Novel in Translation Evokes `the Danish Tone'

THE SEDUCER: IT IS HARD TO DIE IN DIEPPE By Henrik Stangerup, Translated from the Danish, by Sean Martin, New York & London: Marion Boyars, 320 pp., $22.95 (US), 14.95 (UK) IN ``The Seducer,'' his third novel to be translated into English (published in Denmark in 1985), Henrik Stangerup spotlights the life of a brilliant 19th-century literary figure who burned out well before his death at the age of 51 and who lived on only as a footnote to literary history.

Peder Ludvig Moller (1814-1865) made his mark on Denmark's literary scene while still in his 30s. He was a foe of the established Helgelian critics who categorized and systematized, and a champion of the talents of writers like the romantic Adam Oehlenschl"ager, the Jewish radical Me"ir Aron Goldschmidt, and Denmark's greatest storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen.

Failed theology student, critic, poet, editor of various journalistic enterprises from the elegant ``Gaea'' to the scurrilous ``Corsair,'' Moller left but one novella of his own, a dark self-portrait, and is chiefly remembered as the antihero of Soren Kierkegaard's early book, ``The Seducer's Journal.'' Although Moller and Kierkegaard were both student rebels against the prevailing Hegelian outlook that informed Danish and German higher education, they hated each other nonetheless: Kierkegaard saw Moller as a dissipated, immoral womanizer; Moller caricatured Kierkegaard as a sexually frustrated hunchback.

Certainly, no Hegelian ``synthesis'' emerged from the clash of this pair of opposing ``thesis'' and ``antithesis'': Kierkegaard went on to write works that became the foundation of modern existentialism, Moller went on to lead an increasingly dissipated and desperate life, first in Germany (which he loathed), then in the exciting Paris of the Second Empire (which he loved). His early promise and fierce desire for distinction were undermined by self-hatred and the lack of any secure financial base. One of his wild letters penned to a former mistress shortly before his death contains the bitter observation, ``It is hard to die in Dieppe,'' which furnishes the sole title of Stangerup's novel in its original Danish.

Stangerup's fictional re-creation of Moller's life blends serious research, including many direct quotations from Moller's published and unpublished writings, with an imaginative leap into the phantasmagoric realms of Moller's mind, where dreams of graceful nymphs and fairy-tale palaces are conflated with realities of repulsive prostitutes in their tawdry lodgings. It is a quintessentially 19th century story of the darkest side of bohemian life, replete with literary feuds, poverty, ambition, failure, fleeting fame, arrogance and self-contempt, worship and debasement of women, drug abuse (hashish, alcohol, laudanum, absinthe, and ether), and the inevitable derangement of the senses and mind.

Although Stangerup makes some attempt to explain why Moller should have led such a life, the primary focus of this novel is on imagining how it must have felt to be at the center of this whirlwind. With a sureness of hand all the more impressive for its lightness and grace, Stangerup gathers up the various skeins of Moller's shattered existence: his loves and hates, hopes and fears, his travels, his encounters with the titled and famous, his immersion in the dregs, his troubled friendships, his exasperation with the land of his birth and his dream of defining what he proudly called ``the Danish tone'' in literature:

``The Danish tone reaches its apogee at the end of [Hans Christian Andersen's] `The Red Shoes,' when the church `comes home' to little Karen.... The Danish tone is the fleecy sky above Limfjord, or the North Sealand mist that rises like a fairy palace above the unruffled surface of Lake Esrum as the dawn breaks. It is the slightest motion of the rushes, but also the sound of hunting horns and boisterous guffaws, the eternal ho-ho-ho from the bustling courtyards of the rich merchant houses.''

Neither a vindication of Moller's life, nor an apology for it, Stangerup's novel succeeds in transforming a story of human disaster and failure into a coherent and strangely beautiful work of art that raises more questions than it answers.

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