Epoke - danske romaner før 1900

Til Epokes forside
Epokes forside

Epoker og ismer
Det moderne gennembrud
Det sjælelige gennembrud
Det virkelige gennembrud

Kontakt Epoke
In August 2000 the editors of Epoke received a letter from Eric Dickens, Holland. In Epoke presented as the following essay:

Two Estonian authors:
Friedebert Tuglas (1886-1971)
- stylistically influenced by the works of J. P. Jacobsen. With an excerpt from Tuglas' Memoirs of Youth

Eduard Vilde (1865-1933)
- an Estonian writer who had associations with Denmark
An essay by Eric Dickens

Friedebert Tuglas
Tuglas and J. P. Jacobsen
About Denmark and the Carlsberg Glyptothek
Androguuni paev - The Day of the Androgyne
Eduard Vilde
Eduard Vilde in Copenhagen

The Turn of the 20th Century
After resuming my Scandinavian studies, I am looking at the interesting parallels between what was happening around the turn of the 20th century in Poland, Bohemia, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Belgium, etc., (i.e. less "mainstream" countries that France, Germany and Britain), and have begun to look out for authors who might prove interesting. J. P. Jacobsen is, of course, one but until a few days ago I had more or less written off Jensen. Your website has opened my eyes.
    I have (re-)discovered the fin de siecle period and am looking at various authors / artists, especially in the areas of Naturalism and Symbolism. One of my favourite writers from around 1900 is the Estonian, Friedebert Tuglas. Tuglas has fascinated me for several years, and although I have certainly not yet read all his stories, I think he is the most prolific, prominent and accomplished Estonian writer of the symbolist-type of literature from that period.
Friedebert Tuglas (1886-1971)
Friedebert Tuglas
Friedebert Tuglas, the writer of the lines below, is one of the most interesting figures in Estonian literary history, a literature which was only taking off around 1900. As Tuglas lived until 1971, he went through several metamorphoses and saw the Estonian republic come and go, and experienced being a persona non grata during the Stalinist years after World War II. But as a short-story writer, Tuglas put Estonia on the literary map. His most important stories were written between 1910 and 1925, but the influence from the authors he mentions in the passage above, plus that of the early Gorki and of the French-speaking Flemings, Verhaeren, van Lerberghe and Maeterlinck is indisputable. Tuglas was perhaps the first truly European figure in Estonian literature; he travelled extensively to Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and North Africa, and also lived for long stretches of time in Finland, on Åland, and for a short while in Saint Petersburg.
Tuglas and J. P. Jacobsen
Tuglas writes in his memoirs that he was stylistically influenced as a young man by the works of J.P. Jacobsen. He also spent one (recorded) day as a tourist in Copenhagen when on his way to Hamburg and beyond by train. The Jacobsen influence took place in 1907, the train journey in 1909.

Excerpts from Tuglas' “Noorusmälestused” (Memoirs of Youth)
“That autumn [1907], I immersed myself in reading the great stylists from the turn of the century. Oscar Wilde, d'Annunzio, Rodenbach, Bryusov - writers who say little to the present generation. Or if they do mean anything, then chiefly as great virtuosi with words, not in any way influencing the present mood, or ways of thinking. Those writers were closer to us in those days, in both respects. For no important work of literature can only be a masterpiece on technical grounds, without having roots in the mentality of its time. So literature written in an era of individualism and aestheticism always sprouts from the society of the time, and also influences it in turn.

It was nonetheless by sheer chance that almost the first book I happened to read on arrival in Oulunkylä (outside Helsinki; Åggelby) was a collection of short-stories by Jens Peter Jacobsen. In the same way that Oulunkylä extended my opportunities to observe nature as I had done on Åland, so too my efforts towards attaining a tighter, more sublime style. As we can see by hindsight, the Estonian language of the day was still terribly uneven, ungainly and clumsy for anyone to make such attempts. But that did not stop attempts being made to improve on the rough-hewn and limping prose of the day. Everything depended on looking at the subject matter in a more intimate and exact way, and penetrating its inner essence. Where other great stylists were too decorative, or poeticised nature too much, Jacobsen approached nature as a scientist, looking at it intimately, almost psychologically, and put his impressions into words in the same balanced way.

