Saturday, May 16, 2009

louis jensen

The Hans Christian Andersen Awards (here>>) are presented biannually by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) "to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children's literature." It's a prestigious award, often referred to as the 'little Nobel prize'. Among the nominees for the 2010 award is Louis Jensen for his book Tinhjerte og Ællingefjer, an endearing journey into Andersen's work and mindset seen through the eyes of an enthusiastic father and his inquisitive young son with a school project to do on Denmark's most celebrated author. The Danish publishers Rosinante asked me to do the English sample translation for the award committee. Here it is.

13: What makes the tale good

I have read my story aloud.
“Is it good?” I ask.
“It’s dramatic,” says my father.
“Is it as good as Hans Christian Andersen?”
He shakes his head. “It isn’t, but then not many can write that well. Not even real authors.”
“Can I get to be as good as Hans Christian Andersen?”
“Perhaps,” he says. “You can certainly become better if you practise. And if you want to become really good, you must read a lot!”
“Must I read Hans Christian Andersen?”
He smiles. “It would be a good idea, but there are many other good writers. The library is full of them!”
“Why was Hans Christian Andersen especially good?”
He scratches his nose and furrows his brow. He’s racking his brains. I hope his forehead doesn’t break, though it would be interesting to see what his head looks like on the inside.
“There’s more than one reason,” he says. “His fairy tales and stories are dramatic and entertaining. His plots are good.”
“The things that happen. Like the princess declaring that she will marry the man who has the most to say for himself. Then we have three brothers. The first one knows the whole Latin dictionary by heart, and the town’s newspaper for three years. The second has learned all the articles of law. And the third can do nothing at all. At least, that’s what the others think!”
“Clumsy Hans!”
He smiles. “Exactly. The rest you know. And all the things that happen with the billy goat and the crow and the wooden shoe and the mud and the clever brothers, that’s the plot. Oh, yes, and there were blots of ink that got spurted on the King’s floor, too.”
“My plot was good as well!”
“Yes, it was! The plot’s important, but what happens doesn’t really amount to anything unless it’s told well!”
“Does it matter how you tell the story?”
“What do you mean by well?”
He scratches his nose again and furrows his brow. Racking his brains. At last he says: “It’s what matters most, the way the story’s told.”
Then he smiles. I think he’s found a way of explaining: “It’s like a house. A house built of bricks. Imagine you’ve two great piles of bricks, each exactly the same. Now imagine there are two builders. The first builder is very good. The second is careless and lays the bricks all wrong. Will their houses be just as fine, even if they’ve used exactly the same bricks?”
“The first house will be better than the second!” I say.
He nods. “It’s the same with words. They have to be put together in just the right way. We all have the same words inside our heads, but some use them in a special way. That’s what Andersen did. And even when he’s only writing about a green field and a blue sky, everything else in the world becomes a part of it, too, and one becomes so joyous it can pain the heart.”
I know how it is. I’ve felt it, though it doesn’t last long. It stops quickly.
He opens his mouth. Then closes it again. I don’t think he knows how to explain. Perhaps he hasn’t quite fathomed it yet? Sometimes you can feel you’re just about to grasp something, but then it disappears. Does he have that feeling, too?
“To tell a story well,” he continues, “means when the language, or more exactly the words, complement each other and the plot. When they sound well together, like a good tune. When they have a ring, and when the rhythm is fine and tickles the ears. There are many ways it can be done. Andersen had his own special way.”
“Isn’t there only one way to lay bricks?”
“There are many! I think everyone has their own way. That’s what it’s all about: finding your own voice. If you can do that, then you can write well.”
“Shouldn’t one imitate Andersen?”
He shakes his head. “That’s when it will fail, and fail miserably!”
He looks like he’s been given a turn. “But it’s as well to read him and see how he does things.”
We sit quietly. Then I ask: “So Hans Christian Andersen found his own voice?”
“He did, but it took a long time. The first things he wrote were magnificent. Novels, plays and poems, but he hadn’t yet found his own voice. Not quite.”
“You told me about that. About The Walking Tour. Just after he’d finished school.”
“Exactly,” he said. “And later came his novel The Improviser, and in no time at all he was famous all over Europe.”
A strange title. “What does improviser mean?”
“An improviser is someone who makes things up on the spot. That’s called improvising. Andersen had been called an improviser. And it wasn’t meant as a compliment.”
“Who called him that?”
“I think it was Hertz.”
“The one the Collin family thought better of?”
“Yes, but the most important thing was that he began to write fairy tales. And even more important: the fairy tales were written for children. The two things together were exactly what gave him his own special voice.
“So it takes a long time to find your voice?”
“I think so. It certainly took Andersen a long time. But all that he wrote prior to that was important, too. It was what had to be done in preparation, to make it possible for him to find his voice.”
He hesitates. Then continues: “There’s a famous example that’s always used to illustrate when Andersen found his voice.” He goes over to the bookcase, returns, opens the book, flicks through the pages and says: “I’ll read you a little excerpt from the fairy tale called The Galoshes of Fortune.”

Inside one of the houses close to King’s Newmarket a party was being given, a very large party whose purpose, like that of so many others, was to secure the others’ reciprocal invitations for the season.

That’s what Andersen wrote first, but then he changed it, and now it reads like this:

It was in Copenhagen, in one of the houses on East Street, not far from King’s Newmarket, that someone was giving a large party. For one must give a party once in a while, if one expects to be invited in return.

