Fernando Pessoa: multiplicity in Lisbon

In January we spent a few days in Lisbon. Fabulous place, a million miles from anything even vaguely Nordic. On the lookout for connections, it was no real surprise to discover that global traveller HC Andersen visited in 1866, publishing Et Besøg i Portugal in 1868. Rather more surprising was the link to Denmark’s other 19th century literary titan; like Kierkegaard, poet Fernando Pessoa was a prime exponent of the use of the the heteronym in his writing.

Now feeling like an old friend, prior to our trip to Lisbon I had never heard of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Portugal’s modernist poet, writer, translator, philosopher – and anointed flâneur. How can that be? A lifelong Anglophile, Pessoa lived in Durban from the age of seven to 17, attending Durban High School, from which he matriculated with a prize in English. His earliest works were written in English, he translated a number of books from Portuguese into English (and vice versa), and in 1925 he even wrote a guidebook to Lisbon in English (Lisbon: what the tourist should see, unpublished until 1992).

The word pessoa means person in Portuguese, deriving from the Latin persona, the mask worn by Roman actors; just one of the small details which make the man so intriguing. An outsider’s outsider, for most of his life Pessoa worked as a freelance commercial translator while contributing poetry and essays to journals and newspapers. He was interested in theosophy, spiritualism and the occult, corresponding with Aleister Crowley, and helped him to stage a fake suicide in Lisbon in 1930. A keen amateur astrologist, Pessoa made horoscopes of his clients and friends, as well as of his heteronyms and even of literary journals. All this had a strong influence on his writing; he felt “sometimes suddenly being owned by something else”.

In 1915 as part of a group of artists and poets, including close friends José de Almada Negreiros and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa created the literary magazine Orpheu, which introduced modernist literature and art to Portugal, if in only two issues.

From 1905 to 1920 he lived in 15 different locations in Lisbon, while from 1907 until his death he worked in 21 firms in Lisbon’s downtown, sometimes in more than one at the same time. Two favourite haunts were A Brasileira, the preferred café of the Orpheu group, and Martinho da Arcada on Praça do Comércio, his ‘office’ during the 1920s and 1930s. Given all that it’s not surprising that there is a full Pessoa audio tour and map experience.

Pessoa created over 70 heteronyms, imaginary characters allowing him to write in different styles. The best known are:

  • Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915), the ‘master’ of the other heteronyms and even Pessoa himself, a rural, uneducated poet of ideas who wrote in free verse (Complete poems and more | Uncollected poems)
  • Álvaro de Campos (1890- ), a well-travelled naval engineer who returned to Lisbon to stay in the fateful year of 1926; influenced by Futurism (poems inc Lisbon revisited, from visits in 1923 and 1926)
  • Ricardo Reis (1887- ), a doctor who composed Horatian odes; as a Royalist Reis fled to Brazil in 1910
  • Bernardo Soares, bookkeeper and flâneur, a ‘semi-heteronym’ who wrote mainly in prose; pages from his journal were found in a trunk in Pessoa’s apartment and published in English in 1991 as The book of disquiet

De Campos and Reis discussed the work of Caeiro in essays and with each other, rejecting the interpretation of their publisher, Pessoa. Pessoa-himself gradually becomes another heteronym, another mask.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist,” wrote Álvaro de Campos, sparing the author the trouble of living a ‘real’ life.

José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, paid the ultimate tribute to this dazzling and sustained feat of the imagination in his novel, The year of the death of Ricardo Reis, which sees Reis return to Lisbon on hearing of the death of Pessoa.

It’s difficult to gauge the true significance of all this to Portugal’s cultural life, however the man himself is pretty unavoidable in the cityscape and seems to have attained iconic status, in a similar way to James Joyce in Dublin. We made tracks to the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a house museum-cum-shrine and the city’s premiere literary location, the site of Pessoa’s last home from 1920 until his death.

On the ground floor was an exhibition of some of the numerous representations of Pessoa in art, while the second floor houses a reconstruction of Pessoa’s flat, with memorabilia including his school report in a glass case, his glasses and a rather functional bookcase – if not the trunk/s where he stored his writing. After his death 25,574 items were inventoried.

