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No Fairy Tale: Paul Binding on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ice Virgin”

By Eric M. B. Becker

Eric M. B. Becker speaks with Paul Binding about his translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Virgin (Angel Classics, 2016; The Overlook Press, 2017). Binding’s is the first English-language translation to propose a reading of the classic as an adult work worthy of being considered independently from the anthologies of Andersen’s fairy tales, where it has traditionally appeared.

Words Without Borders (WWB): Perhaps the most logical place to start our discussion of Andersen’s The Ice Virgin is with a discussion of its relation to Andersen’s oeuvre at large: Because in the English-speaking world we’re mostly familiarized with the fairy tales, we perhaps have an incorrect idea of the place of Andersen’s adult work in his larger oeuvre. In 1835, he published his first volume of fairy tales, Eventyr fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales, Told for Children), but he also published his first novel, The Improvisatore, that same year. What’s more, by that time he’d already published poetry and had his first play, Love at St. Nicholas’s Tower, performed at Copenhagen’s Royal Theater in 1829. It would seem, then, that Andersen would have had a reputation inside Denmark that owed as much to his adult work as to his fairy tales. Was that indeed the case? Did his adult work enjoy the critical success of his tales for children? What is his legacy within Denmark?

Paul Binding (PB): At the (very early) start of his writing life Andersen doubtless thought of himself as a writer whose public would be adult: excursions into fiction very obviously influenced by Scott and Hoffmann (who would remain his favorite prose writers throughout his life), poems equally evidently the work of an admirer of Heine (also a lifelong favorite), and plays of a conventional but lively nature written when Danish theater was at new heights. Ambition—and with it a sense of his own originality—intensified during his long stay away from Denmark 1833–34, from which he returned with a novel, The Improvisatore, and a booklet of children’s fairy stories (a genre attracting fashionable attention at the time), published within weeks of each other, April and May of 1835.

The most perceptive remark about these works was made by Andersen’s friend and senior mentor, scientist and writer H C Ørsted, that the novel would make him famous but the fairy stories (only four of them then!) would make him immortal. Great admirer of Andersen’s full-length fiction though I am, I find it impossible to disagree with this statement—and I have not met anyone, in Denmark or anywhere else, who would do so. For some years of Andersen’s life, the two forms jostled for critical attention and commercial rewards, and indeed it was the publication of his third novel, Kun en Spillemand (Only a Fiddler), in both Denmark and Germany that made Andersen a true international success, after which there was no turning back.

But Andersen must have seen that the livelier response of the reading public to his fairy tales corresponded to recognition of a unique imaginative magic in himself. As his oeuvre progressed he—rightly—dropped the designation ‘for children’ from collections of his tales, and from 1858 onward, many of the stories are probing and bold in subject-matter and experimental in form to a degree that put them well outside literature for children. They could however—though sometimes only at a stretch—be termed ‘fairy stories,’ even though Andersen came to prefer the term ‘Historier’ to ‘Eventyr.’ While of course Danes, appreciating Andersen’s innovative use of their language and his adventurous mining of their own culture in its many varieties, honor a wider range of Andersen’s work than elsewhere (though Germany remains widely receptive of Andersen’s work), at heart they do not depart from the more general view. I spoke at a conference where the other speakers were all Danish academics, and someone from the audience asked: “If Andersen had written just novels and travelogues, would we be having this conference today?” and the answer was unanimously and unequivocally “No”; the stories are utterly unique as the other works, however admirable, are not—at least not in the same way.         

Andersen must have seen that the livelier response of the reading public to his fairy tales corresponded to recognition of a unique imaginative magic in himself.

WWB: Andersen drew on his experiences traveling throughout Switzerland in the 1830s for The Ice Virgin, just as he drew on travels to Italy around the same time for his first novel, The Improvisatore, which is often described as an autobiographical novel. Today, it’s common to talk about autofiction. Can The Ice Virgin—and Andersen’s work at large—be read as autofiction, or do we miss something by classifying it as such?

