Danish Literature in English

DIS recommends the following novels and non-fiction literature about life in Denmark.

All are available in our collection:

Arabia Felix by Thorkild Hansen (1962) (Section 48.216)

Thorkild Hansen was an early proponent and a master of documentary fiction; his major works published in the 1960s became very popular in Scandinavia and best-sellers in his native Denmark. Focusing on obscure figures and forgotten episodes in Denmark’s past, he introduced a new genre of documentary-historical fiction to Danish letters. Det lykkelige Arabien (1962; translated as Arabia Felix , 1964), a reconstruction of the Danish expedition to Arabia in 1761–67 led by Carsten Niebuhr, marks Hansen’s literary breakthrough. While this book progresses at a rather slow pace, it is a tome worth exploring for the interested reader.

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A History of Denmark by Knud J. V. Jespersen (2ed. 2011)

From the Reformation to present day, this book guides the reader through 500 years of wars, territorial losses, domestic upheavals, and changes in thought in Denmark’s history. Looking carefully at the development of Danish identity, the author explores whether Danes can be most aptly described as a tribe or a nation. Using new research and original theories, it’s the perfect introduction to the fascinating and relatively unknown history of this Scandinavian country.

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A Short History of Denmark in the 20th Century by Bo Lidegaard (2009)

Over 350 pages about Denmark and Danish history over the last 100 years, from the regime change in 1901 — when the real power was transferred from the king to parliament – to 2001. Lidegaard eloquently describes how the Danish society has evolved through two world wars, from peasant to industrial society, and to the information & knowledge society we live in today. In addition to historical people and events, he describes concepts and movements that are particularly Danish and unknown to foreigners such as: the cooperative movement, the Danish model of labor relations between monarchy and democracy, etc. He also writes about Denmark’s special position during the Occupation, where the rescue of Danish Jews is known and respected around the globe.

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Being Danish in the 21st Century by Richard Jenkins (2011)

This lecture draws upon and summarizes the results of more than fifteen years research in, and into, Denmark and ‘being Danish.’ The core argument is that ‘danskhed,’ and ‘being Danish,’ is not primordial or immutable, the ‘natural heritage’ of Danish people. Identity is, rather, historically situated and develops and changes over time. It is also often paradoxical, in that it brings together under an umbrella of shared belonging many contradictory themes and practices.

Coast of Slaves (Slavernes Kyst) by Thorkild Hansen (2002)

This is the third volume in Hansen’s classic slave trade trilogy. When America was discovered and plantations established, slave labor became the principal export commodity from the Gold Coast. This book is about the history of Danish/Norwegian participation in the transatlantic slave trade. It describes the organization of the trade, the participants, the challenge, and the link with the West Indies to where the slaves were transported for work on the sugar plantations. It describes Danish purchase of islands in the West Indies, and traces how the decline in Dutch and British trade, and the abilities of the Danish administration led to a golden age in the Danish slave trade in the 1770s and 1780s. In that period, the Danish share in the total slave trade exceeded ten percent; and the decline in the trade with the growth of a new European consciousness, heralded abolition. Coast of Slaves, the first volume of the trilogy, was originally published in Danish in 1967. This English translation is edited to provide explanations about inaccessible references as well as established factual misrepresentations.

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Cosmopolitan in Denmark, and Other Poems about the Danes by Benny Andersen (1995)

This volume by Denmark’s celebrated poet is comprised of poems about the Danes, Danish mentality, and Danish humor. The collection is tied together by introductory texts and interspersed with amusing pen-and-ink drawings by the poet’s stepdaughter, who besides being an illustrator is a well-known pop and rock singer. The author offers a warm, witty and highly personal view of his countrymen as he searches out original ways to express his fascination with aspects of Danish identity.

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Havoc by Tom Kristensen (1930)

Havoc offers an insight into the mind of a self-destructive person. The book describes a self-sustaining set of thoughts in the main character – thoughts, which bring about the cruel logic of self destruction as an inevitable consequence of life itself. The story takes place in pre-WW2 Copenhagen, where the main character, Ole Jastrau, becomes an alcoholic with the specific purpose of deliberately destroying himself – physically as well as mentally. Like most of Tom Kristensen’s work, Havoc displays a pessimistic view of life. The reader should be in a healthy mental state when reading the book…

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Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (1992)

This international bestseller by Peter Høeg combines the pleasures of literary fiction with those of a Scandinavian thriller. Smilla Jaspersen – half-Danish, half-Greenlander – attempts to understand the death of a small boy in her apartment building. Her childhood in Greenland gave her an uncanny understanding for the complex structures of snow, so when she notices the boy’s footprints reveal he ran to his death off the roof of their building, she begins investigating who – or what – was chasing him. As she delves further into the mystery, Smila uncovers a complex series of conspiracies and cover-ups, bringing her from the bustling streets of Copenhagen to an icebound island off the coast of Greenland. What she finds there has implications far beyond the death of a single child.

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Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (1937)

From 1914 to 1931, Danish aristocrat Baroness Karen Blixen owned and operated a coffee plantation in Kenya. After the plantation failed, she returned to Europe and began to write under the pen name Isak Dinesen. Out of Africa reads like a collection of stories in which she adheres to no strict chronology, gives no explanation of the facts of her life, and apologizes for nothing. First published in 1937, Out of Africa is not free of the colonial or racist attitudes of its time; yet, within that context, Isak Dinesen is an enlightened observer and participant as she describes the experience of British East Africa before World War II. She portrays in rich detail the vast land around her, alive with strange and wonderful human populations; the thrilling terror of a nocturnal lion hunt; a shooting accident among the Africans on her farm and its repercussions; raising and freeing an orphaned antelope fawn; getting to know the Africans and the colonial adventurers who found their way into her life. “If I know a song of Africa,” she writes, “of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee–pickers, does Africa know a song of me?” Out of Africa is that song.