The museum is also custodian of Pessoa’s personal library of 1200 books (no Kierkegaard).

a Pessoa collage

Top right is a portrait by Almada Negreiros, but the most common image of Pessoa on the street is that seen in the cutout bottom right, taken from a photo of yer man striding (definitely not strolling) through town. A shot of him enjoying a glass of port comes a close second. In a 1931 photo, deep in conversation in the Café Martinho, he looks like a small amiable owl.

There are two Pessoa statues in town. The one in familiar kitschy style outside A Brasileira (not in fact his favourite café), was even in January a prime selfie spot; Pessoa would surely prefer the rather more surrealistic representation round the corner outside the house he was born in.

The 1925 Lisbon guidebook is available in at least three editions (2008 | 2011 | 2015), and I’m pretty sure I spotted a coffee table version in the airport bookshop. There’s even a graphic novel, Another side of Pessoa by João Viegas.

What of his writing? The consensus (Gdn | Geoff Nicholson | Alfred MacAdam) seems to be that The book of disquiet is for sleepless nights, something to dip into at random, something to be reread rather than read…in the same way it feels more in the spirit of the man to take him a poem at a time:

I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist. I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me…That’s me. Period.

For more poetry see the Poetry Foundation and Poetry International, or one of the many published collections by Richard Zenith (other translators are available).

The trunk and the fable, by Emília Nadal

Sources: Exploring Lisbon with Pessoa | Fernando Pessoa: an Englishly Portuguese, endlessly multiple poet (64 min vid with transcript) | Fernando Pessoa and the multiple faces we show on the netFernando Pessoa’s disappearing act | Inside ourselves | An interview with Richard ZenithLooking for Mr Person (Parnassus 24(1) 1999; via Questia) | ‘Oh Lisbon, my home!’

More? MultiPessoa | Pessoa’s trunk | Wuthering Expectations

Updates: more Pessoa spotting (“maybe more cities than I know use once-obscure Modernist writers as their mascot, as their brand”)…the Lisbon edition of Vide Verden, a Danish cultural travel book series, has a chapter on Pessoa by Dan Ringgard, plus one on HCA by Henrik Wivel…Literary Tourist reports on a HCA tour…Pessoa at Eurovision: Portugal’s 2017 winner Salvador Sabral is lead singer in a band named Alexander Search (each member of the band adopts a different character when on stage, obv)…Nicholas Shakespeare on Barry Hatton’s Queen of the sea: a history of Lisbon

On Pessoa, DR inevitably traces the parallels with Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms, his daily walks in a small European capital, his one brief platonic relationship, his writing process standing at a desk and wandering from one manuscript to another, from one pseudonym to another; his idea that we choose who we are, responded to by Pessoa in multiples, ending up as a shadow.

Henrik Wivel retraced HCA’s 1866 journey as part of the 2o0th anniversary celebrations of his birth in 2005, resulting in the travel book Det jordiske Paradis. Wivel visited the O’Neill family, descendants of the family visited by HCA 150 years earlier, an Irish-German family who emigrated to Portugal in the 18th century and exported wares to the rest of Europe, including Denmark. HCA got to know the three O’Neill brothers nearly forty years earlier when they lived in Copenhagen, and diligently paid each one a lengthy visit. The home of the oldest, then Denmark’s general consul, now belongs to the American Embassy and can be visited with prior notice.

Advertisements

#kbhlæser: Copenhagen reads!

Update: Aarhus has just trumped CPH with its LiteratureXchange (FB; JyllandspostenLitteratursiden), an avowedly international festival running from 14-24 June 2018 with an overflødighedshorn of 150 events, some even in foreign languages (sic), NorthLit (a Nordic Arabic subfestival), representatives from all four verdenshjørner; meanwhile KBH Læser has announced a shift in focus to a children’s festival, sheesh…apropos book festivals in general, see Bookfestival-opoly and other bookish games (article | Ullapoolism)…

KBH Læser (FB | Twitter: @kbh_laeser#kbhlæser), is an annual literary festival masterminded by Copenhagen Libraries.

