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by Bamber Gascoigne

Karl Gjellerup (1857-1919)


Danish poet and novelist who together with his compatriot Henrik Pontoppidan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917. In Denmark Gjellerup's award was received with little enthusiasm. He had been regarded long as a German writer. Because Sweden was neutral during World War I, the divided prize did not create political speculations about partial decision, but showed on the other hand cultural allegiance between the Nordic neighbors. Buddhism played an important part in Gjellerup's oeuvre.

"Some author or other – I should even say, were I asked, a very famous one –  has said, that in hours of sorrow nothing is so sad as the remembrance of happy days. Of course I have not the courage to dispute the truth of his words, especially as the have been so often repeated that they are almost proverbial, otherwise I should have thought that, in such hours, it would be still sadder if one had no happy moments upon whih to look back." (from Minna, 1889)

Karl Gjellerup was born in Roholte, in southern Zealand, the son of a minister. His father, Pastor Carl Adolph Gjellerup, died when Karl was three years old. He was brought up in Copenhagen by his mother's (Anna Fibiger) cousin, the minister and poet Johannes Fibiger. While still at school, Gjellerup began writing. After graduating from Haerslevs Grammar School he wrote the tragedy Scipio Africanus and the drama Arminius.

Gjellerup was expected to have a career in church. In 1874 he entered the University of Copenhagen, where he studied theology, graduating in 1878. However, under the influence of Darwinism (Gjellerup called Darwin as "the hero of our time"), Herbert Spencer, and the critic Georg Brandes, he had already started to feel attraction to atheism before taking the degree. Brandes's university lectures arouse much attention – he advocated free development of the individual and naturalism in literature.

Both of Gjellerup's first books, En Idealist (1878, An Idealist) and Det evige strid (1878, The eternal strife) were published pseudonymously. The paper Arvelighed og moral (1881, Heredity and morality) received the University of Copenhagen Gold Medal in 1881. When Brandes criticized his ode to the memory of Darwin, Aander og Tider (1882, Spirits and Times) as pompous and pretentious, Gjellerups enthusiasm with the school of Brandes vaned. Moreover, Brandes found him unworthy of receiving the Nobel Prize. ('Translation and Transition: The Danish Literary Response to Darwin' by Mathias Clasen, et al., in The Literary and Cultural Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe, Volume 3, edited by Thomas F. Glick & Elinor Shaffer, 2014, pp. 120-121)

Although Darwin's The Origin of Species was not against religion, its argumentation did not support the account of the creation in the Bible. Gjellerup's break with Christian faith was the subject of his early novels. Later he turned his interested in Buddhism and other Oriental religions, but he never became an orthodox Buddhist disciple. The literary scholar Paul Houe has called Gjellerup as an "intellectual borderliner". ('The Resistance to Modernism in Karl Gjellerup's Germanernes Laerlig (1882) by Paul, in Legacies of Modernism: Art and Politics in Northern Europe, 1890-1950, edited by Patrizia C. McBride, Richard W. McCormick, and Monika Žagar, 2007, p. 44)  Det unge Danmark (1879, The Young Denmark), published under his own name, was a polemical novel about an atheist, whose proposal of marriage to a merchant's daughter is rejected. En Idealist portrays a young intellectual, who denounces theology and religion. It was followed by Germanernes lærling (1882), where the central character, Niels Hjorth, a young teacher, undergoes similar crisis as Gjellerup, his increasing alienation from Christian faith. The story is set in the frame work of parliamentary elections between 1872 and 1877.

With Rødtjørn (1881, Red Thorn) Gjellerup presented himself as a freethinking poet. August Strindberg praised the collection in a letter to Brandes, who had guided Gjellerup's writing. Brynhild (1884), about the fate of the Nordic warrior maiden, featured the most important valkyrie figure in the Volsunga saga. This verse drama, dedicated his future wife Eugenia, was inspired by Wagner's Der Ring der Nibelungen, and earned Gjellerup a state pension for life. Thamyris (1887) drew on ancient Greek mythology. The swastika, a pagan symbol, appeared in the front page of Den ældre Eddas gudesange (1895), illustrated by Lorenz Frølich.

