April is the cruelest month, said T.S. Eliot, and I did consider choosing his ”Waste Land” as the April submission for this literary calendar, but wouldn’t that have been predictable and clichéd? Yes, it would.
Instead I have chosen to celebrate Danish national poet Hans Christian Andersen, since April was HCA’s birth month. He was born on April 2 1805, which means that this marks the two-year anniversary for that absolutely hideous and very embarrassing Las Vegas-wannabe show they arranged in celebration of his 200th birthday, featuring a selection of completely arbitrary, non-HCA-related artists, such as Tina Turner singing “Simply the Best”, Olivia Newton-John singing “Xanadu”, and some random comedian whose act consisted of dressing up in paper-clothes to music. It was horrible. Very bad taste. And about as far away from poetry as it could possibly get.
So this year, I’ve decided to celebrate old H.C. the best way one probably can anyway; by reading one of his amazing stories. The story is “Ole Luk-oie – the God of Sleep” (also known, in some translations, as “The Sandman”), which is probably my favourite Hans Christian Andersen story.
The edition of “Ole Luk-Oie” that I grew up with – the illustrations are by excellent illustrator Lillian Brøgger.
Ole Luk-Oie (or “Ole Lukøje” in Danish) means “Ole Close-Eye”, and the story revolves around the question of what exactly happens when we dream. The story answers the question quite unambiguously: When people (especially children) go to sleep, they are visited by Ole Lukøje, an elflike little creature, who blows softly on their necks until their heads grow heavy and throws fine dust into their eyes until they blink with fatigue, and as soon as the children are in their beds he spreads an umbrella over the children’s heads. He’s got two umbrellas, one for the good children and one for the bad ones, but they both basically work like a kind of parabolas, channelling either pleasant or grim stories to the perceptive, sleeping children. Ole Luk-Oie is the network executive so to speak, he makes up all the stories and “there is nobody in the world who knows so many stories as Ole Luk-Oie” as the narrator informs us at the beginning of the story. We, the readers, are introduced to Ole’s skills in the story through the sleep-bound boy Hjalmar, and the short story consists of the seven stories that Ole tells Hjalmar in the course of a week. I had this story read to me countless times as a child, completely in love with the fantastic imagery of the stories and then I sort of forgot about it by the time of my adolescence, but I re-discovered the story as an adult three years ago, when the excellent Copenhagen children’s theatre Anemone teatret staged the story as a play. In the staging they stressed very beautifully the point that will naturally be an adult’s approach to the story: The reading of the seven stories as the depiction of seven stages of a human life, with Hjalmar as a kind of Everyman persona. I absolutely love that interpretation, and I think it’s a great example of how HCA’s tales work just as well for children as for their parents. It’s also funny to see in this tale of nightly dreams how Freud virtually existed before he existed, or at least before he had had the chance to share his ideas with the world: The first dream, the Monday dream, of Hjalmar’s is dominated by repressed feelings – childish guilt feelings as it is. The Monday dream depicts one of the first trials a human being suffers through; that is going to school and coming face to face with one’s own inadequacy. Ole Luk-Oie tries his best to create pleasant dreams for his young client, but the nagging guilt stemming from poorly done homework threatens to wreck Hjalmar’s fantasy of pure childish, sensual pleasure “…all the flowers in the flower-pots became large trees, with long branches reaching to the ceiling, and streatching along the walls, so that the whole room was like greenhouse. All the branches were loaded with flowers, each flower as beautiful and as fragrant as a rose; and, had any one tasted them, he would have found them sweeter even than jam. The fruit glittered like gold, and there were cakes so full of plums that they were nearly bursting. It was incomparably beautiful. At the same time sounded dismal moans from the table-drawer in which lay Hjalmar’s school books.” Hjalmar’s school accessories are lamenting their poor state, and I particularly love the description of the copy-book’s sorrow: “On each leaf stood a row of capital letters, every one having a small letter by its side. This formed a copy; under these were other letters, which Hjalmar had written: they fancied they looked like the copy, but they were mistaken; for they were leaning on one side as if they intended to fall over the pencil-lines.” Last year I was in the street and I was struck – somewhat pathetically, I admit – by an everyday image that has haunted me, and which reminds me of this paragraph in Ole Luk-Oie: I saw a toddler pushing his own big stroller in front of him with much trouble, his mother smiling and laughing beside him. There was something so significant about that image, I thought, something so sad: This is what we do most of our childhood, we try to grow up as quickly as we possibly can, pushing our stroller in front of us while it’s still twice our own size, or trying to copy neat letters in a copy-book, and failing. Childhood is, to me, a great mixture of fantastic dreams of sensual pleasures like delicious treats and trees growing wildly into the sky, and the harsh reality of our incapability. The Monday story in “Ole Luk-Oie” depicts this so well I think, ending with the words: “…[Ole Luk-Oie] drilled them till they stood up gracefully, and looked as beautiful as a copy could look. But after Ole Luk-Oie was gone, and Hjalmar looked at them in the morning, they were as wretched and as awkward as ever.” The Tuesday story was my favourite as a child, and actually I think it has something appropriately April-like to it. Hjalmar, trapped in the previous dream within his own little room, goes off into a beautiful Spring landscape, and drifts in a boat down a stream which is significantly headed for the vast sea: Hjalmar is on a adolescent Wanderung in this story, and it is a wonderful experience. Beyond the pure pleasure-seaking fantasies of childhood, Hjalmar encounters fantastic creatures: “..six swans, each with a golden circlet round its neck, and a bright blue star on its forehead, drew the boat past the green wood, where the trees talked of robbers and witches, and the flowers of beautiful little elves and fairies, whose histories the butterflies had related to them. Brilliant fish, with scales like silver and gold, swam after the boat, sometimes making a spring and splashing the water round them, while birds, red and blue, small and great, flew after him in two long lines. The gnats danced round them, and the cockchafers cried ‘Buz, buz’.”There are women there, too, two of them, each playing an important part in Hjalmar’s life: One is a princess who is the likeness of a little girl Hjalmar knows, with whom he playfully shares a piece of candy, and the other is his old nurse from his infancy, who only nods at him and then sings a melancholy little song: “How oft my memory turns to thee,/my own Hjalmar, ever dear!