PB: I think it would be a mistake, if a tempting one—considering the extraordinary nature of his life, and Andersen’s almost pathological need to publicize it (not always truthfully)—to think of the oeuvre as a kind of autofiction. You have to do this perhaps with The Improvisatore—excellent though its narrative art is and its control of material, it is essentially the story of himself. Antonio the narrator is (as was clear to early readers) Andersen himself disguised as an Italian street boy who becomes a famous artist. But what is remarkable in his mind and art—and, paradoxically perhaps, we can see this from his diaries—is his ability to identify, from outside, interesting situations, characters, episodes, and then to endow them with subjective properties, drawing from his own psyche and what in it accorded with the psychic life of others. In interesting respects he’s a very Jungian writer, the fairy stories at best are a journey into the Collective Unconscious.

Of no story is this more true than The Ice Virgin. As you say, it is pretty firmly derived from—and was written during—a visit to Switzerland, but Rudy and Babette and the Swiss social worlds they come from are objectively apprehended, and then endowed with life through his amazing empathic powers. People who knew Andersen were apt to complain of his egotism, and his diaries often bear this egotism out, but in important respects, when at his best, no writer is less concerned with his own ego. It is the plight of Rudy, and with him an important and threatened section of European society that has galvanized Andersen here; his own loneliness during his Swiss travels and his exasperations with his young traveling companion—son of his closest Danish friend—don’t appear in it at all.    

WWB: As you mention in your afterword to the new translation, the figure of the Ice Virgin—a terrifying figure motivated by her hatred of mankind—has very personal significance for Andersen: his dying father, gazing at the frost on his bedroom window as he agonized, tells an eleven-year-old Andersen that the ice crystals are a sign that the Ice Virgin is coming for him. Yet Andersen wrote this novella in 1861, decades after he had earned international renown for his fairy tales and published several novels. Do we have any indication, from Andersen or some other source, about why he seems to have come back to this moment more than fifty-five years after it happened and after he’d already written several other works that dealt closely with the author’s personal experiences?

PB: I think it’s important here to realize that the Ice Virgin whom his father saw when dying was a figure in a large ancient local/national folkloric pantheon which Andersen never forgot—because he had known so many people, grandparents, neighbors, parents, old friends, and acquaintances who believed in such beings, because too what these people told him never left his mind, which dwelled so often on scenes from his childhood, and because—also important—he had a professional interest, as writer and scholar, in folklore (like many of his contemporaries, eminently the Brothers Grimm). There is a sense then in which the Ice Virgin—who mercilessly reclaimed his own father—has an existence, a will autonomously of her own, brought into being—or kept alive, if you like—by the collective fears of the popular mind.

Andersen’s father was—it would appear—a progressive in his opinions regarding religion and politics. Yet he could be oppressed unto death by a terrible popular belief. In the same way we see throughout the novella the Ice Virgin hating and attempting to destroy everything that stands for progress and human ingenuity and refined culture. Rudy is about to marry into exactly that world—he travels down by new-fashioned train(!) to do so. So the Ice Virgin—who acquires a kind of objective identity—has to destroy him, to take his life, which hitherto has been bound up with her own anti-human, anti-humanist concerns.

There is a sense then in which the Ice Virgin . . . has an existence, a will autonomously of her own, brought into being—or kept alive, if you like—by the collective fears of the popular mind.

WWB: Not a small part of the appeal of The Ice Virgin is that it gives us a look into the adult work of a writer who, as we’ve mentioned, is best known in the English-speaking world for his children’s tales. Interestingly, previous translations of The Ice Virgin have been included in anthologies alongside his other fairy tales. To what do you owe this fact and what first convinced you that this was actually a misclassification?

