Twentieth-Century Danish Literature
Twentieth-Century Danish Literature
The following entry presents criticism on authors and works of twentieth-century Danish literature.
The geographical area that currently comprises the nation of Denmark was invaded by several generations of Indo-European settlers beginning sometime around 2000 b.c. Over the next several hundred years, these ethnic groups and others merged to form the ethnic population of modern-day Denmark and Scandinavia. Although Denmark has a strong history of indigenous literature and folk tales—including poetry composed in the Runic alphabet, reminiscent of other cultures influenced by Indo-European civilizations—the modern-day Danish lexicon has its roots in the Germanic family of languages. After the advent of Christianity and throughout the Middle Ages, literature in Denmark was largely dominated by ecclesiastical writers and themes. At the time, Danish literature focused heavily on stories about saints and legends concerned with expounding the Christian view of life. One well-known exception to this trend was a history of Denmark, titled Gesta Danorum, that was written by Saxo Grammaticus sometime in the twelfth century. This text shows evidence of both pagan and Christian influences in its tales of the lineage of Danish kings throughout the ages. In addition to such works as Gesta Danorum, indigenous Danish narratives were also preserved during the Middle Ages through a continuous output of folk songs and stories. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of neoclassical literature in Denmark, followed in the twentieth century with the adoption of a more realistic national prose style.
Early twentieth-century Danish literature was heavily influenced by a reaction against the naturalist movement in prose that began in the late nineteenth century. This era witnessed the advent of a fervently nationalistic Danish literature in the works of Martin Andersen Nexø. Nexø's novel Pelle Erobreren (1906-10) is now regarded as a seminal work of proletarian literature and has been translated into numerous languages. In addition, the early twentieth century saw the rise of regional and rural literature in Denmark, as embodied in the works of such significant Danish writers as Marie Bregendahl and Jeppe Aakjær. Critics such as Torben Brostrøm have argued that Danish poetry underwent a major thematic shift in the early twentieth century, marked by a distinct rejection of lyrical style in favor of a more symbolist style of writing. The works of such Danish poets as Johannes Jørgensen paralleled other European writers of the period in their opposition to naturalism and their focus on personal and political concerns. One of the most notable Danish symbolist poets of the era was Paul la Cour, who asserted that poetry represents a concept of existence, a unique whole where fragments come together and reveal subtle connections. Another influential Danish poet, Johannes Jensen, published the collection Digte in 1906, which is considered one of the most significant texts in the history of the new form of poetry in Denmark. Although Jensen's writing clearly departed from nineteenth-century lyricism, his strong impressionistic and interpretative style set him apart from other poets of his time. Jensen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1944.
Post-war Denmark witnessed the emergence of a new kind of realistic literature—where novels, poetry, and dramas were steeped in reality and concerned with the futility of human existence. While these works were dark and pessimistic in their descriptions of ordinary life, most concluded with a vision of hope for the future. One of the most notable figures of this period was Isak Dinesen. Dinesen is regarded as a pivotal figure in the development of modern Danish literature. Many of her works have appeared in English, the most famous being Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and Den Afrikanse Farm (1937; Out of Africa). Following the German occupation of Denmark during World War II, Danish literature also began reflecting overtly nationalistic sentiments filled with emotional and ethical turmoil inspired by the conflict.
Modern Denmark is a largely well-educated society with a reputation for being supportive of its literary and artistic communities. Continuing this trend through the 1960s and beyond, the novel and short story continue to be popular genres with Danish readers, while the country itself is one of the leading producers of books and periodicals in the Western world.
Vredens Børn, Et Tyendes Saga [Children of Wrath, a Hired-Man's Saga] (novel) 1904
Rugens Sange [Songs of the Rye] (poetry) 1906
Hans Christian Branner
Legetøj (novel) 1936
Drømmen om en kvinde (novel) 1941
“Humanismens krise” (essay) 1950
En Dødsnat [A Night of Death] (novel) 1912
Billeder af Sødalsfolkens Liv. 7 vols. [Pictures from the Life of the People of Sodal] (short stories) 1914-23
Paul la Cour
Leviathan (poetry) 1930
This Is Our Life (poetry) 1936
Astrid Noack (poetry) 1943
Seven Gothic Tales (short stories) 1934
Sanhedens Haevn [The Revenge of Truth] (play) 1936
Den Afrikanse Farm [Out of Africa] (autobiography) 1937
En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse [Bonfire Speech Fourteen Years Delayed] (essay) 1953
Last Tales [Sidste Fortaellinger] (short stories) 1957
Anecdotes of Destiny [Skaebne-Anekdoter] (short stories) 1958
Leif den Lykkelige [Leif the Lucky] (novel) 1928-29
Det maa gerne blive Mandag [Monday May as Well Come] (novel) 1934
Barnet (play) 1936
Jens Munk [North West to Hudson...
