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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020


Edited By Marc Maufort

Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Dan Ringgaard and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, eds. Danish Literature as World Literature. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 286. ISBN: 9781501344695. (Julie K. Allen)

Dan Ringgaard and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, eds. Danish Literature as World Literature. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 286. ISBN: 9781501344695.

Julie K. Allen

Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

This compact volume, edited by two Aarhus University professors, belongs to the Bloomsbury “Literatures as World Literature” series, which turns the spotlight on individual national literatures, themes, and genres, in order to illuminate specific examples of what world literature means. In ten chapters written by some of the most venerable and insightful scholars of Danish literature, the book offers an impressive array of case studies, organized chronologically, of prominent Danish authors whose lives and works were substantially transnational. This list ranges from the medieval ecclesiastic Saxo and anonymous balladeers to the early modern humanist Ludvig Holberg to the nineteenth-century prodigies Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard, from the fin-de-siècle pathbreakers Georg Brandes, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Herman Henrik Pontoppidan, Johannes V. Jensen, and Karen Blixen to several 1960s postmodernist poets and contemporary Nordic noir novels. While most of these authors are firmly situated within the Danish literary canon, this volume does an excellent job at demonstrating how transnationally oriented they were as well, pointing toward the myriad ways in which their works drew on and inspired non-Danish authors.

In their introduction to the volume, Ringgaard and Thomsen describe their goal of presenting Scandinavia as “one of these intermediate contexts that can help literatures to think beyond themselves” in terms of Milan Kundera’s warning against both “the provincialism of the large nations that do not see a need for a wider context for their literature” and that ←275 | 276→of “smaller nations that cannot see how their literature can have a place among the large literatures of the world” (2). While the literatures of the Nordic countries may not be familiar to most outsiders, Danish writers have intersected with the literary landscapes of larger countries often and significantly enough over the past 1,200 years to have left visible traces that this volume recuperates. In this way, the volume aims to render visible the movement of Danish writers and texts, in terms of inspiration, reception, and translation, in a global context.

To provide historical scope, the first chapter starts at the beginning of Danish written history. Pernille Hermann offers an engaging profile of the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus – or Saxo the Dane, as the nineteenth-century Danish cultural nationalist N. F. S. Grundtvig rebranded him –, from whose work Shakespeare took the story of Hamlet. She describes how he functioned within a transnational world, drawing on oral lore, medieval Christian scholarship and patronage, and classical literature to address an elite international audience while also creating a narrative monument to his own people. Hermann interprets Saxo’s History of the Danes as a literary and political project designed to illuminate both Denmark’s relationship to Christian Europe and the relationship between the king and the church inside Denmark. Echoing Ringgaard and Thomsen’s framing, Hermann focuses on how a literary work like Saxo’s becomes world literature in a foreign cultural situation by functioning as an “interactive space between different cultures,” showcasing “formal compromises between foreign and local forms” that are both “criteria for world literature status and decisive factors for the development or evolution of new genres” (13).

Jumping a thousand years ahead, the second chapter considers the networks along which Danish ballads were disseminated in Germany and Britain in the 1760s-1830s. For the former, Lis Møller traces how the German poet Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg’s epistolary introduction of Peder Syv’s Danske Kæmpe-Viser (1695) (which incorporates Anders Sørensen Vedel’s 1591 collection) led to the inclusion of Danish ballads in Herder’s Volkslieder (1778–79), which in turn informed Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig” (1782), Wilhelm Carl Grimm’s 1811 collection of Altdänische Heldenlieder, and Heinrich Heine’s Elementargeister (first published in French in 1837). She then documents a parallel reception history in Britain, via the German sources, that centers on transmission of the ballads, in translations of varying fidelity and accuracy, from Herder to the young poet Matthew Lewis to Robert Jamieson to Walter Scott to ←276 | 277→George Borrow. While the prominence of Danish ballads in this revival reflects both contemporary fascination with the North and the perceived authenticity of Danish ballads because of their long textual history, the disproportionate focus on supernatural rather than historical narratives lent Danish folklore a particularly haunting reputation.

In the third contribution, Svend Erik Larsen demonstrates how the Dano-Norwegian Holberg’s prolific engagement with early articulations of Enlightenment values in many different genres should be read as part of a historical dialogue about the “mutual exchange between a local language and culture and the translocal world and its cultures and languages” (58). In Larsen’s view, Holberg’s use of the vernacular functioned as an educational project designed to situate Danish as a language in which “essential issues and concepts of a global range could be discussed on the same level as in any other vernacular or in Latin,” so that Danes could both “contribute to the most advanced thinking of the day” and “benefit from and develop an independent reflection of the large cultural context” (58). Arguing that awareness of local anchoring was keener among writers from minor languages, Larsen employs the term “minor transnationalism” to explain the multidirectional encounters between cultures beyond the dominant hierarchies of world languages that Holberg’s life and career exemplify.

Karin Sanders uses the fourth chapter to explore Hans Christian Andersen’s wide-ranging physical and imaginative mobility. Sanders foregrounds not only Andersen’s orientation toward both adult and child readers in local (Danish) and global contexts, but also the way his stories navigate linguistic, generic, cultural, and national borders. In this way, Andersen facilitates the reader’s experience of double-temporality, in which the reader becomes conscious of both the tangibility of letters and words as physical entities, as well as their symbolic meaning. Sanders concludes, “For the adult, the two reading experiences overlap so that the written text becomes both a material and a mental property: a thing in itself and a magic door into the imaginary” (101). Using the fairy tale as a bridging genre, Andersen was able to successfully dislocate his stories from autobiography into fiction, from Denmark to Italy and Egypt and other countries, from the present to the past and future, from the real, human world into the world of fantasy, the animate inanimate, the supernatural.