Most of my posts seem to be about events these days, and this one is a rewrite of an old messy post on the festival, updated for 2018. When I first started this blog my focus was primarily the formidling angle, ie how events are presented on the web and how they are amplified (think pictorial broadcasting), shared and archived (or not). Of particular note in this regard is the rise of Instagram and the A3 newspaper.

As I started exploring CPH as place this became an additional focus, and now I’m increasingly exercised by how many festivals feel invisibly labelled “Danish only”, aimed at an audience I’m certainly not a member of, and to be making limited to no efforts to appeal to a more diverse, or, dare I say it, intercultural, audience.

For a public library led event, Kbh Læser is disturbingly highbrow – you’d be hard pressed to find many bestsellers here, and if you aren’t au fait with critical theory you may well be more than a tad turned off. Themes tend to the abstract; 2018 has the somewhat opaque catch-all theme of Manifest (Manifesto; think Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto).

Unusually for these days, there is no English version of the website, although the newspaper (64pp; too much already; selected articles in news) has a couple of English features. Elsewhere, the enthusiastic Ark Books (“For the Danes we’d like to provide the world’s literature, and introduce Danish literature to those who can’t read Danish”) offers its Manifesto Month (2017: Growth Month).

With my name on it, if in a four-way clash with the Beast from the East, were Georges Perec & OuLiPo at Storrs Antikvariat (a new secondhand bookshop in NV), Den Røde Sofa med Mette Dalsgaard (literary translator from Russian) and Flanørens Europa with Fabian Saul (as seen at Flâneur in Copenhagen nearly three years ago) and Mette Kit Jensen (in Kunsten.nu on the city), on what a drift through the streets of Europe can teach us about modern identity. (See also Fabian’s piece in the A3 rag entitled Notes for a pamphlet: walking the Assistens Cemetery of Copenhagen: the city as cemetery and Goethe Institute-supported project Traces of Resistance, now in the UK.)

Also with an international flavour we have a Flytningemanifest (and in English), Beirut læser and København læser syrisk litteratur (“Syrian literature as a part of literary Denmark”, hurra). We also have an art writing piece by Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese political cartoonist currently in CPH under the ICORN programme.

More of note:

  • in place related corner, several articles on bookish things in areas of the city: FrederiksbergVesterbro (unpick: “Istedgade…emmer af diversitet og mangfoldighed”) and Østerbro (just Poesiens Hus then), plus profiles of the new Litteraturhuset at Nybrogade 28 (seemingly beset by delay and various teething issues), Arbejdermuseet and KBH Tegner (comics and related)
  • a Litterært Manifest-kort, a map with 12 places; why-oh-why not online, not least when the project has received support from at least three worthy institutions? (this isn’t the first time, either)
  • Læseforeningen guided community reading events in Kulturtårnet, Ørestad Bibliotek and the tower of Vor Frue Kirke
  • Europa.Manifest, the output of visits to CPH central library during the autumn of 2017 by European and Danish philosophers, now available as a book
  • a Mikrofest from 24 small publishers, party and anthology in one (all in all an encouraging amount of wordplay around mani/fest; fest means party på dansk), with an online portal to come later in 2018
  • ENIGMA, the suitable enigmatic newish museum/not for post and telegraphy type things, has MANIFEST NOW, a virtual exhibition and installation at the main library, consisting of cut-ups from 15 manifestos displayed at random and/or put back together
  • and finally, Kbh Læser: the blog

#kbhlæser in previous years:

Event website critique (2015): usual fish in a barrel stuff. With 159 events from 77 organisers, and 58 venues, you need several ways of finding your way around the programme, but as ever there was no way in via theme or audience. A map/app would have been nice, although there was a list of what’s on at each venue. No search…and while the design is contemporary enough, you are diverted to Copenhagen Libraries’ rather creaky site for full details, where when it’s gone, it’s gone.

In archive terms, there is one page on the festival’s history plus brief summaries of the festivals in 2014 (the body in literature) and 2012 (Copenhagen). 2018 update: now replaced by photo selections on the about page (2015-17 only), although the 2017 programme is still advertised.

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 (see not least the Danelaw). 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; handy map inc Fife here. Update: Vikings in Scotland 20 years on; @ScotlandVikings.)

