Monday 18 December 2017

Why Hans Christian Andersen's life was no fairy tale

Biography Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness Paul Binding Yale; hdbk, €25, 384 pages

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness
The Ugly Duckling
Hans Christian Andersen in middle-age
Hans Christian Andersen sculpture in New York

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

On June 11 1857, Hans Christian Andersen arrived at Charles Dickens's house, having arranged to stay for a week. A month later he was still there.

"We are suffering a great deal from Andersen," Dickens wrote on July 10. When his guest left he put a note on the mantelpiece that read: "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seemed to the family AGES!" His daughter Katey was even harsher, declaring Andersen was "a bony bore" who "stayed on and on".

While Andersen was undeniably a difficult man – vain, self-absorbed and painfully insecure – he might have expected a more sympathetic reception from Dickens.

Both were writers at the top of their profession who had fought their way up from the depths.

Andersen's father was a shoemaker who had died of tuberculosis.

His mother was an alcoholic washerwoman who ended up being committed to an asylum, and when little Hans was put to work in a cloth mill, the other employees, on hearing him sing, tore off his clothes to find out if he was a boy or girl.

Far from breaking him, such experiences only sharpened his ambition, and by the time he was a gawky 17-year-old he had already published his first book.

The pseudonym he chose – Villiam Christian Walter – fitted one of his own names between those of his literary heroes, Shakespeare and Scott. Nobody could doubt that when he stated, "I want to be the top Danish novelist", he was perfectly serious.

Nor can anyone now doubt why the extraordinary fairytales he went on to produce, including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and The Emperor's New Clothes, bubbled up from his imagination. They were stories about transformation and were, in effect, rough drafts of Andersen's autobiography.

Today, he is a strangely neglected figure outside his native Denmark.

Most people who come across his work do so through sanitised Disney cartoons or the sentimental portrayal of him by Danny Kaye in a 1952 Hollywood musical.

That film described itself as "not the story of his life, but a fairytale about this great spinner of fairytales", but Paul Binding's biography presents a writer who was much tougher and more complicated.

In dealing with the fairytales, Binding is properly sympathetic to their sheer strangeness, an impression greatly increased by his decision to quote in Danish as well as English.

As he points out, in Andersen's later tales he dropped the designation "for children", which suggests that he thought of them as parables or fables rather than sweet bedtime stories. The results were like literary icebergs, in which any words that broke through the surface of the page were supported by unseen forces.

Binding's attempts to unravel Andersen's tangled personal life are less convincing.

He provides helpful context in support of his thesis that Andersen was a politically aware European rather than a whimsical solipsist, and argues persuasively for the writer's influence on more obviously hard-edged modernists like Ibsen. He also notes Andersen's shrill and clinging character, and the unrequited affair with a dull Dane named Edvard Collin to whom he wrote: "I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench . . . the femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery."

Sadly all this comes at a cost. This is a curiously old-fashioned literary biography, in which long notes march inexorably down the page, and Andersen's life is firmly relegated behind readings of his works.

The result is a book that is impeccable in its scholarship, generous in its scope and far, far too long.

Sift through the text and there are some fine nuggets, many of them proving that Andersen was surprisingly good as a travel writer, capable of making ordinary life seem as extraordinary as anything in his stories. But there is a lot of sifting to do.

Perhaps a strong editor might have persuaded Binding that inside this book a much slimmer and more interesting one was struggling to get out.

As it is, rather like Andersen himself, this is a biography that promises to be a fascinating companion but quickly outstays its welcome.

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709 350

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