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Criticism: Major Works
SOURCE: Bisztrav, George. “Documentarism and the Modern Scandinavian Novel.”1Scandinavian Studies 48, no. 1 (winter 1976): 71-83.
[In the following essay, Bisztrav analyses the development of documentarian tendencies in the modern Scandinavian novel.]
Early in 1969, the editors of Vinduet initiated a symposium to elucidate particular problems of the documentary tendency in modern literature. During the discussion, the Swedish guest, Per Olov Enquist, exclaimed: “Det er litt dumt dette med betegnelsen “dokumentær” kanskje, det sentrale spørsmålet i denne sammenheng er fiction eller non-fiction.”2 There was hardly a more insightful remark to be heard at the symposium. Enquist raised the very problem of the traditional distinction between “literature” and “life,” or between the heroic, sweet, lofty, but “fictive” sphere of existence on the one hand, and the incoherent, accidental, petty, but “authentic” everyday events on the other hand.
What about the author who claims that he shows precisely the average, accidental events, which, at first sight, “do not make sense”? The German author Alexander Kluge's Schlachtbeschreibung, a fictive report on the battle of Stalingrad, was published in Swedish translation in 1965. One of its reviewers, Torsten Ekbom, openly confessed that he did not find any conventional way to...
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SOURCE: Brostrøm, Torben. Introduction to Contemporary Danish Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Line Jensen, Erik Vagn Jensen, Knud Mogensen, and Alexander D. Taylor, pp. 1-10. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1977.
[In the following essay, Brostrøm reviews the development of modern Danish poetry, focusing on stylistic and thematic trends particularly influential in Denmark during the first half of the twentieth century.]
For a description of modern Danish poetry, various historical points of departure may be chosen, e.g., the nearly century-old Naturalism with its new idea of man, coinciding with the emergence of industrialism and capitalism. In many respects we are still living under similar conditions, and poetry still finds answers to the challenges they present. The language of Naturalism, however, was not primarily that of lyric poetry. The age of modern poetry was heralded in the 1890s by the so-called Symbolists, and their major figure in this respect, Sophus Claussen, has been chosen as the introductory poet of this anthology. His knowledge of the fragmentation of consciousness, which is a characteristic feature of Modernism, was comprehensive, and in several ways modern Danish poetry has been determined by his striving to subdue and yet artistically preserve that fragmentation. This selection can but suggest some of his ways toward creating a poetic cognition, a synthesis superior to that of scientific,...
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SOURCE: Andersen, Frank Egholm, and John Weinstock. “Danish Literary Criticism since 1960.” In The Nordic Mind: Current Trends in Scandinavian Literary Criticism, pp. 1-5. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986.
[In the following essay, Andersen presents a brief synopsis of Danish literary critical thought.]
It has been extremely exciting to follow Danish literary criticism and research during the last two decades. Denmark is a very small country but nevertheless has a culture and a language all its own. Exactly because of this limitation in size, Danish cultural and literary debates are notably sensitive to what is happening in other, larger cultural areas: German, French, English, and American cultural trends are absorbed quickly into the Danish cultural environment. Sometimes this sensitivity causes Danish culture to be more French than the cultural debate in France, sometimes more American than that in America, but some pronounced Danish traditions are always present to change the foreign influence into something distinctly Danish.
Another peculiarity of Danish cultural life is that everything is visible, everything is accessible. The United States, for instance, always has four or five influential cultural centers, each pulling in a different direction. Thus, it is difficult if not impossible to determine exactly what is prevalent in American cultural life. The...
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SOURCE: Henriksen, Aage. “Karen Blixen and Marionettes.” In Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, edited by Olga Anastasia Pelensky and William Mishler, pp. 1-17. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, originally published in Karen Blixen og Marionetterne in 1952, Henriksen illustrates the use of the marionette symbol in Isak Dinesen's works, including Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales.]
SEVEN GOTHIC TALES
The qualities that have led to Karen Blixen's literary fame are the first ones to strike the readers of her stories. The exquisite and refined narrative manner and the mysterious and fantastic elements of their plots have given her readers a somewhat intimidating impression of her: Karen Blixen as the aristocrat and sybil in Danish literature, the great anachronism who manages to combine old culture with archaic unculture. But this portrait reveals only half the truth, and it suffers a bit from banality. There is much spirit in Karen Blixen's writings, but not so much witchcraft as people have tended to impute to them; she enchants without bewitching. And her aristocratic manner never outweighs her piety.