/When I could watch thy infant glee,/or kiss away a pearly tear/’Twas in my arms thy lisping tongue/first spoke the half-remembered word,/while o’er thy tottering steps I hung,/my fond protection to afford./Farewell! I pray the Heavenly Power/to keep thee til thy dying hour.” I was very fond of this verse when I was a child, thinking it was beautiful. When I saw the staging of “Ole Luk-Oie” at Anemone teatret, I was momentarily shocked and sad to find that they had chosen to portray the nurse as a ridiculous looking matron, accompanying her loud, insisting singing on a squeaky accordion, but then I thought about it, and I realized that it was actually a rather good presentation of this woman from Hjalmar’s past: The verse is sentimental, bordering on the saccharine, and while Hjalmar may feel a sting of nostalgia upon hearing her singing and thinking of the care she offered him, his boat is still flowing down the stream and the nurse will necessarily be contrasted by the pretty young princess-girl who has something to offer him. But of course youth isn’t all fun and games and fairy tales, and Hjalmar learns as much from the Wednesday story, where he’s confronted with the force of peerpressure and slander. One of the things that makes “Ole Luk-Oie” such a great story is that the multitudinous of stories obviously made it possible for HCA to use many of his different talents as a story-teller. In the Monday story he demonstrates his ability to understand the sentiments of a young child, in the Tuesday story he uses his imaginative skills in the wonderful descriptions of a fairy tale landscape, and in this story, the Wednesday story, he uses his talent as a satirist. As stories such a s “The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper” and “There is No Doubt About It” bear witness, HCA was more than a light-headed dreamer, he was a poignant and humorous observer, and this is very clear in the Wednesday story. Hjalmar reaches the sea in this dream, and he follows a stork, who is placed in a henhouse among hens, ducks and turkeys as he grows tired from travelling. HCA depicts very accurately that certain high school kind of atmosphere among the rural fowl as the in-crowd that isn’t about to accept an outsider into their group, and who, xenophobically, would rather miss out on some great in-puts than to admit to their own significance: “…the stork told them all about warm Africa, of the pyramid, and of the ostrich, which, like a wild horse, runs across the desert. But the ducks did not understand what he said, and quacked amongst themselves, ‘We are all of the same opinion; namely, that he is stupid.’ ‘Yes, to be sure, he is stupid,’ said the turkey-cock; and gobbled. Then the stork remained quite silent, and thought of his home in
Africa. ‘Those are handsome thin legs of yours,’ said the turkey-cock. ‘What do they cost a yard?’ ‘Quack, quack, quack,’ grinned the ducks; but the stork pretended not to hear.”Luckily, Hjalmar is able to learn the right lesson from the encounter: Recognising the worldliness of the stork and the beauty of its storytelling, he dismisses the feathered clique as the temporary, uninteresting creatures they are: “‘Tomorrow you shall be made into soup,’ said Hjalmar to the fowls; and then he awoke and found himself lying in his little bed.”
The stories of Thursday and Friday are connected in a sense, in as much as they both depict a wedding ceremony. While Thursday, however, is all about glamour, Friday has something remarkably prosaic to it, and as such one might say that the two stories depict a youthful, and a more disillusionized, mature approach towards love and marriage, respectively. Hjalmar is attending the wedding between two mice in the Thursday story, and it’s all about show and illusion right from the beginning. Hjalmar must get dressed up in his tin soldier’s uniform in order to look proper for the ceremony, and the ceremony is imbued with the satirical take on artificiality that HCA did so well (for instance with his depiction of the Princess in “The Swine-Herd”). The bridal pair’s love for each other is scarcely mentioned and the party is dominated by a sense of unfulfilment and shallow showiness: “The room had been rubbed over with bacon-rind, like the passage, which was all the refreshment offered to the guests. But for the dessert they produced a pea, on which a mouse belonging to the bridal pair had bitten the first letters of their names. This was something quite uncommon. All the mice said it was a very beautiful wedding, and that they had been very agreeably entertained.” Hjalmar is obviously fascinated with the splendour, but also aware of the violence he’s had to do to his own nature: “He had certainly been in grand society: but he had been obliged to creep under a room, and to make himself small enough to wear the uniform of a tin soldier.” It’s a different atmosphere, if not a less satirical one, we find in the Friday story, which describes the wedding of Hjalmar’s sister’s dolls Herman and Bertha. Hjalmar frets somewhat upon being invited to the wedding by Ole, noting that the two dolls have easily been married a hundred times already by his sister. “’Yes,’” says Ole, “’but tonight is the hundred and first wedding, and when that has taken place, it must be the last, therefore this is to be extremely beautiful.’” Yes, this is the last wedding, and the irrevocability of it hangs heavily over the story, which is dominated by the limitations and fixation that comes with marriage. HCA does love his fowls, so there’s a swallow and a hen present at the wedding to advise the bridal pair about where to settle down, and while the swallow speaks beautifully of all the sights to be seen abroad, the hen wins with her prudent, prosaic defence of their home country: “’Cold weather is good for cabbages,’ said the hen; ‘besides we do have it warm here sometimes. Four years ago, we had a summer that lasted more than five weeks, and it was so hot one could scarcely breath. And then in this country we have no poisonous animals, and we are free from robbers. He must be wicked who does not consider our country the finest of all lands. He ought not to be allowed to live here.’ And then the hen wept very much (…)”The best part of this satirical take on stupidity and cowardice in the name of patriotism is, however, the song the hilariously bad song that has been written by one of the guest (the led pencil) for the occasion: “’What merry sounds are on the wind,/as marriage rites together bind/a quiet and a loving pair,/though formed of kid, yet smooth and fair!/Hurrah! If they are deaf and blind,/we’ll sing, though weather prove unkind.”Hee! This never fails to crack me up. And having applied to go abroad to study next semester, of course this is totally grist to my mill. The Saturday story revolves around the Big Questions in life, and Hjalmar is torn between superstition and fact as the imaginative Ole has a battle of words against the portrait of Hjalmar’s grumbling great-grandfather who insists on reason and science. Ole, however, wins, and with him the power and omnipresence of imagination and dreams over petty nitpicking: “I thank you; you may be the head of the family as no doubt you are, but I am older than you. I am an ancient heathen. The old Romans and Greek named me the Dream-God. I have visited the noblest houses and continue to do so; still I know how to conduct myself to both high and low (…)’”
This serves as a countdown to the last story which is, very appropriately, a story about Death. HCA ventures into meta-fiction here, one might say, as he describes Death as an older brother of Ole’s, that is, a storyteller just like the Dream-God. The afterlife is described as follows: “Hjalmar saw that this Ole Luk-Oie [Ole’s older brother, Death] rode on, he lifted up old and young, and carried them away on his horse. Some he seated in front and some behind, but always inquired first, How stands the mark-book?’ ‘Good,’ they all answered. ‘Yes, but let me see for myself,’ he replied, and they were all obliged to give him the books. Then all those who had ‘Very good’ or ‘Exceedingly good’ came in front of the horse, and heard the beautiful story; while those who had ‘Middling”’ or ’Tolerably good’ in their books, were obliged to sit behind and listen to the frightful tale. They trembled and cried, and wanted to jump down from the horse, but they could not get free, for they were fastened to the seat.” Apart from the fact that Death sounds kind of like a – well, like a horse’s ass, actually, it’s very interesting in a meta way that HCA makes storytelling the premise for the afterlife. Rather than frolic actively in the meadow’s of Paradise or writhe in pain in the flames of Hell, in the afterlife described in this story, we become forever subjects to our imagination, like passive children being told stories at bedtime. As such I think “Ole Luk-Oie” is an important part of HCA’s life’s work and a wonderful celebration of imagination and dreams – a celebration that I hope I haven’t sucked all the life out of with this interpretation. I love the story dearly and recommend it to any lover of stories out there.
