I am only apparently dead

By General Secretary Lars Seeberg

In 2005, Hans Christian Andersen would have been 200 years old. The bicentenary is going to be the platform for a veritable rebirth of the writer and man Hans Christian Andersen, in Lars Seeberg's opinion. He is in charge of "Hans Christian Andersen 2005", which is to coordinate the celebration of the writer of fairy-tales at a national and international level.

Preceding Hans Christian Andersen's 70th birthday in 1875, the whole of Denmark collected money for a statue of the famous writer to be erected in Kongens Have (the Royal Garden) in Copenhagen. The writer was not really keen on the project - indeed, his tone was unusually sharp when rejecting the study of the statue by August Saabye.

The sketch showed the writer of fairy-tales reading aloud for a crowd of children. But Andersen could not stand looking at "that tall boy lying there right in my crotch" and protested violently against the way in which he was to be depicted. Even the moment of the depiction was unrealistic, for he would "never read aloud when anyone sat behind me or close up to me, even less when I had children on my lap or my back".

He was not at all keen to be thought of as a "children's writer". His own intention was "to be a writer for all ages, and that children could not represent me; the naive was only one element of the tale - humour, on the other hand, was the salt in them."

Anyone passing through Kongens Have will know that Andersen's protest had its effect. In the final version of the statue, he is sitting alone with a book in his lap, reading aloud for an invisible audience.

Pathetic entertainer
The situation is one of the early examples of the myth that was later to stick to Andersen. In the 20th century, many sentimentalised accounts of his life - not least the Hollywood version of 1952, where Danny Kaye portrays Andersen as a sweet, pathetic entertainer - reduced the picture of the writer of fairy-tales to a caricature, a divinely inspired village idiot. Nothing could be more unjust.

In 2005, what is probably Denmark's most famous son and his work are to be celebrated. We are celebrating the 200th year of Andersen's birth. An anniversary of such a nature provides an occasion for taking a serious critical look at the figure who is the reason for these festivities.

And in the case of Hans Christian Andersen there is every reason to consider whether or not the picture that has been painted over the years of the writer of fairy-tales is too narrow when it comes to the message his writing ought to have in relation to our own age.

Everyone would soon agree that Andersen's tales are so important a part of Danish culture that we cannot consign him to oblivion without losing part of our cultural backbone. Part of how we understand ourselves is bound up with our knowing Hans Christian Andersen.

Across the ages
But if ostentatiously celebrating a long-since deceased writer from the Danish Golden Age is to have any real meaning, efforts must first and foremost concentrate on making him intelligible to our present-day age. He must not be dusted like some museum object or in order to nostalgically keep a friendly old uncle in our thoughts, but because he can contribute with an understanding of human life in general - across the ages.

It is one thing to extend our knowledge of lesser known chapters of Andersen's works. When pushed, most foreigners can certainly name three to five of Andersen's most famous fairy-tales, while most Danes can probably manage eight to ten. In actual fact, Andersen wrote more than 150 tales and stories. So there is plenty to get going on.

What there really is a need for is a veritable rebirth of Andersen. Two centuries after his birth, he is still not widely recognised as being the world-class writer he undoubtedly was - just as an important representative of the transition from Romanticism to early Realism as his - incidentally well-known - contemporaries Honoré de Balzac or Victor Hugo.

To push the point further, you could say that Hans Christian Andersen's own fame has become a hindrance for knowledge of him as a writer. Hearing the name Hans Christian Andersen - in China, the US, or anywhere in the world - brings a smile to everyone's lips. But the smile is a nostalgic one, linked to the nursery and memories of bedtime stories.

In fact, Hans Christian Andersen is a figure you leave behind in your earliest years and do not seriously look at again as an adult. But even the fairy-tales that are known and loved by children contain much that they cannot understand at all and that is primarily directed at adult readers.

This applies, for example, to his attitude to nature and society, his religious ideas, his view of love and art, his satirical description of human behaviour, his irony and his acute verbal wit. All that in fact makes Andersen unique and original.

The Shadow
In an age where stories for children were exclusively moralising and didactic, he revolutionised the genre by imbuing it with humour, anarchy and the sadness of great literature. Andersen's stories are full of the most painful and raw emotions. At his best, he tells us - in his own straightforward and unpretentious way - just as much about human life as any of the world's greatest authors or philosophers.

Some of the tales, addressed exclusively to the adult reader, are precursors of surrealism and the Freudian idea of the subconscious. He experimented and prefigured modernism. Just think of a tale like "The Shadow". Most of the rest of his uvre is not children's literature either: novels, plays, poems, travel accounts, letters and diaries.

