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Just as Well I'm Leaving by Michael Booth
Why Denmark had it in for Danny Kaye
Sunday 24 July 2005
When he came across Andersen's great-but-forgotten travel book detailing a trip to the Orient, A Poet's Bazaar, Booth saw a way of indulging his growing obsession with the writer and getting away from Denmark - which he wasn't enjoying - by retracing Andersen's 1840 journey through Germany, Florence, Rome, Naples, Istanbul and more. The result is an example of comic travel writing (like an earthier Bill Bryson and, whisper it, funnier), mixed with a probing biography of Denmark's greatest author and an insight into the gloriously warped mind of Booth himself.
It's also a literary review, seeing Andersen's stories as revealing of the author's psyche. Four books in one then, but melded so you can't see the join. It's beautifully written and highly entertaining, with more good laughs per page than pastries in a Danish konditori. As he follows Andersen's route, Booth also examines the issues which have occupied biographers of Andersen: why did he go to his grave a virgin, was he gay, and could anyone really be as neurotically self-obsessed as Andersen appears in his diaries?
Booth, as he admits, has his own neurotic preoccupations, some of them very like Andersen's, which may partly explain why Booth finds his obsession with Andersen growing quickly and why, at times, Booth's descriptions seem to take on a 19th-century style of their own. His trip doesn't just take in the towns Andersen went to, but as much as possible the individual landmarks: if Andersen has visited a church, say, so does Booth. He even spends time with a prostitute in the name of research to see how likely it was that Andersen, as he claimed, merely talked to his hostess. In fact, it seems very likely, if Booth's experience with Sandra in Hamburg's Herbert Strasse is anything to go by, where he finds the situation emasculates him. As he says: "Even in its prime my equipment is never likely to impress a woman of the world such as Sandra, but in the state Herbert Strasse had reduced it to she would have needed powerful bifocals and the persistence of a milkmaid."
The lightness of style means you're halfway through the book before you realise Booth has studied his subject both widely and in depth, analysing and contextualising every leg of the journey from the letters Andersen sent home, his fears as he's running out of money and more. Of course, each chapter also tells the reader what Booth makes of modern-day Rome (not much, by the way) as clearly as what Andersen thought of it in 1840.
Booth's style is pacey, conversational and unpredictable, whether he's describing Naples as "a city so chaotic and squalid that it makes New Delhi look like Guildford", or relating an encounter with Greta Scacchi in his hotel. Alongside this he conjures Hans Christian Andersen so beautifully that it's hard not to live through Andersen's journey as intimately as Booth's, and it may send you back to the fairy tales to read them anew. In this bicentenary year, there will be plenty of biographies of Andersen, but none as funny, or occasionally as touching, as this.
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