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Villy Sørensen (1929-2001)


Danish philosopher, short-story writer, and essayist, a modernist storyteller with an absurdist flavor. In the tradition of his great countryman Hans Christian Andersen, Sørensen developed his philosophical and psychological views as an integral part of his fiction. Sørensen explored the realms of the fantastic, and the individual's confrontation with the unknown parts of self. His style is misleadingly clear but hides a multi-layered and ironic interpretation of the world. Sørensen's psychological insights have invited comparison with those of Franz Kafka.

- Don't you want to die, then?
- Yes, I do, answered the little boy, who had tried dying as much as the others and did not consider it important.
- He doesn't even know what dying is. He's stupid. Don't you understand that if you die, you don't live?

(in Strange Stories, 1953)

Villy Sørensen was born in Frederiksberg, near Copenhagen, the son of Johannes Peder  Sørensen, a railway conductor, and Anna Mathilde Thomsen. He attended the Vestre Borgerdydskole, and graduated in 1947. Sørensen then studied philosophy at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Freiburg. During the post-World War II period he became a major figure in Danish intellectual life. From 1959 to 1963 he co-edited with Klaus Rifbjerg Vindrosen (The wind rose), the leading Danish modernist journal of its time. In 1965 he became a member of the Danish Academy. From 1978 to 1981 he was the editor of På Vej, and Gyldendal Kulturbibliotek from 1987 to 1991. Sørensen died on December 16, 2001.

Sørensen received several awards, including the Danish Critics Prize (1959), Danish Academy Prize (1962), Gyldendal Prize (1965), Nathansen Award (1969), Holberg Medal (1973), Brandes Prize (1973), Steffens Prize (1974), Nordic Council Prize (1974), Amalienborg Prize (1977), Hans Christian Andersen Award (1983), Swedish Academy Nordic Prize (1986), Poul Henningsen Prize (1987), Wilster Prize (1988), and Paul Hammerich Prize (1994). Sørensen had an honorary degree from the University of Copenhagen.

Sørensen's first collection of stories, Sære historier (1953), in which the comic and the tragic lie inseparably close in the world of children,  marked the beginning of Danish modernism in literature. It was followed two years later by Ufarlige historier. Sørensen's third collection, Formynderfortællinger 1964) dealt with authority and rebellion in contemporary society. His material Sørensen drew from the Bible, legends, ballads, world literature and history. In the short story 'Another Metamorphosis' the invisible narrator observes two German brothers, who have bought a dolls house for their father. He has returned home from a nursing home, where they have shrunk him  he is some 20 or 30 centimeters tall. "... and I thought: Nowadays Kafka's type of metamorphosis is perhaps not the common one." (in Another Metamorphosis and Other Fictions, 1990)

In the 1960s Sørensen participated in the social and political debate through the translations of Kafka's short stories and works on Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. He also edited Karl Marx's Økonomi of filosofi (1962) but insisted that he had no special political agenda  the political and the aesthetic were not radically distinct in his work. Though Sørensen criticized the emphasis on materialistic values, he saw in the idea of the welfare state a system, where it is "possible for the individual to regard the entire social sphere as something inessential" and proceed on the path of self realization. His own inner conflicts Sørensen recognized in the character of Seneca, the 1st-century poet, thinker, and a statesman. Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero (1976) drew paralles between Nero's court and our own time. "... no one reading this impressive book can fail to see its application to the present century." (W. Glyn Jones in Contemporary World Writers, ed.  Tracy Chevalier, 1993)

In "The Enemy", from Sære historier, a village is annihilated by a man who burns with his glare his enemies, but saves a dark-eyed girl. He tells how he would have saved all if he had known that he would meet the girl there. The girl asks in disappointment whether he had not come for her? The burned soldiers kill the man, the village is rebuilt but the girl never marries. "A Tale of Glass" from Formynderfortællinger depicts with seemingly simplicity the consequences of an optician's invention of a glass which transforms the perception of those who peer through it so that the world looks good.

Ragnarok (1982, The Downfall of the Gods) and Apollons oprør (1989) were the first two volumes of a trilogy on Norse, Greek, and Judeo-Christian mythology. In Ragnarok Sørensen took his subject from the 10th-century Icelandic poem Völuspá, in which Ragnarok is the great battle which provides a climax for the "Twilight of the Gods" in Norse Mythology. Sørensen's work is much based on Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda (ca. 1220). Ragnarok's language is derived from fairy tales  it is explicit but conveys meanings that connect ancient gods to the modern world and eternal philosophical problems. Among the central characters is Loki, who is not good, not bad, but a kind of trickster-character. In 'Balder's dream' the god of light and justice is troubled by a recurrent dream, in which he is killed by other gods but not Loki. He is afraid of death and asks himself why Odin, the god of wisdom, war and death, doesn't do anything to stop Ragnarok, the end of the world. But if Odin, the supreme god, has no knowledge of Ragnarok, what kind of god was he then?

Vejrdage (1980) is a collection of reflections in verse and prose in the form of diary entries from the summer of 1979. One of the central themes is the way words change or extend their meanings. Søren Kierkegaard, German existentialism and the writings of Martin Heidegger have deeply influenced Sørensen's vision of the divided self of the modern individual. His philosophically orientated writings include Digtere og dæmoner (1959), Hverken-eller (1961), and Jesus og Kristus (1992). During a stay in Vienna, he became interested in the self-portraits of the Expressionist painter and draughtsman Egon Schiele (1890-1918), who died in the influenze epidemic of 1918.

