Many years ago I was asked to do an interview for radio with the author Albert Dam. Dam published his first novels, much acclaimed by the critics, at the beginning of the century. Then he sank into total oblivion, earning his living as a baker in a small village and writing books that nobody noticed. But in the early '60s, when he had become a very old man, he brought out some sensational new novels that were immediately appreciated by a new generation of authors and critics.
I met him in a hotel room. He was ill in bed. The small room smelled of disease. I was very young and hesitant, fighting with my gear. I sat down at his bedside, putting the microphone close to his mouth since he was weak and only able to whisper. And so we whispered together, until the inexperienced interviewer asked her silly question: "For whom do you write, Albert Dam?"
He rose in bed, his old shriveled hands squeezed the blanket, and he roared into the microphone, so loud that the red line measuring the volume flew up and disappeared somewhere in the ceiling:
"Myself! I just write for myself."
Some months later in a Danish magazine I read a cutting from the Soviet newspaper Pravda dealing with the selfish and self-centered authors of the western capitalist countries, especially a certain Albert Dam, who had confessed in a radio interview that he wrote just for himself.
I remember feeling rather sad, because Albert Dam had been so completely misinterpreted. He was neither selfish nor particularly self-centered. But during his lifelong labor, his lonely aspirations, he was left to depend upon his innermost self, the person inside him who wanted his writing to be absolutely perfect in spite of his isolation and lack of an audience.
Dedication to art and, on the other hand, the demands of ordinary life. The need for money to live on and the yearning for communication, for readers. Here is the writer's dilemma, but it is especially difficult for writers who live in a small speech area like Denmark.
But if you had attended one of the literary events in Denmark this autumn you might have left the country with the impression that this problem had been solved. Oct. 2 was the annual Day of the Book. All over the country -- in Copenhagen, in Aarhus and in Hans Christian Andersen's native town, Odense -- writers met readers to discuss their latest works.
After a long wet summer, this was a rare beautiful autumn day, and outside the lecture halls booksellers had put up stalls showing the variety of new Danish titles. Here you could browse and buy books by Inger Christensen, Henrik Nordbrandt, Klaus Rifbjerg, Elsa Gress, Kirsten Thorup, Dorrit Willumsen or many other outstanding Danish writers, all well known in Denmark and practically unknown outside the country.
In overcrowded lecture halls, prose writers told about themes and experiments and young poets presented the theories behind their work. The 80-year-old professor of literature, F.J. Billeskov Jansen, introduced the last volume of his five-volume work on Danish poetry from the Middle Ages to the present, and denied having difficulties in understanding the youngest generation. When asked what had made the deepest impression on him, he answered without hesitation: "The women. The sensuality and 'body closeness' of their writing." And he ended his performance by reading some erotic poems by young women poets.
The female star of the Danish literary firmament was, of course, unable to be present. Karen Blixen, known also abroad as Isak Dinesen, has for many years enjoyed an international reputation, which long after her death was stimulated by Judith Thurman's biography and the film Out of Africa. This autumn a personal friend of the baroness, Ole Wivel, published a life study and introduction to her work, initiated and subsidized by the Foreign Ministry. Translations into three main languages are already in preparation. It is from the very first destined to cross borders, a rather unusual starting position for a Danish book. For although the Day of the Book presented its subject of celebration as flourishing and in very good health, the real picture is much more somber.
THE REGISTRAR of restrictive trade practices recently recommended the annulling of fixed book prices and letting supply and demand determine the market. Books, it was said, should be subject to free enterprise, just like any other article of consumption. Luckily our politicians seem to be aware of the disastrous consequences this might have for the cultural climate in a speaking area of just 5 million inhabitants. Small town bookshops would have to close down or limit their wares to pencils, paperbacks and best sellers. And the small publishing houses specializing in so-called "narrow" titles, books for minorities, would disappear. No strange collections of poetry, no experimental prose, no translations of foreign literature that might not reach the many, but which still make the literary climate fertile and inspiring.
In Denmark, we have taken pride in having the best library system in the world, but over the last 10 years budgets have been considerably reduced, meaning less money for purchase of new titles. The logical reaction from the publishing houses has been to reduce the number of copies they print. If a book is not selected by a book club, its survival time on the literary market is very short.
There are grants, literary prizes and the possibility of subsidies for quality books with small sales figures. But when Danish writers meet it is evident that they are concerned about the economy of books.
It is difficult to generalize about contemporary Danish literature, since good writing is opposed to generalization and often resists being labeled and assigned to categories. But something has happened during the last few years. Literature, used in the '70s mainly as a tool to express personal problems or to discuss and criticize social affairs, has begun to raise its head without making excuses for its own existence. The problem of form is for the time being a primary issue for a talented and self-confident generation of young poets, who have been accused of having nothing on, like the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen's tale. They don't deliver messages, but test the possibilities of language. Their answer to misgivings about the future and "the grand evils of our time" is to seize each moment with dynamic intensity. When they give readings from their poetry the audience is fascinated. "The difference between reading poetry and having poetry read aloud is like the difference between love and your true love," one of them explains.
But there are many different responses to these questions about the future. One of them is a growing interest in the past, in biography and historical novels. Another is the use of fantasy and imagination in an attempt to cope with the threats and challenges of modern society.
This spring Danish poets and novelists were invited to a seminar where they engaged in a dialogue about new technology with outstanding scientists and experts. The purpose was to bring the discussion down from a scholarly or superficial journalistic level to a more human level. To many writers the seminar meant an opportunity to think and talk about the kind of society we are moving into, and the society we dream of and try to create in our visions and utopias.
As I see it, there are two currents in Danish literature just now: The growing awareness of form and style, and the use of fantasy and imagination, not as an escape from reality, but as an expression of the writer's concern about society and development within modern science and technology. Luckily for the reader, who also wants to be moved and entertained, the two are quite often combined with the art of story telling, which still flourishes in the country of Karen Blixen, Albert Dam and Hans Christian Andersen.
Hanne Marie Svendsen is a writer and former radio editor of literary programs. Her novel "The Golden Ball" is scheduled for U.S. publication.