Niklas Rådström (b. 1953) is one of the most prolific of Sweden’s leading contemporary writers. A distinguished poet with some thirteen collections of his poetry to his name, he made his international reputation as a dramatist with Hitler’s Childhood (1984, trans. Frank Perry) which was performed throughout the world. Among his most recent works for the theatre is Dante’s Divine Comedy for the Gothenburg City Theatre (2004). His extensive catalogue of work for film includes the international art-house hit The Mozart Brothers (1983) and forthcoming is a new film, directed by Jan Troell, entitled Maria Larsson’s Everlasting Moment. His prose work encompasses eight novels, the third of which, Medan tiden tänker på annat, (While Time is Occupied Elsewhere, Gedins, 1992), was awarded the August Prize for fiction. He has also published a wealth of short fiction, essays and stories for children. In 1996 he was made a lifetime member of Sweden’s prestigious literary academy Samfundet de nio.
Gästen (The Guest) was published in 2006 to almost universal acclaim from Swedish critics. Rådström’s elegant command of metaphor, his mastery of narrative structure and the pace of his writing make this short work a great pleasure to read. A blend of imaginative fiction and informed biographical speculation, The Guest deals with the arrival of the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen at Gad’s Hill in Kent to stay with his British colleague Charles Dickens in the summer of 1858. Rådstrom makes use of this “historic” meeting to create a tragic-comic meditation on the nature of creativity and its fraught relation to friendship and rivalry. The two writers have been correspondents for many years but the long-anticipated visit fails dramatically to live up to their hopes. On his arrival, Andersen, who had had his letters to Dickens translated and then written the translations out in his own hand, turns out to speak English very poorly; indeed he is barely comprehensible in any other language. He is also extremely demanding, hypochondriacal and self-involved. In addition, the Dickens household is in crisis: marital woes that would lead in the autumn of that year to the separation of the spouses; Dickens was also reeling with grief over the very recent death of one of his closest friends. In the extract presented here, the barriers of language have been swept aside – as if in a dream – and they find themselves able at long last to talk to one another, to speak their minds and their hearts.
It is now we have to imagine they are able to talk to one another after all. This might even take place where all creativity actually begins: in our dreams. Let us suppose that neither of them can sleep. The rays of the almost full moon are stealing in through the gaps in the curtains, putting an end to all the shadows in the room. Dickens cannot stop thinking about the performance at the Gallery of Illustrations on Regent Street – the faces in the audience wracked with tears during his death-scene; his rejection of the Queen’s invitation, which met only with understanding and respect on the part of Her Majesty; the offers that had already arrived to stage a number of performances in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. His wife is sleeping soundly beside him in the marriage bed. He lies there listening to her breathing. Each breath she takes is deep and accompanied by a slight snuffle. Although she is not snoring, her breathing is helping to keep him awake.
He sits up in the dark on the edge of the bed, staring blindly in front of him. The darkness is empty. There was a time – when Samuel Pickwick, young Oliver and Nicholas Nickelby were all simultaneously clamouring for his attention, and each night would see one character and event after another introduce itself to him – when the darkness was full of faces, gestures and lines of dialogue, and he would fall asleep the way an exhausted traveller dozes off in a noisy train compartment hurtling through the night. Only now he has to wring the characters out of himself. He manages to accomplish this, it is true, with the practised ease of a magician pulling bouquets of flowers, doves and rabbits out of his hat. But, before, they had come rushing to meet him, the characters of his fiction, just as curious about him as he was about them. Where were they now? Why were they hiding? Had they grown bored with him? Had they forgotten him? No. He was the one who had forgotten them – forgotten to be curious about them, to love them. On several of those first days of Andersen’s, as it now seemed, endless stay, he had tried to talk to Andersen about this. He had told him that they carried the characters they created within them. And Andersen had understood him and pointed at his heart. “They’re in here,” Andersen had said. He had responded by pointing first to his heart, “That’s right, here,” he had said; and had gone on to touch his forehead, his stomach, his crotch and slap one of his thighs, “and here, and here, and here, and here!”