“Can you hear the difference?”
I really can! “It’s quicker,” I say.
He nods.
“It’s like he’s talking,” I say.
He smiles. His whole face is smiling: “Exactly! That’s precisely what’s happened! And it means the reader is drawn right into the story. He can’t resist. He has to read on. In those days not many people thought that was a proper way to write. On the contrary! His friends told him not to. They wanted him to write as he had done in The Improviser, that had made him famous all over Europe. They were afraid he would ruin his good reputation as a writer. And it had all only just started. But Andersen persevered. He continued working on his fairy tales in his own way, and now everyone agrees that using everyday language, the way it’s actually spoken, was just the right thing.”
I’m taking notes. “The year?” Ruth wants a year.
“The year? How do you mean?”
“The year he found his voice.”
“That’s hard to say, but the first fairy tales came out in 1835.”
I jot down: 1835.
“You see,” he continues, “when the plot is good and surprising, full of unusual ideas and told in a lively manner, in a language like music, then it will be a good tale. Andersen was really quite daring when he put in everyday language and exclamations. Things like: Hi ho! Now it’s common, but in those days it wasn’t. And there’s another thing!” He looks right at me. I must listen carefully now: “It’s amusing! It’s humorous! And in a special way. His very own way of being amusing. The fairy tales are always, almost always, amusing. Not in the way of Laurel and Hardy throwing custard pies at each other, but amusing in another, more subdued way. He said so himself: Humour is the salt of my tales.”
“The salt?”
“It’s an expression. It means what’s important!”
Then Marie is my salt! But I don’t say so out loud.
“His diary is funny, too. You know he was very tall, and when he sailed to Germany on his first journey abroad, he lay stretched out during the night on a long bunk that was meant for three. At one end he was asked to keep his head to himself, and at the other to keep his legs to himself. Can you picture that?”
I can. He has to bend and curl and crumple himself up.
“And always, whether he’s sending up an emperor or poking fun at an old plaything, one senses he’s fond of those he’s being witty about. He feels for them. He understands their weaknesses and is forgiving of them.”
“And one more thing! Even though the fairy tales are amusing, beneath the surface they are deeply serious and tell us that despite all hardship and misery, the world is good, for a loving God always makes sure all is well in the end!”
“Always, even when it ends badly, it ends well!”
“I don’t get it!”
“Try reading The Story of a Mother, then you’ll understand what I mean. The way in which he tells the tale is uplifting, even though it ends unhappily and even though it makes you sad. Because you sense that despite all the hardship and misery there is nonetheless a meaning.”
So one can be both happy and sad at the same time, I think to myself. Then I ask: “Is there a meaning?”
“What is the meaning?”
“For Hans Christian Andersen it was God, and His doing what is best for us!”
I look up at him.
“Occasionally Hans Christian Andersen would doubt. Especially when he became old. But whenever he began to doubt he always ended up believing in God again, and then he would apologize to God for having doubted. When he was a child and a young man, he believed in God much as a little child who doesn’t know anything other than that God is up in heaven looking down and watching over us.”
“But he didn’t go on believing like that?”
“Not quite.”
We sit quietly. I’m making a note.
“It was God who gave him his voice. That’s what I believe he thought,” says my father. “In The Fairy Tale of My Life he writes in the very first paragraph of the very first page: The history of my life will say to the world what it says to me: there is a loving God, who directs all things to the best.”
I can see it before my eyes: God finds Andersen’s voice and hands it down through the clouds to place it on his tongue. From there, it descends into his arm, out into his fingers, into the pen, into the ink and onto the white paper.
“And there’s another thing, too!”
My word! I take up my pencil.
“Another secret is that the fairy tales are written for both children and adults. Andersen says that the children have the fun parts, while the grown-ups are given something to think about.”
I see. But didn’t he think that children could grasp the serious parts? I ask: “Is that a secret? That the fairy tales are written for both children and adults?”
He smiles. “Not at all. But it’s a fine thing. It enlivens the tales.”
I note down. I must talk to Marie about this!
“You see, there’s the plot,” he continues. “And there’s the language, there’s his compassion for his characters, there’s the humour. And the most important thing is that it all hangs together so well. It can’t be taken apart. The humour is in the language, and so is the compassion, often in the same sentence. And then there is God. God is behind everything and inside every little letter and comma. God is the heart of the fairy tale. If one takes away the heart, the tale will die!”
It can’t be taken apart, I think to myself. I don’t want to be taken apart either. Perhaps only to take out my heart and give it to Marie.
My father has gone over to the bookcase. He’s searching for something. He doesn’t hear what I’m thinking.
“Writing meant everything to him. Listen to what he wrote in the diary: Dreamt I was writing and the letters set fire to the paper.
“Did he dream that?” I ask.
“Indeed, there was so very much at work. The letters set fire to the paper. Just like the tin soldier and the paper dancer caught light. You’ll recall they were transformed by the fire. Do you remember the tin heart? Reading Hans Christian Andersen transforms us in much the same way. The flames rise up from the paper and catch into our hearts.”

© Louis Jensen & Høst & Søns Forlag, 2004
Translation © Martin Aitken, 2009

[1] Jean Hersholt’s translation in The Complete Andersen, 1949.

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