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Niklas Rådström, Gästen (The Guest)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9789100107956

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2007:2


An extract from the book, translated by Frank Perry, appears on pages 31-39 of SBR 2007:2 and is also available online.


This intriguing little book takes a sideways look at the already well-documented visit of Hans Christian Andersen in 1857 to the Kentish home of Charles Dickens, at Gad’s Hill Place near Rochester. I must declare an interest here: I live in Kent, just a few miles from Gad’s Hill Place and many other Dickens haunts. It is hard to escape the man and the exploitation of his memory in this part of the world. As I was reading this book, the local paper arrived, with news that Gad’s Hill, now a private school, may be turned into a heritage centre and opened to visitors.

The two great storytellers Dickens and Andersen were both at the height of their literary powers in the late 1850s, and both enjoying worldwide fame, but their encounter proved far less fruitful than might have been anticipated, not least because of the enormous language barrier between them. Andersen spoke little English, but had apparently made it a rule never to reveal this on his trips abroad. At least in Rådström’s version of events, it is a time of embarrassing non-communication and mutual misinterpretation, the antithesis of a rich exchange of emotions and experiences. The external contrast in the men’s personalities and situations during the visit could not be more marked: Dickens, the family man, is a little pompous, almost provocatively elegant, caught up in many projects and always rushing off to meetings in London; whereas Andersen, unmarried, is revealed as a childlike, not to say childish person, craving friendship and approval, used to being the centre of attention and miserable when he is not. He is a strange blend of vanity and lack of self-esteem; marooned at Gad’s Hill in Dickens’ absence, he is prey to strange visions, hypochondria and possibly psychosomatic digestive problems. Forced to rely on gestures, broken utterances and his brilliantly executed paper cuts in order to make any kind of contact, Andersen is disappointed by his indifferent reception from Dickens’ large brood of children; the older sons are cool if not downright hostile to him. The household finds some of Andersen’s idiosyncratic habits hard to live with, and is disconcerted by his demand that a servant shave him each morning; cumbersome alternative arrangements have to be made to take him daily by coach to a barber in Rochester or Strood.

With occasionally barbed humour, Rådström explores the nature of both men, dissecting Andersen’s self-obsession and infantilized behaviour but also revealing Dickens’ restlessness, ennui and controlling tendencies. He shows both men concerned with, to use a modern phrase, their legacy. He points out that in 1857, neither needed the other to advance their respective careers, so the visit served mainly to underline the fact that they were both members of a unique literary aristocracy. Had they been able to talk heart-to-heart, they could have found many points of mutual interest: how they were both self-made men, for example, or how their harsh boyhood experiences coloured their writing, leading the one to develop an indignant social conscience, the other to take refuge in a dimension expressing solidarity with the world of children.

Rådström introduces a dream sequence in which all communication problems have vanished. The men joke, admit their vanities, talk about their relationships with the characters they create, and with their readers, especially "the poor, the outcast, the faceless". Andersen admits to quailing at the sheer volume of text Dickens turns out; Dickens in turn accuses Andersen of failing to develop his authorial opportunities by always rushing "straight for the feeling, blind to everything else". Their readers need the power of their stories and the seriousness of their intent, they agree.

Perhaps expecting this to be a novel in which the imagination had freer rein – the author is also a renowned poet, after all – I found The Guest at times a slightly uneasy mixture of the "fantasi" promised on the back cover and the large amount of Dickens family history injected at every opportunity. The British, and particularly Kentish, reader can hardly avoid being steeped in the life and works of Dickens, and to this reviewer, parts of The Guest felt slightly redundant: the future fortunes of Dickens’ sons, for example, or details of his love affairs to come, are rather a distraction here. For Scandinavian readers, the perspective will be different, with Andersen probably the better-known figure of the two. Rådström’s concluding bibliographical note acknowledges that he has drawn on several previously published scholarly accounts of the visit, some based on Andersen’s own letters and diaries.

The main strength of this book, for me, lies in imagined sequences such as the dream chapter. But throughout, Rådström the poet reveals himself in some arrestingly original descriptions and imagery. The use of tense is at times unsettling, often pointing forward: "Thus the days would slip by. But for now he is still lying in the grass." At one point, a sequence of no fewer than ten pages is in varieties of the future tense. Rådström also makes much use of the conditional tense, which effectively highlights the frustration of what this visit might have been, if only...

As I prepare to write this review, another issue of the local paper lands on the doormat. Out drops a glossy leaflet, headed Great Expectations and advertizing a new visitor attraction, "Dickens World" in nearby Chatham. There, apparently, we can embark on a "ride system" for a 4D, animatronic tour of the sights, sounds and smells of the nineteenth century. We can go to school at Dotheboys Hall or enter a "soft play area" called Fagin’s Den. What would Andersen the fantasist escapist and Dickens the entrepreneurial showman have made of that?

Sarah Death


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