For this reason, first Mogens and then, later, Maria Grubbe were a revelation to me. I remember strolling along through the woods at Oulunkylä on clear autumn days, stopping from time to time to read from Mogens. My mood was one of reverence, and the presence of each tiny autumn flower and yellowed leaf was touchingly close. I viewed my surroundings through the eyes of the Dane who had already reached the realm of the dead.
At the same time, I had begun to write my story Birdcherry Petals. (...)

Excerpts from Tuglas' Noorusmälestused (Memoirs of Youth). The memoirs were revised or rewritten in 1943, and again during the post-Stalinist thaw of the 1950s, and describe his life of exile and wanderings between 1900 and the First World War. Translated into English by Eric Dickens. Copyright © 2000.

Tuglas about Denmark and The New Carlsberg Glyptothek
What does Tuglas have to say about Denmark? Tuglas didn't visit Denmark much, tended to pass through on the train on his way down to the continent of Europe. But his memoirs do include a few paragraphs.

After going to see a performance of Fröken Julie at “Intima-Teatret” in Stockholm in 1909 (with August Falck as Jean, and Manda Björling in the title rôle; Tuglas says the perfomance has become routine, the actress too old to play Miss Julie), Tuglas takes the train the next day in the direction of Copenhagen:

In Copenhagen 1909
“The train left Stockholm in the evening, and rattled overnight through the lit-up towns of Götaland and Scania, as well as the dark forests. (...) Twelve hours later we finally came to a halt at the southern tip of Sweden, in Malmö. A cool, but sunny morning. The station right on the sea front with the ship already waiting. And hardly had we left port, than the the outline of low coastline on the other side became visible across the opal sea. This was already Kongeriget Danmark. Only one-and-a-half hours voyage - through the sea teeming with sailing ships and other vessels, accompanied by large flocks of seagulls. They followed one ship over from the Swedish coast to Denmark, then followed another back again. The white sails and the swirling flocks livened up the monotonous surface of the sea. And this sea already seem bluer and more transparent than at our shores, though it is one and the same sea.

If the Swedish capital fascinates with its ancient culture, then Denmark does so with its own from times immemorial. The view already on approaching: blocks of building rising as if straight out of the greenish sea, buildings of a faded red and smokey blue in colour and behind them a number of spires. And the nearer you get, the more the patina of age becomes evident, the green and reddish brown of the oxydised roofs, and the greyish walls, all through a kind of drought-ridden haze. But at the same time, although everything is old, it is nevertheless alive, not grimly aged. The patches of mould caused by the damp climate are more like beauty spots on the surface of living life, its interior remaining untouched.

Yes, in the end, the pulse of life feels altogether younger as compared to that of Sweden with its exalted heartbeat and thin blood. At times it feels like a paradox. A city already housing three-quarters of a million people at the edge of a small kingdom, varied, flat and sloping down to the sea. Is this not expansion beyond its natural benefits? But there is nothing unnatural in it, because everything has grown in an organic manner, driven by its own inner strength. You are never struck by the thought, the way the prophets make the grim prophecy about Saint Petersburg: you have risen from the marshes you must sink back into them! No, this people has least of all anything to do with the mysticism of destruction!

The Stock Exchange with four serpents with green tails like palms up on a high tower
The Stock Exchange with "four serpents with green tails like palms up on a high tower."

As soon as we landed, a walk of discovery through the city. Many living streets with buildings in Dutch style and in what is termed that of Christian IV. Occasionally a mixture of the exotic: black elephants supporting a portal, or four serpents with green tails like palms up on a high tower. Then again the silent-walled castles or the proud commercial palaces with their moss-green roofs. And everywhere towers and spires, as if the city were fearful of the proximity of the low countryside. And finally, I stood in an open square, where three towers rose, giving the square a stately look. This was Kongens Nytorv - the centre of Copenhagen.

