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Will the real Andersen please stand up

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

09:05, July 17, 2012

The memorial hall for Hans Christian Andersen in Odense, built in 1908 at the behest of his grandchildren, is a grand homage to a "half god / hero". After World War II, the writer would be celebrated more humbly. Provided to China Daily

"The great thing about the Hans Christian Andersen stories is that you can read them as a child, then read them again many years later and get an entirely new appreciation," says the Odense Museum's publicist Mette Ganz. Because the stories resonate with both children and adults, she adds, they work as strong themes for kindergarten parties and corporate events alike.

But it isn't just the stories that look different over time: The man who wrote them has morphed astonishingly in the public eye since his 19th-century heyday.

You can see the mythmaking at work in a quick tour of the museum.

"From the beginning, Andersen was a political creation," says Ejnar Askgaard, curator and resident historian at the museum. "The story line was: He rose from poverty to be an establishment man with an exquisite circle of friends."

Built in 1908, the museum celebrates Andersen as a model of social mobility and meritocracy.

A grandiose memorial hall reflects "the top-hatted Andersen you see in logos and commemorative books", Askgaard says. "Half god, half hero." There are murals with scenes intended to depict Andersen's life, including one where a huge crowd has gathered to hear him speak from the window of his home on a cobblestone street just a block from the museum site. "That was actually painted from a photograph of a rally for Mussolini," he adds with a wry smile.

After World War II, there was a reaction in Europe against hero worship - "this was feared", Askgaard says. So Andersen is now seen as a gentle, old, friendly guy: quiet, harmless, a humanistic role model. "Visiting dignitaries (Nikita Kruschev, Josephine Baker, Indira Gandhi and Yuri Gagarin) have come to the museum to be photographed in that context," he says.

In real life he was more complicated, fascinating to no one more than Andersen himself, who wrote three different autobiographies - the first when he was about 30. If that seems presumptuous today, Askgaard says, "remember that people didn't live as long then, and often had achieved whatever success life would give them by 30." Mozart, he notes, was dead at 33.

Andersen was obsessed with death and his own mortality, a theme that underpins much of his writing. A successful writer abroad, he was enormously popular in Germany but didn't get the same recognition at home. Andersen found family matters difficult and married neither of the two women to whom he proposed. He is said to have died with a decades-old letter from one of the women he hopelessly loved in his coat's breast pocket.

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