A beginner’s guide to Danish literature

An intro to Danish literature | Soho House

Introducing the authors all bookworms should know, both past and present

Tuesday 16 August 2022   By Alexandra Pereira

Hans Christian Andersen may have set the precedent for fairy tales and the art of storytelling in Denmark, but there’s plenty more where he came from. Fashion, interiors and solid welfare aside, the country has become a literature hub, with a slew of contemporary Danish writers making waves not only in Scandinavia but also across the world. 
This month, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art – located just 20 minutes north of Copenhagen – is hosting its annual event championing the works of storytellers past and present. 
The Louisiana Literature Festival will take place from 18 to 21 August in the museum’s sculpture gardens, where there’ll be special readings, performances and Q&As with local talents, alongside globally acclaimed authors such as Bernardine Evaristo, Ocean Vuong, Torrey Peters, and Laurie Anderson. 
To mark the occasion, we’re taking a trip down memory lane to honour the Danish writers who, like Andersen, paved the way for modern literature. 
An intro to Danish literature | Soho House
Nella Larsen
Born in 1891 Chicago, Larsen was a prominent scribe who used literature to illustrate the complexities of her experience as a mixed-race woman of both Danish and Caribbean descent in America. Living through the Harlem Renaissance (after moving to New York to work as a nurse and a librarian), she felt foreign in both Black and white communities, which she detailed in her largely autobiographical 1928 novel, Quicksand.
Larsen’s most notable work was her sophomore offering, Passing, which was adapted into a Netflix original movie starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in 2021. It tells the story of a Black woman questioning her own life and identity after reconnecting with a childhood friend who is passing as white. 
Unsurprisingly given that time, Larsen often came under fire for her honest depictions of society, but ultimately won audiences. While both Quicksand and Passing are great entry points to her work, you’ll soon be enthralled in her plethora of lesser known literary observations on racial divides.
An intro to Danish literature | Soho House
Tove Ditlevsen
Born 42 years after Hans Christian Andersen died, Ditlevsen is known best for the book series, The Copenhagen Trilogy, which was translated into English and republished in one volume in 2021. The memoir tells the story of Ditlevsen’s working-class Danish upbringing, in a pre-suffragettes world where women were silenced. Yet somehow, her natural wit and knack for poetry helped her carve out a space for herself in the male-dominated world of literature, becoming a voice for not only her generation of women, but also those to come.
An intro to Danish literature | Soho House
Dorthe Nors
Known as a modern heavyweight in Danish literature, Nors’ breakthrough came with the launch of her short story, ‘The Freezer Chest’ published in The New Yorker in 2015. A common thread seen throughout her novels and collection of short stories is an examination of the good, the bad and the ugly sides of the culture of ‘cosiness’ attached to Danish life, particularly in the rural towns of Jutland. Her characters tend to have a darkness to them, bringing in an element of Nordic noir. 
Get stuck into her work by reading popular novels such as Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
An intro to Danish literature | Soho House
Jonas Eika
Nominated for the International Booker Prize 2022, his second book After The Sun previously won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2019, as well as other awards. As a leading young Danish storyteller, Eika is known to use his voice for change, often advocating for the underrepresented facing social issues in Denmark. 
His debut, Marie House Warehouse, which earnt him critical acclaim too, is another hit among the country’s literature lovers, but ultimately it’s Eika’s portrayal of visceral and universal human experiences that sucks readers in. 
An intro to Danish literature | Soho House
Ursula Scavenius
In her four-part novel, The Dolls, Scavenius does what Danes do best: fictional crime and mystery. Though the term ‘Nordic noir’ feels extremely tired (a bit like ‘new Nordic’ or ‘hygge’) if anyone is nailing it, it’s Scavenius. Her debut short story collection Feathers gathered multiple awards.
Crime aside, she’s known to tackle climate change, the refugee crises and socio-political matters in her writing, bringing a sense of reality.
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