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by Bamber Gascoigne

Martin Andersen Nex° (1869-1954) - pseudonym of Martin Andersen


Danish writer, first rate social realist, whose novels depicted the oppressed life of the poor and helped to raise social consciousness. Following the rise of Nazism in Germany, Martin Andersen Nex° broke with social democratic politics, and joined the Communist Party (Danmarks Kommunistiske Parti, DKP). Nex°'s writing was guided by his deep solidarity with the proletariat and belief in the victory of communism.

"It has always been considered a sign of good birth to be able to count one's ancestors for centuries back. In consequence of this, Ditte Child o' Man stood at the top of the tree. She belonged to one of the largest families in the country, the family of Man." (in Ditte: Girl Alive!, 1917, translated by A. G. Chater and Richard Thirsk)

Martin Andersen Nex° was born in the slums of Copenhagen into extreme poverty. He was the fourth of eleven children of Mathilde and Hans J°rgen Andersen. His father, a stonemason from the island of Bornholm, was a hard worker but alcoholic. Mathilde was a daughter of a German blacksmith.

When Martin Andersen was eight, the family moved to the city of Nex° on Bornholm; from there he adopted the name as his own in 1894. With the help of a patron, Nex° was able to go to school. In his youth he worked as a farmhand, shepherd, shoemaker's apprentice in R°nne, and mason's assistant. Nex° would later recall the time when he was as a shepherd probably the happiest in his life. Following pleurisy, he traveled between the years 1894 and 1896 in Spain and Italy, where he was an apprentice to a cobbler for a period. In Denmark he earned his living as a hod-carrier and general laborer. During this time he became a socialist.

After studying two years at the Askov Folk High School, Nex° graduated in 1897 as a teacher and found work at a Gruntvigian folk school in Odense. His first collection of stories, Skygger (1898), dealt with the world of the destitute. Along with the modest success of Familien Franck (1901) he gave up teaching and devoted himself entirely to writing.

Dryss (1902) echoed fin de siŔcle pessimism but Soldage (1903, Days in the Sun), a travel book about southern Europe, expressed the author's antipathy toward tourism and faith in the working class. Nex°  thought that Italy's  "importunate beggars are too smilingly amiable; the whole nation laughs and crowds around you – for tips. The countless tourists have transformed it into something resembling a bedraggled poodle performing idiotic tricks."

Pelle erobreren (4 vols., 1906-1910), Nex°'s breakthrough work, has been regarded as a Danish classic. The novel told the story of Pelle, a poor boy, whose life in part one shares much similarities with Nex°'s and changes in his political thinking. In his childhood Pelle and his poor Swedish father, Lasse, work as servants on an estate on Bornholm. As a young man he becomes a shoemaker's apprentice. But an individual artisan cannot competite with factory industries. Pelle experiences the misery of the exploited workers in Copenhagen. In part two Pelle travels to Italy and in part three he becomes a leader of a shoemaker union. Nex° contrasts the social-democratic worker's movement and passive proletariat, and Pelle leads a labor fight to victory. However, his home is wrecked and he is sent to prison as an "agitator", but novel ends optimistically. Pelle rejects anarchism, finds his individuality, and with his wife Ellen he establishes a new country home.

Some critics have compared Nex°'s epic, among others, to Maxim Gorky's novels. References have also been made to Victor Hugo. "The theme of this work, as the author clearly states in the last volume, is identical with that of Les MisÚrables," said the American author Willa Cather in her Vanity Fair essay 'A New World Novelist In Europe' (1920), "but instead of a great mass of rhetoric about the poor, a passionate and fervid oration on poverty, we have here les misÚrables themselves."

Bille August's film version of the first volume of the novel, Pelle the Conqueror (1987), won both the Palmes d'or at Cannes and Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Moreover, it was a commercial success, grossing over two million dollars in the United States alone. "But something happened when Nex° ideological novel was wedded to the apparatus of film," said Timothy R. Tangherlini in ' Pelle erobreren: Folklore, Ideology and Film' (The Nordic Storyteller: Essays in Honour of Niels Ingwersen, edited by Susan Brantly and Thomas A. DuBois, 2009). "Once on celluloid, the work transformed from being an exploration of rural life in turn of the century Denmark, focusing on the daily struggles of oppressed workers to survive and the need for significant socialist change, into the story of a boy and his father, their relationship and their personal struggles."

Ditte menneskebarn (1917-1921), which exhibited the naturalism of Zola, was more pessimistic than Pelle Eroberen. Once more Nex° recorded the life of a child of the rural proletariat, who moves to Copenhagen. But while Pelle conquered all obstacles, Ditte works herself to death at the age of twenty-five in spite of her hunger for life. Ditte has a good heart, but she fights alone against poverty. She has a child with the son of a farm owner, which results in her being thrown out of her job. In Copenhagen she is exploited by everybody. Nex°, who admired the Soviet revolution, depicted the darkest sides of capitalism in this novel. Ditte's suffering is not meaningless. Her willingness to help others is a sacrifice for the sake of future generations.