In Formynderfortællinger Sørensen examined through the figures of Judas and Saint Paul free will and determinism. As an essayist Sørensen has questioned the materialism and rationalism of the day. Originally he did not consider himself an essayist  he started to write philosophically in order to explain what he had said in his fiction. Sørensen's central themes include the breakdown of values, threats of totalitarian ideologies, and the contrasting relationships between art and democracy, intellect and emotion, body and soul. However, Uprør fra midten (1978, Revolt from the Center), a political vision of the future, co-authored with Niels I Meyer and K. Helweg-Pedersen, provoked a heated debate and accusations of totalitarian views.

For further reading: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed.  Steven R, Serafin (1999); Encyclopedia of The Essay, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1997); 'The Comic Conception of Reality. The Relationship between the Comic, Language, and Cognition in the Works of Villy Sørensen' by Catarina Testa, in Scandinavian Studies, LXIV (1992); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed.  Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Litterær arkæologi. Studier i Villy Sørensens Formynderfortællinger by Jørgen Bonde Jensen (1978); Villy Sørensen. En ideologi-kritisk analyse by Ebbe Sønderriis (1972); A History of Danish Literature by P.M. Mitchell (1971)

Selected works:

  • Sære historier, 1953 - Strange Stories (Secker & Warburg, London, 1956) /  Tiger in the Kitchen and Other Strange Stories (introd. by Angus Wilson, tr.  Maureen Neiiendam, 1957) - Tarinoita (suom. Arto ja Kirsti Ingervo, 1968)
  • Ufarlige historier, 1955 - Harmless Tales (tr. Paula Hostrup-Jessen, 1991) - Tarinoita (suom. Arto ja Kirsti Ingervo, 1968)
  • Digtere og dæmoner: Fortolkninger og vurderinger, 1959
  • Søren Kierkegaard: Begrebet Angest, 1960 (ed.)
  • Hverken-eller: Kritiske betragtningen, 1961
  • Økonomi og filosofi by Karl Marx, 1962 (ed.)
  • Nietzsche, 1963
  • Formynderfortællinger, 1964 - Tutelary Tales (tr. Paula Hostrup-Jessen, 1988)
  • Herman Bang: Haabløse Slægter, 1965 (ed.)
  •  H.C. Andersen: Eventyr og historier, 1965 (ed.)
  • William Shakespeare: Skuespil, 1966 (ed.)
  • Kafkas digtning, 1968
  • Schopenhauer, 1969
  • Mellem fortid og fremtid, 1969
  • Midler uden mål. 1971
  • Uden mål - og med, moralske tanker, 1973
  • Seneca, humanisted ved Neros hof, 1976 - Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero (tr. W. Glyn Jones, 1984)
  • Martin A. Hansen: The Book, 1978 (translator, with Anne Born)
  • Uprør fra midten, 1978 (with Niels I Meyer and K. Helweg-Pedersen) - Revolt from the Center (tr. Christine Hauch, 1981)
  • Det gyldne middelvej, og andere debatindlæg i 1970erne, 1979
  • Vejrdage, betragtninger 1980
  • The Dream of the Woman by Knud Hjortø, 1980 (translator, with Anne Born)
  • Alladin, 1981 (with Errol le Cain)
  • Ragnarok, en gudefortælling, 1982 - The Downfall of the Gods (tr. Paula Hostrup-Jessen, 1989) - Ragnarök: jumalten tuho (suomentanut Mika Siimes, 1998)
  • Røret om uprøret, 1982 (with Niels I Meyer and K. Helweg-Pedersen)
  • H.C. Branner: The Mountains  (translator, with Anne Born)
  • Richard Wagner: Kunsten og revolutionen, 1983 (ed.)
  • En gudedrøm, ballet for Nyt Danske Danseteater, 1984
  • Erasmus Roterodamus: Skøn er krigen for den uerfarne (Dulce bellum inexpertis, 1984 (translator)
  • De mange og De enkelte og andre småhistorier, 1986 - Another Metamorphosis & Other Fictions (tr.  Tiina Nunnally and Steven T. Murray, 1990)
  • Herman Bang: Tine, 1986  (ed.)
  • Herman Bang: Tunge Melodier, 1987  (ed.)
  • Søren Kierkegaard: Enten-Eller, 1988  (ed.)
  • Demokratiet og kunsten, 1988
  • Tilløb: dagbog 1949-53, 1988
  • Den berømte Odysseus, 1988 (illustrated by Andy Li Jørgensen)
  • Apollons oprør: de udødeliges historie, 1989
  • Forløb: dagbog 1953-61, 1990
  • Demokratiske visioner by Walt Whitman, 1991 (ed.)
  • Den frie vilje, 1992
  • Jesus og Kristus, 1992
  • Perioder: dagbog 1961-74, 1993
  • Historien om Ødipus, 1995 (with Roald Als)
  • Grimms eventyr, 1995 (translator)
  • Blot en drengestreg, 1996 (with Pernille Kløvedal Helweg)
  • Franz Kafka: Drømme, 1998 (translator)
  • På egne veje: erindring, kommentar, polemik, 2000
  • En ensom fugl, 2000
  • 55 bagateller: prosatekster, 2002
  • Sørensen om Andersen: Villy Sørensen udvalgte artikler om H.C. Andersen, 2004 (ed. Torben Brostrøm)

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