Happy 202nd Birthday, Hans Christian. And Happy April, everyone.
March has been a rollercoaster-ride here in Copenhagen this year – it is warm and sunny now that we’re approaching April, but for most of the month the weather has been changing a lot, from bright, warm sunshine to storms and sleet, and more than once I’ve been tempted by a sunshiny morning to slip on my ballerina flats when heading off to the library or the university, only to fight my way back home later that day in a storm, with cold, wet feet and scolding myself for not having had the sense to wear my Uggs. Perhaps this is how I caught the cold I’m reluctantly sporting at the moment, I don’t know, but fact remains that I have caught one, and I have suffered from a case of sore throat for three days.
That’s what March is to me; it’s the month where you catch a terrible cold, because you’ve gone out wearing too little clothes, beckoned by the deceitful early signs of Spring. As such, the month reminds me of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther!
Young Werther meets Lotte for the first time. You know it’s love, I suppose, when it gets your motor running to see the object of affection handing out black bread….
Werther and I go way back, and he’s very special to me. I read the novel with all the passion and ardour of youth when I was a teenager and took an instant liking to the passionate, ardent protagonist because he reminded me of my then-boyfriend, an equally passionate, ardent young man, who even took to affectionately calling me “Lotte” for a while, and I wrote my very first university paper on the novel, bearing the pompous title: “Escapism as a Theme in The Sorrows of Young Werther”, and given that the paper was written with all the ardour and passion of youth, I hope I’ll never, ever have to read it again. *cringe*
But that’s an important part of the appeal of Werther, I think, and part of what makes it so special: It’s a literary study of that Spring-like stage of our youth where we metaphorically run around like idiots in the rain with way too thin clothes on and willingly subject ourselves to all kinds of dangers and sorrows, because we are not ready to accept the fact that life, well, just kind of sucks most of the time. In my previous post, about Per Fly’s TV-series Forestillinger, I mentioned the literary tradition of the Tristan-figure, and how Werther may be said to be such a figure: He is, in a sense, courtly love gone awry. Instead of accepting the fact that his adored Lotte is unobtainable and let his platonic love and yearning for her cultivate him, he refuses to accept such a thing, refuses to accept that the world might be anything less than perfect, and lets his love and yearning for Lotte break him down.
The paragraph I’d like to quote does not take place in March, but it certainly nails that March atmosphere, right down to the bad, changeable weather. Being an epistolary novel that ends with the correspondent’s death, the fatality of the protagonist’s state of mind can be said to be perceivable through the lack of his letters (the last part of the novel is defined by such a lack: Werther has become to distraught for writing and the accounts of his last hours is left to the fictitious editor), and significantly, Werther has neglected his correspondence for a while at this point in the novel, which describes his fatal first meeting with Lotte. I found the translation on online-literature.com, and I hope I’m not violating any copyrights by quoting from it here. If I am, let me know and I will of course remove it immediately. But for now, treat yourselves to some youthful passion and ardour! (Ooh, and take care to notice that wonderfully over-the-top climax of the esoteric “Klopstock!”-exclamation. I imagine that this is just about the 18th century equivalent of wearing a t-shirt with an obscure movie quote on it, and then have somebody recognising the quote and then tell that person that “OMG, you, like, totally get me!” and then take that person to the local indie coffee house and talk for, like, hours.)
“Why do I not write to you?” You lay claim to learning, and ask such a question. You should have guessed that I am well — that is to say — in a word, I have made an acquaintance who has won my heart: I have — I know not. To give you a regular account of the manner in which I have become acquainted with the most amiable of women would be a difficult task. I am a happy and contented mortal, but a poor historian.
An angel! Nonsense! Everybody so describes his mistress; and yet I find it impossible to tell you how perfect she is, or why she is so perfect: suffice it to say she has captivated all my senses.
So much simplicity with so much understauding — so mild, and yet so resolute — a mind so placid, and a life so active. But all this is ugly balderdash, which expresses not a single character nor feature. Some other time — but no, not some other time, now, this very instant, will I tell you all about it. Now or never. Well, between ourselves, since I commenced my letter, I have been three times on the point of throwing down my pen, of ordering my horse, and riding out. And yet I vowed this morning that I would not ride to-day, and yet every moment I am rushing to the window to see how high the sun is.
I could not restrain myself — go to her I must. I have just returned, Wilhelm; and whilst I am taking supper I will write to you. What a delight it was for my soul to see her in the midst of her dear, beautiful children, — eight brothers and sisters!
But, if I proceed thus, you will be no wiser at the end of my letter than you were at the beginning. Attend, then, and I will compel myself to give you the details.I mentioned to you the other day that I had become acquainted with S–, the district judge, and that he had invited me to go and visit him in his retirement, or rather in his little kingdom. But I neglected going, and perhaps should never have gone, if chance had not discovered to me the treasure which lay concealed in that retired spot. Some of our young people had proposed giving a ball in the country, at which I consented to be present. I offered my hand for the evening to a pretty and agreeable, but rather commonplace, sort of girl from the immediate neighbourhood; and it was agreed that I should engage a carriage, and call upon Charlotte, with my partner and her aunt, to convey them to the ball. My companion informed me, as we drove along through the park to the hunting-lodge, that I should make the acquaintance of a very charming young lady. “Take care,” added the aunt, “that you do not lose your heart.” “Why?” said I. “Because she is already engaged to a very worthy man,” she replied, “who is gone to settle his affairs upon the death of his father, and will succeed to a very considerable inheritance.” This information possessed no interest for me. When we arrived at the gate, the sun was setting behind the tops of the mountains. The atmosphere was heavy; and the ladies expressed their fears of an approaching storm, as masses of low black clouds were gathering in the horizon. I relieved their anxieties by pretending to be weather-wise, although I myself had some apprehensions lest our pleasure should be interrupted.