The mass of people surged past, but in an easy-going manner, without the impatience of a large city. Healthy, red-cheeked faces, open smiles. And as a self-evident aspect of life here, a kind of especially democratic trait. This feeling of easy-going life was not dispersed either by the rows of vehicles, or the criss-cross of trams or the groups of cyclists. Cyclists crossed at intersections in large flocks, with lively swing.

When, however, the intersection was momentarily closed to traffic, they leant on their fellow-cyclists' shoulder as if by command, in order to keep their cycles upright. There were jokes, fragments of songs - then the cyclists moved off again like columns of soldiers. Truly, if in Czarist Russia it is said that human beings consist of body, soul and a passport, then in Denmark a person consists of body, soul and a bicycle. I listened to the hubbub of voices on the street, in the cafés, in the shops. The language here also seemed in harmony with the easygoing way of life. It is a Scandinavian language to be sure, but entirely incomprehensible to the unaccustomed ear. I understood the street signs and written texts, but not the spoken word. At the same time, people understood my stock of poor Swedish, but what they said in reply I could not begin to work out. And as foreign language they had English, as an Anglo-Saxon way of life is dominant in so many other matters. The day I spent in Copenhagen was, at any rate, a day full of impressions.

And I do not know what attracted me more: the everyday life of the Danish capital, or the Danish cultural heritage, as concentrated here. Everywhere striking examples of affluence and taste. I did, of course, visit the City Hall on Nytorv itself and the Museum of Art with its very rich collections of old art and new. But the institution which surprised me the most and which I never failed to visit on subsequent trips to Copenhagen, was the New Carlsberg Glyptothek - a really unique museum, devoted to sculpture.

Borgerne i Calais
Auguste Rodin: Borgerne i Calais (1889)

It is not easy to get to see large numbers of sculptures in one place, and it is difficult to get an overview. But precisely this is made possible at Copenhagen's Glyptothek. On account of some special interest, the founder of the museum places special emphasis on new French sculpture. And for the first time in my life I saw a large selection of works by Rodin, Meunier and Maillol. The impression was revelatory, given the fact that the way these masters handled form was very much in fashion at the time. I saw what you could hardly see anywhere else on Earth. Not far from the Glyptothek stands a copy of the famous group The Burghers of Calais. The sculptor evidently did not want his group placed on a high plinth, but at ground level. These tragic old men should not stand out from the surrounding crowds, they should be among the living, suffering populace. Of course the citizens of Calais did not follow the wishes of the sculptor. If there's to be a monument to their forefathers, then it should be visible from far off! Only in Copenhagen has Rodin's wish been realised, and here the work takes on its true symbolic meaning.

The day was drawing to a close as I left the Danish capital. All around the wide country, flat as a plank, with the low farms vanishing into the sunset, their windows lit up by the yellow rays of the sun. But the railway journey across Sjælland only lasted a couple of hours before we were in Korsør. Here the railway station was also at the port and again the ship stood waiting. The old ship had one low, wide indoor cabin, groups of people with bundles, in the light of the dim ceiling lighting, already a mixture of German being spoken, but the soft murmur of Danish could still be heard. The ship moved off, quietly throbbing, without any great rocking motion, a few hours through the Danish archipelago still lay ahead. But at night nothing could be seen but the flashing of the marker buoys. And soon the voices could no longer be heard above the throb of the engines..."

"Androguuni paev" (The Day of the Androgyne)
A further word about Tuglas. In 1925, Friedebert Tuglas published an intriguing novella entitled "Androguuni paev" (The Day of the Androgyne). It is set in post-Oscar Wildean commedia del arte style, but what fascinates me is that it has more or less the same theme as Virginia Woolf's "Orlando", except that it was published three years before her novel, and in the Tuglas story a little girl becomes a prince, rather than the vice-versa sex change as in Woolf's novel. The Zeitgeist? Did Woolf hear the basic idea of the tale through Russian contacts? We shall never know.