Chapter 5, which ostensibly deals with Kierkegaard’s influence on Kafka, feels a little out of place in the chronology, for although ←277 | 278→Kierkegaard was born just eight years after Andersen, the chapter’s focus is primarily on Franz Kafka’s relationship to Kierkegaard’s works a century later. Regardless of its placement, however, Isak Winkel Holm’s skillful, probing analysis of what Kafka’s two documented encounters with Kierkegaard’s texts meant for Kafka’s authorship is a pleasure to read. He acknowledges Kafka’s initial sense of biographical kinship with Kierkegaard, but focuses on deciphering Kafka’s comment to Max Brod that Kierkegaard’s concept of the dialectical carried him “straight into the bliss of knowing, and even a wingstroke further” (115). Holm resists the temptation to simply list references to Kierkegaard’s texts in Kafka’s works or to analyze whether Kafka adopts or critiques Kierkegaard’s concepts. Instead, rather than treating Kafka as a disciple of Kierkegaard, Holm employs the Schopenhauerian concept of “semantic preliminaries,” defined as “a configuration of meaning that happens to trigger the literary production of meaning” (119), to illustrate how Kafka, as “a mature writer[,] […] used the power of Kierkegaard’s terminology for his own purposes” (127). Holm’s primary example concerns Kafka’s repurposing of narrative elements from Kierkegaard’s reading of the Grimms brothers’ tale “The Briar Rose” in The Castle.

Chapters six and seven both deal with the seminal Modern Breakthrough period. In the former, in the interest of situating the Modern Breakthrough within a transnational Scandinavian literary history, Annegret Heitmann deftly interrogates the diffusion, reception, and effects of Brandes’, Jacobsen’s, and Bang’s works in other European countries, as well as considering the role of globality and global markets in their respective poetics. Heitmann approaches world literature via David Damrosch as a “phenomenon of reception, ‘a mode of circulation and of reading’ ” (143) informed by economic considerations. In the latter, Jon Helt Haarder discusses Pontoppidan’s and Jensen’s genre-stretching novels from around 1900 – Lucky Per and The Fall of the King – which capitalized on the popularity of Scandinavian realist literature mediated by Brandes while developing their own distinctive poetics and ideological agendas. Both novels depict the journey of a provincial to the capital, preoccupied with seeking psychological and formal means of dealing with modernity, particularly with regard to questions of religion and sexuality.

In chapter eight, Lasse Hjorne Kjældgaard illuminates Blixen’s fundamentally transnational authorship, from her pseudonyms, linguistic code-switching, and defamiliarizing outsider narrative position to her bricolage-style borrowing from an international smorgasbord of ←278 | 279→texts. Blixen’s personal and professional lives were shaped by the wave of nineteenth-century globalization that directed “streams of capital […] across the continents in the age of empire” (195). Her turn toward writing fiction was at once prompted by the collapse of the global economy in the 1930s and made possible by the transnational networks and distanced perspective on Denmark that her time in Kenya had equipped her with. Kjældgaard leads off with the complicity in the Kenyan colonial project of which Blixen has been accused, but, disappointingly, does not engage with this question in the text, even at the end, when discussing the atypically pragmatic response of Blixen’s Somali cook Farah to the resolution of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

In chapter nine, Anne-Marie Mai surveys 1960s postmodernist Danish poets, including Dan Túrell, Per Højholt, Inger Christensen, Klaus Høeck, and Peter Laugesen, in order to demonstrate their engagement with international poetic trends. Although relatively few of their works have been translated, Mai suggests that they have a great deal to offer international readers: “globalization may allow writing in Danish to command interest in a global literary context, partly because writers to an increasing extent share modern and postmodern life scenarios, events and canons with each other, and partly because globalization promotes an interest in the identities and histories of particular localities” (210). However, since “artistic quality is not a magic formula that at once opens all the doors of world literature” (234), she points out that making these poets’ work available to non-Danish readers requires targeted efforts, such as festivals and prizes.

Finally, in chapter ten, Claire Thomson and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen dissect the popularity of Danish crime fiction in Britain, looking for answers in “the ways […] texts are shaped by (and themselves shape) the material, technological and institutional forms in which they are instantiated; the forms that are the condition of possibility for their mobility” (238). They agree with Mai that such mobility does not happen by itself, noting that “[l]iterature does not travel solo and nor does it travel light; it is carried and accompanied by films, television series, translators, publishers, state subsidies, and all manner of lifestyle goods stamped with Brand Denmark. It travels by interlingual and intermedial translation, by plane, by cargo ship, by word of mouth and by digital download” (239). Through analysis of two popular Danish crime novels – Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1992) and Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Kvinden i buret (Mercy / The Keeper of Lost Causes) (2008/2011) –, they illustrate Stephen ←279 | 280→Greenblatt’s argument that “only when conditions directly related to literal movement are firmly grasped will it be possible fully to understand the metaphorical movements: between center and periphery; faith and skepticism; order and chaos; exteriority and interiority,” each of which involves some kind of physical movement as well (238).

By framing Danish literature as an active participant in world literature currents over twelve centuries, this volume illuminates much more than just the movement of texts and bodies across Denmark’s geographic and linguistic borders; it also reveals the preconditions for such movement, as well as illuminating the reception, transformation, and onward dissemination of the ideas such texts contain. Although the volume would have benefitted from a good copyeditor, the individual chapters succeed admirably at amplifying influential, articulate Danish voices in a centuries-long global conversation about life, literature, and the pursuit of meaning.

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