With the help of a small inheritance, Gjellerup travelled in 1883 and 1884 in Italy, Greece, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, and Sweden. While in Rome, he studied watercolor painting under the Swedish artist Julius Kronberg. From 1885 to 1887 Gjellerup lived in Dresden, Germany.

Dissatisfied with the limitations of naturalism, Gjellerup published En klassisk maaned (1884) and Vandreaaret (1885), in which he began to formulate his new aesthetic. He was influenced by Goethe's and Friedrich Schiller's humanism and idealist philosophy with its views that what would normally be called "the external world" is somehow created by the mind – physical world does not exist independently of the human mind.

These thoughts, his combination of the demand for truth with an idealism, were developed in two novels: Minna (1889), a love story set in the Germany of his day, and The Pilgrim Kamanita (1906), set in India and examining the idea of reincarnation. "India is indeed the land where even the robber must philosophise, and occasionally become strange saints, and where even the Guardians of Hell remain "polite until the last step up the gallows,"" said Gjellerup in his note to the first edition. (Kamanita: A Legendary Romance by Karl Gjellerup, translated from the German by John Logie, edited by Amaro Bhikkhu, second edition, 2008, p. xiv) This book appeared in German in 1906, and was translated into English in 1912. Like many other German intellectuals interested in Buddhism, Gjellerup integrated its ideas quite freely into his writings. The 1913 German edition of Der Pilgrim Kamanita had a swastika on its cover, drawn three decades before the Nazis rose into power. However,  Gjellerup's work and Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha were on the reading list of the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.

In Minna the title character is contrasted with the frivolous artistic circles of the times. Den fuldendtes hustru (1907, The Wife of the Perfect One) was on Siddhartha's wife, Yasodhara, and her Path of Purification to attain perfection. 

"When my first book appeared forty years earlier, it had been influenced by German idealism. Just three years later (in the thesis awarded the gold medal) I was a follower of English naturalism, after which I returned to a position under those elevated signs of the zodiac which constitute my rightful habitat, only this time the guiding star was not Hegel as in En idealist, but Kant and Schopenhauer." ('Autobiography' by K. Gjellerup, in Nobel Lectures: Literature, 1901-1967, edited by Horst Frenz, 1999, pp. 152-153) 

Gjellerup married in 1887 Eugenia Bendix (née Heusinger), a cousin of Georg Brandes; her first husband had been the Danish musician Fritz Bendix. For a period the couple lived in Hellerup. In 1892 Gjellerup moved with his family to Dresden, the native city of his wife, and with her help began to write in German.

A Nietzschean contempt for the masses appeared in some of Gjellerup's plays in the 1890s. Also Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev were important writers for him – their influence was especially seen in the novels dealing with ethical problems.  Møllen (1896), a story about crime and passion, was inspired by Emile Zola. Although it was not considered among Gjellerup's major works, the dramatized version of the melodrama was popular on stage. The novel was made into a film by the Swedish director John W. Brunius (released in 1921). Gjellerup's later works include Die Opferfeuer (1903) and Die Weltwanderer (1910, Verdensvandrerne), about Buddhist concepts of rebirth and soul's wandering towards nirvana. The book has been used as part of the Thai high school curriculum. Christian themes were dealt in Der goldene Zweig (1917).

Writing never made Gjellerup rich, he lived a modestly and withdrawn. At the beginning of World War, he supported Germany's war efforts, Denmark remained neutral. Gjellerup died on October 13, 1919, at home in Villa Baldur, which he had bought with the Nobel Prize money. His grave is in the Old Cemetery near Klotzsche; Gjellerup spent there the final period of his spiritual exile. Eugenie died in 1940. Although Gjellerup was much admired at the height of his literary career, his posthumous reputation is undeservedly diminished.

