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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

20 DECEMBER, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen’s Little-Known Sketches: The Beloved Storyteller’s Illustrated Travelogue of Europe

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What made Andersen particularly enchanting was his singular gift for noticing and depicting not only the whimsical, but also the wistful.

Hans Christian Andersen forever changed storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, but he was also among those rare famous creators with multiple talents: After he received a small travel grant from the King of Denmark in his late twenties, Andersen, a prolific diarist, set out to tour Europe and populated the pages of his journals with beautiful passages about the places he visited during his travels, accompanied by his own sketches of the sights and scenes that spoke to him. Found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library), these little-known and lovely sketches, both literary and visual, bespeak the celebrated writer’s capacity for not only witnessing life with extraordinary presence of heart and mind, but also for capturing its vibrancy in minute, expressive detail — the kind that the ordinary person dismisses as mundane but the great storyteller transmogrifies into magical material for world-building.

Andersen drew his very first sketch in 1821, when he was sixteen — he was already enamored with the theater as a youth, dreaming of escaping from his small hometown of Odense to become an actor in Copenhagen, so it is of little surprise that he chose to depict a theater stage in that seminal drawing:

Stage of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, 1821, the earliest drawing by Andersen.

But over the next decade, Andersen devoted himself to poetry and other literary pursuits. By 1831, he had established himself as a promising young writer, but as any rising talent, he wasn’t immune to attacks. After one that particularly hurt him — Henrik Hertz’s anonymously published 1830 critique Letters of a Ghost — Andersen decided to escape on a six-month trip across the Herz Mountains to Leipzig and Dresden, eventually returning to Copenhagen via Berlin and Hamburg. In the mountains, he visited the highest peak, Brocken, the legends of which were famously extolled in Goethe’s Faust.

Sketch of the trip from Lüneburg to Braunschweig, from a diary entry dated May 22, 1831.

The valley of the Plauenscher Grund near Dresden, from a diary entry dated June 4, 1831.

In 1833, Andersen traveled to Paris, then the Jura Mountains and the Brig district of Switzerland. Only twenty-eight, he had already begun to experience his first brush with international celebrity.

In the Jura Mountains

The gateway at Brig, from a diary entry dated September 18, 1833.

In a diary entry from September 18, 1833, he describes an encounter that struck him:

Went for a short walk in a black jacket, vest and trousers. The farmers probably took me for a cleric, because they stood still and tipped their hats. All of a sudden an old fellow came toward me and fell on his knees; then I got really scared and turned back. — This is the first time anyone has knelt in front of me.

The Simplon Road across the Alps.

This was the period when Andersen first began honing the literary talent that would later manifest in his travelogues, describing with exquisite emotionality the natural landscapes and architectural landmarks he was encountering on his travels. In an entry from September 19, 1833, he relays being overwhelmed by awe while traveling through the Alps:

The huge masses of stone gripped me; on one side a mighty waterfall plunged far down. — Everything was granite — it was like driving through the earth’s backbone.

Two days later, he adds with equal parts awe and pride:

Everything smelled fragrant; everything was so peaceful. . . . The Alps looked like the glass mountains of the fairy tale, and now I had crossed them.

Genoa, October 2, 1833

Andersen arrived in Milan a day later, then traveled to Genoa and Florence. On October 2, 1933, he wrote in the diary:

If France is the country of reason, then Italy is the country of the imagination. (Germany and Denmark, of the heart.) — Here is all you could wish for in a landscape — the oranges hanging so yellow between the lush greenery; big, grass-green lemons greeted us with their fragrance. — Everything was like a painting…

Egeria's Grotto outside Rome.

View of the dome of St. Peter's from Monte Mario, from a diary entry dated July 26, 1834.

Villa Borghese

Grave of Ascanius.

One of the most beautiful passages comes from a diary entry for October 26, which reads like a fairy tale:

On the big, silent Campagna the lonely ruins of the huge aqueduct stood. (Near Albano, the grave of Ascanius.) — In the little valley in Campagna lay some ground fog. We went through it. It was as if an elfin maid had wrapped her cloak around me; it was a dank shroud. I pressed my lips together to avoid the kiss.

By the summer of the following year, Andersen is still traveling across Italy. In an entry from July 25, 1835, he marvels:

We heard the sound of surf and then saw the endless blue sea off Sorrento; the moon was shining on the foam. Cape Mysenium, Procida and Ischia lay large as life before me. I was in paradise! It was masterful!

Beethoven's grave in the cemetery at Währing near Vienna, from a diary entry dated June 30, 1834.

Piazza del Trinità with Michelangelo's house, from a diary entry dated April 11, 1834.

