<preform>The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen, Trs Jeffrey Frank & Diana Crone Frank<br/>Hans Christian Andersen: Fairy Tales, Trs Tiina Nunnally</preform>

The Danish author Hans Christian Andersen soared above his personal failings and humble background to create some of the most masterly stories ever written. As the bicentennial of his birth approaches, Paul Binding assesses his haunting and resonant work
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One of Hans Christian Andersen's strangest and strongest stories is "The Shadow" (l847). While staying in a southern European city, a scholar from northern Europe loses his shadow. Many years later he re-finds it, for it comes to call on him in the guise of a prosperous middle-aged gentleman. A disquieting reversal of roles follows, which culminates in the shadow taking its former owner, now poor and ill, on a curative holiday. It insists however that they present themselves to the outside world as social superior and inferior respectively, and that they address one another accordingly. When the two of them meet a princess, the shadow proceeds to disown the scholar to further his courtship. Eventually shadow and princess marry in splendour while the unfortunate scholar - paradoxically by now the other's shadow - is clapped into jail and disposed of.

The story is characteristic of Andersen's mature art in that it fuses two different forms. Like the pure folk-tale it develops linearly with intransigent logic; the ending may shock (it truly does) but it's latent in the very opening paragraphs. At the same time, the tale works on us through its potent atmosphere, and the bewilderment and disappointment of the scholar in his years of failure. It therefore appeals to the senses and the feelings, just as the composed lyric poem or work of fiction do. And in its employment of popular fairy-story elements, in its concern with the Doppelgänger, it connects up with the great German Romantics: Adalbert von Chamisso, whose story of a man selling his shadow, "Peter Schlemihl", obviously stands behind it, Jean Paul, Novalis, E T A Hoffmann, and the composer influenced by these writers and whom Andersen numbered among his friends, Robert Schumann.

But palpably "The Shadow" is also the therapeutic treatment of a personal wound, an objective correlative for one of the many traumas of its author's difficult, unhappy - but phenomenally successful - life. A boy from a poor, dysfunctional, provincial background, Hans Christian Andersen was taken up in Copenhagen by the well-to-do and cultured Collin family. A son of the family, Edvard, was at once Andersen's greatest friend and the object of his passion, a situation hard for both of them to cope with. When Hans Christian, aged 26, suggested the two of them abandon formalities and call one another "Du" (the intimate form in Danish of the second person) Edvard, so aware of the social gap between them, refused. This refusal was still rankling 16 years later when Andersen wrote "The Shadow"; its titular figure declines the proposal of a friendlier mode of address in the very words Edvard Collin had used: "Some people can't bear to touch grey paper - it makes them ill. Other people shiver when they hear a nail scrape against a pane of glass. I get just that kind of feeling when I think of you addressing me by my first name." Many an Andersen story derives from a similarly distressing actual episode.

"The Shadow" not only revisits old pain but is an act of self-vindication - and revenge. Just as the despised ugly duckling turns out a beautiful swan, just as the little mermaid who has seemingly forfeited both mortal and immortal life is translated into a Daughter of the Air, so the scholar, grim and pitiable though his lot is, shows up his Shadow as puffed-up, preening, dishonest. Who today would care about Edvard Collin and his snobbish refusal to use "Du" if he hadn't been a friend of Denmark's greatest writer?

But of course Andersen's life wasn't like his scholar's, one of neglect, misunderstanding, poverty. Once, with courage and perseverance, he'd said goodbye to his impoverished boyhood in Odense, he was recognised, for all his gaucheness, self-preoccupation and unattractive appearance, as the possessor of rare gifts and, equally extraordinary, of an unflinching determination which would make him, and at an early age, realise them. He wrote in every literary medium but critics and readers alike, both at home in Denmark and abroad, were not slow to appreciate that it was in the fairy-tale that he found his unique creative self, advancing and refining the genre so that it attained unprecedented emotional power, amplitude of suggestion and universality of reference. Thanks to these fairy-tales he was, at the time of the lavish jubilations for his 70th birthday (April 2, l875) certainly his country's, and most probably his continent's, most famous living writer.

Of these two handsome volumes published to anticipate the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth next year, the Penguin selection contains more stories (30 against 22) and has an indispensable introduction and scholarly notes by Jackie Wullschlager. It is illustrated by Andersen's own mesmeric paper-cuts. The Granta volume has an overly American-oriented introduction but excellent notes, and carries the incomparable original Vilhelm Pedersen illustrations. Its translations, by Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank, have all the perkiness and button-holing quality of the original, and, appropriately it includes some delightful humorous shorter stories. In contrast, the admirable Tiina Nunnally's translations for Penguin excel rather at the lyrical and metaphysical aspects of Andersen, represented by the innovative later tales interestingly selected here. Both volumes are splendid tributes to Andersen's genius.

