Janusz Rudnicki




He has to get off at Fredericksburg Hill, right before the city of Copenhagen, a so-called freeloader on the postal coach. He gets the cheapest ticket provided that he’ll exit before the city gates – and he does. The date is September, 1819.

He has fourteen years behind him, a view of Copenhagen in front of him, a God above in heaven, and nothing on earth but a sack on his back, with everything he owns in it. He wanders the streets weeping (most likely). He asks for directions to the theater and begs the One above in heaven to allow him inside and to take the stage, and allow him to become an actor. The One above doesn’t (and He’s right).

He knocks on the door, waits, and when they open it for him he dances. From door to door hoping that he’ll eventually come across someone in the theater who, upon seeing him dance, will be inclined to help him. No one helps him. And those who are unfortunate enough to be sitting at home when they hear his knock at the door watch with terror as something in the shape of a lemur suddenly –and out of nowhere— hops feverishly from one corner to another, (some surely opened their door, and, rubbing their eyes in disbelief, slammed it only to have tried to open it again with greater caution).

Undeterred, he continues his auditions. To the voice instructor, his song is more appalling than his dance, to the ballet instructor, his dance is more appalling than his song and he looks more appalling than his dance and his song put together. How can he work for a theater? They say he is unfit, the audience would run and, besides, the theater only takes trained performers, and he’s unskilled. He doesn’t know how to do anything.

But he knows how to write. He scribbles down some terrible poems, and again he knocks— this time on the door of a poet and a fairytale collector, Justus Matthias Thiele. And Thiele, without taking his eyes off the paper, says, “Come in,” then turns his head and there it is: before him, a species of unidentifiable markings, a thing with a beak in place of a nose. It takes off its hat and with a theatrical gesture tosses it aside, then with another, throws out its arms and, in a grand and affected tone pronounces something along these lines:

“May I humbly beseech your permission to express my sentiments in a poem that I have composed?”

And he expresses. He orates histrionically, and ending with a deep theatrical bow, without pause proceeds to act out a scene from a dramatic work. He tangles himself up to his neck in different parts, sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine roles, then upon concluding, he takes a deep bow, grabs his hat and disappears down a flight of stairs. And Thiele, instead of getting back to his writing, sits there in astonishment with his mouth hanging open—I’ll wager,—until the end of his days.

He writes his first play. An abomination. He sends it to the Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen and receives a fitting response. And as is also fitting, he breaks down. But he’s lucky because the Age of Enlightenment believes in “The noble savage,” in the spiritual subject of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in primitive states, and in orphans left behind by a preoccupied civilization. Their amazed discoverers return them to the world, after which they celebrate in a bath of their own philanthropy, and observe as the vapors from the bath spread out onto the world.

He’s lucky because the director of the Royal Danish Theatre, Jonas Collin is hungry for a social experiment, hungry to adopt that naked instinct. And he adopts this Danish Kaspar Hauser, and Andersen gets an adoptive family and Jonas Collin gets lucky, because if it weren’t for this homeless deformity, the pupa from which no butterfly ever emerged, the director of the Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen wouldn’t have nearly as many internet searches.

He’s closest to his adoptive brother, Edward. So close that he suffers his first emotional tsunami after a separation from Edward when the school principal sends him off to a boarding school in the provinces to learn to read and write properly.

He’s the oldest one in the class, seventeen when everyone else is thirteen. A full head taller than the rest, and they probably wish, as wicked children do, that they could cut him down by that head. A klutz, a wimp, a dummy, during his geography lesson he can’t find Copenhagen on the map.

The headmaster prohibits him from writing any poems—And maybe he’s right—but he writes them anyway, in secret. He keeps a diary and cuts out paper dolls; in the evenings he makes figurines out of paper and at night he explores his own body. He masturbates, orgasms and dutifully records it in his diary by putting down a checkmark. When the headmaster’s wife tries to seduce him, he runs away, runs away from everything.

Childhood is one long nightmare; youth is one long nightmare (his paper dolls don’t take offense to this). He contemplates suicide. Ridiculed, put down and nourished by pity he would have taken his own life in this valley of tears if it weren’t for … those poems. “The Dying Child” is the first poem he writes from the perspective of a child, a dying child who consoles his weeping mother, (I’m willing to bet he weeps as he reads the poem to himself out loud).