I alighted; and a maid came to the door, and requested us to wait a moment for her mistress. I walked across the court to a well-built house, and, ascending the flight of steps in front, opened the door, and saw before me the most charming spectacle I had ever witnessed. Six children, from eleven to two years old, were running about the hall, and surrounding a lady of middle height, with a lovely figure, dressed in a robe of simple white, trimmed with pink ribbons. She was holding a rye loaf in her hand, and was cutting slices for the little ones all around, in proportion to their age and appetite. She performed her task in a graceful and affectionate manner; each claimant awaiting his turn with outstretched hands, and boisterously shouting his thanks. Some of them ran away at once, to enjoy their evening meal; whilst others, of a gentler disposition, retired to the courtyard to see the strangers, and to survey the carriage in which their Charlotte was to drive away. “Pray forgive me for giving you the trouble to come for me, and for keeping the ladies waiting: but dressing, and arranging some household duties before I leave, had made me forget my children’s supper; and they do not like to take it from any one but me.” I uttered some indifferent compliment: but my whole soul was absorbed by her air, her voice, her manner; and I had scarcely recovered myself when she ran into her room to fetch her gloves and fan. The young ones threw inquiring glances at me from a distance; whilst I approached the youngest, a most delicious little creature. He drew back; and Charlotte, entering at the very moment, said, “Louis, shake hands with your cousin.” The little fellow obeyed willingly; and I could not resist giving him a hearty kiss, notwithstanding his rather dirty face. “Cousin,” said I to Charlotte, as I handed her down, “do you think I deserve the happiness of being related to you?” She replied, with a ready smile, “Oh! I have such a number of cousins, that I should be sorry if you were the most undeserving of them.” In taking leave, she desired her next sister, Sophy, a girl about eleven years old, to take great care of the children, and to say good-bye to papa for her when he came home from his ride. She enjoined to the little ones to obey their sister Sophy as they would herself, upon which some promised that they would; but a little fair-haired girl, about six years old, looked discontented, and said, “But Sophy is not you, Charlotte; and we like you best.” The two eldest boys had clambered up the carriage; and, at my request, she permitted them to accompany us a little way through the forest, upon their promising to sit very still, and hold fast.
We were hardly seated, and the ladies had scarcely exchanged compliments, making the usual remarks upon each other’s dress, and upon the company they expected to meet, when Charlotte stopped the carriage, and made her brothers get down. They insisted upon kissing her hands once more; which the eldest did with all the tenderness of a youth of fifteen, but the other in a lighter and more careless manner. She desired them again to give her love to the children, and we drove off.(…)
The two Messrs. Andran and a certain N. N. (I cannot trouble myself with the names), who were the aunt’s and Charlotte’s partners, received us at the carriage-door, and took possession of their ladies, whilst I followed with mine. We commenced with a minuet. I led out one lady after another, and precisely those who were the most disagreeable could not bring themselves to leave off. Charlotte and her partner began an English country dance, and you must imagine my delight when it was their turn to dance the figure with us. You should see Charlotte dance. She dances with her whole heart and soul: her figure is all harmony, elegance, and grace, as if she were conscious of nothing else, and had no other thought or feeling; and, doubtless, for the moment, every other sensation is extinct.
We set off, and, at first, delighted ourselves with the usual graceful motions of the arms. With what grace, with what ease, she moved! When the waltz commenced, and the dancers whirled around each other in the giddy maze, there was some confusion, owing to the incapacity of some of the dancers. We judiciously remained still, allowing the others to weary themselves; and, when the awkward dancers had withdrawn, we joined in, and kept it up famously together with one other couple, — Andran and his partner. Never did I dance more lightly. I felt myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying, with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object; and O Wilhelm, I vowed at that moment, that a maiden whom I loved, or for whom I felt the slightest attachment, never, never should waltz with any one else but with me, if I went to perdition for it! — you will understand this.We took a few turns in the room to recover our breath. Charlotte sat down, and felt refreshed by partaking of some oranges which I had had secured, — the only ones that had been left; but at every slice which, from politeness, she offered to her neighbours, I felt as though a dagger went through my heart.
We were the second couple in the third country dance. As we were going down (and Heaven knows with what ecstasy I gazed at her arms and eyes, beaming with the sweetest feeling of pure and genuine enjoyment), we passed a lady whom I had noticed for her charming expression of countenance; although she was no longer young. She looked at
Charlotte with a smile, then, holding up her finger in a threatening attitude, repeated twice in a very significant tone of voice the name of “Albert.”
“Who is Albert,” said I to Charlotte, “if it is not impertinent to ask?” She was about to answer, when we were obliged to separate, in order to execute a figure in the dance; and, as we crossed over again in front of each other, I perceived she looked somewhat pensive. “Why need I conceal it from you?” she said, as she gave me her hand for the promenade. “Albert is a worthy man, to whom I am engaged.” Now, there was nothing new to me in this (for the girls had told me of it on the way); but it was so far new that I had not thought of it in connection with her whom, in so short a time, I had learned to prize so highly. Enough, I became confused, got out in the figure, and occasioned general confusion; so that it required all Charlotte’s presence of mind to set me right by pulling and pushing me into my proper place.
The dance was not yet finished when the lightning which had for some time been seen in the horizon, and which I had asserted to proceed entirely from heat, grew more violent; and the thunder was heard above the music. When any distress or terror surprises us in the midst of our amusements, it naturally makes a deeper impression than at other times, either because the contrast makes us more keenly susceptible, or rather perhaps because our senses are then more open to impressions, and the shock is consequently stronger. To this cause I must ascribe the fright and shrieks of the ladies. One sagaciously sat down in a corner with her back to the window, and held her fingers to her ears; a second knelt down before her, and hid her face in her lap; a third threw herself between them, and embraced her sister with a thousand tears; some insisted on going home; others, unconscious of their actions, wanted sufficient presence of mind to repress the impertinence of their young partners, who sought to direct to themselves those sighs which the lips of our agitated beauties intended for heaven. Some of the gentlemen had gone down-stairs to smoke a quiet cigar, and the rest of the company gladly embraced a happy suggestion of the hostess to retire into another room which was provided with shutters and curtains. We had hardly got there, when Charlotte placed the chairs in a circle; and, when the company had sat down in compliance with her request, she forthwith proposed a round game.
I noticed some of the company prepare their mouths and draw themselves up at the prospect of some agreeable forfeit. “Let us play at counting,” said Charlotte. “Now, pay attention: I shall go round the circle from right to left; and each person is to count, one after the other, the number that comes to him, and must count fast; whoever stops or mistakes is to have a box on the ear, and so on, till we have counted a thousand.” It was delightful to see the fun. She went round the circle with upraised arm. “One,” said the first; “two,” the second; “three,” the third; and so on, till Charlotte went faster and faster. One made a mistake, instantly a box on the ear; and, amid the laughter that ensued, came another box; and so on, faster and faster. I myself came in for two. I fancied they were harder than the rest, and felt quite delighted. A general laughter and confusion put an end to the game long before we had counted as far as a thousand. The party broke up into little separate knots: the storm had ceased, and I followed Charlotte into the ballroom. On the way she said, “The game banished their fears of the storm.” I could make no reply. “I myself,” she continued, “was as much frightened as any of them; but by affecting courage, to keep up the spirits of the others, I forgot my apprehensions.” We went to the window. It was still thundering at a distance: a soft rain was pouring down over the country, and filled the air around us with delicious odours. Charlotte leaned forward on her arm; her eyes wandered over the scene; she raised them to the sky, and then turned them upon me; they were moistened with tears; she placed her hand on mine and said, “Klopstock!” at once I remembered the magnificent ode which was in her thoughts: I felt oppressed with the weight of my sensations, and sank under them. It was more than I could bear. I bent over her hand, kissed it in a stream of delicious tears, and again looked up to her eyes. Divine Klopstock! why didst thou not see thy apotheosis in those eyes? And thy name so often profaned, would that I never heard it repeated!”