Dickens gets up from his bed, shoves his feet into slippers and pulls on his silk dressing-gown. He steals cautiously out of the bedroom and down the stairs. Everything is silent. Everyone is asleep. He walks over to the large mirror in the hall. For each step he takes, the man who comes to meet him seems to pass through a stage from his own life – the youth furthest out in the darkness, the newly-married young man in the light from the drawing-room window, the restless breadwinner in the much paler gleam from the window above the door, the successful editor and home-owner in the light from the library windows and then, in the shadows near the mirror, a mature man on his way into old age. Even though he is not yet fifty, he has started to feel pains in his face, and every now and then on his walks one of his legs will start to ache. The raking light from the moon outside makes his features seem like a rough sketch, deepening the lines on his face. He has remained slender, and his body possesses a youthful lightness. But it is as though he is looking into the future. The man walking towards him is not a character from one of his books but himself in old age. He pulls a face, then another: opens his mouth wide and narrows his eyes, sucks in his cheeks, and drops his chin so that the skin across his throat starts to sag. And that is when he sees a pale, gangling figure emerge from the darkness, like the Ghost of Christmas Past.
“So you can’t sleep either,” says Andersen, and even though Dickens is not really sure what language his guest is speaking, he has no trouble understanding him. He seems able to understand every word. Andersen is wearing a long night-shirt, and his bare feet are bony, his toes crooked.
“I’m trying to find a couple of characters I need for a work I’m in the process of planning,” Dickens says and nods toward the mirror.
“And that’s where you think they live?” Andersen asks with a chuckle. “Behind the mirror?”
Dickens joins in the laughter.
“No,” he says. “We have to come to terms with the fact that we are what we write, it’s true. It’s just that our characters lay claim to our entire being. There’s no escaping them.”
“They live off us,” says Andersen.
“That’s it exactly, they live off us,” says Dickens. “And we have to be thankful if, and when, we get to survive them.”
“What we really want though, I suppose, is for them to survive us,” says Andersen.
“So they can provide us with a little measure of immortality,” says Dickens. “Like our children.”
Andersen falls silent. He too has been lying awake this night, staring up at the ceiling. And he cannot get the royal command performance out of his thoughts either. Not just on account of all the powerful emotions and experiences the evening contained, but because it means he will have to make his mind up about when he is going to leave Dickens’ home. He is fully aware that he has stayed too long; all the same it is as if he is still waiting for the real meeting with his English friend to take place. The days have all been filled with other matters. Dickens is always occupied with one thing or another, while the family have become less and less attentive to him with each passing day. It has hardly turned out the way he had hoped. He does not realize it, but in a day or two Dickens will demand a departure date from him. Andersen will reply that he will be leaving at the weekend, but it will then transpire that the journey will not be possible until the Wednesday of the following week. Another ten days just like the preceding ones – visits to London, walks, conversations that fail to occur and feelings of loneliness. Loneliness. Whenever he sees Dickens with his children, with his wife and her sister, with his friends sitting round the dinner table, it only seems to make his loneliness stand out more clearly. In his home in Copenhagen he has a tin soldier, given to him by a little German boy, who told him he should keep it so he would not have to feel lonely. This had given birth to one of his fairy-tales, The Old House, which Dickens had said he had read over and over again and thought was one of his greatest works. In the story a boy is sitting by a window, looking across the street at a decrepit old house, covered in peeling plaster with broken windows. A lonely old man lives in the house, and the boy sends one of his two tin soldiers, wrapped in a piece of paper, over to the aged gentleman, to stop him feeling lonely. The boy is then invited to visit the house, and discovers that the old building resembles a living organism which seems to gain its sustenance from the old man’s memories. The sculptured trumpets at the entrance play a fanfare to welcome the boy. In the family portraits in the hall, the ancient knights in armour actually rattle and the silk in the ladies’ dresses can be heard rustling. The gilded pigskin wallpapers speak, and the chairs creak and groan as they invite the visitor to be seated and not to mind that they seem to be suffering from the same gout and aching joints that afflict the old cupboard. In an article, Dickens emphasized the importance of paying the greatest respect to the fairy-tale: “in an utilitarian epoch” in particular. “But every one who has considered the subject,” Dickens wrote, “knows full well that a nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun.” And now there is a creaking sound in the walls at night and the furniture is groaning just like in the old house in Andersen’s story. Andersen lies there for a long while, listening to all the sounds in Dickens’ home. Being aware of the presence of the sleeping children, the cat snoozing by the stove in the kitchen and the birds huddled together in their cage in the dining-room allows him to feel safe, contained, but still he lies awake. Finally, incapable of counting one more sheep or twisting and turning across the mattress one more time, or rearranging his pillows in a different combination, he sits up on the edge of the bed and looks out into the darkness. The moonlight softens the sharp lines of the engravings on the walls and adds colour to them. Becalmed for decades, a ship in one of the pictures gets wind in its sails at last and, in another, a frozen waterfall starts to gush. Andersen reaches for the glass of water by his bed, although it has of course long been drunk dry. Then, barefoot, he walks out in his nightshirt into the upstairs hallway and down the stairs. And there, in front of the mirror in the lower hall stands a figure in a paisley silk dressing-gown the moonlight is playing across, making it resemble some-thing out of the Arabian nights.