PB: I don’t so much think it a misclassification as an inevitable obscuring of its interest and originality. Because of its strengths many editors have felt it should be included in any representative Andersen volume—for instance the excellent Penguin Classics one, translated by Tiina Nunnally—alongside other stories drawn mostly from earlier in Andersen’s career, such as The Snow Queen, and consequently it tends to be eclipsed by them—for the very good reason that its driving interests are not the same. Nor really are its narrative methods. The Snow Queen is a wonderful work, and I am not suggesting that The Ice Virgin is its superior, but the sociological, politico-cultural insights that so distinguish it—and the marvelous topography of its rendering of Switzerland—make quite different appeals and demands on readers than the various elements that make up the earlier tale. Therefore I wanted to see it stand alone, and get the kind of analytic reading it deserves.  

WWB: At what point did you arrive at the conclusion that a new translation was needed? What aspects of this novella did you feel were missing in previous translation and could bring over into English?

PB: I’ve perhaps answered this already above, except for the matter of the ‘at what point.’ I participated in two discussions at the Andersen Centre in the University of South Denmark, Odense, devoted to The Ice Virgin, one instigated by myself who gave a full-length talk on the work. Many Danish scholars and Andersen enthusiasts recognize the singular power of the story, but as I have already said, it has tended to get lost—and thus under-appreciated—in anthologies elsewhere. For me it is one of the greatest nineteenth-century works of fiction in its balancing of the primeval or atavistic against both the merits and weaknesses of organized society, whether organized by technology, the cash nexus, or the refinements of civilization.

In addition it is a work of great artistic and psychological complexity and my many readings of it—and close work with and on the text—still leave me impressed, fascinated, and yet asking myself teasing questions: I would mention here Rudy’s encounters with the young female emissaries of the Ice Virgin. That these scenes are both erotically charged is of course highly significant, a key to their ‘difficulty’ and takes us into the spheres of thoughts and analysis we associate with discussions of more obviously grounded works of nineteenth-century fiction. For me—to go to literature in English—The Ice Virgin belongs to the same fictive inquiries into human behavior and the conditions nurturing it as Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, and Great Expectations. From my own point of view I felt I had become sufficiently ‘inward’ with the whole story that I wanted to make a version of my own, in which I personally embarked on the journey Andersen had laid out over a hundred and fifty years before, and with the closest attention to his astonishing details of language and observation.

WWB: Translation is an art that by its very nature allows writers from different cultural and linguistic traditions to converse with one another, and it’s interesting to think about Andersen’s own dialogue with other European writers of his day. You’ve mentioned in your own writing that Andersen was particularly influenced by his German contemporaries, including two masters of the novella form, Ludwig Tieck and Aldebert von Chamisso, who he would have met on his 1831 tour of Europe. To what extent—in The Ice Virgin and elsewhere—is he in dialogue with his contemporaries outside of Denmark? Would Andersen have considered himself as much a European writer as a Danish one?

PB: I do wholeheartedly think Andersen very much thought of himself as a European, and inevitably Europe for him began with Germany. Later Denmark’s two wars with Prussia, in particular that of 1864, would painfully strain his relations with German writers, patrons, friends, and publishers, for in the Schleswig-Holstein conflict he felt very much as a Dane, and his heart bled for his compatriots who suffered enormously. Of the writers you cite, one of his very greatest stories (and not really for children!), The Shadow, is a direct response to Chamisso, whose Peter Schlemihl is actually referred to in its course (though not by name), and Tieck, who with his daughter Dorothea translated Shakespeare, heightened the constant presence of Shakespeare in Andersen’s work. Even The Ice Maiden has echoes of Romeo and Juliet.

I don’t want to emphasize Germany to the exclusion of elsewhere, however. Andersen took a great interest in France and its development, and one of his most moving stories The Dryad—which like The Ice Maiden gets included, and then insufficiently highlighted, in anthologies—takes us to the Paris of the Great Exposition and the Second Empire at its most dazzling and venal. Andersen admired and met Hugo and Balzac—not space here to list attributes all three writers share, but share them they do. And Andersen had the strongest feelings for his fellow Scandinavians. In turn they responded with gratitude: Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), and the contemporary Swede P-O Enquist are just some of those Nordics who have felt awed admiration for Andersen’s genius. All this is another way of saying, of course, that Andersen was in tune with the issues and feelings of his time—the advent of scientific inventions, the challenges to religion, the limits of nationalism, the power of nature—and found ways of embodying these in timeless-seeming narratives.