Between 1835 and 1846, Andersen entered his most prolific creative period, during which he penned three novels, six collections of fairy tales, and six musical dramas. It was also then that his diaries got to their most expressive, suggesting that for Andersen, fairy tales were not a fancy but a record of his inner world and lived experience as he perceived it. For instance, he writes in a journal entry from November 3 of 1840, while traveling through Germany:

Yesterday we passed a forest; with its brown foliage it looked exactly like a copper forest. There was something so utterly magical about it that the big steers we encountered on the muddy road appeared to me to be enchanted people, for the one, of course, had to correspond to the other.

A street in Athens.

In 1841, he visits Athens, which he finds foreign and disorienting, but still revels in the whimsy of the new experience:

Imagine for yourself a town built in a hurry, as if for a big market, and that the market is in full swing — and there you have the new Athens. … The tall, solitary palm trees and cypresses nearby, the picturesque costumes! — I don’t understand it myself; I still don’t have any idea about it all, but I’m happy. I can’t really believe that I am in Greece, in Athens! The city is growing as I walk here!

Turkish graves near Constantinople, from a diary entry dated April 28, 1841.

From there, he visits Turkey — a brush with an even more unfamiliar culture. In a diary entry from April 29, 1841, he describes visiting a Turkish cemetery:

We went to the cemetery, which was very extensive. The graves of dervishes have dervish turbans; there are green turbans on the graves of those who themselves, or one of whose forefathers, have been to the Prophet’s grave. We walked so far that we could see the town Chalcedon and the Sea of Marmara. (In Scrutari we saw Ali Pasha’s grave, which had something like a wire birdcage over it and fountains.) Carved in the burial stones by the graves there is one big hole or two small ones for water, so that dogs can quench their thirst — this is a blessing for the dead.

But as a native Bulgarian who has frequently witnessed foreigners’ perplexity by traditional Balkan music, I was especially amused by Andersen’s description of the Turks’ singing and dancing:

A strange song with shifting rhythms was sung by a few of [the dervishes] and then by them all. It was something with scales and runs, as if a musically gifted savage had heard an Italian singer for the first time and now in his own way was trying to imitate him.

He describes a dancing dervish with the same bemused colonialist’s judgment:

His body moved to the one side, then into obscene positions; finally all his limbs were moving as if they were driven by a steam engine. All the dancers were groaning and drawing in deep breaths. The sweat was dripping from their pale faces; at last they sank to the ground. I felt really discomforted.

Whirling dervishes at Pera

In a diary entry from the following day, April 30, he visits a monastery in Pera and observes another traditional dance, this time with more admiration than judgment. Incidentally, that particular dance embodied Carl Sagan’s assertion about ancient religions celebrating cosmology — the dervishes were dancing about astronomy:

The dervishes took off their tunics and now stood in their brimless, high-crowned white hats, in open green jackets and long green skirts that were extremely wide, looking like funnels on them when they whirled themselves around on the same spot with their arms stretched out and half raised. There were two in the middle; the others were turning around them and around themselves. A priest walked very quietly among the ones in the middle and those on the outside. Their faces were extremely pale. There was the sound of music and the singing. They stopped suddenly and stood still for a moment; then they began to dance the same dance again. They looked just like lifeless dolls; they were portraying the course of the planets.

The next day, May 1, another magical passage depicting nature as a fairy tale:

The nightingales were jugging, and the turtledoves were cooing in the high cypresses. The Sea of Marmara was like glass; the mountains in Asia seemed ethereal; in the clear air beyond lay a chain of snow-covered mountains. Ships with all their sails were lying at anchor like swans mirroring themselves in the water; the small boats were gliding like back snakes across the current.

A Wallachian girl.

But what made Andersen a particularly enchanting storyteller was that he was able to notice and convey not only the whimsical, but also the wistful. On May 6, upon arriving on the desolate and barren coast of Constanta, Romania, he writes:

A dead stork was lying by the sea; it had a melancholy effect on me — it had just reached the sea and then sunk down dead. … A wet, cold fog; the entire sea hidden from sight. Close to the dead stork there was a dead dog; I didn’t make a note of it — the stork appealed to my imagination; the dog had perhaps been noble and faithful, and now went unnoticed.

The irony, of course, is that he did make a note of it, and therein lies Andersen’s greatest, most timeless talent — his singular ability to notice what goes unnoticed by most, and to imbue it with a story that speaks to our deepest fears and our highest aspirations: In the dead dog, he saw the human virtues of honor and loyalty, as well as the tragedy of dying without having mattered, and what could be more resonant with the human condition than that?

Monument on a grave.

The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen is an enchanting read in its entirety, revealing the inner world of this legendary world-builder with unprecedented intimacy. Complement it with other famous creators’ little-known art, including Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, William Faulkner’s Jazz-Age drawings, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, and Sylvia Plath’s drawings.