He finishes school, his first book of poetry and his first novel. He’s twenty-six and he sets out on his first voyage abroad into the Harz Mountains of Germany. He knows he’ll write, but he doesn’t yet know what—a lyric poem, a play, a novel—he wants what every ugly ducking wants: recognition, love and adoration. He wants to be celebrated and, he wants to be famous. He wants to be read. He wants to be a bestseller.

His trip from Copenhagen to Harz takes nine days. He visits the mountains for the first time. He visits the place where Goethe and Heine conceived Romanticism. He enters a grotto for the first time— a grotto like a labyrinth, like the dark side of the soul. He frolics and hops around the meadow like a grasshopper, picking flowers and pressing them between the pages of his diary. His writing, full of wonder, takes on the shape of childish forms.

During his voyage he composes a letter to Edward. That famous, Call me “you,” dear sir. Edward won’t. Edward draws a curtain at the suggestion of trespassing the boundary to intimacy and Andersen suffers. Years later in his “The Shadow,” the Shadow will lament that his owner instructed it to call him “Sir.”

There is only one cause that will make him suffer longer. And of the first debilitating sign that coincides with his first voyage, he writes: A terrible toothache, a cacophony of pain that I can only subdue with wine. He pours it on his handkerchief, presses it to his tooth and drinks.

He returns to Copenhagen and writes his first play. During the premiere he sits in a box with his adoptive family. Collins is gleaming with pride. His experiment proved to be a success. It paid off. The savage has been tamed. Invited out to dine and sup, from one visit to the next, always en route, a life in the carriage, he is listened to and applauded. When asked about his parents he claims to be an orphan. His father a cobbler, dead— that’s a fact, he died when he was ten years old; but his mother, ten years older than his father, is still alive. Barely, in a ward, and suffering from a case of alcoholism so severe that she’s gone blind—but still alive. A mother like that doesn’t fit into his carefully composed biography. (Later he writes that he had a happy childhood, but it reads like a book of his fairytale characters: his father creaky like an old wardrobe talks more to his shoe than he talks to him, the mother an alcoholic laundress, drinks only when she’s not working and she rarely works).

The aunt— his aunt, his mother’s sister, is an important figure, but no one knows about her. No one except Louise, Edward’s sister—oh, what a marriage it would have been, if only Edward’s sister wanted to marry Andersen. Andersen a legitimate member of the Collins family… but she doesn’t want to, he does, and only her, to whom he dedicates his autobiography, The Book of Life.

His aunt, an important figure in his life, curses his mother who dumped him on her back when he came to Copenhagen. If he had been a girl it would have been a different story, but what was she to do with a boy in a brothel? Since auntie works at a brothel and that’s where he had to stay when he first arrived, when he knocked on doors and danced.

Louise doesn’t want him, even though he emerges from his shell like a snail to confess all of this to her.

Again he leaves Denmark. For a long time; a year and a half. Frederick VI of Denmark funds Hans’s trip to work on a book that he publishes with a dedication to the King. During his trip Hans gets a livid letter from Edward: I’m sending your manuscript back, Sir, and I wash my hands of it. I advise you do the same. Someday you may regret that you were the godfather of such a child. He’s talking about the draft of “Agnes and the Waterman.” He’s her and she’s him, gender juggling, love and desire with sentences in the style of: My feminine-half longs for you, Sir. Wounded by love a) his own and; b) other’s, he decides never to write to Edward again.

In Rome he gets a letter from Jonas Collins. His mother is dead. He’s alone now, just like he wanted, (wanted it so badly he forgot about his sister). In Rome, his artist friends try to drag him out to a brothel, ridiculing him because he doesn’t want to go, he wants to model for a painting. During one of his modeling sessions, he catches sight of a model’s beautiful, round breasts and narrow shoulders. He pales, catches his breath, flees from Rome and is mocked all the way to Naples. In Naples, he climbs Mount Vesuvius, and writes in his diary about some punitive eruption of lava that drowned and leveled all the surrounding villages to the ground. Nothing of the sort, he drowns in his own fantasies, fueled by his pulsating blood as he walks the streets past the hiding places where prostitutes and young boys stretch out their arms to him. He escapes, running all the way home, where he sits, and sitting at his table writes that Naples is a city more dangerous than Paris, writes that in Paris the blood freezes but that in Naples, it burns. At terrible odds with himself, he asks if it’s really a sin to submit to this burning desire because if it isn’t, if it’s not a sin, then he’ll surrender— although he’s almost thirty and still a virgin, he’ll surrender. He’ll surrender, but meanwhile he takes the pulsating problem into his own hands, after which he records a checkmark in his diary and writes: I don’t consider this kind of fulfillment a sin. If I return home innocent than that’s how I shall remain. The more experienced ones will laugh at my naiveté, but it’s not naiveté, it’s a resistance to the things my soul protests.

