Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Walking across a frozen sea

An interesting piece at the TLS, Jonathan Ree on the mutual illumination of Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen:

Copenhagen was still a small walled city in the first half of the nineteenth century, so it was inevitable that Kierkegaard and Andersen would be acquainted with each other, at least to the extent of exchanging nods of recognition when they met in the street. No one knows when they first set eyes on each other, but in his autobiography Andersen mentions an encounter in 1837 which was evidently not their first. Both of them were members of a rebellious younger generation, but their experiences of life could hardly have been more different. Andersen had been born in provincial Odense in 1805, his mother an illiterate, hard-drinking washerwoman and his father a cultivated cobbler who died in his early thirties, leaving the eleven-year-old Andersen to fend for himself and move away to Copenhagen to seek his fortune. (It seems he also had a sister who went there to work as a prostitute, though Andersen preferred to put it about that he was an only child.)

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, was the seventh child of a pious Copenhagen businessman who would live to the age of eighty-one, always supporting his son financially, and providing him with a legacy that should have allowed him to spend the rest of his life as a pampered dandy. At the time of their meeting in 1837, Kierkegaard was twenty-four and a student, still under his father’s thumb, and he had published nothing apart from a few forgettable pieces of student journalism; while Andersen was thirty-two, and already had fourteen books to his name, comprising verses in a rustic, Romantic style, European travelogues, and above all some long sentimental novels, of which he had just published his third, known as Only a Fiddler!. He was also on the point of becoming a prodigious international success: his novels would shortly be translated into English, and a spin-off poem called The Fiddler would soon be given an unforgettable musical setting by Robert Schumann.

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