INTERVIEWS With a bit of magic in his soul

As a boy in his hometown of Odense, Secretary General Lars Seeberg witnessed the sesquicentennial celebration of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. Just short of 50 years later, he is himself at the head of the globe-spanning celebration of the writer's 200th birthday.

By Mikkel Stjernberg - H.C. Andersen 2005 - 14 October 2003

Secretary General Lars Seeberg can remember when he was five years old and his hometown of Odense celebrated the sesquicentennial of Hans Christian Andersen's birth: among other things, that American film star Danny Kaye came to Odense and, with great media savvy, lay down on Hans Christian Andersen's bed, which had been set up specially for the occasion and was not to be touched - an event Lars Seeberg's father covered as a local cultural journalist and which caused a huge scandal in the Odense of the 1950s.

Danny Kaye had portrayed Hans Christian Andersen in a musical film that later had great impact on the Western world's view of Hans Christian Andersen. A view, according to Lars Seeberg, we accepted uncritically and which, for him, is the epitome of everything we would like to avoid with Hans Christian Andersen 2005: in part, because the film is a poor interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen; in part, because for Lars Seeberg, it is the epitome of a slick, sentimental, sexually-repressed era of black and white values that was not really ready to deal with the complexity and inner demons of Hans Christian Andersen.

"I am convinced that, in our day and age, we are better able to tackle Hans Christian Andersen on a broader front than ever before. That we are more open in our complex age to Andersen's depths and the incredible humor he contains. It is amazing to think what insight Hans Christian Andersen had into human psychology and the human condition, when you compare it to how poor his own self-control was.  We have far more understanding of such things today than at the time of the 1955 celebration," says Lars Seeberg.

That was when the first Donald Duck comics came out on the market - which, along with other popular literature for boys at the time, books such as the Hardy Boys series or Classics Illustrated, deeply engrossed young Lars Seeberg. Donald Duck in particular was his great favorite.

"I think the way I have absorbed Hans Christian Andersen is quite typical for a person of my generation - that is, by having the fairy tales told to me by my grandparents or read aloud by my parents, or, when I was older myself, by reading adapted versions of them.  Beyond that, I don't think I had much more exposure as a young person other than reading the actual texts, when I was in school and at university, where I studied literary theory. But he was never a central figure for me, where I read everything he wrote or anything like that," says Lars Seeberg.

Incredibly daring
He adds that this is why it is so interesting for him to be heading up Hans Christian Andersen 2005, because the project has also become a pivotal point for his own rediscovery of Hans Christian Andersen. The various initiatives inspire Lars Seeberg everyday to see new aspects of the fairy-tale writer, and he hopes that the project will have the same influence on the public at large, when the jubilee year is over. Particularly since the purpose of Hans Christian Andersen 2005 is to make use of today's tremendous artistic capabilities as a jumping-off point for the rediscovery of Hans Christian Andersen by the entire world.

"I have always claimed that Danish culture needs a more intense dialogue with the rest of the world, because we are a small country with a narrow and homogenous public. It is important that we constantly challenge our surroundings, and it is this principle we are working to realize with this project.  Anything else would be absurd.  We cannot act, as though Hans Christian Andersen belongs only to us. He belongs to the world, and so believes the world.  Many do not even know he is Danish and, in reality, we are only stressing the Danish connection for reasons of tourism.  Andersen was a citizen of the world, and that is how we wish to present him."

What is it Hans Christian Andersen can do?
"For me, Hans Christian Andersen is primarily about a linguistic refinement that is utterly unique. His fairy tales are not really so much about the story in itself as about ethical possibilities and his language is so incredibly daring that, with a single word or an ellipse, he can turn things so that the situation is denied even as it is maintained. That is what I think is incredible about Hans Christian Andersen. That you can be surprised at how he twists and turns his point of view and seamlessly shifts between the comic and the tragic, the sentimental and the alienating."

Do you think he was conscious of this when he wrote his fairy tales?
"Yes, yes, yes, yes!!! He certainly was, when he was writing but probably only when he was writing. We can see this in the manuscripts, which were corrected again and again. Of course, some of the stories are closer to him than others. In this sense, there is a big difference. But there is no such difference in the way he revised them. He had that little bit of magic in his soul.  An elegant, easy, almost unnoticeable way of teasing a double meaning out of the text."

Can you give an example of this?
"For example, in "The Emperor's New Clothes," to take one of the most well known, in which a child turns the whole story around in the end. Or in "The Nightingale," in the final scene, where the courtiers are waiting outside the Emperor's room in the expectation that he has died, but he comes out to them and simply says good morning, without any gloating or recrimination. An incredibly well-chosen line that says it all."

And this is the essence of Hans Christian Andersen?
"For me, it is. Many fairy tales have been written over the years, but most of them focus on the fable - that is, the core story. In and of itself, there is no great sense of language or play in the content. With Hans Christian Andersen, the art is in his play with ethic situations in the tale and his incredible artistry with language. At the same time, he is a great dramatist and amazingly good at staging the point he wants to make."

Practical and professional
It seems as if your approach to Hans Christian Andersen is very academic. Is that wrong?
"If you have a graduate degree in literature, I don't think you can avoid reading in a different way than if you just read for enjoyment.  But for the last number of years, I have been primarily concerned with drama, and my focus has not been particularly academic but to the contrary on the practical. I had to read pieces and discuss them with actors and directors, always with a view to the fundamental questions of why we were doing the piece and what we could use it for."