"Martin Andersen Nex° is the only Danish writer of his generation whose literary creativity rests on a Marxist world view. But there is an easily discernible difference between him and the socialists authors of the 1930s: Nex° still believes in human goodness, believes that it asserts itself in spite of everything - cutting across all social and economic relationships." (Sven H. Rossell in A History of Scandinavian Literature 1870-1980, 1982)

In 1922 Nex° toured in Russia with the German Expressionist painter George Grosz, in order to prepare an illustrated documentary on the plight of the Soviet state. On the trip he also attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, where Lenin a held speech. Between the years 1923 and 1930 Nex° lived in Germany, but left the country due to the rise of Nazism. In 1937 he re-joined the Danish Communist Party.

Midt i en JŠrntid (1929) was a satire on the economic corruption during the trade boom of World War I. Morten hin R°de, 1945-47 (2 vols), which Nex° began to write in Sweden, returned to the world of Pelle who has become a bourgeois social-democratic minister. The poet Morten (Morton the Red) represents now the spirit of rebellion. He is a childhood friend of Pelle, and remains true to the revolutionary ideals of his class, while social democrats like Pelle have adopted bourgeois values. Faith and Niels Ingwersen wrote in Quests for a Promised Land: The Works of Martin Andersen Nex° (1984) that Nex° "was certainly not at his best when he wrote that very personal but listless record of his later life Morton the Red."

Even the Moscow Trials of 1936 to 1938 did not cause Nex° to lose his faith in the Soviet paradise. As a matter of fact, he backed Stalin's charges against "Trotskyists" and expressed in his articles his faith in the guilt of the accused. In October 1939, about six weeks before the Soviet Union attacked Finland and the Winter War broke out, Nex° criticized Finland's "reactionary" government in Arbejderbladet. Differing from his countrymen generally, he sided with the Soviet Union in the war.

During World War II, when Denmark was occupied by Germany, Nex° was held for a time by the Danish police due to his communist activities. He took refuge in Sweden in 1943 and then went to the Soviet Union. After the war in 1945, Russian scientists started to collect information about atomic bomb. Nex° helped them to meet the Danish phycisist Niels Bohr. Bornholm, where Nex° lived, was the final holdout of German army in the closing days of the war. Russian soldiers stayed there until 1946.

In 1949 Nex° settled in the German Democratic Republic. He was made an honorary citizen and a gymnasium was named after him. Nex°'s memoirs, Erindringer (Under the Open Sky), came out in 1932-39. It gives much information of the background of his novels. Nex° died in Dresden, East Germany, on June 1, 1954. He was married three times, first to Margrethe Thomsen in 1898, then to Margrethe Frydenlund Hansen, and finally to Johanna May, in 1925.

For further reading: 'Soviet Cultural Diplomacy with Scandinavians after the Great Terror: VOKS and Visitors from Denmark and Norway in 1939' by Ville Soimetsń, in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 23 no. 1 (2022); Danish Friends of the Soviet Union: the History of Interwar Danish–Soviet Organizations by Kim Frederichsen & Ville Soimetsń, in Scandinavian Journal of History (2022); Alt er som bekendt erotik: Martin Andersen Nex°s liv og vŠrk by J°rgen Haugan (2020); Martin Andersen Nex°: den nordiska arbetarlitteraturens pionjńr by Per-Olof Mattsson (2017); 'Pelle erobreren: Folklore, Ideology and Film' by Timothy R. Tangherlini, in The Nordic Storyteller: Essays in Honour of Niels Ingwersen, edited by Susan Brantly and Thomas A. DuBois (2009); Der trotzige Dńne: Martin Andersen Nex° by Aldo Keel (2004); 'Nex°, Martin Andersen,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Venskab og revolution, Martin Andersen Nex°s og Marie Nielsens venskab og politiske virke 1918-24 by B°rge  Houmann et al. (1990); 'Nex°, Martin Andersen,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 3, ed. Martin Seymour-Smith, Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); A History of Danish Literature by S. Rossel (1992);  Venskab og revolution. Martin Andersen Nex°s og Marie Nielsens venskab og politiske virke 1918-24 by B°rge Houmann and Morten Thing (1990) Martin Andersen Nex° og hans samtid I-III by B°rge Houmann (1981-1988); Quests for a Promised Land: The Works of Martin Andersen Nex° by Faith Ingwersen, Niels Ingwersen (1984); A History of Scandinavian Literature 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossell (1982); Martin Andersen Nex°: ╚crivain du prolÚtariat by J. Le Bras-Barret (1969); Martin Andersen Nex° als Dichter und Mensch by W. Berendsohn (1966); Martin Andersen Nex°s Weg in die Weltliteratur by W. Berendsohn (1949); Three Ways of Modern Man by H. Slochower (1937) - See also: Moa Martinson

