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Portrait of a writer

Martin Andersen Nexø

By Jørgen Haugan

Martin Andersen Nexø´s impact as a literary figure has long overshadowed his writings themselves. He became a Communist after the 1917 October Revolution and eventually became one of the Soviet Union´s great beacons in the West. To complement the conspicuous role he had on the political stage, Nexø presented himself as a born proletarian - a myth that even today constitutes a part of his official portrait in literary history.

However, if we take off our political glasses and read his works with fresh eyes, we discover a neglected, superseded, but extremely interesting body of work. True enough, Martin Andersen grew up in humble surroundings on the island of Bornholm. He was apprenticed as a shoemaker, but would never see his apprenticeship finished. With the support of a patron, he obtained entry into the Danish folk high school. His stay there was the fundamental turning point in his life. He was lifted up into the romantic literary tradition of the Danish Golden Age. He himself became a post-romantic lyric poet, immersed in the writings of Oehlenschläger and Grundtvig. Nexø never forgot the spiritual impulses he received at the high school. He became one of the greatest followers of Grundtvig in Danish literature.

In the 1890s, Nexø moved to Copenhagen, where he came under the influence of such naturalist writers as J. P. Jacobsen, Jakob Knudsen, and Henrik Pontoppidan. It was here that his real debut as a writer of prose took place. Characteristic of these undeservedly neglected early novels, Det bødes der for (The Price to be Paid) (1899), En Moder (A Mother) (1900) and Dryss (Plenty) (1902) is a naturalism that is typical of the time -- critical of romantic idealism, even as they are thoroughly well-composed works of art, which illustrate through elegant symbolic means Nexø´s coming-into-being as an artist.

The synthesis of his spiritual impulses from school and the artistic revelation of naturalism led to his masterpiece, Pelle Eroberen (Pelle the Conqueror) (1906-10), written as a critique of Henrik Pontoppidan´s Lykke-Per. Pelle the Conqueror is both a classic individualistic Bildungsroman, patterned after Goethe´s Wilhelm Meister, and a collectivist novel, tracing the historical development of the common people from the Middle Ages to urban industrialism. As Pelle grows and his individual ambitions are contrasted with his feelings of collective solidarity, becomes the central figure in whom the common people achieve historical conscious of themselves - on the model of Grundtvig´s view of self-understanding in Nyaars-Morgen (1824).

Nexø warned - in vain - against reading his novels politically. However, with Ditte Menneskebarn (Ditte, Child of Man) (1917-21), Nexø returns to the Pelle figure to depict him politically - occasioned by his conversion to Communism in 1918, as he was in the process of writing the book. Neither Pelle nor Nexø comes off well. Analytical insight is replaced by sloppy sentimental hero worship.

Nexø´s new political role strangled his artistic abilities. Only when he returned to the universe of his youth did his creativity flourish again. In the 1930s, he wrote his famous four-volume set of memoirs, which evokes memories of Pelle the Conqueror and the glory of former days.

Translated by Russell Dees

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