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.

Mind you, in the introduction to an interesting looking short story collection (review), Sjón maintains that the Nordic lands can really be seen as “a single culture with regional variations”. Update: this equally interesting looking post on anthologies states that Sjón also “describes how writers resist the umbrella term ’the North’ and its associations: ‘Their usual reaction is to be annoyed at hearing it… before they answer that there is no common identity.” (For more Sjón see foot of post.)

Vikingery:

The Centre for Scandinavian Studies’ Rethinking Scandinavia conference in June had several streams of interest. Full papers in due course, it says. Of most interest:

  • Frans Gregersen’s keynote on The battle between the three Scandinavias, the past, the present and the future
  • papers on Swedish exceptionalism and Sweden bashing, the other side of the coin – or hype cycle; I certainly remember it being all about Swedish exceptionalism in the 1970s, which never appealed and was finally debunked by Andrew Brown’s Fishing in utopia (interesting that Sweden as metonym preceded Denmark)
  • in panel 5, Anna Sandberg (KU) on Transnationale forestillinger: Danmark i tysk litteratur og kultur omkring 1900, featuring three texts which fremstilles Danmark med sin geografi og historie adskilt fra resten af Skandinavien – ha! (another example: Danish sadly lacks the concept of fylleangst – it’s worth unpicking why…)

It seems that worrying about Scandi identity and studying its reception overseas has a long history (and is the new black, as the sociology of translations). As a Germanistik graduate I don’t remember a similar Teutonic concern, but the Danish Anglo press does frequently note the obsession with what makes a Dane a Dane. For more see the latest issue of Scandinavica on Peripheral figures: British and Irish receptions of Nordic literature and culture.

The theme of August’s Nordic Research Network conference was The N/north as home. Interesting opening keynote by Stefan Brink on the role of academia in nationalism and state building (not streamed; unSwedish vs unDanish), plus a roundtable on the theme itself.

Sjón (@Sjonorama; GdnThe Nation | Paris Review | The White Review; interview): Icelandic novelist, poet, librettist, influenced not least by Mikhail Bulgakov; of most interest for Moonstone: The boy who never was (interview; Gdn), set in autumn 1918 amidst the outbreak of Spanish flu when Iceland became a sovereign country, and the trilogy CoDex 1962 (interview; Gdn)

Updates: spotted on FBDanmarkshistorier i 2017 – hvorfor og hvordan, seminar at RUC (programme) exploring Danish history from the perspective of memory and identity, inc DR’s Historien om Danmark, 99xVSTGN, the Kongerækken podcast, 100 danmarkshistorier – 100 bøger; the chance of any coverage of this sort of event is usually zero, however somehow I picked up that the @AUforsker of the week, @sally_schlosser , was livetweeting, so thanks to her…Eleanor Rosamund B on R4 with Immortal North…the Nordic Museum (@thenordicmuseum) in Seattle has reopened in a suitably Nordic looking building…

Yet another update, Nov 2018: Affects of diversity in Nordic literature, aka DINO 2018, with support from the ScanGuilt project (lots more there):

Being different may be a source of pride as well as a source of shame. How does it feel to be “different” in the Nordic countries? And how does it feel to be “different” as Nordic in a global perspective, a perspective in which the Nordic countries are currently hailed as the happiest, wealthiest, and most egalitarian nations on earth? Being/feeling different may be valued positively as well as negatively; it may serve constructive as well as destructive purposes; it may be inclusive as well as exclusive.

Crumbs. No abstracts or Twitter coverage (a Nordic norm) thankfully, or we’d be here until 2019.

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 | Deutschlandfunk Kultur

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…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 and Karens Minde, plus Svendborger Gedichte, in a new – and complete – translation as Svendborgdigte set to music by Saybia’s Søren Huss, at Baggård Teatret (Svendborg) and at Teater Grob; coming to Valby in January 2018…Litteraturen ved Sundet (podcast)…Dage med Brecht 2018 has the theme of Det Gode (The Good); among the delights a new book, Brechts Hus i Svendborg

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 (map), 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 a biennial 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 (again) 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.