It’s late October, but the sun beats down on my bare head with the ferocity of an August heat wave. I stand at the entrance of Les Alyscamps, Elisii Campi, the Elysian Fields. It is the final resting place of Roman dead in Arles in the South of France. A cloying floral scent weighs heavily in my throat, the scent of thousands of funerals over thousands of years. Tall straight trees line the walkway like sentinels. Or prison bars. I’m alone at the gates to the great necropolis and I’m in the open air, but still I feel suffocated.
Millions of people recognize Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) as the author of over a hundred famous children’s tales, but only a few people know the man behind the stories. The true Andersen was certainly not a writer of the happily-ever-after variety. Throughout his life, he was often very lonely–traveling around the earth and meeting hundreds of fascinating people, but never truly finding a person to share his life with.
Hans Christian Andersen is probably the most famous Dane in literary history, but his rise from poor, ambitious shoemaker’s son to lauded, internationally renowned author was a troubled one. Even today people are still trying to unearth the real Andersen.
To truly understand this man, one must travel back to Odense, Denmark in the year 1805. On April 2 of this year, Hans Christian Andersen was born to parents who had been married for two months and who did not live together until nine months after his birth.
As you walk through her peaceful gardens and adjoining forest land, the tourist tape plays a piece of her favourite music: Max Bruch’s hauntingly beautiful Violin Concerto. You can take your time; pause and watch the birds for whom this area is a sanctuary, or ponder the mysteries of life and death beside her grave. Here a simple stone bears a large but informal flower arrangement. The flowers have been taken from the gardens. It is the sort of arrangement she might have composed.