Knud Sønderby came to be known as a novelist, an essayist, and, to a lesser degree, a dramatist. He was also a prolific journalist. Many of the works included in essay collections appeared first in Danish newspapers as chronicles in essay form. His first collection of essays, Grønlandsk sommer (1941; Greenland summer) appeared ten years after his debut novel. This essay collection, which signaled Sønderby’s transition to the essay, was followed by five principal collections, the last appearing posthumously in 1969. While some critics regard his essays as less significant than his fiction, others see them as a rejuvenation of his oeuvre. Indeed, Midt i en jazztid (1931; In the middle of a jazz age), his best-known novel on the crisis of the Danish youth, presages some of the underlying themes of his essays. The perspective of the young served as Sønderby’s most effective medium in imparting the Danish character of his work. His subdued tone and casual style also suggest the influence of his narrative works.
Not unlike the novelist, the essayist Sønderby is an analytical observer. Major themes in Sønderby’s essays embrace the interplay of past and present, the imminence of death, and man’s concept of time; other work, in large part semi-autobiographical, portrays the disillusionment of the 1920s.
Notwithstanding the personal tone of his essays, Sønderby’s perspective lends a special character to the relationship between the essay and its public. His jeg (“I”) is not exact; it is, rather, an image of him as an observer. His reader is not left with the egotistical indulgences of the author, but afforded insight into how that author’s images are perceived. The reader is held at a distance, permitting us to observe how Sønderby observes. His essays are filled with minute detail, chronicling the landscape, man, and the animal world. His point of departure is often specifically Danish, but he can also render pristine descriptions of life abroad. The seemingly insignificant phenomena of everyday life, such as a facial expression or a flower, acquire a sensory quality in his prose. His reader feels, smells, and hears. Accordingly, his language shows more than it tells. At times, Sønderby’s language can be taut and subtle; at other times it is humorous and light.
In the collections Hvidtjørnen (1950; The Hawthorn) and Gensyn med havet (1957; Rendezvous with the sea), there is a gradual movement from a specific situation to a more encompassing contemplation of memories about the Danish landscape. Sønderby’s digressions, imprecise expressions, and wordplay are reiterated in Det danske land (1952; This Danish land), a collection of essays by various writers which he edited with Otto Gelsted. In his contribution he combines epic and descriptive styles in order to bring his reader closer to the landscape.
The proliferation of Sønderby’s essays precludes their remaining within the confines of the traditional essay. He preferred to think of his prose pieces as myter (myths), like those of Johannes Vilhelm Jensen. While S0nderby’s prose fiction is often critical and pessimistic in tone, his essays are artistic and optimistic. By transgressing space and time, the essays speak encouragingly to man’s common values.
Born 10 July 1909 in Esbjerg, Denmark. Studied at the Øregaard Gymnasium, graduated 1927; law at the University of Copenhagen, law degree, 1935. Journalist, including film reviewer, for several Copenhagen newspapers, 1930s–1940s. Secretary to the director, Government Committee for Greenland, 1935. Solicitor, 1936–37. Married, 1940.
Founding member, Danish Academy, 1960. Died in Thy, 8 August 1966.
Essays and Related Prose
Grønlandsk sommer, 1941
Forsvundne somre, 1946
Hvidtjørnen, 1950; as The Hawthorn, translated by Reginald Spink, 1966
Gensyn med havet, 1957
De blå glimt, 1964; as The Blue Flashes, translated by Reginald Spink, 1966
The Blue Flashes; The Hawthorn; Danish Harbours, translated by Reginald Spink, 1966
De danske havne: Efterladte essays, edited by Inge Sønderby and Mogens Knudsen, 1969
Danmarkskortet: Udvalget essays om landskaber og mennesker, edited by Inge Sønderby and Mogens Knudsen, 1970
Other writings: four novels (Midt i en jazztid, 1931; To mennesker mødes, 1932; En kvinde er overflodig, 1936; De kolde flammer, 1940), plays, and memoirs. Also coedited (and contributed to) the anthology Det danske land (1952).
Gadman, Peter, in Knud Sønderbys forfatterskab, Copenhagen: Vinten, 1976
Hellum, Dan, Knud Sønderby: Bibliografi og produktionsregistrant, 1925–74, Copenhagen: Danmarks Biblioteksskole, 1976
Bager, Poul, Fylde og tomhed: Om Knud Sønderbys forfatterskab, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1984:167–76
Bjørnvig, Thorkild, Digtere, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1991
Gadman, Peter, Knud Sønderbys forfatterskab, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1976
Kaas Johansen, Niels, in Danske digtere i det 20. aarhundrede, vol. 2, edited by Kaas Johansen and Ernst Frandsen, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1951:451–64
Sandersen, Vibeke, Essayet—oprør og tradition, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1975:55–64
Svendsen, Hanne Marie, “Livsstil og klasseforskel,” in Tilbageblik på30o’erne:
Litteratur, teater, kulturdebat, vol.1, Copenhagen: Vendelkær, 1967:80–93
Wamberg, Niels Birger, “Knud Sønderbys gratie,” Vinduet 17 (1963):86–89
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