“You ought to have children of your own,” Dickens says. “Not just tell stories to other people’s kids.”
“Children need a mother as well,” Andersen says cautiously.
“Would that be so difficult for you to arrange?” Dickens asks. “Even a story-teller has to fall in love some time.”
Andersen just nods, blushing. In love. Well, of course. And he thinks about Riborg Voigt, Jenny Lind and Louise Collin, but also about Karl Alexander, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Baron Henrik Stampe and Edward Collin. He refuses to talk about it. The same applies to the encoded notes in the diaries of his youth that indicate episodes of masturbation: it is not a subject he is prepared to discuss. Dickens looks at him quizzically. But Andersen’s averted gaze simply restates his refusal to talk about it. And when, a while later, they are sitting talking in the dark in the library, the matter has been forgotten. A breeze outside is rustling the leaves of the shrubbery, and the light of the moon is dancing across the titles and the names of the writers gilded on the spines of the books.
“Andersen, they need us,” says Dickens.
“Who do?” Andersen asks, and neither one of them wonders why language is no longer a problem.
“The people we write for,” Dickens says.
“Oh I see, the readers,” Andersen says.
“That’s right, our readers,” says Dickens. “But not only them. It’s not just the people we write for, but the ones we write about as well, that need us. The poor, the outcast, the faceless – they all need us. Neither of us wishes to discuss it, but that has been part of our lives as well. As children, we both experienced times when there was no sense of any hope for the future.”
“I don’t want to talk about that either,” says Andersen.
“Didn’t I just say that – neither one of us wants to discuss it,” Dickens replies. “But that is what we have to put into words: what we know about that kind of life.”
“I do write about that,” Andersen says. “I write about the people who trudge through the snow only to peer into warm rooms, where the future holds out more promise than threat.”
“Yes, my dear Andersen,” Dickens says, and a note of irony can be detected in his voice, “you write about them with greater feeling and emotion that anyone else...”
“Thank you, you’re too kind,” says Andersen and picks up the vein of pretence and sarcasm that Dickens has put in play. “Since there has never been anyone as able as you, Master Dickens, at portraying poverty, the struggle for meaning, dignity and survival, the laughter and the shadows, the London fog creeping in on all sides...”
Then they both burst out into relieved laughter.
“Shouldn’t we stop flattering one another?” Andersen finally asks.
“It does get rather boring in the end,” Dickens replies.
“We are grown-ups, after all,” Andersen says,
“We are grown-ups,” says Dickens. “We’ve finally grown-up.” And then he looks briefly at his guest. “I know that you are the elder,” he says, “but I was wondering if I might be bold enough to ask – may I call you Hans Christian?”
One of the most painful moments in H.C. Andersen’s life was when the middle son of his patron, Jonas Collin the director of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, rejected his request that they be on first-name terms. In a letter to Edward Collin from Hamburg, Andersen had begged this of him, all but on his knees. But Collin, aware perhaps that a deeper form of passionate involvement lay behind Andersen’s wish to drop the formalities, had refused him in no uncertain terms. This may be one of the reasons Andersen now feels such a rush of joy as he responds, “But of course. That would make me both pleased and proud. Charles?” They get up and embrace one another briefly. Andersen can feel the warmth of Dickens’ body through the thin silk dressing gown, and Dickens will long carry around inside him, like a physical memory, the sensation of touching Andersen’s shoulder-blade through his night-shirt. Once they have returned to their seats, Dickens says, “I sometimes get so thoroughly tired of your fairy-tales, Hans Christian. The ease of inspiration, the exactness of the image, the accuracy of feeling... That skill of yours in knowing precisely where you have your reader, of always being able to look them in the eye. It is perfect. In the fairy-tales it is perfect. And yet, there’s never a...” Dickens falls silent and tries to find the right phrase.