One of the chief reasons why Karen Blixen has a dazzling and disorienting effect on her readers is because they take for literary sophistication what is basically her personal viewpoint. In her tales, stories and...
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SOURCE: Gossman, Ann. “Sacramental Imagery in Two Stories by Isak Dinesen.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 4, no. 3 (autumn 1963): 319-26.
[In the following essay, Gossman describes the use of the theme of destiny and the search for human identity in three of Isak Dinesen's short stories.]
Many stories by Isak Dinesen explore a pattern of destiny against which the individual must search for his identity, or else abandon his hope, his risks, and his distinctive humanity. Such a theme is evident in some of the stories in Dinesen's first published collection of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), especially in “The Dreamers.” It reappears in her next-to-last book, Last Tales (1957), which contains some unfinished work and a section entitled “New Gothic Tales.” This same theme is of central importance in all of the stories in Anecdotes of Destiny (1958), Dinesen's last book.1
Frequently the character in search of identity is an artist. For such a person, identity is meaningful largely in terms of a relationship both to his art and to the audience which the artist requires. To express the sacred quality of this relationship and the promise of spiritual enrichment, Dinesen makes use of imagery that suggests the Communion service in two stories about artists. One of the artists is Babette, an expert French cook, who appears in...
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SOURCE: Rossel, Sven H. “Ole Hyltoft and the Neorealistic Trends in Contemporary Danish Literature.” World Literature Today 57, no. 1 (winter 1983): 17-21.
[In the following essay, Rossell argues that the poetry of Ole Hyltoft is marked with sharp political satire examining the ideologies of Capitalism and Marxism, and that many of the views expressed in his writing evolved during his years as a critic and journalist.]
Life is so many-sided: poetic, criminal, full of love, taunting.
When Klaus Rifbjerg (see BA 49:1, pp. 25-28), the writer largely responsible for the growth of modernist poetry in Danish literature during the 1960s, published his collection Amagerdigte (Amager Poems) in 1965, it became evident that a reaction against this experimental and hermetic mode of writing—a mode actually introduced by Rifbjerg himself—had begun. In 1961 his controversial poem Camouflage had caused bewilderment and indignation. The public had fastened upon the complete lack of punctuation and overlooked the fact that the work was a grandiose, almost ecstatic yet artistically structured attempt to conquer reality through a voyage into the realm of the subconscious. Rifbjerg used an associative technique, playing with words and putting them into unexpected combinations in a fragmented syntax. With...
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SOURCE: Ingwerson, Faith, and Niels Ingwerson. “Introduction: The Age, the Man, and His Vision.” In Quests for a Promised Land: The Works of Martin Andersen Nexø, pp. 3-33. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Faith and Niels Ingwerson trace the political and cultural climate during Martin Andersen Nexø's time, also providing overviews of his major works and themes.]
Martin Andersen Nexø was always involved in the history of his age: he recorded it as he saw it, and he wanted to set his mark on it. His oeuvre is a statement that was meant to influence opinions and affect lives. A necessary delineation follows of his times, his life and career, and his artistic universe—the contours of which may be less clear-cut than they at first seem.
ASPECTS OF DANISH SOCIAL HISTORY
In 1869, at the birth of Martin Andersen, who in 1894 added Nexø to his name, the industrial revolution was transforming Danish society. Small factories and cheap new housing projects were forming a dark ring around the old city, and the inhabitants of the old neighborhoods were looking with suspicion, if not apprehension, at the new masses. In small ways labor had begun to organize; thus, a class struggle was in the offing.1
Although in the rural areas, where the majority of the people still lived, feudalism had supposedly...
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SOURCE: Gray, Charlotte Schiander. “Lyrical Debut” In Klaus Rifbjerg, pp. 3-12. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Gray details Klaus Rifbjerg's life and works, focusing on Under vejr med mig selv his first collection of poetry.]
Rifbjerg's biography, as such, is very undramatic, but he has an almost uncanny ability for the sensuous reproduction of basic and normal life occurrences so that they continue to offer new insights. And although the available biographical facts themselves are quite limited, Rifbjerg's recollection and recreation of them seem boundless.
Rifbjerg belongs to that subjectivist tradition where the individual feels he can speak with authority only if he speaks on behalf of himself. But as Rifbjerg has pointed out on various occasions, for example in an interview with Per Øhrgaard, “If you really tell about yourself, then what you have in common with others is also bound to appear.”1
Rifbjerg was born on 15 December 1931 to a middle-class family on Amager, a small island engulfed by suburban Copenhagen. His parents were both school teachers and, because his mother worked, the Rifbjergs had a maid who looked after the boy and whom he felt very close to. Rifbjerg was a latecomer—his parents were in their forties—with two older sisters; and he...