This is the last day of February and I’ve been trying all month to come up with a suitable submission for our Literary Year-category. And I can’t! There simply isn’t any particular work of literature that reminds me of February.
There is, however, have a literary theme that reminds me of February, so I’ve decided to make that my literary contribution this month. You see, here in Denmark, as in a number of European country, we have a tradition of celebrating Shrove-tide by dressing up, and since Shrove-tide is (almost always) a February holiday, what better way to celebrate it here on the blog than by doing a post on the tradition of Tableaux Vivants in literature?
The tradition of tableaux vivants was a particular kind of social entertainment that had its prime back in the 19th century and it consisted basically of people, usually wealthy guests at a party, dressing up and posing as a painting or etching of their own choice. Piquant and lustrous, it used to be a very popular form of entertainment, but it has more or less completely died out, probably as a result of the boom of the entertainment business in the 20th century, and the birth of cinematography – especially the rise of talkies.
It is my personal theory that the silent movie genre was a more or less direct offspring from the tableau vivant. Surely the tendency towards archtypes and the highly dramatic gesturing of silent movies have more in common with the stylized, silent tableau vivant than with the much more verbal theatre which had moved on towards the realistic by the time the first silent movies where made.
However, while the tradition of tableaux vivants has gone out of style in practise, it has lived on via another aesthetic form, namely literature, and what a life it has found for itself here! Several 19th century writers have found inspiration in this meta-artistic form of entertainment used tableaux vivant as the pivotal point of crucial scenes in novels and short stories, and I’d like to quote and discuss a few of these. While doing the research for this post it struck me as interesting that all the writers I could think of who had included tableaux vivant in their works were women writers.
Behind a Mask
The first of these, and the one to make the most significant use of the motif is Louisa May Alcott. Alcott is most famous for her celebrated novel Little Women, this very modest story about four sisters’ coming of age in the time of the Civil War, however in the 1930s literature critic Madeleine B. Stern unveiled a well-hidden secret about Alcott: She had written several gothic and almost grotesque stories under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, the most prominent of these being the lengthy short story “Behind a Mask: or A Woman’s Power”, an eerie tale about the middle-aged failed actress Jean Muir who, by way of her charms and her skills as an actress (or simply as a woman?) makes a noble household employ her as their governess in the belief that she is a quaint and virtuous 19-year-old, and three of the men in the household fall in love with her. At the centre of her scheme stands the chapter five: “How the girl did it”. I should like to quote a passage from this chapter:
“At home he [Gerald Coventry, the eldest son of the household] found a party of young friends, who hailed with delight the prospect of a revel at the Hall. An hour later, the blithe company trooped into the great saloon, where preparations had already been made for a dramatic evening. Good Sir John was in his element, for he was never so happy as when his house was full of young people. Several persons were chosen, and in a few moments the curtains were withdrawn from the first of theseimpromptu tableaux. A swarthy, darkly bearded man lay asleep on a tiger skin, in the shadow of a tent. Oriental arms and drapery surrounded him; an antique silver lamp burned dimly on a table where fruit lay heaped in costly dishes, and wine shone redly in half-emptied goblets. Bending over the sleeper was a woman robed with barbaric splendor. One hand turned back the embroidered sleeve from the arm which held a scimitar; one slender foot in a scarlet sandal was visible under the white tunic; her purple mantle swept down from snowy shoulders; fillets of gold bound her hair, and jewels shone on neck and arms. She was looking over her shoulder toward the entrance of the tent, with a steady yet stealthy look, so effective that for a moment the spectators held their breath, as if they also heard a passing footstep. “Who is it?” whispered Lucia, for the face was new to her. “Jean Muir,” answered Coventry, with an absorbed look. “Impossible! She is small and fair,” began Lucia, but a hasty “Hush, let me look!” from her cousin silenced her. Impossible as it seemed, he was right nevertheless; for Jean Muir itwas. She had darkened her skin, painted her eyebrows, disposed some wild black locks over her fair hair, and thrown such an intensity ofexpression into her eyes that they darkened and dilated till they wereas fierce as any southern eyes that ever flashed. Hatred, the deepestand bitterest, was written on her sternly beautiful face, courage glowed in her glance, power spoke in the nervous grip of the slender hand that held the weapon, and the indomitable will of the woman was expressed–even the firm pressure of the little foot half hidden in the tiger skin. “Oh, isn’t she splendid?” cried Bella under her breath. “She looks as if she’d use her sword well when the time comes,” saidsomeone admiringly. “Good night to Holofernes; his fate is certain,” added another. “He is the image of Sydney, with that beard on.” “Doesn’t she look as if she really hated him?” “Perhaps she does.” Coventry uttered the last exclamation, for the two which preceded it suggested an explanation of the marvelous change in Jean. It was not all art: the intense detestation mingled with a savage joy that the object of her hatred was in her power was too perfect to be feigned; and having the key to a part of her story, Coventry felt as if he caught a glimpse of the truth. It was but a glimpse, however, for the curtain dropped before he had half analyzed the significance of that strange face.”
A glimpse, yes, but as a talented actress – or tableau vivantess for that matter – Jean Muir manages to keep her audience guessing, by choosing a much completely different attire and character for her next performance, and enchanting her most attentive audience, young Coventry, who’s been most sceptical about her thus far in the story, by inviting him to join her in a tableau:
“With a smile, Coventry obeyed her; for the picture was of two lovers, the young cavalier kneeling, with his arm around the waist of the girl, who tries to hide him with her little mantle, and presses his head to her bosom in an ecstasy of fear, as she glances back at the approaching pursuers. Jean hesitated an instant and shrank a little as his hand touched her; she blushed deeply, and her eyes fell before his. Then, as the bell rang, she threw herself into her part with sudden spirit. One arm half covered him with her cloak, the other pillowed his head on the muslin kerchief folded over her bosom, and she looked backward with such terror in her eyes that more than one chivalrous young spectator longed to hurry to the rescue. It lasted but a moment; yet in that moment Coventry experienced another new sensation. Many women had smiled on him, but he had remained heart-whole, cool, and careless, quite unconscious of the power which a woman possesses and knows how to use, for the weal or woe of man. Now, as he knelt there with a soft arm about him, a slender waist yielding to his touch, and a maiden heart throbbing against his cheek, for the first time in his life he felt the indescribable spell of womanhood, and looked the ardent lover toperfection. Just as his face assumed this new and most becoming aspect, the curtain dropped, and clamorous encores recalled him to the fact that Miss Muir was trying to escape from his hold, which had grown painful in its unconscious pressure. He sprang up, half bewildered, and looking as he had never looked before.”