Literature and internetresources

Eduard Vilde (1865-1933)
Eduard Vilde
There is one other Estonian writer who has associations with Denmark - Eduard Vilde (1865-1933). Vilde is as major a figure in Estonian literature as is Tuglas. He is a writer of several major novels, many stories and plays. I have never been as interested in his work as I am in that of Tuglas, since he is more realist / naturalist, but a little research has shown that Vilde has considerably more links with Denmark than Tuglas, who only passed through. I will tell you more details when I know more myself, but the bare bones of the information are as follows:

After the fiasco of the 1905 socialist revolution, those citizens of Czarist Russia who exhibited any kind of left-wing tendencies were regarded with great suspicion by the authorities. Both Tuglas and Vilde were left-wing in their political orientation and both spent a considerable amount of the period between 1905 and Estonian independence in 1918, in exile. While Tuglas spent most of his time in Aggelby near Helsinki, and Paris, Eduard Vilde actually lived in Denmark.
Vilde lived in Copenhagen
During 1906-07, Vilde actually lived with his wife for almost one year in Copenhagen. He had already written about the topical things of the period - being sent to Siberia, women's emancipation and the problems with the Baltic barons - and had just written one of his major novels "The Prophet Maltsvet" about a kind of messianic populist leader in the Baltic provinces in the 1850s, Juhan Leinberg. I've not read the book, so I can't tell you more. But anyway, Vilde lived under very straitened circumstances during that year in Copenhagen, because most of his small income came from writing, including journalism.
The Vildes then spent time in Stuttgart and Berlin, but after an abortive trip to America, they were back in Copenhagen - and this time they stayed there from 1911 until 1917! One of Vilde's novels Lunastus (Salvation) is actually based in Nørrebro where they lived during their first period in Copenhagen. The hero goes by the not very original name of Jens Nielsen. The book I'm getting this all from is safely Soviet, so there is rather an accent placed on the proletariat, but "Lunastus" does genuinely seem to be about the lives of working people. The other book I'm looking at for information also mentions the following:

"The [Vilde] couple lived in furnished rooms which they changed often, until December 1913, when they finally established themselves in the suburb of Valby, at Trekronersgade 32, II. The writer and his wife lived quietly. They didn't go visiting often, kept themselves to themselves. Went for walks and to the cinema, the theatre, etc. Eduard Vilde also worked in the Royal Library. He learnt enough Danish to be able to read and speak it. But there are no signs that he made any contacts with Danish cultural life. Once, they lived in the same building as Martin Andersen Nexo, but Vilde seems not to have even had the slightest contact with him. Nor with Danish socialists, whose intensive activities his wife describes."

Vilde does not appear to have set many of his works in Denmark, but one short story "Asta's Victim" is set there and tells of a artistic man marrying a young woman from the countryside (a Pontoppidan idea?).

Literature and internetresources

About Eric Dickens
I am a half-Dutch Englishman, now living in the Netherlands. I studied Scandinavian Studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, from 1971-1975, but since then have been living in various countries - a year in Poland, four in Finland, seven in Sweden and now the Netherlands, plus over a year, recently, in Tallinn, Estonia.
    I have recently discovered that the period of literature, art, music, architecture, etc., which I am most interested in is that between 1880 and 1920. I am keen to examine the links between countries since I feel that there has been a lot of undocumented cross-fertilisation in the arts, while countries tend to examine literary history on a rather isolated basis. Scandinavia is, to a certain extent, an exception with people like Hjalmar Soderberg, Aksel Sandemose, August Strindberg, etc.
This essay and the English translations of Tuglas and Vilde have been published as a part of Epoke - danske romaner før 1900 with kind permission of Eric Dickens. Copyright © 2000 by Eric Dickens.

To the top
To the Main Page
To J. P. Jacobsen

This page has been published on the Internet September 4, 2000. Updated November 1, 2012.
Copyright 2000 by Eric Dickens, Per Hofman Hansen and Iben Holk.