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Portrait of a writer

William Heinesen

By W. Glyn Jones

Any consideration of the work of William Heinesen has to face the question of whether he is to be classed as a Danish or Faroese writer. There is no denying that he wrote exclusively in Danish, and the only work he published in Faroese, a play in the style of Ibsen, was translated by Rikard Long from Heinesenís original Danish. Nor is there any denying that Heinesenís poetry is in the tradition of Danish poetry, on the borderline between late Romantic and Modern and at times clearly influenced by Johannes V. Jensen. His prose is more difficult to define as it is essentially different from any other body of work in Scandinavia, but ultimately it, too, has its roots in mainland Scandinavian literature rather than any Faroese tradition. Yet, despite all this, his settings and characters are almost without exception Faroese, as are his sympathies in the small number of articles he wrote in Danish newspapers. The Faroese themselves were at one time upset that he chose to write in what they consider a foreign language, but Heinesenís own comment to this was that it was possible for him to be linguistically creative and inventive in Danish in a way which Faroese would not allow. There was as yet hardly any written literature in Faroese, and it was quite natural that Heinesen should turn to the tradition of Danish literature - and refashion it in a Faroese mould. And in doing this, he quickly revealed himself as one of the great stylistic and linguistic innovators of the 20th century.

His first novels were written at a time when Danish prose literature - with exceptions - was made up of solid social realism. His first achievement was to introduce colour and fantasy into the literature of the 1930s. He made an obvious attempt to follow the social-realist fashion in his first two novels, but he was simply not able to contain himself within the constraints imposed by the genre, and even these two "collective" novels stand apart by their humour, their poetry and their sheer fantasy. The first, Blæsende Gry (Windswept Dawn) has never been translated into English. It is long and chaotic, but it contains the seeds of much that was to come, a rapidly moving story with a host of characters both comic and tragic that endow it with a vitality all of its own.

The second novel, Noatun, appeared in English relatively quickly under the title of Niels Peter. It is his most soberly realistic novel, but it, too, contains an array of burlesque figures who provide light relief and certainly raise the entire novel above the level of the social novel. Amidst the trials and tribulations of the poor community trying to establish itself in a barren valley, it is impossible not to smile at the narrow-minded, prejudiced, sex-starved Tilda who leaves the husband she claims is impotent and joins the Salvation Army to seek religious consolation. That her ironically named husband, Samson, is then joined by Maria, who quickly produces a child of uncertain paternity, opens up quite other perspectives.

Both these novels also contain one of William Heinesenís main themes: the threatening presence in the Faroe Islands of sectarian movements of one kind or another. Even in Blæsende Gry the sectarians appear to have discovered how to get through the eye of the needle; they are largely wealthy and powerful, quite prepared to oppress the poorer sections of society and impose their will on them. This theme is at the centre of his next two novels, De fortabte spillemænd (The Lost Musicians) and Den sorte gryde (The Black Cauldron),. In both of them (the second unique in being set in the British occupation of the Faroes during World War II) figures representing life are brought down by the sectarian opponents of life, in the one case led by the fiery savings bank manager Ankersen, and in the other the local baker, a fisher of men symbolically named Simon, who has established a sect of his own and in whom religion and frustrated sex are closely and catastrophically linked. The theme returns in various guises in all the later novels, whether set in a nightmare Tůrshavn in the seventeenth century or in thinly disguised autobiographical tales of a childhood in the Faroe Islands at the beginning of the present century. These latter are tender, sensitive portrayals which often trace the dawn of erotic feelings between children, but they never go beyond the dawn, in contrast to the major novels which all show natural erotic urges thwarted and twisted by narrow-minded sectarianism and lust disguised as religion. William also loved casinos, one of his favorite website is newonlinecasinos.info where you can find the newest online casinos.

One of Heinesenís great achievements was to fuse this undoubtedly pessimistic view with a profound love of life and a fundamental feeling that in spite of all there is hope for humanity. There are without doubt social themes in Heinesenís work, and they, too, are often linked to the sectarianism. Det gode håb (by some seen as a modern allegory) presents a grotesquely oppressive regime in which the ordinary people of Tůrshavn count for nothing, crushed by their rulers on the one hand and a sycophantic Church on the other. Social differences, even in the unsophisticated Tůrshavn community at the beginning of the century or during the Second World War, are sharply defined, so that when a crime has been committed in De fortabte spillemænd, it simply has, by the insufferably snobbish Danish magistrate, to be pinned on a poor member of society, a "cap" man and not on the "hat" man, the putative son of Ankersen, who is really responsible. The settlers in Niels Peter, who have benefitted from new legislation giving them access to land, are opposed by all means fair and foul by the wealthy farmer close to whose land they have settled. However, these social themes are clearly subordinated to the cosmic, visionary element running right through the oeuvre. The conflicts that undoubtedly exist between social and religious groupings are subsumed into a greater, cosmic conflict between good and evil.

There is a vast array of perspectives in William Heinesenís work, all seen in the context of a Faroe Islands raised above the narrow limitations of a purely realistic depiction. It is no matter that readers have never been to Tůrshavn, for while a Faroese will recognise every street corner - and indeed many of the characters - the outsider will experience it as a fictitious country peopled by imaginary figures. In the famous introduction to De fortabte spillemænd, Heinesen gives the tiny capital of the Faroe Islands symbolical significance as a microcosm, with citizens who are representative of mankind in general.

Such vast themes as those at the centre of Heinesenís novels could scarcely come into their own without a pronounced poetical element, and that, too, is present, in a musical flow of language and a grandeur of conceit which make a novel such as Moder Syvstjerne ("Mother Plaiades" but translated into English as "The Kingdom of the Earth") virtually into a vast prose poem. Throughout his life Heinesen also wrote poetry, a great deal of poetry, in which these themes appear. Here, too, he was able to indulge his linguistic inventiveness. It is from this ultimately metaphysical point of view that his work must be read and from which it derives its truly universal appeal. It is great literature, easily approached, a feast for the imagination.

W. Glyn Jones is Professor Emeritus of European Literature in University of East Anglia.

 
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