A protective, loving quaker maiden – she could hardly have chosen of part more different from the one of the Judith the hateful avenger, and of course this is a premeditated move on Alcott’s morally dubious heroine’s part. What Jean has grasped is the fact that she – like all women – must essentially become a living paradox in order to survive and pave the way for herself. You could say it’s the classic whore-Madonna complex put into action: Coventry will not fall in love with the dangerous Judith, and he will get bored of the quaint, innocent maiden, but the woman who can be both at the same time wins his heart. The tableau vivant is in Alcott’s story used as a way of emphasising her main character’s hiding behind a variety masks, and the unspoken pressure put upon her by her surroundings – by society, one might say – to do so.
Unmasking through the Tableau Vivant
It’s a very different use of the tableaux vivant that we find in the novel by another woman writer, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Opera director Kasper Bech Holten recently did a staging of Carl Nielsen’s Masquerade in which the characters wore masks all the time, except when they were at the masquerade that marks the climax of the opera. A reversal similar to this is what we find in the chapter in Wharton’s tragic story that deals with the unfortunate main character Lily Bart’s participation in a tableau vivant at a party:
“…there could be no mistaking the predominance of personality–the unanimous “Oh!” of the spectators was a tribute, not to the brush-work of Reynolds’s “Mrs. Lloyd” but to the fleshand blood loveliness of Lily Bart. She had shown her artistic intelligence in selecting a type so like her own that she could embody the person represented without ceasing to beherself. It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into, Reynolds’s canvas, banishing the phantom of his dead beauty bythe beams of her living grace. The impulse to show herself in a splendid setting–she had thought for a moment of representing Tiepolo’s Cleopatra–had yielded to the truer instinct oftrusting to her unassisted beauty, and she had purposely chosen apicture without distracting accessories of dress or surroundings. Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm. The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment anote of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.
“Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad, there isn’t a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!” These words, uttered by that experienced connoisseur, Mr. Ned Van Alstyne, whose scented white moustache had brushed Selden’s shoulder whenever the parting of the curtains presented any exceptional opportunity for the study of the female outline, affected their hearer in an unexpected way. It was not the first time that Selden had heard Lily’s beauty lightly remarked on, and hitherto the tone of the comments had imperceptibly coloured hisview of her. But now it woke only a motion of indignant contempt. This was the world she lived in, these were the standards by which she was fated to be measured! Does one go to Caliban for a judgment on Miranda? In the long moment before the curtain fell, he had time to feel the whole tragedy of her life. It was as though her beauty, thus detached from all that cheapened and vulgarized it, had held out suppliant hands to him from the world in which he and she had once met for a moment, and where he felt an overmastering longing to be with her again. He was roused by the pressure of ecstatic fingers. “Wasn’t she too beautiful, Lawrence? Don’t you like her best in that simple dress? It makes her look like the real Lily–the Lily I know.” He met Gerty Farish’s brimming gaze. “The Lily we know,” he corrected…”
Lily Bart is the opposite of Jean Muir; while Jean Muir manages to play the parts society wants her to play, Lily Bart fails to do so, their success and failure at this become their source of happiness and eventual downfall respectively, and the two very different tableaux vivants-scenes emphasise this. Lily is an extremely beautiful and accomplished young lady and as such she should have been married – the success criteria for a woman of her time – a hundred times to a wealthy gentleman, except, as one of the characters in the novel notes: it’s as if she always consciously ruins her chances for such fortune-bringing unions, as if she doesn’t really want to give up herself for sale this way. We are told in the story that Lily has put much thought into it when picking her character for the tableau, and that she has estimated that Joshua Reynolds’s “Mrs. Lloyd” (which may be seen here) would show off her beauty most efficiently, but as Lawrence Selden and his cousin Gertie note, it’s hard not to see Lily’s choosing Reynolds’s study of pure and unspoiled sensuality as a way of stripping herself publicly of the demands of striving for success that clings to her like dirt in the life she’s leading, and thus setting herself momentarily free.
Artificiality and Charade
Thus, presented in literature, the tableau vivant may serve to emphasise certain sides of characters. As one will observe, the frozen, immobile state of the tableau tends to function in the story that’s told as a means of stopping time momentarily – the air in both “Behind a Mask” and The House of Mirth seems to stand still as the audience literally holds its breath in admiration of the witnessed scene – and creating a condensed space within which the character performing the tableau may reveal to the reader something crucial about herself. I did a university paper on “Behind a Mask” last year with a somewhat feminist angle, exploring the character of Jean Muir as the epitome of woman in society, and her masquerade as a result of her being restricted to a gray area by the contradicting demands she meets from her surroundings (i.e. the innocence and worldliness that were expected, all at once, from a governess), and I’d like to extend this theory now onto the tableau vivant-theme: Might one not say that these women writers were fond of the tableau vivant as a literary theme, because if reflected in an extreme sense the kind of masquerade that women were expected to perform daily? That would, in any case, also explain the use Charlotte Brontë (undoubtedly a significant source of inspiration for Alcott) made of the tableau vivant in her most famous novel Jane Eyre: “…A considerable interval elapsed before it again rose. Its second rising displayed a more elaborately prepared scene than the last. The drawing-room, as I have before observed, was raised two steps above the dining-room, and on the top of the upper step, placed a yard or two back within the room, appeared a large marble basin—which I recognised as an ornament of the conservatory—where it usually stood, surrounded by exotics, and tenanted by gold fish—and whence it must have been transported with some trouble, on account of its size and weight. Seated on the carpet, by the side of this basin, was seen Mr. Rochester, costumed in shawls, with a turban on his head. His dark eyes and swarthy skin and Paynim features suited the costume exactly: he looked the very model of an Eastern emir, an agent or a victim of the bowstring. Presently advanced into view Miss Ingram. She, too, was attired in oriental fashion: a crimson scarf tied sash-like round the waist: an embroidered handkerchief knotted about her temples; her beautifully-moulded arms bare, one of them upraised in the act of supporting a pitcher, poised gracefully on her head. Both her cast of form and feature, her complexion and her general air, suggested the idea of some Israelitish princess of the patriarchal days; and such was doubtless the character she intended to represent. She approached the basin, and bent over it as if to fill her pitcher; she again lifted it to her head. The personage on the well-brink now seemed to accost her; to make some request:- “She hasted, let down her pitcher on her hand, and gave him to drink.” From the bosom of his robe he then produced a casket, opened it and showed magnificent bracelets and earrings; she acted astonishment and admiration; kneeling, he laid the