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Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller

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Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller

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    Available in PDF Format | Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller.pdf | English
    Jackie Wullschlager(Author)
Although before him Charles Perrault in France and the Brothers Gimm in Germany had collected and retold folk-tales in ways which found wide popular audiences, it was only with the appearance of Hans Christian Andersen's "Eventyr" (Fairy Tales) in 1835 that a writer emerged capable of creating new tales equal to those which existed in the folk memory. The grace and simplicity with which Andersen wrote, and his penetrating insight into the human condition, soon won him a wide following, and by the 1840s he was the most famous writer in Europe. Today, tales such as "The Ugly Ducking" and "The Emperor's New Clothes" are part of our inherited cultural consciousness, as familiar to us as any stories outside the Bible. Yet the saccharine picture we have of Andersen himself as a childlike storyteller is wholly at odds with what Jackie Wullschlager shows to be the true nature of his life. The outline is well known: the son of a dirt-poor cobbler and illiterate washerwoman who fought his way to fame and fortune. But Andersen was not at all what he seemed: wonderfully entertaining when he chose to be, he was also lonely, sexually confused and frustrated, vain yet anxious, manipulative yet vulnerable. "My name is gradually starting to shine, and that is the only thing I live for. I covet honour as a miser covets gold; both are said to be empty, but one has to have something to get excited about in this world, otherwise one would break down and rot," he wrote in 1837. Both the determination and the sadness in these sentences could be written over the whole of Andersen's life. Jackie Wullschlager's achievement is to show in detail how his art much darker and more diverse than has been previously appreciated - emerged from this complex personality. Wullschlager is the first English biographer to return to original Danish sources and to have revisited the principal places where Andersen lived, and her sense of his landscapes - not only Golden Age Denmark but the princely courts of Germany and the warm climate of Italy which unlocked his creativity - is acute. Wullschlager also documents for the first time how, although Andersen had emotional involvements with women, his greatest passions were for men - the aesthetic student Ludwig Muller; Baron Henrik Stampe, patron of the arts; the flamboyant dancer Harald Scharff - all of whom in the end let Andersen down. Wullschlager does not sensationalised this, but shows how Andersen consciously substituted artistic creativity for sexual and other forms of happiness. "He is not really pretty", said Elizabeth Barrett Browning's son Pen, "he is rather like his own ugly duck, but his mind has developed into a swan". In this portrait, Andersen appears to us more multi-faceted and more flawed, but also more convincing, and his achievement more impressive, than ever before. A giant of European Romantic literature comes to life.

In 1867 Edmund Gosse called him "one of the most famous men alive in Europe"; he remains probably the only Dane from the 19th-century most people in this country would be able to name unprompted. The challenge for a biographer of a figure like Hans Christian Andersen--the pre-eminent storyteller of his age and perhaps of any age--is to make the narrative exciting. Given that the current vogue is for doorstop-thick biographies that move like sludge through an interminably detailed day-by-day account of the subject's life, it is very much to Jackie Wullschalger's credit that she never loses sight of the story. Andersen was a complex character and led a convoluted life, which brought him into touch with many of the leading European figures of his day. He stayed with Dickens--very much a fellow spirit, as Wullschlager argues--on visiting London. After he had gone Dickens pinned up a note in his house: "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks--which seemed to the family AGES!". He could evidently be hard work; but many people loved him, and this biography explores the reasons why this was so. For all his gifts and likeability, Andersen emerges from this biography as often immature, and surprisingly prudish ("if it really is a sin," he agonised in his journal over being sexually attracted to women, "then let me fight it. I am still innocent, but my blood is burning. In my dreams I am boiling inside."). Wullschlager argues that it was Andersen's physical ugliness that alienated him from the sensual life: "long thin arms and legs out of all proportion, his feet of gigantic dimensions; his nose was so disproportionately large that it seemed to dominate his whole face, whereas his eyes were small and pale and well hidden in their sockets." A friend called him "the giraffe". Wullschlager is surely right to identify a sense of frustration, and a barely managed erotic repression in many of Andersen's greatest works. "The Ugly Duckling", "the Snow Queen", "the Little Mermaid" are all about outsiders, and all bear a direct relationship to Andersen's life. This book deftly picks out the contours of that life. --Adam Roberts

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Book details

  • PDF | 528 pages
  • Jackie Wullschlager(Author)
  • Allen Lane; First Edition edition (2 Nov. 2000)
  • English
  • 3
  • Biography

Review Text

  • By Kaz on 13 August 2017

    Just incase it is of help to know first, I read the paperback version, with tiny text - possibly 8pt - across 481 pages, but which includes around 60 pages of sources and bibliography.There is no doubt this is a very indepth and informative biography, with fascinating insights and an excellent range of photographs, showing Andersen's homes, friends and even some of his own creations, but the writing style, which contained alot of broken up texts and paragraphs meant it was quite a feat to work through.The book covers Andersen's entire life, and includes his many travels, diary entries, and much about his various friend / relationships and how they impacted and inspired his well known fairy tales. It was at times surprising and fascinating to discover so much about someone who's stories have endured the time and adaptations that they have.The only reason I couldn't give 5 stars is because I didn't feel it was kind, or necessary to have gone into such detail about Andersen's most personal predilections. I don't believe it would have taken anything away from the biography if omitted, and even in today's social media acceptable lack of privacy, not anything that people really needed to know.

  • By Jonathan on 15 January 2010

    Wullschlager's account endears Andersen to the reader as she treads a fine line between exposing his inadequacies as a man and doing justice to the legend of the great author. Since Andersen himself sought from an early age to retouch the picture of his own past, conflating fiction and reality to create a mythological figure, any biographer has to be alert to false scents. It seems to me that Wullschlager accepts the foibles of her subject more willingly than, say, Zipes, whose 2005 `Hans Christian Andersen, The Misunderstood Storyteller' is harder on Andersen and more dogmatic about his hang-ups. Wullschlager's account convinces because she allows the genius of her subject to stand unmolested: a rare and naïve sensitivity who somehow managed to concoct timeless tales of princesses, mermaids, and talking animals. Plagued by sexual guilt, racked by psychosomatic disorders, possessed of an eggshell ego, locked inside a gaunt and ungainly body, Andersen pitted his wits against his milieu in a lifelong struggle for recognition. What fascinating subject matter! Shame about the odd typo in the Danish, otherwise a balanced and sensitive account of Denmark's greatest export.

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