig, Montreal and Rome (video review), with Athens coming up in the autumn. If they would like to tackle Copenhagen I’m inclined to suggest Valby Langgade. Each issue deals with some oddity, confusion, or disruption, with an overall theme emerging during a two month research period.

Moving on, Ulf Peter Hallberg was born in Malmö and now lives in Berlin. I came across him too late! from a post by Politikens Boghal on Facebook. He’s another one who blends fiction with real life – see his latest, Strindbergs skugga i Nordens Paris (2012), which intertwines his own background with August Strindberg’s stay in Copenhagen from 1887 to 1889 (published på dansk as Det store tivoli in 2014).

He also walks, and wrote the seminal Flanörens blick (The flâneur’s gaze, 1996; på dansk as Flanørens blik, 2000; Kristeligt DagbladLitteratursiden). It’s an essayroman; quotes from all the usual suspects, photos…I now have an autographed copy : D and plan to write a book report – it’s par for the course that the first book in Danish I might _really_ like to translate is actually Swedish…

Ulf’s flâneurie habit started with childhood visits to Copenhagen with his father, in particular to the auction houses on Bredgade. His father was a collector, along with the flâneur one of the social archetypes in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and sought inter alia wooden statues from Africa. This approach to life, the attempt to create – curate? – a universal order, is reflected in the novel Europeiskt skräp (2009) – published in English in 2013 as European trash: fourteen ways to remember a father (Amazon | “blends memoir, essay and fiction in an evocative journey through his late father’s world of collecting the European trash”).

And so time was up, before I could get my question/statement in on Kierkegaard (Denmark’s ultimate flâneur), and everyone rushed off looking at their shoes as per usual.

For me Copenhagen is just not set up for flâneurie, or Danes to be flâneur; it’s not just the hygge, it’s also the over-planning and regulation in both public spaces and personal lives – and not least, the fact that the bike is king. Can you be a flâneur on a bike? Every time I go into ‘town’, ie central Copenhagen, I’m reminded that cyclists rule. While car drivers have become accustomed to giving way on crossings, the rules of the road vs pavement etc, these cyclists just aren’t bothered. The lack of crossings doesn’t help – you can be left standing wondering just how fast those bikes are going, and what direction the next one is going to come from. It’s disturbing for someone with a serious jaywalking habit. But I digress.

Also of interest was the fact that flâneurie’s partner in crime, psychogeography, never came up, as it also didn’t on a recent Danish podcast about Sebald. (And did Asger Jorn, a founder member of the Situationist International and a close friend of Guy Debord, not indulge in the dérive?) Why is this? A quick check of bookshop Saxo brings up zero for Danish translations of Messrs McFarlane or Sinclair, gosh, and while there are translations of Sebald’s The rings of Saturn (1995; translation: 2011) and Vertigo (1990; translation: 2012; see review), Austerlitz (from 2001) will debut in translation in December. Double gosh. And Sebald seems to have a Spanish following, so it’s not just an Anglo/German thing.

But hov, what’s this? On 26 March Mette Kit Jensen (interview) gave a ‘performance lecture’ at Nikolai Kunsthal with the title Ongoing flâneuse, complete with turtle (sic), or perhaps, tortoise. I assume the shelled one was given full respect, I’m not totally comfortable with that aspect…anyway, I was otherwise engaged, and go for the literary turn rather than performance/interventions in any case, however Mette looks interesting. Last year she exhibited Flaneuse de l’Europe, an audiowalk and book at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde, as part of their Museum in the city project:

an audio walk conceived through research the artist has carried out in several larger Europeen cities, such as Rome, Athens, Paris and Istanbul using sounds, impressions and narratives. The short stories are joined together in one long story, which connects to places in Roskilde. Local sound scapes recorded in Roskilde are mixed with global places and episodes in one total sound collage where proximity and flash backs alternate.

An article in Kunsten.nu gives a bit of background (in English here – scroll!) and a map, plus there’s an audio version should you find yourself in Roskilde. See my audiowalks post for more on this one city to the tune of another trope.

Update: had a go at  Det store tivoli (Information: excerpts another last | review | Berlingske | svensk); apparently CPH was dubbed the Paris of the North after the World Exhibition of 1888; Hvidovre Bibliotekerne kindly lent me their new copy, but after three renewals it was time to hand it back – often an issue with library books. The main character is Strindberg’s secretary Knud Wiisby (1865-1941), hired by Edvard Brandes to spy on what August gets up to. (Ulf made Wiisby up, but connected with him on some level, and also has a vague family connection with CPH at that time. Or something.) Wiisby has a close relationship with Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson, who just happened to have unrequited love for Georg Brandes. And why not? Rather more worryingly there appears to be a parallel story set in LA in the present day, but there’s a sticker over that part of the cover.

Update, March 2017: Swedish app merchant Guidly launched a soundwalk about Victoria in Copenhagen at KBH Læser (FB event). The 90 minute walk, with some parts på dansk, runs from Axeltorv, where she met Brandes in 1886, to Kongens Nytorv, where she killed herself in a hotel room two years later.

Below: scenes from my drift in central Copenhagen, prior to the Flanør event.