treasure at her feet; incredulity and delight were expressed by her looks and gestures; the stranger fastened the bracelets on her arms and the rings in her ears. It was Eliezer and Rebecca: the camels only were wanting. The divining party again laid their heads together: apparently they could not agree about the word or syllable the scene illustrated. Colonel Dent, their spokesman, demanded “the tableau of the whole;” whereupon the curtain again descended. On its third rising only a portion of the drawing-room was disclosed; the rest being concealed by a screen, hung with some sort of dark and coarse drapery. The marble basin was removed; in its place, stood a deal table and a kitchen chair: these objects were visible by a very dim light proceeding from a horn lantern, the wax candles being all extinguished. Amidst this sordid scene, sat a man with his clenched hands resting on his knees, and his eyes bent on the ground. I knew Mr. Rochester; though the begrimed face, the disordered dress (his coat hanging loose from one arm, as if it had been almost torn from his back in a scuffle), the desperate and scowling countenance, the rough, bristling hair might well have disguised him. As he moved, a chain clanked; to his wrists were attached fetters. “Bridewell!” exclaimed Colonel Dent, and the charade was solved.” In Brontë’s controversial novel about an independent woman, who, true to her own feelings and ideals, achieves what she wants without stooping to play the game that Jean Muir masters and Lily Bart loses, the tableau becomes the symbol of the vanity and artificiality that Jane despises. What the audience perceives as a lovely confirmation of a mutual affection rising between Mr. Rochester and Blanche Ingram, Jane recognises as “acting”, “disguise”, and “attire”, she “knows” Rochester in spite of his costume, and she sees the tableau as well as the supposed mutual affection for what it is, a charade on Rochester’s part. The subtle point made about tableaux vivants by Alcott and Wharton is emphasised by Brontë: the tableau vivant is, in all it’s meta-artisticness, a reflection of the artificiality of our lives.
Tableaux Vivantes today
What, then, of the tableau vivant in our time and day? Have we come so completely to terms with our own self-staging that we don’t need the tableau vivant to let off the steam anymore? Well, one might say the tableau vivant is still around, in some form. Interestingly, in the – excellent – movie adaptation of House of Mirth from 2000, director Terence Davies had chosen a different painting for Lily’s tableau vivant, namely Watteau’s Ceres, supposedly thinking that this painting would show off his Lily’s, the ginger-haired Gillian Andersons’, beauty most efficiently. As such one might say he revived the tableau vivant-tradition momentarily – by consciously creating a new tableau and, thus, lingering consciously on the delicious subject of the staging of a woman’s beuaty, instead of staging the tableau that had been thought out a century earlier by Wharton. The tableu vivant is still a piquant occupation, and I’ll venture to say that there is still a need for it: As equalisation has run its course within the battle of the sexes, the gray area is more gray than ever, and the sex roles have become even more complex. Perhaps it’s time to let the artificial into our lives and to let ourselves start posing again? I think that photography, made so easy by the invention of the flexible digital camera, would be an obvious media for this. In the childhood of photography the tableau vivant was a popular way of going about portraiture. 19th century photographers such as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame) were partial towards having his subjects posing as mythological or fictional characters when portraying them, but somewhere along the line that tradition was lost, too, and instead followed decades and decades of awkward holiday photographs, with the subjects smiling stiffly, trying to look natural while pointing half-heartedly towards the Colloseum, the Eiffel Tower, or the Statue of Liberty, refusing to embrace the fact that as soon as we stand in front of a camera we are adding to Life a phrame and thus stepping into the realm of art, or, at least, artificiality, and no utterance of the word “Cheese” is ever going to change that. We, the Confidential Attachées, have acknowledged as much, which is why we swear by the Staged Photo, and we highly recommend this form of photography! I couldn’t say whether the masquerade is bringing us closer to an understanding of our true selves or our sex roles, but hey, if it is that’s not too bad a side-effect, is it? And in the meantime we have a lot more fun taking pictures. Because it really is piquant to be allowed to pose as a Tosca or a Anita Ekberg. 🙂We are currently planning a field trip to Danish museum of art Louisiana, to see the current exhibit there of Cindy Sherman’s works, a highly estimated staging photographer, who’s definitely aware of the (sex-) roles she presents through her photography. We’ll make sure to make a report of our experience later on./marie
After last year’s winter, which featured non-stop snow-falls from January to April (I am not kidding. It snowed on Palm Sunday last year), I thought I’d never be happy to see a snowflake again, but like Anna I was really getting concerned about the extremely mild temperatures we’ve been having; the blooming cherry trees and the March-like rain that’s been pouring down and soaking our Summer-shoe-clad feet this winter. Global warming indeed, and it scares me. However, a couple of days ago the first snow finally fell, the temperatures dropped to below zero, and we’ve been having a bit of winter. And thus I can finally get down to writing my entry for “Literary Year”/”Musical Year” – I simply haven’t been in the mood for it till now. (Or, well, actually I just haven’t gotten around to it until now. But I’ll blame the weather, because that sounds better).
My literary choice for January is Tom Kristensen’s Havoc. This is the same novel that Anna spilled coffee all over, then lost to the force that is the biological process of moulding, and I keep forgetting to ask Anna if she ever got her new copy from that antiquarian bookstore, and whether she’s read it yet. Did you read it yet, Anna? In any case, as Anna pointed out, it seems strangely appropriate that this book of all books should eat itself up, because the main-theme of this very recommendable novel is in fact self destruction. Main character Ole Jastrau, a Copenhagen literature critic circa 1930, recognizing what he finds to be the meaningless of his existence, indulges in a reckless journey into Copenhagen night, an odyssey of disintegration of his own self, accompanied by a strange gallery of urban suspicious characters, and a whole lot of alcohol.
I’ve been wondering why this of all novels would come to my mind when I considered which literary piece to illustrate the month of January on this blog, because unlike my choice for December, Havoc doesn’t deal with a particular month of the year, or a tendency towards depictions of snowy January landscapes or anything like that. But it does have that certain gloom and that aforementioned champagne-after taste of broken new year’s resolution that I tend to associate with January. More than that, it’s got a rambling flow that resembles stream of consciousness and a cynically accurate approach towards the potentially all-consuming power of decay.
The passage that I would like to quote here is from a significant scene in which Jastrau has gotten drunk and made a spectacle of himself at a dinner party and is taken home in a taxi by his embarrassed wife Johanne. Agitated and already well on his way in his downward spiral, Jastrau decides to make a final, fatal break with his own sanity and the world that could have saved him… I am quoting from the English translation of the novel by Carl Malmberg:
“Johanne drew her wrap closely about her so hat it no longer touched him. There was a space between them, but he could detect her body growing rigid. He did not look at her.But then it came.‘
Why did you turn those photographs around at home?’ she asked harshly.
