Hans Christian Andersen, by Jens Andersen, trs Tiina Nunnally

The duckling that didn't become a swan
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'Oh, dear dear Edvard, how I love you, though I can't properly say what I feel. I most assuredly have too much love! In writing... I can tell you everything in my heart. When we meet face to face I feel embarrassed to express myself in that manner.'

Edvard was a son of Hans Christian Andersen's patron, Jonas Collin, a lawyer-administrator with a pivotal position in Copenhagen's cultural life. Jonas had discerned early the powers of the remarkable, eccentric youth from Odense. So he took in hand both his education and his already burgeoning literary career, asking an unenthusiastic Edvard to supervise his Latin. Before long Edvard was the object of the prodigy's unrelenting emotional admiration, which he maintained until his death, as Europe's greatest literary celebrity, at 70.

Andersen was quite effusive enough "face to face" for Edvard, who resented all the gushing demands on his attention. Time and again he sought to discourage Hans Christian, refusing him the right to use the familiar pronoun du (standard practice between two contemporaries in regular contact), omitting him from his wedding guests, scoring off him in witty verses in public. True, there were times when this got to Hans Christian unbearably: "The more I think about everything, the more I see your matchless egoism, the monstrous injustice that I am suffering."

But "egoism" was something he himself was in no position to complain about. Didn't everybody chide him for his ceaseless proclamations of his plans, his gifts, his successes, his emotions, his needs? Determinedly centre-stage, he barely conceded that the other players in his drama had inclinations of their own. Even in that superb short story, "The Shadow", born of the conflict between Edvard and himself, it's hard to find any consideration by Andersen of what the situation felt like for his friend, who had his own private life on top of his unflagging attention to the business side of Andersen's spectacular career.

Jens Andersen places Hans Christian's involvement with Edvard at the very centre of his enthralling, ground-breaking new biography. The significance of Edvard to Hans Christian's art can't be over-estimated. To enter into their relationship is to drink from the very well-spring of his inimitable, Shakespearean achievement, which this bicentennial year has been honouring. Edvard, conventional enough in temperament and outlook, stands for a norm Andersen desired but could never attain, for a casual masculinity that always eluded him - just as, for all the acclamations he received in one European country after another, he could never manage that social ease Edvard commanded. Jens Andersen has a novelist's insights which enhance his meticulous biographical skills, making us appreciate (among much else) that ambiguity is as intrinsic to the life as to the art that came out of it: novels, illuminatingly analysed here, plays, poems and travelogues as well as the internationally celebrated fairy tales. Hans Christian's passions may have been homosexual, but the direction of his genital desires was much less certain. And the heaviest burden Andersen carried was his effeminacy for which he endured cruel taunts (see "The Ugly Duckling"), the exasperation of Collin and many another man, and a sense of inadequacy with women - like the famous Swedish singer, Jenny Lind, with whom he once believed himself in love. Wasn't he "unmanly", 'half-womanish'? Hence his fascination with androgynous creatures and objects, with elements uninhabitable by normal human beings: ice, water fathoms deep, limitless air in which to soar obstacle-free. His depiction of these was to liberate countless others from insecurities of their own.

Edvard Collin was largely ignorant of Hans Christian's life before Copenhagen. In enlarging our knowledge of the Odense years, Jens Andersen follows a procedure as original as it is compelling. Opening his book with his subject's arrival in Copenhagen at age 14, a precocious "child of Nature", he leaves all early experiences until that point in the writer's history when, turning 40, he decided to perpetrate his essentially mendacious "Fairy-Tale" of his life. His newest biographer has something very far from a fairy tale to tell, a chastening account of degrading circumstances for a sensitive boy, where almost all female relations were involved in prostitution, a milieu without refinement or stability which he wished to conceal even from himself, and forever.

He never could, of course, and his wonderful last stories - so adventurous in their art that they anticipate the next century's avant-garde - crystallise his agonies for us as outright confessions never could. Jens Andersen's empathy is such that he makes us feel the inevitability of this apotheosis. He even makes us forgive Edvard Collin his coolnesses when Andersen was alive and his anxieties after his death that he might be thought a participant in "sickly" outpourings of ecstatic love. After all in the last full year of Hans Christian's life he signed himself, in a letter characteristically business-like but also warm and humorous: "Your oldest and constant friend, E Collin".