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09 DECEMBER, 2013

George Orwell, Feminist: The Beloved Author on Gender Equality in Work and Housework

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“The position now-a-days is anomalous. The man is practically always out of work, whereas the woman occasionally is working. Yet the woman continues to do all the housework.”

Besides his great wisdom on why writers write and how to make the perfect cup of tea, George Orwell also endures as a kind of cultural oracle who presaged the NSA era in 1984 and the Occupy era in Animal Farm. But it turns out he might have also presaged the Lean In era a century before Lean In and decades before the second wave of feminism.

From George Orwell: Diaries (public library) comes an entry dated March 5, 1936, in which the celebrated writer recounts an incident while visiting the Searles — a poor family with whom he lodged during his quest to learn empathy by immersing himself in poverty and of whom he noted that he had “seldom met people with more natural decency.” Writing nearly a decade before his first big literary success with Animal Farm, a novella essentially about inequality, 33-year-old Orwell shares his unease with the gender inequality so deeply imprinted in the cultural fabric:

We had an argument one evening in the Searles’ house because I helped Mrs S. with the washing-up. Both of the men disapproved of this, of course. Mrs S. seemed doubtful. She said that in the North working-class men never offered any courtesies to women (women are allowed to do all the housework unaided, even when the man is unemployed, and it is always the man who sits in the comfortable chair), and she took this state of things for granted, but did not see why it should not be changed. She said that she thought the women now-a-days, especially the younger women, would like it if men opened doors for them etc. The position now-a-days is anomalous. The man is practically always out of work, whereas the woman occasionally is working. Yet the woman continues to do all the housework and the man not a handsturn, except carpentering and gardening. Yet I think it is instinctively felt by both sexes that the man would lose his manhood if, merely because he was out of work, he became a “Mary Ann.*”

* British slang for a male homosexual or an effeminate man.

George Orwell: Diaries offers a rare record of the beloved author’s becoming, from the evolution of his private beliefs to the formative experiences that shaped his writing and his character.

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12 NOVEMBER, 2013

Anaïs Nin on the Elusive Nature of Joy

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“There are so many joys, but I have only known the ones that come like a miracle, touching everything with light.”

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) is not only one of history’s most dedicated diarists, but also a vocal expounder of the idea that keeping a diary enhances your creativity. She began hers when she was only eleven years old, originally as a letter to her father who had just abandoned her, and maintained it until her last breath. Her sixteen tomes of published journals span more than half a century and have given us her timelessly resonant insights on such wide-ranging subjects as love, parenting, self-publishing, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, and the meaning of life. However, since Nin’s diary recorded the vibrant and uncensored fullness of her life — which included a social circle of prominent public figures and a love life of multiple affairs defiant of the era’s norms and stereotypes — the standard editions of her journals, edited by her husband and literary executor Hugh Parker Gulier, suppressed the unfiltered and controversial eroticism, which spilled onto the diary pages. In disguising the eroticism, however, Guiler also amputated much of what made Nin Nin: Her exuberant capacity for emotion.

Anaïs Nin (Photograph courtesy of Ohio University Press / Swallow Press)

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library) — the long-awaited uncensored version of volumes 3 and 4 of her diaries, answering such previous mysteries as how and why her affair with Henry Miller ended and what role the effeminate young literary men who surrounded her played in her life — comes this poignant meditation on the elusive nature of joy, which Nin penned in December of 1939, shortly after the flare of WWII, which deeply affected Nin and permeated her psychoemotional landscape:

Over and over again I sail towards joy, which is never in the room with me, but always near me, across the way, like those rooms full of gayety one sees from the street, or the gayety in the street one sees from a window. Will I ever reach joy? It hides behind the turning merry-go-round of the traveling circus. As soon as I approach it, it is no longer joy. Joy is a foam, an illumination. I am poorer and hungrier for the want of it. When I am in the dance, joy is outside in the elusive garden. When I am in the garden, I hear it exploding from the house. When I am traveling, joy settles like an aurora borealis over the land I leave. When I stand on the shore I see it bloom on the flag of a departing ship. What joy? Have I not possessed it? I want the joy of simple colors, street organs, ribbons, flags, not a joy that takes my breath away and throws me into space alone where no one else can breathe with me, not the joy that comes from a lonely drunkenness. There are so many joys, but I have only known the ones that come like a miracle, touching everything with light.

It was precisely this joy that Nin experienced when she got news of the war’s end.

Mirages, revelatory in its entirety, was preceded by Incest: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1932–1934, Fire: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1934–1937, and Nearer the Moon: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1937–1939. Complement it with this exquisite recording of Nin reading from her famous diary and her timeless wisdom on writing and the future of the novel.

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