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Hans Christian Andersen: Great Novelist?

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It was of course his incomparable fairy-tales that drew me to Hans Christian Andersen -- not just the famous ones, some of them proverbial like "The Ugly Duckling," but the haunting later stories as well, not primarily written for children, often tragic in subject matter and complex in construction, such as "The Ice Maiden" and "The Dryad". But once I started to explore Andersen's whole huge output -- he worked in every possible literary medium: poems, plays, libretti, travelogues, novels, memoirs -- I realized that his individual vision of the world and his dexterity with words were not confined to the fairy tales that made him a worldwide household name. In particular was I impressed by his six novels.

"I want to be Denmark's top novelist," ever-ambitious Andersen told a friend as he started on his third novel, Only a Fiddler, and for many years this he surely was. His novels have all the outstanding characteristics of his fairy tales -- spell-binding conversational style, ubiquitous gentle humor, strong narrative drive, and infectious feeling for the meeting of the human and the natural worlds. But they have qualities all their own -- ones belonging to the specific genre of the novel. We identify with the central characters and their predicaments, we appreciate their social milieus, we live through a variety of experiences and emotions, knowing that these, like our own, are conditioned by time and space. No magical interventions will rescue us.

The first of Andersen's novels, The Improvisatore, came out on 9 April 1835, exactly a week after his thirtieth birthday, and one month minus a day before his first booklet of fairy tales, that containing those perennial favorites, "The Tinder-box" and "The Princess on the Pea". The novel's opening page exudes freshness, a liberating sense of being addressed by a real person. At once we believe what he is telling us is as true as he can make it. He is an Italian of poor background, born and reared in Rome -- he informs us exactly where -- and it is soon clear that his is a story of growth, towards artistic realization -- as an "Improvisatore" who captivates audiences through imaginative extemporizations -- and fulfillment in love. And he never deviates from recounting this double progress, though relates many a pitfall endured on the way, one which, in geographical terms, includes the notorious Pontine Marshes, the turbulent but thriving city of Naples and erupting Vesuvius.

Readers coming to the novel from English literature may well feel a familiarity. The unexpected death of the narrator's mother, his subsequent residence with a humble woman in the provincial countryside, his adoption by prosperous folk, his ambivalent friendship with a dashing young buck who makes off with his first love - where have we encountered all these before? Why, in David Copperfield! When Andersen met Dickens in London in 1847, the author of that still-to-be-written masterpiece told the Danish visitor of his great admiration for The Improvisatore, then available in English in a translation by Mary Howitt.

This novel's original Danish readership was impressed, enthusiastic, and perhaps surprised when it appeared. Not so much by the author's assumption of an Italian personality -- it was known in Copenhagen circles that he had been in Italy from September 1833 to April 1834 -- but through the richness of the personal history told and the vigor of the narration. Born into poverty in Odense on the island of Fyn, and relying on his hopes and wits when he moved to Copenhagen as a boy of only 14, Andersen was educated and adopted by the Danish upper classes through public funds administered by a distinguished civil servant, Jonas Collin. Andersen became virtually a member of Collin's family, and a strong friendship grew up between himself and the second Collin son, Edvard. But as his twenties progressed, he had a feeling of being perpetually judged and found wanting, and became sad at not having accomplished what was expected of him. The Improvisatore confounded all his doubters, not least himself: arresting, economical and sure-footed in its artistry, startlingly innovative in its portrayal of the protagonist's evolving personality and the workings of memory.

Andersen went on to bring out a novel he'd already begun alongside the early fairy tales in 1836, and then, the year after that, a third, Only a Fiddler. O.T. is set in Denmark, among the very circles which had taken Andersen up, but it contains much autobiographical matter quite unknown even to them. The curious title refers to Odense Tugthus, Odense Jail, where Andersen's own grandmother had been incarcerated for having children out of wedlock, and the novel surreptitiously introduces us to Andersen's older half-sister, whose possibly unrespectable existence he had (at that time) told absolutely nobody about.

As for Only a Fiddler, it was even more rapturously received than its two predecessors, and nowhere more so than in Germany. Andersen's phenomenal international literary success really starts here, antedating -- however strange that seems to us - the huge success of the fairy-tales. A case could be made -- with its movements from deep rural Denmark to Vienna and to Paris after the 1830 revolution -- for this being the first-ever European novel. Christian, the violinist hero, is repeatedly likened to a stork so famous for its huge migrating flights.

Andersen's later three novels work less as unities; by this time Andersen had realized that the fairy tale was his true metier. But they contain many good things -- The Two Baronesses (1848) is a Scott-like tale with marvelous evocations of the Danish coast; To Be Or Not To Be (1857) shows Andersen's agonized response to the horrors of Denmark's First Schleswig War against Prussia; Lucky-Peer (1870) is again about the growth of an artist but takes in contemporary modernism. All transcend conventional notions of Andersen.

I believe that Andersen was the author of truly great novels, original in design, sharp and sensitive in characterization, inventive and compelling in action. Without the fairy stories they undoubtedly would be better-known, even inside Scandinavia, than they are. How has this comparative neglect occurred? The answer, I suppose, lies in his friend and mentor, scientist and writer H.C. Ørsted's remark in 1835, that while The Improvisatore would make Andersen famous, the fairy tales (of which he himself had read only a small handful) would make him immortal. Andersen wasn't sure he agreed. But posterity has vindicated Ørsted. The fairy-stories are unlike anything else that has ever been written, while the novels are fine contributions to a growing tradition. But that doesn't cancel out their greatness; they should be read and known and loved again.