He returns to Copenhagen innocent. In 1835 he publishes his first book of fairytales. There’s never been anything like it before. Written in colloquial language, not one constructed from laborious small lead blocks, the critics complain that the written word should be as high as the altar and that children should read kneeling, not sitting like equals. But their talk is as harmless as a dog’s bark, as harmless as yapping at a caravan. Andersen’s fairytales are making their way across Europe slowly but effectively. He knows that this will be his legacy, but he doesn’t yet know he’ll achieve fame in his lifetime— which is beginning to feel quite livable. He’s somebody, and everything would have been picture-perfect if it weren’t for the fact that he’s still alone at thirty.

If only Edward didn’t address him as my honorable friend. Honorable, honorable, he doesn’t want to be “honorable.” He’s a tiger (a lemur?) in whom blood boils hotter than in all the citizens of Copenhagen put together. Edward gets engaged, and Hans suffers. He composes another letter, one that he’ll never send: Do you understand my love? At this moment there is no “Sir.” I say “you” and feel the brush of your lips. If I were rich, we’d escape to Italy for at least a month. Edward, I have a lot of young friends but not a single one of them I love like I love you.

He sends a different letter, one in which he expresses jealously of Edward’s fiancée who is permitted to speak of “love” to Edward. He’s not invited to the wedding. He writes a fairytale about “The Little Mermaid,” who dissolves into the heavens like a cloud because her prince doesn’t want her. He’s that little mermaid.

Another trip, again to Naples. Hurt by Copenhagen, by the famous actress who refuses to be in his play (I’ll destroy you, Madam!); by rumors that are circulating about his bachelor lifestyle; by the constant sniggering at his impotence.

For the first time, he travels part of the distance by train to feel the distance between one city and the next, to feel the earth spin. In Naples again, camera obscena, images, statuettes from Pompeii, debauchery à la grecque and a checkmark in his diary.

From Naples to Constantinople, just as long as it’s far from Copenhagen. Camels, sultans, dancing dervishes, the Orient is a mirror to his fantasy, and a balm for his ravished soul. If only his life were like the Thousand and One Nights. He understands now that fairytales are his true calling.

When he returns, he smells the Danish-German air and regrets that he didn’t die abroad.

On the ship: the passengers laugh at a person who looks like a caricature, like a silhouette of a person.

A surprise awaits him in Copenhagen. The king awards him a yearly pension, and what’s more, he can move into the most distinguished hotel in the city. He does.

Then, he receives a letter and the world falls on his head again. The letter is from his sister, and here he is claiming that he’s alone in the world, and she, like a crowned witness to his shameful past, gets chills and can’t sleep. She writes with desire and with doubt. Where is it from, this desire? I don’t know, no one knows what she wrote him; does she have some incestuous delusion? Because it seems she’s a prostitute, like his aunt.

A few days later this ghost from his childhood past knocks on his door and begs. He writes, She was well dressed and looked healthy. He doesn’t let her inside but gives her a Thaler. Then he writes to Edward warning him that she might come knocking but she never appears again. She dissolves, bringing about the “The Little Match Girl.”

At thirty-eight he falls in love. She’s a Swedish opera singer. A bastard child whose mother abandoned her at birth but who climbed from the very bottom to the very top. During their increasingly more frequent encounters he plans to ask for her hand, but she admires and does not love him, and the altar is as distant for them as the bed. A checkmark in his diary is all that remains of his last love for a woman, (that, and “the Nightingale”). Although they still meet, and he still hopes that maybe then, when she pets him on the head and calls him “my beloved brother,” but nothing of it. He suffers two-fold, on account of her and his teeth.

He celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of his arrival in Copenhagen with the King.
“The Little Match Girl” makes a triumphal tour around Europe. The world is at its feet, wagging its tail. During the book fair in Lipsk he’s offered a small fortune for publishing his collected works along with …an autobiography. What fate, what to write and how? He falls into a deep depression; he suffers, and sends fragments off for Edward’s review. Edward crosses out all of his love laments, all of those insufferable empty poses and pathetic smoke signals, and an autobiography emerges, The Fairytales of my Life. Only the title is honest– everything else is made up. He furnished his empty family home, he hung pictures on the walls, put dressers in the rooms, beds, a hearth like in a fairytale and snow white curtains in the windows. Not a word about his mother, her begging, her alcoholism or her pitiful death. Not a word about his aunt in a Copenhagen brothel, not a word about his sister or her prostitution— he doesn’t even realize that she passes away while he’s glossing her over in silence. One can deduce more about his childhood from his fairytales, from the drunkard-laundress who can’t do a thing, and the girl who sells matches.

