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Danes Mark Hans Christian Andersen Bicentennial

Apr 2, 2005 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Hans Christian Andersen is well known worldwide among children and adults as the author of fairy tales including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and The Emperor's New Clothes. But in Denmark, where Andersen was born, the author is a national institution.

The country is holding a weeklong festival to mark the bicentennial of Andersen's birth April 2. Scott Simon talks with Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank, whose volume of new Andersen translations was published in 2003. Diana, a Denmark native and married to Jeffrey, notes that Andersen's legacy is ubiquitous in his homeland. "You absorb him by osmosis from the moment you are born," she says.

The Franks discuss Andersen's work and life. Read on for two of his tales, as published in the Franks' recent translation, The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation from the Danish.

Stories, with Introductions

"The Princess on the Pea" (1835) is the shortest of Andersen's stories — 347 words in Danish — and Andersen probably regarded it as a trifle; he mentions it only twice in his journals, where he takes note of what he has been asked to read at fancy parties and gatherings. Yet, like other Andersen phrases and titles, it has become a shorthand way to describe any hypersensitive person, such as Andersen himself.

The Princess and the Pea

Once upon a time there was a prince who wanted to marry a princess. But she had to be a real princess. He traveled all over the world to find her, yet everywhere he went, something was the matter. There were certainly enough princesses, but he couldn't be sure that they were real princesses — there was always something that wasn't right. He came home and was very sad because he so wanted to marry a real princess.

One evening there was an awful storm, with thunder and lightning; the rain poured down. It was really terrible. There was a knock on the gate of the city, and the old king went to open it.

A princess was standing outside. Oh my, how dreadful she looked from the rain and the nasty weather. Water dripped from her hair and her clothes, and it rain in at the tip of her shoes and out at the heel. And she said that she was a real princess.

"We'll soon see about that," the old queen thought. She didn't say anything, but she went into the bedroom, removed all the covers, and placed a pea on the bottom of the bed. Then she took twenty mattresses and put them on top of the pea and placed twenty eiderdowns on top of the mattresses.

That was where the princess was going to sleep that night.

In the morning they asked her how she had slept.

"Oh, very badly," the princess said. "I barely closed my eyes all night. Lord knows what was in that bed. I was lying on something hard, and my body is black and blue all over. It's just awful."

Now they could tell that she was a real princess, because she had felt the pea through twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdowns. Only a real princess could be that sensitive.

The prince made her his wife, because he knew that he had found a real princess. And the pea was placed in the Royal Museum, where it can still be seen — that is, if no one has stolen it.

See, that was a real story!


"Auntie Toothache," the last story in Andersen's last collection, was published in 1872. It took two years to write — an unusually long time for him. What makes the story startling is that the narrator is not disguised as a duck or a ball or some other imaginary creature but seems to be Andersen himself — a modern voice, speaking to his readers with self-deprecating humor in the first-person singular. It is obvious too that Andersen plundered his diaries — sometimes almost word for word — on the subject of toothaches; he made more than a hundred entries on the subject. "I have to make something of the torments that are inflicted on me," he wrote to Henriette Collin in June 1870.

Auntie Toothache

Where did we get this story?

Do you want to know?

We got it from the trash can — the one with the old scraps of paper in it. Lots of good rare books have gone to the general store and the grocer's — not to be read but as paper to wrap flour and coffee beans, salt herring, butter, and cheese. Literature, after all, has its uses.

Things are often tossed into the trash that shouldn't be tossed into the trash.

I know a grocer's boy, the son of a storekeeper, who rose from the basement to the street-level shop. He was someone who read a lot — a lot of wrapping paper, that is — both printed and handwritten. He had an interesting collection, which included several important documents from the trash can of some far-too-busy, distracted bureaucrat; an intimate letter from one girlfriend to another; scandalous news that wasn't supposed to go any further and was not to be mentioned by anyone. The grocery boy is a living rescue operation for a significant amount of literature. He has a large domain. From his parents' and his boss's shops he has saved lots of books or pages from books that might have been worth a second look.