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SOURCE: Gray, Charlotte Schiander. “The Author and His Work.” In Klaus Rifbjerg, pp. 75-90. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Gray discusses Klaus Rifbjerg's experimental style in his memoirs, short stories, and novels.]
TRAVELLING AND MATURING
Stages of crisis, and of potentially renewed insight and development, occur especially when a character is about to enter adulthood or when he is assessing his status as an adult approaching middle age. The travel descriptions follow the same biological-psychological pattern. For example, Leif in Leif the Happy, Jr. (1971), is confronted with a problem similar to that of Janus and Tore in The Chronic Innocence, while Misse, in The Road Along Which, shares problems with the other traveller, Anna from Anna (I) Anna. The schoolboys in Thanks for the Trip are related to those in The Chronic Innocence. Geographically, Leif is travelling home to Denmark from New York; mentally, he is travelling towards adulthood, and, quite concretely, he is trying to rid himself of his state of virginity. He meets the upper-middle-class girl Ulla, but the sexy-looking American girl he encounters might have been a more efficient choice for the purpose.
Travel offers opportunities, but Leif lacks initiative; and when he finally visits Ulla in Stockholm,...
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SOURCE: Barr, Marlene. “Food for Postmodern Thought: Isak Dinesen's Female Artists as Precursors to Contemporary Feminist Fabulators.”1 In Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative, edited by Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin, pp. 21-33. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Barr theorizes on the importance of Isak Dinesen's works as precursors to postmodern feminist writing.]
In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson comments, “I am very far indeed from believing that any of the most significant postmodern artists—John Cage, John Ashbery, Philippe Sollers, Robert Wilson, Andy Warhol, Ishmael Reed, Michael Snow, even Samuel Beckett himself—are in any sense schizophrenics” (118). My purpose in citing Jameson is not to take issue with his statement, but rather to make a simple observation: his list of “the most significant postmodern artists” does not include female postmodern artists. As we are all aware by now, women are omitted from “most significant” lists through no fault of their own; their contributions are either trivialized or subverted. Such has been the fate of our American female creators of postmodern fiction, our contemporary “lost” women writers. It is time to announce that these “lost” writers have been found.
In order to locate female postmodern writers, we must look towards...
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SOURCE: Mussari, Mark. “H. C. Branner and the Colors of Consciousness.” Scandinavian Studies 71, no. 1 (spring 1999): 41-66.
[In the following essay, Mussari studies H. C. Branner's use of pictorial language in his writings as a means to evoke images underlying human consciousness.]
Time past and time future What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present.
T. S. Eliot
Commenting on the power of the image in his essay “Kunst og virkelighed” (1962), H. C. Branner observed that “de store forandringer viser sig altid først i kunsten, hvad der er en simpel følge af at billedet går forud for tanken” (30) [the great changes always appear first in art, a simple result of the fact that pictures precede thoughts]. In expressionistic language, Branner often struggles to capture the pictures of the multivalent dimensions of consciousness and creates antimimetic imagery that, especially in his more elaborate stream-of-consciousness, not only expresses emotions but also stretches temporal and spatial boundaries. Like pictorial expressionists, Branner relies heavily on chromaticism to convey subjective states of being.
Much has been written about H. C. Branner as a humanist or psychoanalytical writer regrettably confining him to the postwar Heretica movement or the more...
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Gray, Charlotte Schiander. “Klaus Rifbjerg: A Contemporary Danish Writer.” Books Abroad 49, no. 1 (winter 1975): 25-8.
Chronicles the literary output of Danish poet and novelist Klaus Rifbjerg, characterizing him as a leading figure amongst contemporary Danish writers.
Jorgensen, Aage. “Touring the 1970's with the Solvognen in Denmark.” Drama Review 26, no. 3(95) (fall 1982): 3-14.
Follows the development of twentieh-century Danish theater, focusing in particular on the development of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen.
Koefoed, H. A. “Martin Andersen Nexø—Some Viewpoints.” Scandinavica 4, no. 1 (May 1965): 27-37.
Theorizes that Nexø's political views, often expressed strongly in his works, have tended to diminish his importance as a literary figure in Danish literature.
Mitchell, P. M. “A Need for Myth: Danish Literature After 1940.” In A History of Danish Literature, pp. 279-301. New York: Kraus-Thomson Organization Limited, 1971.
Provides an overview of Danish literature between 1940 and the mid 1950s.
Poole, Roger. “The Unknown Kierkegaard: Twentieth-Century Receptions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, edited by Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino, pp. 48-75. Cambridge, England:...
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