Book review: Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness, by Paul Binding

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 3:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 3:43pm

Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness
by Paul Binding
Yale University Press
4.5 stars

Suzi Feay

Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales (he soon dropped the designation "for children") have captivated generations with their blend of plain language, unbridled imagination and haunting strangeness. They remain everywhere. The latest Walt Disney blockbuster, Frozen, is loosely inspired by The Snow Queen - which, along with The Ugly Duckling, The Princess and the Pea and The Emperor's New Clothes - long ago floated free from its creator to live an independent life.

Paul Binding does not just analyse the famous tales, but makes bold claims for Andersen as an adult novelist, in which guise he is less well-known. This book contains quotes in the original Danish, followed by English translations, often Binding's own. In this way the non-Danish speaker can get a sense of Andersen's crisp, unstuffy style.

It is not a biography so much as a detailed critical study. Along the way, Andersen is born, educated, makes friends, travels, writes and dies, but Binding highlights only those aspects of the life that illuminate the work. Andersen was born into poverty in Odense, Denmark, in 1805; his father was a book-loving shoemaker and his mother a washerwoman. His grandfather had been confined to a lunatic asylum, while his grandmother was the model for the various kindly old ladies of Andersen's later fiction.

Despite his unpromising start, Andersen quickly showed talent, and was especially attracted to the stage. At 14 he left Odense for Copenhagen to seek his fortune, with a letter of introduction to artistic circles. He obtained influential sponsors: "envisage an obscure youth", Binding writes, "with a strong regional way of speaking and no education somehow conveying to three highly sophisticated men … the magnitude of his talents and ambitions".

In Copenhagen he was taken into the family of the intellectual Jonas Collin and formed a bond with his son, Edvard. Andersen's social status remained uncertain, however. Binding emphasises one of the central episodes of Andersen's life: a letter from Edvard, standoffishly declining Andersen's suggestion that they change from using the formal "De" address to the "Du" permitted to friends and brothers.

This snub was transmuted into one of Andersen's most darkly brilliant stories, The Shadow, in which a man and his shadow separate and ultimately switch places. Edvard never relented, however, and on his deathbed Andersen was still thirsting for affirmation from his friend.

The subtitle of this book, European Witness, puts Andersen at the heart of the international literary and cultural scene, and he met many celebrated figures on his trips, from Heine to Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Kierkegaard, Jacob Grimm and Dickens, plus various monarchs who were his admirers.

In Binding's infectiously enthusiastic view, there are traces of Andersen everywhere in 19th-century literature, from Wuthering Heights to Nietzsche. He relates how Andersen's story The Most Incredible Thing, which dramatises the ultimate failure of thuggery when faced with creativity, "became a kind of holy text" for those resisting the Nazi occupation of Denmark: Jewish characters are treated with respect in the stories.

In terms of today's identity politics, Andersen's fiction comes out well: he "made no distinction in literature and in life between same-sex and opposite-sex emotional and erotic relationships", "sent his most memorable female characters on quests", and "detested cruelty to black and indigenous people" and animals. He wrote movingly about the horrors of war and "promoted friendliness, kindness, freedom in religion". With his devout Christianity and aversion to sex, Andersen's is hardly a modern sensibility, yet in many ways he was in advance of his era.

Guardian News & Media