He's shown me his collection of printed and handwritten papers from the trash can. The best of them came from the general store, and among these were a couple of pages from a large notebook. Their unusually beautiful and legible handwriting immediately caught my eye.

"The student wrote that," he said. "The student who lived just across from here and died a month ago. You learn that he suffered from terrible toothaches — it's sort of amusing to read. There's only a little bit left of what he wrote; it was a whole book and a bit more. My parents gave the student's landlady half a pound of green soap for it. Here's what I was able to save."

I borrowed it, I read it, and now I'll tell you about it.

The title was:

Auntie Toothache

I.

Auntie gave me candy when I was little. My teeth could take it — they didn't go bad. Now I'm older and a university student. She still spoils me with sweets and says that I'm a poet.

I have the touch of a poet but not enough. Often when I walk around the streets of the city, it's as if I'm in a large library. The houses are bookcases — each floor a shelf of books. Here's an everyday story, there's a good old comedy, here are scientific works in every field; there's trash and good reading. I can fantasize and philosophize about all those books.

I have a touch of a poet in me but not enough. Many people have just as much as I do, yet they don't carry a sign or a collar around their necks with the word poet.

We've all been given a gift from God — a blessing big enough for one person but much too small to be divided with others; it comes like a ray of sunshine and fills your soul and thoughts. It comes like the fragrance of a flower, like a melody you know but don't remember from where.

The other evening I sat in my room. I wanted to read something but didn't have a book — not even a paper — when a leaf, fresh and green, fell down from a linden tree. The breeze carried it to me through the window.

I studied its branching veins. A little insect crawled across them, as if it wanted to study the leaf carefully. It made me think about human knowledge. We also crawl around on a leaf. The leaf is all that we know, but we immediately give lectures about the whole tree, the roots, the trunk, the crown — and the great tree: God, the world, and immortality — and out of all that, all we know is a little leaf.

As I sat there, I got a visit from Aunt Millie.

I showed her the leaf with the crawling insect, told her what I was thinking, and her eyes lit up.

"You're a poet!" she said. "Perhaps the greatest we have. If I live to see it happen, I'll be happy to go to my grave. Ever since Brewer Rasmussen's funeral, you've always surprised me with your tremendous imagination."

That's what Aunt Millie said, and then she kissed me.

Who was Aunt Millie and who was Brewer Rasmussen?

II.

We children called my mother's aunt Auntie — we had no other name for her.

She gave us jam and sugar, even though it was very bad for our teeth. But she had a weakness for sweet children, she said. It was painful to deny them the little pieces of candy that they liked so much.

That's why we liked Auntie so much.

She was an old maid, and as far back as I can remember, she was always old. Her age never changed.

Earlier in her life she suffered a lot from toothaches and always talked about it. That's why her friend, Brewer Rasmussen, made a joke and called her Auntie Toothache.

He hadn't brewed for the last few years. He lived off the interest on his money, often visited Auntie, and was older than she was. He had no teeth at all — only a few black stumps.

When he was little, he ate too much sugar; he told us children, and that's how you get to look that way.

Auntie couldn't possibly have eaten sugar as a child — she had the prettiest white teeth.

She used them sparingly, she didn't sleep with them at night! Brewer Rasmussen said.

We children knew that he was being unkind, but Auntie said that he didn't mean anything by it.

One day at lunch she told us about a bad dream she'd had the night before; one of her teeth had fallen out.

"That means," she said, "that I'm going to lose a true friend."

"Was it a false tooth?" the brewer said and chuckled. "Then it would only mean that you're going to lose a false friend."

"You're a rude old gentleman!" Auntie said, sounding angrier than I'd ever heard her before or since.

She later said that her old friend was only teasing, that he was the noblest person on earth, and that when he died he would become one of God's little angels in heaven.

I thought a lot about his transformation and whether I'd be able to recognize him in his new state.

When Auntie was young, and he was young too, he had proposed to her. She hesitated, dwelled on it, dwelled on it much too long. She remained an old maid but always a faithful friend.

