Castles, queens and unconsummated lust

“He told me so himself: ‘It is terrible and unbearable to be an artist,’ he said, ‘to be encouraged to do, to be applauded for doing, his second best. Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: give me leave to do my best!'” (from “Babette’s Feast” by Karen Blixen).

Ah! So true! All we need is the odd DIVA residency to keep us creatively fueled and protected from the insatiable jaws of the rent-paying gig.

 Karen Blixen – a wise old bird – (above) and her peaceful childhood home (below)

These impassioned words are pinned on the drawing room wall of author Karen Blixen‘s house, now museum, in dinky harbour town Rungsted Kyst, a short but potentially complex train ride away from Copenhagen.




Although it’s a good 20 years since reading this story, the climactic scene of simple, devout, Jutland village people unwittingly and blissfully eating a banquet made by Paris’ finest chef Babette is still burnt into my memory. A symbolic union of heaven and earth via fois gras and turtle soup.


You have to really want to go to see Karen Blixen’s house. Once arriving at Rungsted Kyst station, signposts flirtily lead you into a forest then completely disappear.

Despite Isak Dinesen’s (to use her pen name) long years in Africa and then the US, the roots of the mysterious nordic character that shines through her prose, especially in Seven Gothic Tales, lie here in her childhood home looking out over the harbour to the open sea. Birds sing (unlike most of Copenhagen), the wind rustles the forest, ships glide along the misty horizon. It rains.

imgresThe quiet interiors of Karen Blixen’s house, filled with her vibrant African portrait paintings.

The museum café stops serving lunch at 13.00, an indication of the ridiculously early Danish eating habits, one of the reasons why I reckon they’re all so streamlined. Fifteen hours break between dinner and brekky has to be a contributing factor. That, and the incessant biking.

Babette’s “simple cloak”, I remember from the credits, was designed for the movie by Karl Lagerfeld.

Fortified by cake and Blixen’s paintings of her African servants and friends, I head a few kilometers up to the top of the eastern coast of Zealand to Helsinore, home of Hamlet’s castle, Kronborg. Avoiding the obvious, I ask a taxi driver to take me to Gurre castle some 5 km inland. “Why?” he asks in amazement. “I live here all my life. There is nothing at Gurre. Are you Swedish?”

What remains of Gurre Castle




Danish literary luminary Jens Peter Jacobsen, author of the poem cycle “Gurre”, may not have agreed with him, nor Arnold Schoenberg who based his pre-12 tone cantata Gurrelieder (one of my fave pieces) on Jacobsen’s masterpiece. Set in swampy ground next to Lake Gurre in the middle of nowhere, there indeed isn’t much to see, aside from a few unimpressive mounds of ruined walls.

Yet for me the place is shrouded with mystical romanticism, immortalised by medieval ballads. Once a royal residence for Danish King Valdemar IV Atterdag, it is a place forgotten by time and rarely visited. Even in 1536 it was described as “a palace somewhat disturbed with fallen arches” (reminds me of my old French teacher), outdone by Hamlet’s gaff.

King Valdemar IV Atterdag, otherwise known as “Waldemar”, medieval romantic hero, lover of the hapless Tove who met her end at the hands of jealous Queen Helvig. 

Apart from a couple of local teenagers quietly getting bombed on high grade skunk (judging by the aroma), I was the only person for miles around. After paying homage to the nearby pile of stones formerly known as  Skt. Jakob’s Kapel, regular haunt of Pope Innocens IV (featured in previous post), I managed to catch a rare bus back to civilisation, giving me time to continue reading J.P. Jacobsen’s gorgeous novel, Niels Lyhne.

Danish literary giant Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847 – 1885) and his splendid moustache

Considered of great importance as a writer by the likes of Rilke, Thomas Mann, Freud, Ibsen, Stefan Zweig and Hermann Hesse, Jacobsen was a significant influence on 20th century literature and poetry. I remember reading somewhere that James Joyce actually learnt Danish in order to read Jacobsen in his own language. Until arriving here a couple of months ago, I’d never heard of him. Perhaps because his work hasn’t been in a good English translation until recently? Or just not in fashion? Either way, it’s a shocking oversight for someone who loves literature.

Jacobsen paints scenes with words, his novels and short stories made up of sequences of exquisitely rendered images poised in time and space, rather than plot driven narratives.