And in his mind he saw himself as he had been there in the apartment – how, unable to rest because of dissipation and the whiskey in his system, he had paced back and forth through the rooms and suddenly felt himself tormented by the two faces, the photographs of his mother and his son, how he had had a feeling that they could see right through him, and then he had turned the pictures around.
So Johanne had noticed it.
And there she sat in the corner of the cab, pale as a corpse and unassailable. He sensed his powerlessness, and it made him desperate. Something had to happen. But he could not speak.
Suddenly he bent forward, rapped on the window in back of the driver, and signalled frantically for him to stop.‘What do you want? Have you gone completely crazy?’ Johanne cried out in bewilderment.
The taxi slowed and then came to a stop. Jastrau already had the door open so that the breeze came whistling in. And then, with one lea, he was out on the edge of the sidewalk.At a loss to know what was going on, the driver turned on the likght inside the cab.
Jastrau’s lips were trembling. He wished that his rash act could be undone. He wanted to get back into the cab. But that triumphant silence must be conquered. He had to win this battle, and he would. A stupid conquest. What did the cab drver think? And ten he reached into his pocket, grabbed his keys, tossed them into the cab. Out with his wallet too, and into the cab with it. Inexplicable. A silent, violent scene. And Johanne sat there in the feeble light staring straight ahead like a person who was dying.Without a word, Jastrau turned his back on her and began walking out Vesterbrogade. The glow from the ar lights, the broad, glistening, car track, the shadowy figures on the street corners, white legs flashing, women, and up aboive the roofs the blue-black night sky and some stars; he sensed the street as an extension of his soul, as a confirmation that something conclusive had occurred as an extraordinary, incomprehensibly calming influence. Behind him, he head the taxi start and get under way. It must be it, because there was not another car on the street at the moment. He would not turn around, but must simply keep walking. Then the taxi could catch up with him, draw up alongside the curb, and stop. And then they could talk to each other. The taxi had to come.
But the sound of the engine bacme fainter and fainter, and finally he had to turn around an look.
What he saw was the rear end of the cab. The taillight like ared cat’s eye in the distance. It turned a corner down near Vesterbro’s square and disappeared.
There is one Christmas tale I have to read every year. In Denmark it is famous and as such I am not very original in my choice of “literary piece of the month”. However…I feel very strongly about it.
It is Peter’s Christmas (Peters Jul) by Johan Krohn, a children’s book in verse from 1866, a story from the old Copenhagen.
We follow little Peter and his family from the Christmas preparations until after New Year. From the hushed voices in the corridors and quickly hidden Christmas ornaments, to the baking of cookies and ordering of candles, red ribbons and prunes. From the goose to the cakes and the making of presents.
The book opens with these famous phrases:
I am so happy at this time.
Now yuletide snow is falling white.
And so Christmas is on its way.
Then comes Christmas Eve!
This night we hardly slept for joy
and the day has been so long.
In the afternoon Granny tells the impatient children a Christmas tale about Old (Father) Christmas who will visit every family. Where the children have behaved the true Christmas atmosphere will warm up everyone. Where they have misbehaved he will leave quickly, the candles in the tree will not burn well and Christmas spirit will never shine in that home.
And then finally – the tree! Decorated with sugar figurines, figs, apples, chocolate frogs, candy pigs, and, and, and.
Then they sing and all is wonderful.
After Christmas Eve the children play with their presents and get visited by the poor Rasmus who gets presents too and baked apples.
On the 6th of January Christmas ends. This is where my mother always cries a bit when she reads it aloud.
And Christmas ended –
The children found their books again
and went happy to school.
There they didn’t think about Christmas but
when they returned home
they played with their presents.
And even worse the last sentence regarding the Christmas tree when it is thrown out:
It was dead for sure,
but even then it was as if an old friend
left them for the last time.
The book has been illustrated various times. The first edition carried Pietro Krohn’s illustrations that I think are the most authentic – I know them in a beautifully coloured version.
In 1942 the book was re-illustrated with entirely different pictures by Herluf Jensenius which my mom and her generation prefers. They perhaps carry more artistic value, but still I cling to the old ones.
A new edition came a couple of years ago, but those illustrations were definitely too sweet.
Peter’s Christmas gives a romantic and ideal image of old Danish Yule, but after all it is not that far from my own Christmas and it is wonderful to read aloud or listen to. I am sentimental about it, but hey – it’s Christmas – why not be sentimental?!
This is just an experiment: I was thinking I would start a few new categories – A Literary Year, and a Musical Year. Anna is away, in Rome (and I’m so envious), so I don’t know if she’ll play, but it’s always been something that interested me a lot, the course of the year, and how it affects my perception of things; – of art, in particular.I’ve sometimes made up little lists, i.e. “Arias in the course of the year” with an aria to match each month, and I thought it’d be fun to share the results of such lists here on the blog. Perhaps you will find that you agree with me in my choices, or perhaps you’ll have another suggestion – in each case I’d love to hear about it in the “comments”. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up adding new works to my lists! I’d like that.
I figured in this category, I’d bring a quote that reminds me of the particular month. This first quote is a very famous one, and thus, one might argue, I’m not contributing with much new by bringing it here, but I still want to bring it, because it is my conviction that this particular passage could never be quoted too often. The quote in question is the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead”, which is my favourite work of prose ever. It takes place in January, more specifically on the Night of the Three Kings, but it always reminded me of December. The image of the faintly falling snow, the languid rhythm of the prose, the sudden and painful lucidity of Gabriel’s vision, the omnipresence of Death, the thickness of the night, and the helplessness of the snowflakes falling into the Shannon waves; it is so incredibly moving to me, and seems to appropriate for this the darkest month of the year, when the insistent little comma of solstice urges us on through the dusk and the cold. I remember being 19 and sitting in a car with my first serious boyfriend, on the night of the Feast of Stephen. It was towards the end of our relationship, and I knew I was going to end things with him, and there in the passanger seat, I felt the pain of the knowledge that I was going to have to end this relationship that I had thought I was going to have forever, as I was watching the snowflakes falling onto the front window of the car, and I thought of “The Dead”. “Snow was general all over
Ireland” I murmured with that streak of over-dramatization that is so typical of teenage girls. “What’s that?” said my boyfriend, and I said “Nothing.” and smiled at him and broke up with him a couple of days later. But all over-dramatization aside, “The Dead” has always comes to my mind in the most poignant times of my life; always when I have the most significant realization, and always in December.
But I’ll leave the word to Joyce now, and his wonderful, subtly tragic character Gabriel Conroy:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and ark. falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over
Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling intot he dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”