Then Brewer Rasmussen died.

He was carried to his grave on the most expensive hearse, followed by a large crowd of mourners in uniforms with medals and ribbons.

Auntie, dressed in mourning, stood by the window with all us children, except for my little brother, whom the stork had brought only a week earlier.

The hearse and the mourners were gone, the street was empty; Auntie wanted to leave, but I didn't. I was waiting for the angel Brewer Rasmussen, for I knew that he was now a child of God with wings and had to appear.

"Auntie," I said. "Don't you think he's coming now? Or will the stork bring us Angel Rasmussen when he brings us a little brother?"

Auntie was completely overwhelmed by my imagination and said, "That child is going to be a great poet." She repeated it all through my school days — after my confirmation and now that I'm a university student.

She was, and still is, my most understanding friend, both when it comes to my torments as a poet and the torments of my teeth. I have attacks of both, you know.

"Just write down all your thoughts," she said, "and put them in the drawer in the table. That's what Jean Paul did, and he became a great poet, although I didn't really like him — he didn't excite me. You have to excite people — and you will excite people!"

The night after she'd said that, I lay awake in agony, longing to become the great poet that Auntie saw and sensed in me. I suffered a poet's ache, but there is a worse ache: toothache. It squashed and crushed me. I became a squirming worm with a hot poultice on my cheek.

"I know what that's like," Auntie said.

She had a sad smile; her teeth shone so white.

But I have to begin a new chapter in the story about me and my aunt.

III.

I moved into a new apartment and had lived there for a month. I talked to Auntie about it.

"I'm living with a quiet family; they don't pay any attention to me, even if I ring three times. Actually, it's a very noisy house with a constant commotion of people and whatever blows through. I live right above the entryway. Every wagon, coming or going, makes the pictures on the wall rattle. The gate slams and shakes the whole house as if there were an earthquake. When I'm in bed, I feel the shocks through my whole body — but that's supposed to be good for the nerves. If the wind blows — and it always does in this country — the long window hooks outside swing back and forth and hit the wall. The bell to the neighbor's yard clangs with every gust of wind.

"The people who live in the house come dribbling in, late in the evening until the early hours. The lodger right above me, who gives trombone lessons during the day, is the last one to come home, and he doesn't go to bed until he's taken a short midnight stroll with heavy steps and hobnail boots.

"There are no storm windows, but, rather, a broken pane. The landlady has pasted paper over it, but the wind still blows through the crack, making a sound like a buzzing horsefly. It's music to sleep by. When I finally do fall asleep, I'm soon awakened by the rooster's crowing. The rooster and hen report from the basement chicken coop that it's soon morning. The little Norwegian ponies don't have stalls; they're tied up in the sandpit under the stairs and they kick the door and the wainscoting for exercise.

"It's dawn. The caretaker, who lives with his family in the attic, barrels down the stairs. His wooden slippers clatter, the door slams, the house shakes, and when it's all over, the lodger above me does his exercises. With each hand he lifts a heavy iron ball that he can't hold on to and drops it again and again. At the same time the youth of the house, who are getting ready for school, rush by screaming. I go to the window and open it to get some air. It's refreshing when I can get it — if the woman in the back of the house isn't cleaning gloves with the stain remover, which is how she makes a living. By the way, it's a nice house, and I'm living with a quiet family."

That was the account of my apartment that I gave Auntie. When I told her the story, it seemed livelier; the spoken word is more vivid than the written word.

"You're a poet!" Auntie exclaimed. "Just write down your story, and you'll be just as good as Dickens. But you're much more interesting to me — you paint pictures when you talk. You describe your house so I can see it. It makes me shudder. Keep writing! Make your stories come alive with people — gracious people, preferably unhappy."

I described the house as it is, with all its noises and annoyances. But I was the only one in the story; it had no plot. That would come later.

IV.

It was during winter, late in the evening, after the theater. Terrible weather — a snowstorm — you almost couldn't get around.