WWB: I’ve recently been reading a series of articles by Portuguese journalist Isabel Lucas written during the 2016 US presidential race, entitled America through its Books, in which she attempts to understand the US of the early twenty-first century through interviews with everyday people living in towns or cities that have served as a setting for works by Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Edith Wharton, and others. As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time recently thinking about literature—and not necessarily just contemporary literature—that speaks to the current fractured political environment. In The Ice Virgin, Andersen reveals a strong interest in the individual’s relation to society. Is there a reading of this novella that, in our opinion, might provide us some sort of guide in the age of Brexit and amidst the current changes in the European Union?

PB: I would like to think that, in this context, The Ice Virgin would stimulate us all into a fresh appraisal of the complications of, the undercurrents at work in, every situation, every social group, every individual—everywhere. In terms of the current debates in Europe and US—and the current vocabulary accompanying them—Rudy, for all his vigor and handsome appearance and the trophies he wins, belongs to those ‘left behind.’ There’s no proper place for him in the Switzerland of well-off tourists exemplified here (as in real life) by Montreux. He’d be, I suppose, a Brexiteer. Myself, I find hunting detestable, of any animal, chamois or any other kind, and Rudy’s cruel if brave capturing of the eagle obviously mirrors his own tragic past without his realizing this. But Rudy is NOT detestable; on the contrary we can feel for him in all the intimacies of his being. At the same time the technical, scientific, social triumphs—which pass him by—are not only impressive, they are essential to human growth and even to humanity’s spiritual happiness. We do not want to turn into Ice Virgins—the very term denotes permanent sterility—and deny or suppress these achievements, encrypted into the human brain from its very beginnings.

Rudy, for all his vigor and handsome appearance and the trophies he wins, belongs to those ‘left behind.’ He’d be, I suppose, a Brexiteer.

WWB: Though The Ice Virgin is a work of adult fiction, it does employ many of the techniques of the fairy tale. Our protagonist, Rudy, for example, converses with a cat and dog early in the novella. I imagine this played some role in the novella’s classification as fairy tale before this new translation in which you frame it as an adult work. But to what extent can The Ice Virgin be read as a synthesis or at least the product of a twenty-five-year career that includes work across not just the genres of adult and children’s literature but also theater and poetry? What is the novella'’ place in Andersen’s work? In what way does Andersen remain relevant to audiences today?

PB: I fully agree that the presence in it of these folkloric, fairy tale elements—without any sense of strain or sacrifice of overall artistic or intellectual unity—make this work a (successfully) syncretic one (perhaps rather than a synthesis), in which the artifact itself fuses or harmonizes the discrete or even disparate (or discordant) features of the society portrayed—and beyond society, of existence itself.  This, I am happy to say, does not mean it is without kin in Andersen’s oeuvre, though he rated it highly and perhaps it became something of a template for him later. Many of its truest and most powerful relatives belong to comparatively late in Andersen’s career. But I would mention here a tale from slightly earlier, 1859, on a translation of which I am now at work, En historie fra klitterne (A Story from the Sand Dunes) set up on the north coast of Jutland (Andersen was always galvanized by specific settings). A very late story (1872) Hvad gamle Johanne fortalte (What Old Johanne Told) is another superb, insufficiently known story that spans adult and children’s literatures. In these and others of their kind so many strands of Andersen’s complex powerful mind come together—with what often seems like a magical simplicity, the art that conceals art—and I think our contemporary tortured sensibility will be the better healed for reading them.   

Paul Binding is a leading literary critic and writer on Scandinavian culture. He is the author of numerous books, including Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness.

Published Jun 12, 2017   Copyright 2017 Eric M. B. Becker

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