Pelle the Conqueror/ Smilla’s Sense of Snow/Babette’s Feast
Pelle the Conqueror
by Martin Anderson Nexö (Fjord Press, first printed 1906)
Smilla’s Sense of Snowby Peter Hoeg (Delta; Reprint edition)
Babette’s Feast by Baronness Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen ) (Knopf February 1988)
What do you know about the Danish soul?
It is part melancholy brought over by the North Sea wind. It is part magical, lyrical and enchanting as made famous by Hans Christian Anderson. It is epic as bred by the Vikings and arctic explorers. Don’t forget the sly humor and the practicality as found on the clothing optional beaches and Danish design furniture. Before you travel to Denmark, spend a little time getting to know the Danish soul.
I became intrigued with Scandinavian literature when I was dating my soon-to-be husband, who comes from a Danish-American family. I collected foreign authors like Knut Hamson and Par Lagervist. These writers taught me something about the Danes, but there are more readily available titles that are worth review if you would like to capture the essence of Denmark. After my two visits to Denmark, I find I crave the sounds and the sensibilities of the Danish culture. I’ve chosen three that have been made into popular movies, available in video, which help satisfy my craving. Let me introduce them to you. They are Pelle the Conqueror , Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Babette’s Feast.
Martin Anderson Nexö wrote the first book, Pelle the Conqueror in 1906. The movie of the same name, won the Golden Palm (top prize) award at Cannes in 1998. Max von Sydow lends his depth to the character of Lasse, a poor widower who brings his son, Pelle, to Denmark to work as hired hands on a landowner’s estate. Both the book and the movie reflect the Danish unstinting acceptance of reality tempered by a wry humor. The New Republic wrote of the book, "To Nexö, there is nothing clean or unclean…he brings to our sympathy that rich, earthly, immemorial strain of sex and hunger and primitive necessities, gives it a modern embodiment that is…sincere feeling".
When Pelle and his father are sent to the stable to sleep, it is dirty with flies and straw, the lot of laborers at the turn of the century. Nexö could have made the novel into a dry socialist tract against the injustices of the era. Instead, the movie and the book have humor even amidst the starkness of winter on the island of Bornholm. Pelle meets a young boy, Rud, who befriends Pelle even though he can’t pronounce Rud correctly in gutteral Danish. "Don’t worry", Rud says to Pelle, "even my mother can’t pronounce it".
The second book/movie combination is Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, and is a thriller/mystery. Smilla Qaavigaag Jaspersen is part of Denmark’s small Eskimo/Greenlander community and also a trained glaciologist living in Copenhagen. She becomes the main investigator when footprints in the snow reveal a story to her eyes that doesn’t fit with the official explanation. It is full of mysterious characters, violent action and an intriguing puzzle. The book was named Best Book of the Year by Time Magazine and the movie came out in 2002 to mixed reviews. Smilla illustrates the melancholy, practical part of the Danish soul, with epic arctic explorer mixed in. The movie has a bit of an "X-files" feel. I liked most of it, but chuckle with recognition at the review that describes the finale as "agonizing idiocy". Yes, it does go overboard, but the book, as usual, is much better with its conclusion. Where else can you peer into the heart of a Greenlander loner in the middle of the stark Copenhagen winter?
The third book and movie is Babette’s Feast. The story was written by Danish aristocrat Baronness Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen.) The movie won the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Blixen exhibits the Danish trait of engaging poignancy and enchantment – in this case bringing to life the piety of a Calvinist community in Jutland without loosing its human face. Once again, in movie and book there is stark reality and subtle humor. The sensuality of the feast cooked by a Frenchwoman provides a divine realm to two elderly Danish sisters and their guests. Like the meal, this simple, spare film turns out to be philosophical and sensual.
I hope that I have given you a glimpse into the Danish soul. The character of this soul is part of the reason why traveling by bicycle is the best way to see Denmark. The sober Danes will share with us their very practical and efficient network of cycling paths. Their adventurous souls send them to the arctic, but also send Danish families on multi-day cycling holidays. The roads are so safe and friendly to bicycles that children and elderly can easily navigate them. The Danish love of enchantment and magic gives us the fairy tale feel of the rural villages, as well as the excitement of Tivoli, Copenhagen’s famous park. The melancholy and austerity of the winter gives the warm months their poignancy and sensual delights. Enjoy these books and watch the movies, then go experience Denmark yourself! God Tur!
Here is the list of ExperiencePlus! tours to Denmark this year.