Monday, August 23, 2010

F.J. Billeskov Jansen, Hakon Stangerup, Poul Henning Traustedt: History of World Literature 1-12 (a book)

F.J. Billeskov Jansen, Hakon Stangerup, Poul Henning Traustedt (ed.): Verdens litteraturhistorie 1-12, Copenhagen 1971-1974. Read in the Finnish edition, chief editor Lauri Viljanen: Kansojen kirjallisuus 1-12. Porvoo-Helsinki: WSOY 1974-1978. - The book was a Nordic co-production with the participation of dozens of the best experts as writers and translators from the original languages.

Since last Christmas I have been reading this marvellous History of World Literature by crabwalk, starting with Pynchon and Vonnegut, and finishing today the first volume (magic spells, origins of the alphabet, the Gilgamesh epic... )

I didn't read this book as a man of the cinema but I was impressed by the fact how film-relevant the history of literature can be page by page.

Certainly by the Film d'Art movement in 1908 world literature, from Homeric epics to Tennyson's poems, was being filmed voraciously, but the influences and affinities are greater than I have realized, starting with the atavistic passion for storytelling (myths, tales, cults, songs, sagas) and the origins of the alphabets in pictograms.

I had never read this book before nor any other similar extended work systematically. I'm happy I found this Danish book to be the first one, inspiredly edited into Finnish by Lauri Viljanen with a top team of translators and experts. They pay serious attention not only to the Biblical-European-American tradition but also to the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Iranian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. heritages. Their mission is the Goethean concept of Weltliteratur, of universal understanding (itself a film-relevant concept: film was a universal art from the start).

F.J. Billeskov Jansen, Hakon Stangerup, Poul Henning Traustedt, and Lauri Viljanen manage to keep developing a certain consistent vision all through the immense undertaking (ambitiously, the book is also a history of the world, a history of religion, a history of ideas... ). One of the early crystallizers of that vision was the poet Horace (Horatius) who strived to reconcile Epicureanism with Stoicism. Poetry has a unique and original mission which nothing can replace.

Reading this first volume which presents also the classical myths I realized that this is the realm where Jean Cocteau also kept playfully returning to in Le Testament d'Orphée. Strangely, in this Danish book an example of the origins of storytelling is H.C. Andersen's modern fairy-tale "The Mother". It is about a "mère maladroite", to use Cocteau's term. She falls asleep, and when she wakes up, Death has taken her child to an unknown land, and she experiences a succession of nightmarish ordeals trying to retrieve the child. There are two versions of the tale, and in the first, conventional one, the ordeals are a dream. Andersen's tale was the inspiration of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's Der müde Tod, which was the inspiration for Cocteau, Buñuel and Franju to become film-makers...

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