For further reading: Grænsegængeren, en belysning af Karl Gjellerups forfatterskab med særlig henblik på idealisme by Jesper Jørgensen (2004); Karl Gjellerup - ein literarischer Grenzgänger des Fin de Siècle by Olaf C. Nybo (2002); Neighbouring Nobel, the History of Thirteen Danish Nobel Prizes by Keld Nielsen (2001); 'Autobiography' by K. Gjellerup, in Nobel Lectures: Literature, 1901-1967, edited by Horst Frenz (1999); Karl Gjellerup - en biografi by Georg Nørregård (1988); 'Gjellerup, Karl,' in Nobel Prize Winners, edited by Tyler Wasson (1987); 'Gjellerup, Karl' by S.H.R. [Sven H. Rossel], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); 'Karl Gjellerup: A master of expression of Indian thought' by Nicolae Zberae, in Indo-Asian Culture 19:1 (1970)

Selected works:

  • En Idealist: Shildring af Epigonus, 1878 (as Epigonos) [The Idealist]
  • Det evige strid: tre Digte, 1878 (as Diodoros) [The Eternal Strife]
  • Det unge Danmark, 1879
  • Arvelighed og moral, 1881 [Heredity and Morality]
  • Rødtjørn, 1881 [Red Thorn]
  • Germanernes Lærling, 1882 [The Apprentice of the Teutons]
  • Aander og tider, 1882 [Spirits and Times]
  • Romulus, 1883
  • G-Dur: En Kammer-Novelle, 1883 [G-Major]
  • Brynhild, 1884
  • En klassisk maaned, 1884 [A Classical Month]
  • Vandreaaret, 1885 [Wander Year]
  • Saint-Just: Historisk Sørgespil i fem Handlinger, 1886
  • Thamyris, 1887 (1: Kampen med Muserne; 2: Helikon)
  • En arkadisk legende, 1887
  • Hagbard og Signe, 1888 [Hagbard and Signe]
  • Minna, 1889
    - Minna (translated by C. L. Nielsen, 1913)
  • Min kaerligheds bog, 1889 [The Book of my Love]
  • Herman Vandel. Sørgespil i tre handlinger, 1891
  • Wuthhorn, 1893
  • Kong Hjarne skjald, tragedie i fem handlinger, 1893 [King Hjarne]
  • Pastor Mors, 1894
  • Hans Excellence: Skuespil, 1895
  • Den ældre Eddas gudesange, 1895 (illustrated by Lorenz Frølich)
  • Fra vaar til høst, 1895 [From Spring to Autumn]
  • Møllen, 1896 [The Mill]
  • Ved Grænsen, 1897 [At the Border]
  • Gift og modgift, 1898 [Toxin and Anti-toxin]i
  • Tankelaeserinden, 1901 [The Soothsayer]
  • Herman Vandel, 1891
  • Wutthorn, 1893
  • Offerildene. Et Legendestykke, 1903 (Die Opferfeuer) [The Sacrifical Fires]
  • Der Pilger Kamanita, 1906 (Pilgrimmen Kamanita)
    - The Pilgrim Kamanita (tr. 1911; tr. John E. Logie, 1999)
  • Den fuldendtes hustru, 1907 (Das Weib des Vollendeten, 1910) [The Wife of the Perfect One]
  • Verdensvandrerne, 1910 (Die Weltwanderer, 1910) [The World Travellers]
  • Rudolf Stens Landpraxis 1-2, 1913 (Reif für das Leben, 1916) [Ripe for Life]
  • Den buddhistiske Kanon, 1914
  • Sind wir noch Christen?, 1915
  • Guds venner, 1916 (Die Gottesfreundin, 1918) [The Friends of God]
  • Den gyldne gren, 1917 (Der goldene Zweig: Dichtung und Novellenkranz aus der Zeit des Kaisers Tiberius, 1917) [The Golden Bough]
  • Das heiligste Tier, 1920
  • Madonna della laguna; eine venezianische Künstlergeschichte, 1920
  • Karl Gjellerup, der Dichter und Denker, sein Leben und Selbstzeugnissen und Briefen, 1922
  • Den ældre Eddas gudesange, 1973
  • Under ørnebregner & Poeten og døden, 1997
  • Blandt russere i Moskva og Skt. Petersborg, 1999

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