Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller

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9780140283204: Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller

The first English language biographer to have returned to the original Danish sources, Wullshlager creates a fascinating picture of Andersen as a deeply troubled man, as far from Danny Kaye's all-singing version as it is possible to imagine. Desperately sensitive, sexually confused and socially awkward, Andersen found grace and acceptance through the creation of a distinct and beguiling literary world, becoming, as was once said of Tolkien, 'the creative equivalent of a people'. Wullschlager's achievement is to demonstrate the unity of his troubled life and and the soaring achievement of his work. He appears in this biography more various and more flawed, but also more convincing and more impressive, than ever before.

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Review:

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

Review:

"In my view it is the best book ever written about Hans Christian Andersen. If someone had asked me a couple of months ago which biography of Andersen was the best I would immodestly have said my own work, but today I would answer that the best book is the one written by Jackie Wullschlager. Not only is is a fuller and more comprehensive biography, but it is the first book ever to place Andersen in a contemporary European tradition and to measure him with a European yardstick." Elias Bredsdorff, Emeritus Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Cambridge "[T]his spring, Knopf will publish a biography by Jackie Wullschlager, a writer for the London" Financial Times," which may add to the few reliable studies available in English, the most notable of which is Elias Bredsdorff's . . ." Diana and Jeffrey Frank, "The New Yorker" "Finely documented and insightful . . . Jackie Wullschlager's account . . . is a delight . . . her work gives off a classic sparkle. It will bring joy . . . "-George Steiner, "Observer" "Splendid . . . authoritative . . . gracefully written [and] meticulously referenced . . . will encourage many readers to revisit an author who undoubtedly deserves serious critical attention." -Christina Hardyment, "Financial Times" "Intensively researched and elegantly written."-Humphrey Carpenter, "Sunday Times " "Deals brilliantly with the whole man."-Melanie McDonagh, "Daily Telegraph" "Told with thoroughness and sympathy . . . [a life] as peculiar, fascinating and painful as any of his celebrated fairy tales."-Rosemary Ashton, "Sunday Telegraph" "An extraordinarily accomplished biography, both intellectually rigorous and emotionally wise . . . fascinating . . . Wullschlager wears her learning lightly but still we are left feeling we are in the hands of an expert guide."-Kathryn Hughes, "Literary Review""

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