Andersen is not an easy man to like - or to admire personally. "My name is gradually beginning to shine, and that is the only thing I live for," he pronounced at 32; and reading his life - in Jackie Wullschlager's magnificent biography (2000) - it's easy to concur. He was a relentless self-promoter, hungry for approbation, never loath to regale others with fulsome accounts of his successes. He assiduously cultivated the well-connected, the well-known and the well-off, and he couldn't resist royalty. He was only too easily upset, and an indifferent review had him sobbing on the lawn like a child.

His emotional life was vitiated by the same qualities that impaired his social. He publicised his various romantic friendships with women - above all with the singer Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale" - but he never enjoyed fully reciprocal relationships, and female sexuality seems to have troubled him: the legacy of his own promiscuous female relatives. Homosexually, even allowing for the difficulties with Edvard Collin, he fared somewhat better, but no affair lasted. Many stories can be read as apologia for a gay sexuality impossible for someone prominent internationally and locally to live out. "The Ice Maiden" is a forceful example; the impact of the phantom spirit's cold kiss which handsome young Rudy carries about with him ensures that, while he knows ecstasy with a girl, he is denied consummation, this surely representing the mark of congenital homosexuality. Likewise, the Little Mermaid's muteness and the compulsive desire of "The Snowman" for the stove have been interpreted as symbols of sexual heterodoxy. But there's a danger in over-specificity here. Andersen's stories move because they embody the anguish we all feel in living up to norms, our anxious wish to be true to ourselves without quite knowing how. But undoubtedly his sexual ambivalence gave him his unrivalled appreciation of the quiddity of inanimate things - whether a top and a ball or a sink and a pod of peas - which he sees as bearing the feelings of fragmented humankind and yet enriching its lot.

For while Andersen's work was of course inspired and nourished by his life, it also stands utterly independent from it, just as the shadow could be severed from its owner to lead an independent (and successful) existence. Whether we like or dislike or like Andersen the man is unimportant; for us he is his stories, and his life, however fascinating, is of consequence only in that it was the source for these unique free-standing existential metaphors. To read through these two new collections, both giving Andersen's prose its naturalness, its fluidity, is to recognise afresh the intense intricacy of his art and the penetration of his vision. But even once inside his own particular genre he took a little time to find himself; his first forays into fairy-story like "The Tinderbox" and "Little Claus and Big Claus" have an atypical rumbustiousness; would they be so well-known today if their creator hadn't gone on to very different triumphs? With "The Little Mermaid", "The Emperor's New Clothes" and the marvellous "Wild Swans" (1837-38) the real Andersen emerges, who blends a sense of the numinous with keen insights into the contrast between people in society and people on their own, and an almost hallucinatory ability to find visually compelling images for our fears and desires. The 21st century has a problem - I speak for myself - with those tales in which Andersen indulges in effusions of generalised Christian piety; the celebrated "Little Match Girl" (1847) is smothered by these, as her near-contemporary, Dickens's crossing-sweeper Jo is.

In the novella-length "Snow Queen" and "Ice Maiden" he develops his protagonists, showing them expanding or contracting under pressure of events, in the manner of the great 19th-century masters of fiction, Balzac or Dickens, while never slackening the essentially fairy-story forward impetus towards symbolic resolution. "The Snow Queen" gives to the girl Gerda the questing strength traditionally ascribed in fairy-tales to the young male, while the boy, Kai, most convincingly stands for male surrender to logic, to the emotion- and value-free domains of pure intellectual inquiry here epitomised by the northern frozen wastes. Andersen was as constantly inventive in his art as he was restless in life, and some of his later stories - notably "The Marsh King's Daughter" and "The Wind Tells of Valdemar Daae and His Daughters" (in the Penguin volume only) - make interesting experiments with narrative viewpoint, the latter presenting the tragic decline of a family through the witness of the unengaged prevailing wind.

For me, Andersen's true peers are Franz Kafka and Federico Garcia Lorca. All three were propelled by private wounds and inadequacies into creating works of defiant autonomy which, by a happy irony, became loved ambassadors for the society (Danish, Czech-Jewish, Spanish) which produced them. From there they went on to colonise the entire reading world.

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