Auntie had gone to the theater, and I was there to see her home. But it was difficult enough for one person to walk, let alone look out for someone else. Cabs were all taken; Auntie lived on the outskirts of town, but my place was close to the theater. If it hadn't been for that, we would have had to take shelter for a while in the royal sentry box.

We staggered through the deep snow, with the swirling snowflakes rushing around us. I lifted her, I held her, I pushed her forward. We fell twice but landed gently.

We reached my front door where we shook ourselves; we shook ourselves on the stairs too, and we still carried in enough snow to cover the floor in the entrance hall.

We took off our overcoats and innercoats and all the clothes we could shed. The landlady let Auntie dry stockings and a dressing gown — she simply had to change clothes, the landlady said. She added that Auntie couldn't possibly get home that night, which was true enough, and asked Auntie to make do with her living room. The landlady said that she'd prepare a bed on the sofa in front of the permanently locked door that led to my quarters.

That's what happened.

Fire burned in my wood stove, the samovar was on the table, and a cozy atmosphere spread through the little room — though not so cozy as it was at Auntie's, where in the winter thick curtains cover the doors, thick curtains cover the windows, and a double layer of rugs covers three layers of thick paper on the floor. You sit there as if you're in a tightly corked bottle full of warm air. Still, as I said, it was cozy at my place too; the wind whistled outside.

Auntie talked and told stories; old memories came back — her youth, the brewer.

She could remember when I got my first tooth and how thrilled the family was.

The first tooth! An innocent tooth, shining like a little white drop of milk — a milk tooth.

One came, more came, a whole row, side by side, above and below — the most beautiful baby teeth. Yet they were only the advance troops, not the real ones, which had to last a lifetime.

But they came too, and wisdom teeth as well, at the end of the row, born in pain and with great difficulty.

They leave again — every single one of them. They leave before their tour of duty is over; even the last tooth disappears, and that's not a festive day but a sad day.

Then you're old, even if your spirit is young.

That sort of talk and thought is not very pleasant; nevertheless, we spoke about all of it. We came back again to her childhood — talked and talked. It was midnight before Auntie retired to the room nearby.

"Good night, my sweet child," she called out. "I'm going to sleep as if I were tucked away in my own chest of drawers."

And she rested, but there was no rest in the house — inside or out. The storm shook the windows, banged the long dangling window hooks, clanged the neighbor's bell to the backyard. The lodger upstairs returned home. He went for another night stroll, up and down the floor; he kicked off his boots, went to bed and to sleep, but he snored so that someone with a good ear could hear it through the ceiling.

I couldn't rest, I couldn't calm down. The weather didn't calm down, either — it became unusually lively. The wind whistled and sang in its own way, and my teeth also began to act up — they whistled and sang in their own way. It was the overture to a huge toothache.

There was a draft from the window. The moon shone onto the floor. Its brightness came and went as storm clouds came and went. Light and shadow shifted uneasily, but in the end the shadow on the floor looked like . . . something; I looked at this moving something and felt an icy cold blast.

A figure sat on the floor; it was thin and long, like those that a child draws with a pencil on a slate. It was supposed to look like a person: Its body was a single thin line; another two lines made the arms; the legs were single lines too, and the head was all angles.

The figure soon became clearer. It wore a kind of dress — very thin, very fine — which showed that the figure belonged to the female sex.

I heard a humming. Was it her or was it the wind that buzzed like a horsefly in the crack of the windowpane?

No, it was Madame Toothache herself — Her Frightfulness, Satania infernalis, God save us from her visit.

"This is a nice place to live," she hummed. "It's a good neighborhood — swampy, boggy ground. Mosquitoes used to buzz by here with poison in their sting. Now I'm the one with the stinger. It has to be sharpened on human teeth, and that fellow on the bed has such shiny white ones. They've held their own against sweet and sour, hot and cold, nutshells and plum pits. But I'm going to wiggle them, jiggle them, feed them with a draft, and chill them at their roots."

That was a horrible story, a horrible guest.

