Presentation Speech by Anders Österling, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, December 10, 1945
Today Johannes V. Jensen will receive in person the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1944, and we are happy to salute the great Danish writer who since the beginning of the century has been in the front rank, always active, for a long time controversial, but universally admired for his vitality. This child of the dry and windy moors of Jutland has, almost out of spite, astonished his contemporaries by a remarkably prolific production. He could well be considered one of the most fertile Scandinavian writers. He has constructed a vast and imposing literary œuvre, comprising the most diverse genres: epic and lyric, imaginative and realistic works, as well as historical and philosophical essays, not to mention his scientific excursions in all directions.
This bold iconoclast and stylistic innovator has increasingly become a patriarchal classic, and in his heart he feels close to the poetry of the golden age and hopes that one day he will be counted among the life-giving tutelary spirits of his nation.
Johannes V. Jensen has been such a passionate student of biological and philosophical evolution that he should be amazed at the singular course of his own development. A conquering instinct forms the basis of his being. He was a native of Himmerland, a relatively dry region in western Jutland, and his impressions of men and things were engraved indelibly on his consciousness. Later he was to remember those resources that were hidden beneath the sensations of childhood, the ancient treasure of family memories. His father, the veterinarian of Farsö, came from that area, and through his paternal grandfather, the old weaver of Guldager, Jensen is directly descended from peasants. Characteristically enough, his first book dealt with the province of his origin. His incomparable Himmerlandshistorier offer an original portrait gallery of primitive and half-savage creatures who are still subject to ancient fears. The promised land of his childhood, powerful and alive with the past, is found again in his mature poetry.
The first books of Johannes V. Jensen reveal him as a young man from the provinces; a student of opposition, living in Copenhagen; an arduous and agitated youth, fighting passionately against intellectual banality and narrow-mindedness. This native of Jutland, self-conscious, difficult to approach, but sensitive, was soon to find his country too narrow. Stifled by the familiar climate of the Danish isles, he threw himself into exotic romanticism with the cool passion of a gambler. His travels across foreign continents for the first time opened to him the space needed by his restless, unchained imagination. During that period of his life he sang the praise of technology and mechanization. Just as his compatriot H. C. Andersen was perhaps the first to describe the charms of railway travel, Johannes V. Jensen was the prophet of the marvels of our age, of skyscrapers, motor cars, and cinemas, which he never tires of praising in his American novels, Madame D’Ora (1904) and Hjulet (1905) [The Wheel]. But soon he entered into a new stage of his development; at the risk of simplifying matters we might say that, having satisfied his passion for distant travel, he began to look in time for what he had pursued in space. The same man who had sung the modern life, with its rapid pace and noisy machines, has become the spectator of ancient epochs and has devoted himself to the study of the long, slow periods during which man first sought adventure.
Thus we come to perhaps his most important creation, the six volumes combined under the title Den lange rejse, which leads us from the ice age to Christopher Columbus. The central theme or one of the central themes of this work is the universal mission of the Scandinavian people, from the great migrations and the Norman invasion to the discovery of America. Jensen considers Christopher Columbus a descendant of the Lombards, in short a Nordic man, if not a Jutlander like himself. In this monumental series appears a legendary figure, Nornagestr. He is not at all the same person who appears at the court of King Olaf Tryggvason to tell his stories and die there. According to the Icelandic saga he was three hundred years old; but Jensen makes him even older and turns him into a kind of Ahasverus, ubiquitous, always behind his time, a stranger among the new generations, but nevertheless younger than they because he lived at a time when existence itself was young and mankind closer to its origins. The writer has followed tradition only as far as it was useful to him. Three prophetesses came to Nornagestr’s mother to see the child and one of them predicted that he would die as soon as the candle could no longer burn. Gro, the mother, immediately extinguished the candle and gave it to the child as an amulet. In the work of Johannes V. Jensen, Nornagestr sometimes lights it in foreign lands and whenever he does so a deep abyss of time opens before him. When he comes to again, seized by the love of life, he is transported to his country, the fresh and green Zealand.
All legends exist because reason alone cannot clarify experience. What then is Nornagestr, who plays such an important role in the epic of the Danish master? Perhaps it is the spirit of the Nordic people rising from the night like a phantom or like an atavistic creature. One suspects that this unique globetrotter with his harp is closely related to the author himself, who has given him many ideas about life and death, and about the close relation between the present and eternity – the precious fruits of experiences gathered from the lands and seas of the globe.
For Johannes V. Jensen, who grew up on a Jutland moor where the horizon is often indented by a line of tumuli, it was natural to divide his interests between facts and myths and to seek his way between the shadows of the past and the realities of the present. His example reveals to us both the attraction of the primitive for a sensitive man and the necessity of transforming brute force into tenderness. He has attained the summit of his art by means of these violent contrasts. A fresh, salty breeze blows through his work, which unfolds with vivid language, powerful expression, and singular energy. Precisely in the poets most deeply rooted in their country do we find this poetic genius for words. Jensen is the voice of Jutland and of Denmark. With his talents he deserves the title of the most eminent narrator of the victorious struggle of the Nordic people against nature, and of the continuity of the Nordic spirit throughout the ages.
Mr. Jensen – If you have listened to what I have just said you will certainly think that the few moments I had were much too short to accomplish the long voyage through your work, and that I have neglected important aspects of it. It is fortunate for us as well as for you that a proper presentation is hardly necessary at all in your case. You are a well-known member of our great family and as such you are now asked to receive from the hands of our King the distinction which the Swedish Academy has awarded you.
At the banquet, Professor A.H.T. Theorell, Director of the Department of Biochemistry at the Nobel Institute of Medicine, called Mr. Jensen «the splendid representative of the proud literary tradition of our dear sister country, Denmark».
Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.