How an irritable Danish author left an enduring mark on the national character.
Your modern-day Dane is not what you would call a God-fearing creature. The Danish church, though never formally separated from the state (as happened in Sweden), plays an ever-diminishing role in the lives of the vast majority of Danes, with Sunday attendance experiencing an apparently inexorable decline, divorce increasing, and church leaders gently shunted into the margins of the popular discourse. You would imagine, then, that the teachings of Martin Luther would hold little currency in Danish society today, yet many of the core principles of Lutheranism—parsimony, modesty, disapproval of individualism or elitism—still define the manner in which the Danes behave toward one another and view the rest of the world, thanks in part to the enduring influence of an improbable literary figure.
Aksel Nielsen was a sensitive and sickly child who grew into a weak and stunted young adult. The son of a smith, he was born in 1899 in the somnolent North Jutland town of Nykøbing on the island of Mors. He received a rudimentary education at the local school until 1916, when, at the age of seventeen, he went to sea on a schooner bound for Newfoundland.
This was the first of many flights from reality upon which the bookish Aksel would embark during his life: the next came just a few weeks later on the other side of the Atlantic, where he jumped ship. But, with the world now at war, Nielsen’s habit of scribbling secretively in his notebooks late at night in his bunk bed, combined with his strange accent, aroused suspicion in Canada. His workmates began to think he might be a German spy. Once again he fled, this time back to Denmark, via Spain, working to pay his passage on a ship. Read More