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Selected Poems by Henrik Nordbrandt (1981)

Henrik Nordbrandt is often characterized as a poet who has never found a place to settle. From a purely biographical point of view this characterization is precise in that, for the greater part of his adult life, Nordbrandt has chosen to live in exile far from Denmark in the Mediterranean countries of Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain. The characterization is also precise inasmuch as Departures and Arrivals (the title of a 1974 poetry collection, Opbrud og Ankomster) is an ongoing theme in his work, which to date consists of twenty poetry collections, books of essays, children’s books, a Turkish diary and a cookery book. The poet – I in Nordbrandt’s work  – is always on the way to somewhere else, and arrival merely brings with it the realization that the new place also has the potential for departure. Being displaced has been a fixture of modern writing since the romantic movement, but with Nordbrandt it has been transformed into restlessness and has come to the fore as a primary explicit theme.

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Seven Gothic Tales by Karen Blixen (1934)

In the early 1930s, during a difficult readjustment to living in Denmark, Karen Blixen prepared several stories, which she had been working on in Africa, to be sent to publishers. She offered the tales under the name Isak Dinesen, a name meant to sound like they were written by a man. She was afraid that, as a woman, her work would not be taken seriously. But even in this endeavor, she could not resist whimsy, for the name ‘Isak’ in Hebrew means “the one who laughs.”

Karen Blixen wanted to make her points by startling the reader, somewhat as children do who make up ghost stories. She called the seven tales gothic because they hearken to the literature of the gloomy and the grotesque. They also have magical and supernatural elements. While she had read and been impressed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), she designed her own tales not to frighten, but to make a profound statement. The tales arise from Karen Blixen’s sense of whimsy; even in her most tragic story, she wanted the reader to discover a joke. By setting the tales a hundred years earlier, she hoped that the avoidance of realism would render the stories mythical. To reinforce this vision, she wrote each tale as a collection of intricately woven inset stories resembling, in structure, the Thousand and One Nights.

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Silence in October by Jens Christian Grøndahl (1997)

This novel by acclaimed Danish author Gríndahl tells the story of a dissolving marriage in a complex, elliptical and moving way. At the book’s start, a Danish art historian wakes up in Copenhagen to find that his wife, Astrid, is leaving him. The novel then traces the events leading up to this separation. The art historian met his now departed wife while driving a cab to put himself through grad school; she happened to hail him the day she left her first husband. She sought refuge with her cabbie, and the two of them ended up together for 18 years. During the course of their marriage, the art historian falls in love with a sculptor while visiting New York on business. Though his great intelligence affords him many insights, it does not keep his private life from falling into disarray. Grøndahl carves out a convincing milieu for his protagonist, with numerous believable characters, including the alternately sensible and volatile Astrid and various sly denizens of the art world. Images and events from the present and the past are seamlessly blended so that single sentences or paragraphs sometimes span years. Gríndahl’s Proustian game playing with the strictures of time is seductive and often captivating, a narrative tightrope that he walks without a stumble. He sprinkles the book, as well, with knowing observations about human nature, characters’ perceptions of each other and memory itself, lending his tale a poetic depth that never ceases to surprise.

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The Snake [Serpent] in Sydney by Michael Larsen (1998)

Michael Larsen’s ambitious novel The Serpent in Sydney (1997) showcases his strengths as an author of the two-track thriller, drawing on both action sequences and psychological riddles to create an active examination of science, nature, and religion, and our relationship with them in the modern world. Annika Niebuhr, an Australian doctor and snake expert, treats a young girl at a hospital in Sydney. It soon becomes apparent that the girl has been bitten by the most dangerous of all Australian reptiles: the taipan. Curiously though, taipan snakes are only found in the northern part of Australia – far away from the southern city of Sydney. When one of Annika’s best friends, an expert in electronic espionage, is found dead, Annika believes she sees a connection between these two strange incidents. She soon becomes a player and a key figure in a dangerous state of warfare stretching far beyond all rationality, even – or perhaps especially – for her brilliant, practical, inquiring scientist’s mind.

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Stolen Spring by Hans Scherfig (1940)

First published in Denmark in 1940, this book has been in print ever since and is one of those books everyone reads – and it has something different to say depending on your age when you read it. “‘A number of years ago an elderly man died in the Østerbro district of Copenhagen after eating a malt drop [on] a beautiful, mild evening at the beginning of June…” So begins this tale by Hans Scherfig, about the Danish bourgeoisie in the 1920s and 30s and the goings-on in one of Copenhagen’s upper-crust prep schools where the ‘elderly man,’ C. Blomme, had taught Latin to generations of boys preparing for prestigious social positions. A more-than-likely suspect in the head teacher’s death is one of his own pupils…. As we follow the odyssey of the classmates up to their 25th reunion we are introduced to secret clubs, fiendish mischief and the grind of an oppressive school routine. Scherfig, who died in 1979, was known in his native Denmark as a popular writer, painter and Marxist. Stolen Spring, regarded as his best novel, comes across as a stinging indictment of an absurd and stultifying school system; but it is also a masterful blend of suspense and satire: the broad humor, irony and sophisticated wit (sensitively translated into English for the first time [by Frank Hugus]) make for both fun and engrossing reading nearly 50 years after original publication.

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