Selected works:

  • Skygger, 1898 [Shadows]
  • Det b°des der for, 1899
  • En Moder, 1900 [A mother]
  • Muldskud, 1900-26 (3 vols.)
  • Familien Franck, 1901 [The Frank family]
  • Dryss, 1902
  • Soldage, 1903
    - Days in the Sun (translated by Jacob Wittmer Hartmann, 1929) / Nex° in Andalucia: Selections from Days in the Sun (edited by H.G.A. Hughes, 1995)
  • Pelle erobreren, 1906-10 (4 vols.)
    - Pelle the Conqueror: Boyhood. Apprenticeship. The Great Struggle. Daybreak (translated by Jesse Muir and Bernard Miall, 1913-1917) / Pelle the Conqueror (translated by Steven T. Murray, 1989)
    - Films: TV drama 1986, prod. Fernsehen der DDR, dir. Christian Steinke, starring Stefan Schrader (as Pelle), Martin Trettau and Klaus Manchen; film 1987, prod. Per Holst Filmproduktion, Svensk Filmindustri (SF), Odyssey Entertainment, dir. Bille August, starring Max von Sydow (as Lassefar), Pelle Hvenegaard (as Pelle), Erik Paaske, Kristina T÷rnqvist, Morten Jorgensen. Winner of the Palme d'or at Cannes in 1988, Oscar for Best foreign Film in 1898.
  • Af dybets lovsang, 1908
  • Barndommens kyst, 1911
  • Lykken, 1913
  • Bornholmer noveller, 1913
  • Under Himmelen den blaa, 1915
  • Folkene paa Dangaarden: drama i tre akter, 1915
  • Ditte menneskebarn, 1917-21 (5 vols.)
    - Ditte: Girl Alive (tr. in 1920); Ditte: Daughter of Man (translated by A. G. Chater and Richard Thirsk, 1921); Ditte: Towards the Stars (translated by Asta and Rowland Kenney, 1922)
    - Ditte ihmislapsi 1-2 (suom. Vilho Hokkanen, 1945)
    - Film version in 1946, prod. Nordisk Film, screenplay Bjarne Henning-Jensen, dir. Bjarne Henning-Jensen, starring Tove MaŰs (as Ditte), Karen Poulsen, Rasmus Ottesen, Karen Lykkehus, Jette Ziegler Kehlet
  • Dybhavsfisk, 1918
  • Lotterisvensken, 1919
    - Film version in 1958: Der Lotterieschwede, prod. Deutsche Film (DEFA), dir. Joachim Kunert, starring Erwin Geschonneck, Sonja Sutter, Harry Hindemith, Jochen Thomas
  • De tomme pladsers passagerer, 1921
    - Tyhjien paikkojen matkustajat (suom. 1922; 1935)
  • Mod dagningen, 1923
  • Digte, 1926 (rev. enl. ed. 1951)
  • Midt i en JŠrntid, 1929 (2 vols.)
    - In God's Land (translated by Thomas Seltzer, 1933)
  • Erindringer, 1932-39 (4 vols.)
    - Under the Open Sky 1-2 (translated by J. B. C. Watkins, 1938)
    - Muistot 1-2 (suom. Elvi Sinervo ja Leila Adler, 1946)
  • To verdener, 1934
  • Mod lyset, 1938
  • Morten hin R°de, 1945-47 (2 vols.) [Morten the Red]
  • Etskriftemňl, 1946
  • Den fortabte generation: en erindringsroman, 1948
  • HŠnderne vŠk!, 1953
  • Taler og artikler, 1954 (3 vols., edited by B°rge Houmann)
  • Jeanette, 1957 (unfinished)
  • Breve fra Martin Andersen Nex°, 1969-72 (3 vols., ed. B°rge Houmann)
  • Ruslands-dagen, 1979
  • Rejse i syden, et udvalg af rejsebreve, 1979
  • Vejen mod Lyset, udvalgte noveller og artikler, 1979
  • Kender du Martin Andersen Nex°, 1987
  • Nex° in AndalucÝa, Selections from Days in the Sun, 1995
  • Martin Andersen Nex°, noveller med originalgrafik af danske kunstnere 1972-1996, 1996
  • Martin Andersen Nex°, 40 noveller illustreret af 40 danske grafikere 1972-2010, et jubilŠumsskrift, 2010
  • Samlede fortŠllinger: 1898-1946, 2013 (udg. af Henrik Yde)
  • Frihedens fe, 2019 (privately printed; illustrator: Anne Marie Ploug; afterword: Henrik Yde and Nina Hobolt)
  • Martin Andersen Nex°: 50 noveller illustreret af danske grafikere 1972-2020: et jubilŠumsskrift, 2020

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