"But, of course, you schlep your knowledge and analytical tools around with you. So, I am an academic in the sense that I have an academic degree, but I do not rely on my academic training exclusively in connection with something that has to come alive on stage before an audience."

How do you use it then in overseeing Hans Christian Andersen 2005?
"We take very seriously the question of what we are doing with Hans Christian Andersen. We are not groupies or connoisseurs of Hans Christian Andersen. We represent the general public's view of his writings and constantly ask ourselves the question - why should we celebrate him?  Because we shouldn't do it just to do it.  Does he, for example, speak to our times and, if he does, how can we tease out more aspects to him than we have experienced before?"

"Our job is to make Hans Christian Andersen interesting to those who have the same sort of semi-banal attitude toward him that I myself have had. That is, where we read him at the same time we are doing a thousand and one other things. That is where we take our starting point."

There must be some approaches to Hans Christian Andersen in this project that are not to your personal taste. How do you deal with that?
"You can be both a private person and a professional, and part of the private person Lars Seeberg entails reading in a way that takes in a lot of different references to the collected oeuvre, literary periods and such things. It is something else to be a professional.  With such a large project as this, it is, of course, necessary that it not be about me and my taste and that I take into consideration various viewpoints with respect to the audience. I do this by employing other colleagues who have different points of view than my own and whose attitude toward the project may be broader than mine. For example, a Christian Have, who has worked with broad, popular genres such as the International Melody Grand Prix and such things."

"So, you listen to those views and, at the end of the day, there will still be something that is very close to my own taste, which is not to say that I have forced through anything about which I am purely privately enthusiastic. In this project, it is decisive that we have art, popular culture, journalism, education, tourism, and so on, with us the whole way. Thus, in many ways, we are doing something that is surprising to me and makes up part of my own way of rediscovering Hans Christian Andersen."

You are never offended by some of the more controversial approaches to Hans Christian Andersen?
"I love controversy, the more controversial the better. But some of what we do will undoubtedly offend others. Not that that is what we are going for, but there are those who have a relatively narrow view of Hans Christian Andersen."

"My own attitude is really very broad. In my opinion, one of the definitions of a genre classic is that a classic can tolerate almost any abuse. No matter what you do to it, the work will survive.  Whether it is Shakespeare, Mozart or Hans Christian Andersen."

"Experience has proven this. Andersen has survived, among other things, Danny Kaye, bad translations, crappy, sentimental illustrations, and he will survive anything we can do to him.  Hopefully, what we do will help him survive even longer, because we will bring more people into contact with him than he otherwise would have had. That is the whole point with the project."

No thanks to ground balls
So, there is nothing about the project than could offend you?
"No, I would not say offend, but, of course, it is unavoidable that some of what we do will fail. That the encounter between an artist and Hans Christian Andersen will not go well. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for this. Some of the things we will do will just be too banal in relation to Andersen's potential, and that is what I am most afraid of. Of being responsible for something that belongs in the bush leagues rather than the World Series. If we want to avoid anything, it is doing something equivalent to hitting a ground ball in relation to Andersen. Let us move the world to try to do something at the same level but coming from a completely different planet."

What do you think the legacy of Hans Christian Andersen 2005 will be?
"First of all, we are going to leave behind material that has been lacking for years. The collected works in a definitive version, better pedagogical books, better translations and translations into languages that have never had them before, and so on. Moreover, we will be responsible for a number of artistic interpretations of Hans Christian Andersen in the form of theatre and dance performances of various kinds, musicals, feature films, television series, etc."

"All at a very high level in an international context, and this will open people's eyes to what sort of person Andersen was. Most of all, that he is not just for children. It will simply be a revelation for many ordinary people to experience certain texts they have never heard before, just as it will be a revelation to put someone from China together with someone from New York to create an unusual musical fusion that is still Hans Christian Andersen, but also right here and right now."

Is there any program in the project that is particularly close to your own heart?
"I would say that a lot of the "high art" that is part of the project  that is, many of the larger productions - is to my taste. Primarily, the large dance and theater productions. However, other colleagues have had other ideas to ensure that we have breadth.  For example, television, film and musicals."

Yes, please, to the questions of art
Do you think you can overdose on Hans Christian Andersen?
"I probably can, because I have to see everything, as opposed to most others, who restrict themselves one or two things. However, I have not yet reached the point of saturation, but even if I had, I would not admit it."

What are you really thinking, when you go to work every morning at the Noble Maid Cloister?
"That I have never had a job I loved so much, and that no matter what obstacles or irritations may come, it will not shake my conviction that this is a "once in a lifetime" job. Not only is it incredible in the Danish context, but, at the same time, it is one of the few jobs in cultural life to have its source in Denmark and almost on its own become a globe-spanning project, because it is about Hans Christian Andersen. There are not many other things that could do that."

If you were to give us the master key to Hans Christian Andersen, what would it be?
"That is very difficult, but like all other great artists, he opens thing up, instead of closing them off. He is complex, ethereal and indefinable. Great art provides no answers; it only asks questions.  You cannot say it means such and such. Only that it opens up various possible interpretations at once. There is nothing so boring as getting an answer. That is religion. Religion is about answers, and art is about questions. It is the questions that are the most interesting.  ou can always come up with answers yourself," says Lars Seeberg.

Lars Seeberg stepped down as Secretary General 31 May 2005.