"Well, you're a poet," she said. "All right, I'll teach you poetry in all the meters of pain. I'll put iron and steel in your body and wire in all your nerves."

It was as if a red-hot awl went through my cheekbone; I writhed and twisted.

"An excellent set of teeth," she said. "A keyboard of pain. It's like playing a concert on a mouth organ — great! — with kettledrums and trumpets, a piccolo, and a trombone in the wisdom tooth. Great poet, great music!"

Did she ever make music! She looked terrifying, even though you could see no more of her than her hand — that shadowy, gray, ice-cold hand with the long fingers, as thin as an awl. Each finger was an instrument of torture; the thumb and index finger were pincers and a screw. The middle finger ended in a needlelike tip. The ring finger was like a drill, and the little finger spurted mosquito venom.

"I'll teach you meter," she said. "Great poets must have great toothaches; small poets, small toothaches."

"Oh, let me be small!" I pleaded. "Let me not be at all! I'm not a poet — I only have attacks of writing poetry, the way I have attacks of toothache. Go away, go away!"

"Will you admit that I'm mightier than poetry, philosophy, mathematics, and all music?" she said. "Mightier than all the feeling that went into paint and marble? I'm older than all of them. I was born close to the Garden of Eden but outside, where the wind blew and moist toadstools grew. I got Eve to wear clothes when it got cold and Adam too. I'm telling you, there was power in the first toothache!"

"I believe everything you say," I cried. "Go away, go away!"

"Well, then, if you'll stop writing poetry — never put a line down on paper, slate, or anything else you can write on — I'll leave you alone. But I'll be back if you write poetry."

"I swear," I said. "As long as I never see you or feel you again."

"You'll see me again," she said, "but I'll seem plumper and more lovable than I do now. I'll look like Aunt Millie, and I'll say, Write poetry, my sweet boy! You're a great poet — maybe the greatest we have. But if you believe me, and start to write, I'll set your words to music and play them on your mouth organ. You sweet child — remember me when you see Aunt Millie."

Then she vanished.

As a farewell present I got what seemed to be a jab in the jaw with a red-hot awl. But the pain soon dulled, and it was as if I were floating on calm water; I saw white water lilies with their wide green leaves bend and sink beneath me. They withered and disintegrated; I sank along with them and slipped into peaceful rest.

"Die, melt away like the now," the water sang. "Vanish into the clouds and drift away like the clouds."

From down in the water I saw great luminous names, inscriptions on waving victory banners — claims of immortality written on the wings of a mayfly.

I slept, I slept without dreaming. I didn't hear the rushing wind, the banging door, the neighbor's clanging doorbell, or the lodger's weighty gymnastics.

Bliss!

Then there was a gust of wind, enough to make the locked door to Auntie's room spring open. Auntie jumped up, put on her shoes, put on her clothes, and came into my room.

I was sleeping like an angel, she told me, and she couldn't bear to wake me up.

I woke up by myself and opened my eyes; I'd completely forgotten that Auntie was in the house. But as soon as I remembered, I also remembered the specter of my toothache. Dream and reality merged.

"I suppose you didn't write anything last evening after we said goodnight?" she asked. "I wish you had. You're my poet, and you always will be."

It seemed to me that she smiled slyly. I didn't know whether it was the good-hearted Aunt Millie, who loved me, or Her Frightfulness to whom I'd given my promise the night before.

"Have you written any poetry, sweet child?"

"No, no!" I cried. "You are Aunt Millie, aren't you?"

"Who else?" she said. And it was Aunt Millie.

She kissed me, got into a cab, and rode home.

I wrote down what's written here. It's not verse, and it will never be printed —

Here, the manuscript stopped.

My young friend, the prospective grocer's apprentice, couldn't find the missing pages. They'd gone into the world as wrapping paper for herring, butter, and green soap. They had fulfilled their destiny.

The brewer is dead, Auntie is dead, the student is dead — the one whose literary sparks went into the trash.

That's the end of the story — the story of Auntie Toothache.

Reprinted with permission from The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen, translations by Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank, Houghton Mifflin Comapny.

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