“Never a false note?” Andersen suggests.
“That’s it”, Dickens says. “There’s never a false note, nothing ever grates.”
“Except of course when a false note is the very artistic device that is needed,” Andersen says and they both laugh.
“We both know exactly what to do to make them cry,” Dickens says.
“Make them cry and make them laugh,” Andersen replies. “Sometimes I just can’t imagine how you find the energy. So many words, such an endless flood of words. Now and then I even skip a page or two when reading your books.”
“You must bear in mind how many pages of newsprint I have to fill, Hans Christian,” Dickens says. “A complete instalment every month, sometimes every week... for a whole year, maybe even eighteen months.”
“I do know what it is like when your imagination dries up, and you have to keep on writing anyway,” Andersen replies.
“I don’t believe that for a moment,” Dickens counters. “I don’t believe you have written a single line in your entire life without being inspired to do so.”
“I though we were going to stop flattering each other,” Andersen says sarcastically.
“There’s no flattery involved,” says Dickens. “It’s a simple statement of fact. Acting out of obligation or from a sense of duty is totally alien to you.”
“I know what duty is,” Andersen objects. “I do have a sense of duty.”
“No, you don’t – you just feel hurt when other people suspect that you don’t have one.” Dickens replies. “But that is just vanity. Duty doesn’t really mean anything to you at all.
“But I know what duty is, I assure you,” Andersen retorts.
“Maybe. But you don’t allow yourself to be governed by it,” says Dickens. “You are governed by your vanity.”
“In which case, can’t duty in turn be an expression of vanity?” Andersen asks.
“So you mean I’m vain too?” Dickens laughs.
“Indeed, we both know only too well what vanity is,” Andersen replies.
“Vanity doesn’t mean anything,” Dickens says, “It’s just a natural desire to make yourself attractive, nothing more.”
“And one man’s vanity is no better or worse than anyone else’s,” Andersen replies.
“Sometimes you miss out on the opportunities you’ve created for yourself,” Dickens says. “You rush straight for the feeling, blind to everything else. They need us.”
“The poor, the outcast, the faceless...?” Andersen asks. “The ones we write about?”
“Yes, them,” says Dickens. “And our readers...They need us.”
“They need our feeling for them,” says Andersen.
“Not just that,” says Dickens. “They need the seriousness of our intent.”
“The power of the story.”
“Everyone needs fiction as a reminder that every human life is a story about the search for a listener,” says Andersen.
“The sense of connection.”
“Without that, it all becomes just jealousy and jadedness, impotence and innuendo, apathy and...”
“and alliteration?” Dickens suggests, and they start laughing again.
“Don’t you sometimes wonder how we will be remembered in the future?” Andersen asks.
“Why should we be remembered?” Dickens responds.
“We are loved by our own time,” Andersen says
“Time is a deceitful and unfaithful mistress,” Dickens responds.
“But isn’t that why we are loved, because we’ve rushed on ahead?”
“We’ll see ourselves being overtaken, of that we can be sure.”
“So which is it?” Andersen asks. “Are we ahead or are we lagging behind?”
“You won’t find me at the starting gate trying to work out which of the runners will come first, or at the finishing line to see whether my predictions have come true,” Dickens says. “I am running the whole course for myself, and it doesn’t matter to me if I am in front or behind someone else. I’m moving forward. That is where I am. Time is part of me. And I form part of the machinery of history, of everything currently in motion.”
Andersen sits in silence for a while.
“I want to be remembered,” he says finally.
“I’m not so sure,” Dickens replies. “I’ve burnt all the letters I could. I don’t like prying eyes.”
“You’re still afraid someone is going to see you sticking labels on tins in the window of the polish factory,” Andersen says both tenderly and in jest.
But Dickens has no desire to be reminded of the past in such explicit terms.
“I was twelve years old,” he says indignantly. “My father had been put in a prison cell because he couldn’t sort out his debts. I was forced to become an adult.”
