Who are your heroes? The names that spring to mind for me always start with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and end somewhere around Bob Dylan, passing through the likes of Marilyn Robinson, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard, Robert McFarlane, Ella Maillart, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In fact, if you bring in poetry, the list could go on and on, and the name Leonard Cohen probably wouldn’t spring to mind. Yet his song in Starbucks sent shivers down my spine. Suddenly I was transported back to the girl I used to be, lying in a darkened room, being young and green about some stranger’s lonesome voice.
Beyond my public heroes, it seems, are other heroes - secret ones who’ve so thoroughly woven their way into my life that I don’t even know they’re there. Plainly, Leonard Cohen is one of them. Even when he’s talking about how he writes, he’s speaking for me:
I think you work things out. I wouldn’t call those things ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don’t really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans. They tend to be on the right side of things: ecology or vegetarianism or antiwar. All these things are wonderful ideas but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart.
But Leonard Cohen’s not the only one. In any list of influence-wielding secret heroes, that giant of children’s literature, Hans Christian Andersen, has to come top. It was he, after all, who first stirred my imagination when I was young.
Hans Christian Andersen was a complex character, revered and reviled in equal measure. Welcomed throughout the palaces of Europe, he was regarded as puffed-up and vain by many, including some of his own countrymen. In a letter, Georg Brandes described him as ‘a mind completely and entirely filled by himself and without a single spiritual interest.’ When he stayed with Charles Dickens, the Dickens children couldn’t wait for him to leave. But when he met the Englishwoman, Annie Wood, she told him she’d kept his fairy tales under her pillow as a child, and believed him to be an angel. ‘At last,’ she wrote in an article in ‘Temple Bar’ in 1875, ‘I was in the presence of the man whose writings had been the joy of my early life, dearer to me than aught else in the world.’ Clearly, to those read his stories, Andersen had the power to enchant.
And I know why. I grew up in a decidedly unbookish family, apart from a single copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Stories, which I read so much that it nearly fell apart. In fact, I still have that book to this day. I love everything about it - not just the stories themselves, but the illustrations, the feel of the blotting-paper thick pages and even the shapes of the words. You say the words ‘Big Claus and Little Caus’ to me and I feel the way I did when Cohen sang that first word, ‘Suzanne…’
The same goes with ‘The Tinder-Box’ or ‘The Swineherd and the Shepherdess’, ‘The Nightingale’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ or ‘The Snow Queen’.
Oh, ‘The Snow Queen’...
As a writer who delights in what some people call ‘magic realism’ and others ‘fantasy’, the influence of Hans Christian Andersen is all over my writing - and I’m not just talking about his stories but his choice of words. The same Georg Brandes who above criticized Andersen’s self-centredness later acknowledged Andersen’s influence on children. ‘What author has a public like him? His book of fairy tales is the only book we have spelt our way through as children and still read today.’ Certainly for me, coming to Andersen as the child of a new century, I learnt that stories are made of words and every one of them matters. And as a young writer, Andersen’s fascination with the magical amid the ordinary had me delving into folklore to enrich my own stories - and I’ve been doing it ever since.
If you’re interested, there’s an excellent programme on Scandanavian Children’s Literature to be heard on Radio 4, hosted by Mariella Frostrup. And if you’ve never read Hans Christian Andersen - or at least not since you were a child - give him a go. ‘It was Orpheus that he called to mind,’ August Stringberg wrote of him, this poet who sang in prose so that not only animals, plants and stones listened and were moved, but toys came to life; goblins and elves became real, those horrible schoolbooks seemed poetic; why, he squeezed the whole geography of Denmark into four pages – he was a perfect wizard!’
The Tiina Nunnally deluxe edition of Andersen’s Fairy Stories, published by Penguin, is worth every penny of its current price on Amazon of £8.44. [Oh, and if you want to listen to Cohen, you may find him playing at a Starbuck’s near you.]
All quotes in this post are taken from Hans Christian Andersen, by Elias Bredsdorff, which is worth a read.