When Andersen's 150th anniversary was to be celebrated in 1955, the "Federation for Danish Cultural Activities Abroad" recommended to the Prime Minister's Office as early as the beginning of 1954 (!) that the day should be marked, among other things, by ceremonies, mainly organised by the Danish representations abroad.

The sum of 100,000 DKK was approved for holding memorial ceremonies and 72,225 DKK for informative material in connection with the Hans Christian Andersen Day. Or, to quote the complete overview of the events by the Press Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

"Apart from various kinds of material in connection with planned memorial ceremonies (such as music, plaster-casts of Bissen's bust of Hans Christian Andersen, etc.) a standard article written by Sven Møller Christensen was forwarded for the use of the press and radio, as well as a childrens article, written by Christian Winther. There were 2,000 copies of each, distributed in 70 countries."

Today, it is easy to smile at the under-ambitious vision typical of the Danish campaign of the fifties, the prime aim of which was to conserve the writer - or, at any rate, not to shed new light on his writing, if a look is taken at what actually happened around the royal Danish embassies.

Living person
The strategy underlying "Hans Christian Andersen 2005", as the coordinated efforts linked to the bicentenary are called, is, of course, a different one. The clear objective of the anniversary year is that - in Denmark and far beyond its borders - a greater and more informed level of knowledge will be gained of Hans Christian Andersen's wide-ranging work and his complexity as a person.

Hans Christian Andersen was a real living person. The cardboard cut-out of the old, naive writer of fairy-tales with children at his knee must give way to the complete human portrait that contains the facets he also had:

The passion, the shame about his childhood past, the loneliness that came from feeling he was unloved and unlovable, the insatiable thirst for praise, the hatred of criticism, the enthusiastic belief in progress, the fear, the hypochondria, the vanity, the insatiable ambition, the sexuality.

That the complete picture of Andersen is larger than most people would realise can be ascertained from making the acquaintance of the latest biography. The English cultural writer Jackie Wullschlager continues where Elias Bredsdorff stopped 25 years ago. Her highly qualified interpretation of Andersen's writing - seen in relation to a modern psychological portrait - is an entertaining, moving and supremely competent biography that was published last year and is to be published in Danish on 2 April 2002.

Danish readers will find this enjoyable reading while waiting for the major literary biography by the Andersen researcher Jens Andersen, which is also on its way. Wullschlager's biography, which took up the front page of the New York Times' literary supplement in May, is just one of the indications that there is an interest in Andersen in the outside world. Japan, for example, has had a national committee for the celebration of Andersens bicentenary since 1997.

There can be no doubt that curiosity will increase as the anniversary approaches if we seize the psychological moment here in Denmark. And if, it should be noted, we want to influence the image of the writer and restore some of the meanings of the stories.

Not a word, here, against the simplified picture books and Disney's animated version of "The Little Mermaid". It is just that they do not have all that much to do with Andersen. Respect must be paid to Andersen as a writer for an adult audience and for an audience that is fully living in the present. He must be shown full-figure as a writer.

The actual geographical location of "Hans Christian Andersen 2005" is "Det Adelige Jomfrukloster" [=The Home for Unmarried Ladies of Noble Rank] in Odense - which looks directly out onto the spot where Andersen's mother used to carry out her daily toil.

The secretariat opened on 1 September this year. Leading up to the anniversary, a number of activities will take place in Andersen's native city, but the anniversary itself will be celebrated nationally and internationally with nationwide projects and international events launched worldwide.

An artistic council comprising Danish and international members from all the included areas will advise the secretariat, which will coordinate, collect, inspire and help finance the many projects and events.

By "Hans Christian Andersen 2005" we hope to mark the writer's importance via a whole series of events within both classical artistic genres and new media, including drama, music, dance, literature, feature films, TV, animation as well as forms of education, conferences and the Internet.

Present-day artists within all genres are gaining direct or indirect inspiration from Andersen's world. "Hans Christian Andersen 2005" is seeking to be a broadly based venture that will include both the really big productions and initiatives that have decisive influence and that will perhaps leave lasting memories - as well as a number of smaller events.

There will be events with a wide popular appeal as well as more marginal productions that are designed for specific target groups. Naturally, a great number of major theatres, museums, orchestras, TV stations and other institutions in Denmark will concentrate heavily on Andersen during the bicentenary year.

"Hans Christian Andersen 2005" is of course in contact with them and is working closely with them. Apart from them, other artists outside the major institutions will also be focusing on Andersen. Some events will take the form of international co-productions, with contributions from partners in various countries. A whole series of projects is being planned that involves highly interesting international theatrical producers, composers, choreographers, new circus folk, etc.