Check out this steamy passage of unconsummated 19th century lust:

“She slowly raised her eyelids to look at his softly shadowed profile, and let them close completely with quiet pleasure. It was like a long embrace, it was like surrendering to his arms when the chair tilted back, and when it rocked forward so her feet touched the ground, then there was something of him in the floor’s light pressure against her foot”.

Painting by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøj 1864 – 1916,  by way of illustration.

“He felt it too, the rocking began to interest him, and little by little he rocked harder, it was if he were getting closer to closer to possessing her, the farther back he brought the chair, and there was a kind of anticipation in that second when it was just about to tilt forward again; and then when it came down there was a strange satisfaction in that little slap when her unresisting feet stuck the floor, and there was complete possession in it when he forced the chair farther forward to press the soles of her feet gently against the floor so that her knees lifted just a little.”       (from Niels Lyhne, trans. by Tiina Nunnally)         

Kronberg castle. It’s SO much bigger than it looks in this piccy, and really glowers at Sweden.

Back in Elsinore, Kronborg castle loomed big, gothic and brooding over sullen grey seas, staring Sweden defiantly in the eye and taking no prisoners over the impressively extensive ramparts. The Bard might still have retained his location scout for a 21st century production of Hamlet, in spite of the teeming tourists. It works.

Horatio (re Hamlet): “He waxes desparate with imagination”.

Marcellus (minor character): “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”.

I wonder what Horatio would have made of Klingsor’s castle in Parsifal at the Copenhagen Opera last week. A lot of desperate waxing was going down with corseted Flower Maidens abseiling into a giant vagina whilst Parsifal sat in a baby cot watching Klingsor’s attempts to remedy his self-inflicted de-manhood by brandishing a giant light sabre. As a friend of mine remarked, there is often a lot of fannying about in Act II of this opera.

British director Keith Warner‘s majestic vision of Wagner’s controversial Good Friday opera opens in a lunatic asylum, lobotomised Knights desperately hunting for the Grail amongst stacked packing boxes, egged on by the glorious bass of Stephen Milling as chief quack Gurnemantz and strait-jacketed hero Stig Foh Andersen

It would be great (for a while) to have a boyfriend called Stig. Preferably not a tenor, though.


A giant fallen castle, like a chess piece, with a mysterious crystal at one end, served as morgue, space ship, cervix and time capsule, illuminated by genius lighting designer Davy Cunningham who happened to be standing next to me in the drinks queue at interval one, but I was too busy comparing synopsis interpretations with my parents (who were in town) via baffling Danish subtitles.

Straitjacketed Parsifal in the crystal maze (above) and as a young man being attacked by flower maidens (below).

All proceedings were observed by Queen Margrethe who had showed up at the last minute in the royal box, rumoured to be present to support soprano Tina Kiberg, recently miraculously recovered from incurable cancer and appearing for the first time on stage since extensive surgery a year ago, in the huge role of Kundry.

Miraculously alive soprano Tina Kiberg as Kundry, trying to persuade a reluctant (gay?) Parsifal that a shag might be just the thing to relieve a long opera.

She did a stonking job. Tina K, that is. Although her Majesty is also to be praised for sitting through this 5 and half hour Wagnerthon. Not something our own opera-loathing queen would do easily.

A composer friend of mine whose opera was performed a couple of year’s back at this same fabulous opera house has this to say on the subject of Parsifal and the Danish monarchy:

Queen Margrethe with Prince Consort  HRH Henri de Laborde de Monpezat

“There is a character whose job it is to sleep for 1000 years and can only be woken by a sound so ugly that no-one can sleep through it. So Wagner steals a chord from Liszt who came across it in passing during some flight of genius and manages to make it sound so hideous that Kundry wakes up. Can you imagine basing an opera on such an idea?

Queen Margarethe one of the very best queens. Saintly wife to that embarrassing bad poet who isn’t really even a proper count. Poor woman having to sit through awful Parsifal.”

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On which controversial note I’ll take my leave of this rather wordy post to prepare for a short performance of some new cabaret numbers in a couple of days time in a kayak club.

Here’s how the venue looked a few days ago.

To see how it pans out, stay tuned for the next episode of Z blog…