He accomplishes everything. I’m really famous, he writes in his diary. And for dessert he leaves Dickens, the last of the greats he has yet to visit. He does so in the summer of 1857. He arrives like a balloon, hovering in the sky, empty and capricious as he gurgles out something that pretends to be English. What disgrace, catastrophe and embarrassment, the hosts tear the hair from their heads and Dickens pens his famous sentence, he slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!

His teeth fall out one after another but his blood still boils. Especially when he sits in his box at Royal Danish Theatre and looks at the students of the ballet school as they soar high up through the air, and one in particular. They see each other daily— I miss him everyday— A slap on the cheek of popular opinion, they hold hands in public. He’s in love. In the photos of him from this period, he’s not posing for a statue, he’s easygoing, and even frivolous. He doesn’t even despair when his ephebe leaves him for another.

When the Danish-German war of 1864 erupts he feels a catastrophe befall him. The loss of Denmark crushes him, and he breaks off relations with all of his German friends.

He falls ill more and more frequently and his body refuses to obey him. At sixty-two, his hometown, Odense, names him an Honorary Citizen. He goes to the ceremony, stands in the window of the town hall. Crowds below roar in his honor, torches burn in a lake of fire, but he can’t make it to the end of his honorary song. He suffers with each verse, counting them off because he has a nagging pain in the few teeth he still has left.

On the train to Paris, he stops by brothels, pays and watches. He can’t muster up the courage to touch, a lonely aesthete, he understands that that’s how he’ll stay. I’ll die the way I am, never submitting to the call of my blood.

Then, all of a sudden, no more travel, and no more writing except for the notes in his diary. He cuts paper dolls out of his photographs and pastes them onto his wall. The Pantheon on whose hierarchy he’s where… at the very top?

He lives with trunks full of manuscripts, diaries, paper dolls, photographs and letters. He burns only one, that one from his sister (for its pettiness?)

Edward Collin, (Sir Edward Collin) is the only named heir to his inheritance, property and fortune.

He writes that he’d like to have a peep hole drilled in his coffin so he can see who doesn’t come, and who he can punish by haunting them: I’ll make a terrifying ghost.

He loses his last tooth and wears a prosthetic set; you can see it in his last portrait.

For his seventieth birthday the King nominates him for the Highest Order. The theater puts on two of his plays but he barely notices them from the box since, at this point, he has cancer of the stomach and liver for which he regularly takes morphine.

He dictates the last entry in his diary: I dreamt that I lay dead in the gutter right before the Copenhagen city gates. I was dead in the most curious way, because flowers were sprouting from my body and my limbs. And to each passerby who saw me lying there as they were strolling by the gutter, I said, Hello, I’m not dead. In the spring I’ll bloom again.

And poof, he blew out like a candle.


Author’s note:
I’ve borrowed from the movie, “The Wonderful Adventures of Hans Christian Andersen” (dir. by Piv Bernth, prod. by NDR/Arte 2005)” and quoted from the book, Hans Christian Andersen Tagebucher “Journals from 1825-1875” (Insel Verlag: Frankfurt am Main, 2003).

JANUSZ RUDNICKI (b. 1956) studied Slavic and German philology in Hamburg, where he has lived since 1983. He is a permanent contributor to the periodical Twórczość. He has published the volumes of prose: Life’s Like That (1992), Darn World (1994), There and Back Over the Rainbow (1997), and Potato Agony(2000). In 2007 W.A.B. published his My Wehrmacht, and Come On, Let’s Go! Rudnicki’s short story “The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus”, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, was included in Best European Fiction 2012 by Dalkey Archive Press.

About the Translator:

BEATRICE SMIGASIEWICZ’s work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Art Papers, Words Without Borders, and others. She’s currently pursuing a degree in Nonfiction Writing and Translation at the University of Iowa.

Read more by Janusz Rudnicki:

Fiction in B O D Y
Author page at CULTURE.PL
About The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus in Literalab