A theatrical performance will, for example, be produced and shown in its home-country, China, after which it will tour a series of major cities in the rest of the world before visiting Denmark in the course of 2005. Apart from securing local involvement from the foreign festivals, theatres and exhibition venues helping to finance the projects, there is naturally an economic advantage to be gained from making use of international co-productions.

More Andersen
Quite simply, we get more Andersen for our money. An investment of DKK 5 million in a project represents a value of DKK 25 if there are, for example, four foreign partners co-producing. Moreover, the point of departure is that the whole world is to be included in the festivities. Not just as passive recipients of an officially approved Danish view of the writer - as in 1955 - but as actively co-scripting participants that shed a many-facetted light on the writer from the outside.

Andersen belongs to the whole world. This of course does not mean that some of the Danish projects to be implemented are not also to be sent out into the world. This will take place in cooperation with the newly established International Culture Secretariat. Many projects are already in the melting pot. It is necessary to get underway with the content side of things already if expectations are to be met.

The catalogue is being extended and will of course become more concrete as we approach the anniversary year. A considerable hindrance for Andersen's appreciation as a writer also for adults is the imperfect or poor translations that exist today in many of the major languages. Furthermore, there are large sections of his writing that have never be translated into, for example, English. Better translations must be made wherever it is deemed necessary.
There is an excellent selection of Andersen texts in French, collected in the Pléiade edition of the Academy. It illustrates the breadth of his writing and could serve as an excellent model for similar publications in other languages. Nor must children be cheated.

A number of educational projects are planned within kindergartens as well as primary and secondary schools. How, for example, does one work on developing the human personality within the school system? Here, Andersen can be used as a lever for exploring new paths within pedagogics. A number of pilot projects are to be initiated in educational institutions - for example in collaboration with the Children's Cultural Council.

In terms of research, too, there is a need for surprising re-interpretations of Andersen that can function as eye-opening analyses of his writing. Preferably written by people who can break the traditionally highly biographical approach to his work, and who do not normally work with Andersen.

The Internet
On the Internet side, everything that is worth knowing about Andersen ought to be collected in a common portal. Here one should also be able to get ongoing information about the many events taking place in connection with the bicentenary. The website must appeal both to those who are generally interested in knowing more about the writer and to researchers who thereby gain better access to the reliquaries. The portal ought to be the primary platform for the international profiling of "Hans Christian Andersen 2005" and come into existence in a cooperation between important Danish institutions within education, research and tourism.

An obvious spin-off from the content-related revitalisation of a literary world-name such as Hans Christian Andersen is a revision of Danish tourism. In the real world, the picture of the land of fairy-tale with half-timbered cottages and hollyhocks is undergoing rapid change at present. The aim is for more and more sophisticated travellers to interest themselves in the country as a competent, living and modern society - also beyond 2005. Both by events that a public can involve itself in and make use of here in Denmark during the anniversary year, but also as an effect of the experiences sent out into the world.

Even for tourists who do not primarily come to Denmark on account of Hans Christian Andersen a marked expansion of possibilities must take place for increased insight into his life and work. The axis for the tourism side of "Hans Christian Andersen 2005" will be his native city of Odense and Copenhagen where Andersen spent his adult life. The level of ambition will have to be high if the initiative is to make the necessary impact and strike a responsive chord nationally and internationally.

The economic aim of "Hans Christian Andersen 2005" is a budget that ensures that the intentions can be realised. The Municipality of Odense has already earmarked resources to ensure the operating costs of the secretariat. The Ministry of Culture has begun using a grant, and the government has recognised "Hans Christian Andersen 2005" as the institution that is officially responsible for coordinating the events in connection with Andersen's 200th birthday.

With increased national financial involvement and with means from funds and sponsors, it is not unrealistic to arrive at an economic prioritisation that makes it possible to create a Hans Christian Andersen year which will carry some clout. On a par with priorities adopted elsewhere when other European cultural giants are celebrated on a striking scale - for example, when Goethe's home city Weimar was City of European Culture in 1999. A not unrealistic prioritisation when one recalls that the budget has to include cultural new productions, publications, research, educational projects in schools, international manifestations and tourist drives.

Visions of terror
Throughout his life, Andersen suffered from visions of terror. He was, for example, scared stiff of dogs and fires. One of his worst nightmares was to be buried alive. Therefore he left a note at the side of his bed with the words "I am only apparently dead" when about to go to sleep.

Hopefully, "Hans Christian Andersen 2005" will help to bring Andersen back to life from the mummifying hibernation that for far too long has surrounded the man and the writer. He must be known and appreciated as a full-figure writer. Of flesh and blood.

Feature article from the Danish daily Politiken, November 2, 2001