Hans with a sure touch

5th September 1997 at 01:00
THE SWAN'S STORIES. By Hans Christian Andersen. Translated by Brian Alderson. Illustrated by Chris Riddell. Walker Pounds 12.99

THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES. By Hans Christian Andersen. Translated by Naomi Lewis. Illustrated by Angela Barrett. Walker Pounds 10.99

Two new editions skilfully show how Andersen can be brought up to date without sacrificing the wit and deftness of the original tales, argues Neil Philip

The translation and illustration of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales has long been a preoccupation of Brian Alderson. In 1982 he published an excellent account of Andersen's adventures and misadventures in English translation in his pamphlet, Hans Christian Andersen and his Eventyr in England. Around the same time, he was sprinkling his crisp and colloquial new translations of Andersen stories through his revised editions of Andrew Lang's Colour Fairy Books.

So it has been a longish wait for a volume of Alderson's Andersen. What kind of a book is it?

The Swan's Stories contains just 12 of Andersen's 156 "fairy tales and stories". The emphasis is on Andersen's humour, and on his particular gift for bringing the inanimate alive: a tin soldier, a collar, a darning-needle, a snowman, a fir tree. Among the stories are such rarely translated delights as "The Money-pig", "Lovers", "The Collar", "Grief" and "The Snowman".

As the title of "Grief" suggests, Andersen's humour has a cutting edge; it is his particular gift to find humour in tragedy rather than comedy. Tale after tale ends in humiliation, rejection or disappointment. "Grief" itself is a little masterpiece, and this translation shows Brian Alderson to be perfectly in tune with Andersen's keen sense of childhood's heartbreaks.

There isn't a dud story here, and Alderson's versions have just the right mixture of salt and spice, reflecting his own conviction that, in Andersen, "matters of phrasing and rhythm are paramount". In addition his introduction and notes warmly include the child reader. So far, so good.

One can't help feeling disappoint-ed, though, that the range of tales is so limited. The short tales are masterpieces of wit and observation, but they are not the only aspect of Andersen's genius. Perhaps we can hope for a second volume in which Alderson's vivid versions of stories such as "The Snow Queen" and "The Emperor's New Clothes" will be collected.

In his 1982 essay, Brian Alderson drew attention to the fact that Andersen, while himself a talented artist, made little effort to have his tales illustrated, and disapproved of the more gaudy attempts to do so. Illustrations, Alderson argued, should therefore take a "secondary role" - "the words should paint their own pictures". By this standard, The Swan's Stories, although undeniably a handsome book, is also an over-produced one. While the translations try to convert the stiff gentility of Victorian versions into a chatty, intimate storytelling tone, the illustrations by Chris Riddell pull in the opposite direction. They are defiantly old-fashioned, in the style of a turn-of-the-century illustrator such as L Leslie Brooke, rather than informal and modern like the text.

Riddell's work is highly accomplished. The colour plates are beautifully composed, and the numerous line drawings are executed with verve and skill, but the end result is to make The Swan's Stories feel like a book a maiden aunt might give you, rather than one that you excitedly discover for yourself. Brian Alderson's translations in particular sit uneasily in such a volume; they really need the kind of spare treatment that Puffin gave to Naomi Lewis's equally delightful versions of 12 stories in Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (1981).

One of those stories, "The Emperor's New Clothes", now reappears - in a revised translation - as a picture book, lavishly illustrated by Angela Barrett. Here, the question of appropriateness is a less vexing one: a single-story picture book demands a virtuoso performance from the illustrator. A secondary role isn't an option.

Angela Barrett's interpretation of this famous tale has wit and panache, but perhaps too much sophistication and adult knowingness for a story whose point relies on a child's clear vision puncturing adult pretensions. Barrett sets the tale just before the First World War, in a romanticised European principality with shades of Monte Carlo. While this conceit doesn't seem to have any real connection to the text, it does offer the artist room to show off .

The pictures and design are full of jokes. I think Andersen himself would have enjoyed the spread that turns one part of the story, with justice, into a newspaper report. This shows a kind of deftness of touch that is found in every sentence of Andersen's writing, and with refreshing frequency in the translations of both Alderson and Lewis.

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