“There’s nothing you need to excuse,” Andersen tries to calm him, but Dickens is not listening.
“My family required me to become an adult and take responsibility,” he says. “I had no choice.”
“I know it must have been...” Andersen starts to say.
“Know?” Dickens interrupts him. “Know! What do you know about responsibility?”
“I had to ensure that my mother was provided for...” Andersen says.
“Only to avoid being persecuted by the idea of a mother who was a drunkard and insufferably sentimental...” Dickens cuts him off and then Andersen looks away from him. But Dickens refuses to give in. “You can’t stand the truth,” he goes on. “You want to remain a child and, like a child, avoid all responsibility and see yourself loved instead – for ever. Your world is a stage on which your mother appears the way you wished she was, sober and loving, and applauding all your tricks.”
“Isn’t that what we both are, you and I?” Andersen almost shouts. “Aren’t we dreamers, perhaps?”
“Calling yourself a dreamer is a convenient disguise,” Dickens says calmly. “Behind which any careerist could hide, where the social climber can bring his self-involved plans to fruition in concealment. Those perpetual dreams of yours about love and falling in love. Your coquettish sentimentality. That desire always to be charming, to ingratiate yourself, to be accommodating – while at the same time being completely wilful, bizarre, capricious. How convenient never having to risk anything. Never to have to bring a child into the world and risk losing it, losing its love, losing its promise...Never venturing all those things life is made up of, all those things we the living are familiar with as our day-to-day reality. No wonder you’re scared to death of being buried alive. The same would have to apply to anyone who cannot risk loving someone else...”
“I have loved!” Andersen retorts indignantly. “I have!”
“Loved?” Dickens snorts. “All you’ve ever done is run away from the very possibility.”
“I have loved!” Andersen tries to protest. “I have dreamt of love, about a deep unselfish communion, about a love without reservation...”
“The only thing you’ve ever loved is your self-pity at not being loved,” Dickens replies coldly and then they sit there in silence for a long time. Neither of them looks at the other. The moon passes behind some patches of cloud, and rain starts falling slowly outside. When Andersen starts to speak, he forces himself to gather his thoughts and to stay calm.
“What are we really?” he asks. “Are we simply condemned to be the tools chance makes of us – a child or a parent, a factory hand or a manufacturer, a condemned man or a judge, a beggar or a banker, a lover or a betrayed spouse? Shouldn’t we always be asking ourselves who we actually are, as and when the moment makes use of us? Time does what it wants with us. It devours us like a sea serpent, sucks all the life out of us until it is sated and then vomits us up again. Afterwards we find ourselves adrift in an ocean of anonymity. Time is bent on forgetting us and turning us into soulless objects. But even objects have souls. Isn’t that what I have tried to show? That the neck of a bottle has a life and a memory, a teapot pride and self-esteem? Nothing is certain. The only thing we know is that we know nothing. The family you so embrace could fall apart at any moment. Everyone dreams, Charles. And writing fuels and empowers dreams. We are not fully alive without dreams. In the mirror we see ourselves the way we think we are, but behind that mirror lies a whole world of dreams. One we can enter and see how the chance event can take on purpose and meaning. There stones can fly so they can spend the winter in the desert, and swallows can sleep at the bottom of lakes. There you can travel in a trunk over the mountains to far-off lands. There the tin soldier can win his prima ballerina.”
“The ugly duckling grow up to be a swan,” Dickens suggests.
“Only to discover he is a lone swan surrounded by ducks,” Andersen replies.
Once more they sit in silence. The engravings are holding their breath on the walls of the house. The book-covers are holding tight to the pages between them. Time is holding one hand clasped around the pendulum and the other around the weight. And then they look at one another again as though they shared a secret.
“And this isn’t something we can know about ourselves,” Dickens finally says.
“No, that isn’t something you could ask of a couple of dreamers only able to feel the truths they invent for themselves,” Andersen replies.
Dickens gets up from his chair and stretches.
“Well then, we’d better take ourselves off to bed and make sure we get some sleep,” Dickens says. “Tomorrow is a new day. We’re expected.”
New guests, Andersen thinks, new meetings, new engagements. “Who is expecting us?” he asks.
“Our contemporaries,” Dickens says, “They want us to make them visible.”