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The City and the Writer: In Copenhagen with Hanne-Vibeke Holst

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series/Copenhagen, Denmark 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Copenhagen as you feel/see it?

In the darkness of wintertime it can be moody, depressed, cranky. Barely a smile in the street, no one talking, everyone striding through cold winds, weighed down by the impervious cloud ceiling. We have more rain than snow, and you feel it when you’re biking late afternoon. As one of ten thousands on the crowded bicycle lane, you know you’ll get all soaked before you arrive at your cozy home (Danes do have cozy homes, probably due to our hostile climate, we live an indoor life half of the year), your safe haven.

However, in the summer, Copenhagen is blooming! The Copenhageners leave their homes and behave like easygoing Latinos! People expose themselves half naked from April to September, and every ray of sunshine is worshipped. They go sunbathing (some of them topless) in the parks, go swimming in the cool water of the harbor, spend hours in sidewalk cafés. All are laughing, talking, joking, flirting (not to mention drinking and smoking), behaving like the people the Tourist Council wishes for… until it starts pouring down again, of course. With a snap of a finger we’ll reverse to our Nordic Noir-winter mood, having lost all hope and faith.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

When I broke up with a beloved boyfriend. We said the final good-bye in a street near the canal of Christianshavn. It was thirty years ago, but I still cannot pass that picturesque area without remembering the chill of that sad moment.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The beautiful and unspoiled architecture of the city, something we mostly take for granted. After the big fire in 1795, which burned down a great deal of the small medieval houses in the narrow street of the inner city, the capital was rebuilt. At that time—the Golden age—the architects were influenced by European classicism and the aesthetic ideal of the Roman or Greek Antiquity. That’s why the city is dominated by these calm, imposing mansions with pillars, columns, ornaments, and triangular gables. Since the Copenhageners always have been very individualistic, all the houses have different dimensions (all relatively modest, not showing off in size or splendor), colors and details. The streets are crooked and narrow. We have a lot of small squares (due to the old fire regulations) and local churches and the city is well preserved. It was not seriously harmed by megalomaniac kings or town planners, and it was not seriously bombed and no city council ever managed to violate Copenhagen as is the case for most other capitals. Hence the city looks more or less the same as it did 225 years ago, which gives you this feeling of humanity and comforting eternity. Poetry even, especially if you stroll in the old streets on a late winter night, you can hear the old walls whisper, sense the reflection of the people who lived here long before you, and imagine those who will inhabit the houses after you’re gone.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Kierkegaard, obviously, and Hans Christian Andersen. A contemporary writer could be Kim Leine, the latest award winner of the Nordic Council Literary Price. In his novel The Prophets of the Eternal Fjord, you not only get a marvelous depiction of the filthy, poor, stinking, overpopulated Copenhagen in the late 1700s, you will also sense it through the soul and body of the doubting priest Morten Falck, who is escaping his troubles in Copenhagen by taking a position in Greenland, a Danish colony. After having failed both as priest and man in Greenland, he returns to Copenhagen and is a firsthand witness to the big fire, which I mentioned earlier. A highly recommended read!

Is there a place here you return to often?

I like to go to the Winter Garden of the New Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art museum built on the collection of the son of the founder of the Carlsberg Breweries, Carl Jacobsen. The focal point of the museum is the collection of ancient sculptures from Egypt, Rome, and Greece, but you also find a tasty collection of Rodin and Degas and paintings by great French masters (the usual suspects). The architecture is exquisite with the many galleries, but the Winter Garden is very special with the evergreen ivy, the ancient palm trees, the fountain, the light coming from above through the glass ceiling, the marble. It’s like being in Rome, or in the memory of Rome, like Rome should be.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen met in the Royal Theater and in the streets of inner Copenhagen, where they took their daily strolls. (By the way, they didn’t have much affection for each other). Kirkegaard lived in several locations and so did his younger colleague. Take a historical tour, if you’re interested in going in his footsteps. H.C. Andersen lived his last years as a famous and wealthy writer in Nyhavn 18, at the harbor. You can find a statue of Kirkegaard in the calm garden behind the Royal Library (a perfect place for meditation) and several of H.C. Andersen all over the capital. The statue of the Little Mermaid is also linked to the fairytale writer, since the little mermaid is one of his most adored figures (Disney loves her!). Both Kirkegaard and Andersen are buried at the Assistens Cemetery, a cultural hotspot, where you will also find the grave of Niels Bohr, among other famous Danes. This cemetery at Nørrebro is, by the way, one of the treasures of Copenhagen, with the tall pines forming an alley, where the bikers and pedestrians cross with prams and dogs and are extremely much alive, preoccupied with ordinary things, like, what are we having for dinner and is my husband having an affair?

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I can’t help being fascinated by Christiania, this old hippie town from 1971, attracting about a million tourists a year! Although, you can debate pros and cons of this  “experiment.” Personally I’m not crazy about the marijuana pushers and their vending huts, but Christiania still shows that life can be lived more colorfully, creatively, and anarchically than you tended to believe. The nonmaterialistic ideas of the original squatters are still alive, especially when you go the “outskirts” of Christiania. You can find many examples of visionary houses and living accommodations made mostly of recycled materials, leftovers from the conventional outside world, fantasy and love. I always restart wondering if I should change my life when I go visit (and I never do).     

Where does passion live here?

In the opera! (Meaning, Danes are not melodramatic. We do have feelings, we do love and hate, but in an introverted way. We tend to be in control or get ironic as soon as something seems to get too emotional. We would rather burst into laughter than into tears.)

What is the title of one of your works about Copenhagen and what inspired it exactly?

I never wrote a novel about my town, but I have written several novels set in Copenhagen. Sadly, none of my works are translated into English, so never mind with the titles. But I wrote a trilogy about politics and power, taking place at Christiansborg, where the parliament is situated. I’m very stimulated by the plurality of the big cities, the way we simultaneously live completely different lives (or are they all the same?). I’m always looking for the invisible things—how are we covering our lies? How is power being distributed? Who is winning? Who is losing? How far are people willing to go to get what they want? And what do they exactly want from their short lives?

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Copenhagen does an outside exist?”

Death, the unknown territory, waiting for all of us.

Hanne-Vibeke Holst is the most recognized bestselling author in Denmark. Her novels are translated and published in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, and Iceland, and more recently in France and Italy. Her adult novels about a young woman's first steps into modern family life, motherhood, and career, known as The Therese Trilogy (1994–99), established her as a feminist icon in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Her hugely successful novels The Crown Princess, The King’s Murder, and The Queen’s Sacrifice (2002–9) were adapted into three miniseries by Swedish television. Her most recent novels include The Apology (2011), and Knud, The Great (2013). She has also written for television and produced documentaries. Her most recent play, Moscow, June 7, was staged in Copenhagen and Stockholm, and her memoir, My Aching Aunt, is a perennial bestseller in Denmark. She has won numerous awards and was an UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador (2001–9).

All photographs of Copenhagen in the Special City Series/Copenhagen, Denmark 2015 running January/February 2015 are by the Danish photographer Mathias Olander. His work explores the urban outskirts of the Danish capital. See more: Instagram: fagrenyeverden

Published Feb 24, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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