STORYTELLING AT HOVDALA CASTLE: A circus of memories

07/20/2014 11:29

It is a hot summer in Hässleholm. We are at my mother´s place and life is somewhat strange, as always. Our summer house is rented out to a Dutch couple and their kids, we can thus not enjoy a swim in the lake or walks through the forest, instead we are cleaning up the second floor of my mother´s house. Throughout the years, useless things have accumulated and they are now collecting dust in places my mother does not visit anymore, partly because she does not want to be confronted with the mess. During our lives, stuff that has become worthless is constantly piling up around us. I wonder how my surroundings will look like if I am still alive thirty years from now.

To freshen up the place, we have dug into things that have been hidden away around us. Of course, I have not had the time to look at all interesting things that surface among forgotten gift wrap, age old tax forms, strange devices, pine cones, fire wood, piles of blankets and old winter clothes, unread books and other junk that have been lost in closets and other hideaways. However, my interest was triggered by drawings I made when I was ​​between ten and fifteen years old. I remembered several of them, how I spent hours creating them, though I had forgotten all about most of them.

I wonder why certain events get stuck in the memory, while others fade away completely. I found a photograph depicting me speaking in front of a crowd in a town square. I could not remember anything about that particular incident and even more surprising is that together with the photograph was a document in which the police authority gave me permission to stage a demonstration, complete with attachments detailing specific terms and rules. Apparently, it was something that happened during my military service. The demonstration seems to have been well attended and a means to influence the Government to increase the monthly allowance for conscripts. How could something like that disappear from my mind? I am pondering about how I could have organized such an event. I cannot imagine how I at the age of eighteen could have been engaged in such a thing and why I did it.

A few days ago, I gave a lecture at Hovdala Castle outside Hässleholm, another rather odd event. When I, the day after, found the forty years old photograph and its accompanying documents I came to think about their meaning. Like that event my Hovdala lecture would soon enter oblivion, both for me and my audience. Maybe it could be worthwhile to write down what I said, at least the introduction to my speech, so it may surface again after twenty years or so and I then could marvel at the fact that I had forgotten all about it.

I realize that this blog soon will disappear, like footprints in the sand. If I in a distant future would rediscover it,  my speech would at that time appear as stunning as my childhood drawings and the testimony about that unheeded demonstration. Here is the introduction to my lecture:

"When Patrik Nilsson at Studiefrämjandet a couple of months ago asked me if I wanted to take part in a storytelling event at Hovdala Castle, I agreed to do so without any hesitation. Mainly for two reasons: This castle has always had a great significance for me, as a memory and reference point and it cannot be denied that I take great pleasure in telling stories. However, the day before yesterday, I was gripped by doubts and felt lost. What would I tell you? You are gathered here in this glorious summer evening and have paid for listening to me. Accordingly, it is my duty to fascinate you. You must get value for the money you spent. You have to be amused. I cannot let you down.

In my bewilderment I saw myself standing here in front of you, on the stairs to the main building at Hovdala´s inner courtyard. Just like this very moment, I  could see how you expectantly or doubting turned your faces towards me and I felt as if I had been standing in front of Kathasaritsagara, a Sanskrit word meaning something like "The ocean in which all narrative rivers are ending up." Actually, it is the title of an Indian fairytale collection from the eleventh century. Even my stories have flowed into that vast ocean. I will now, from these stairs, dive into that sea of stories. However, what stories should I pick up from its depths?

The wonderful thing about Kathasaritsagara is that it is everywhere. Julian Ramos, a hundred years old, illiterate peasant who lived in the Dominican Republic and whom I met many years ago, told me: ‘Jan, here are two worlds in one. One that you can see and touch, you call that world The Reality. But there is also another world, one that most of the time is invisible and intangible. It is the world of dreams, memories, music, the spirits and God. I am a very old man, and you should know that time is a strict master that has taught me a lot. Nowadays, I move from one world to another, like a man who is walking through sun and shade. You who come from the countries up there in the north, you usually imagine that there is only one world. The one you call Reality and you are unable to realize that the other world is much larger, more inclusive and therefore more powerful.’

Julian Ramos said much more than that. Everything was memorable. I don´t have time to go into it all, but for a while I want to linger in his second world. The world I believe to be identical with the Kathasaritsagara, the Ocean of Tales. A sea each of us can dive into and its water can also be drunk. This evening, I hope you will be able to follow me down into this ocean, which, like Julian Ramos' other world,  is all around us; right here, right now. It is present here during this beautiful summer evening, among the trees on the ridge behind you, inside the building behind me. Sure, the sea of tales can be daunting, but it is nevertheless an exciting place. If we decide to throw ourselves into its depths and learn to enjoy the swim, we ought to ignore our fears, our doubts and our prejudices. Kathasaritsagara is namely presently with our neighbor from Lubumbashi, with our children, our ancient relatives, the nature that surrounds us, within ourselves. All we have to do is become aware of its existence.

Like when we every day by bus or train travel to work, deeply engrossed in a magazine or surfing the web, or within a light slumber are trapped by endless everyday musings, but suddenly we wake up to the world around us, lower the  newspaper, the Ipad or mobile phone and raise our eyes to discover our fellow passengers and perceive how Kathasaritsagara is hiding behind their faces. We look out of the window and perceive how Kathasaritsagara is present in the landscape that rushes past.

Kathasaritsagara is available online, in magazines and books, and  - of course -  here at Hovdala. Like Julian Ramos´ invisible world, the Ocean of Tales is timeless and now when I stand here on these steps and look toward the doorway over there I can with my mind's eye conjure how an eight-year Jan Lundius is passing through it in company with his father Axel Lundius, who is working as a journalist at Norra Skåne. They are about to meet Casimir Ehrenborg, lord of the castle.

Each year, Norra Skåne´s press club organized an event at Hovdala Castle. Each journalist was allocated a room, or a theme. My father was allotted a room with portraits of a couple of Ehrenborgs; he told his audiences some stories about a key, a ring and a pair of cookbooks, I do not remember exactly what and how. I was more fascinated by Bo “Pax” Göransson´s presentation, fiercely enthusiastic and accompanied by a fascinating body language, though I cannot remember a thing about what he said. Like my father, Pax had a mustache, children attach great importance to such similarities. Nevertheless, I still remember some stories, like Major Viggo Olsson's vivid descriptions of how Danes, Swedes and Snapphanar, Danish marksmen, during the Scanian Wars fought and died in bloody battles around Hovdala Castle. Viggo Olsson stood just where I stand now and his fascinated audience stood where you now sit.

Well, the day I followed my father into this courtyard we were received by Casimir Ehrenborg on this same staircase and accompanied into a bright stateroom with large windows, with a table decked with coffee and cakes. If I remember correctly, there was lemonade for me and while I sat there nibbling a cake and slurping my juice, I looked at Casimir Ehrenborg and his aged sisters, I think they were named Elsa and Eva, amazed by the fact that they all had such large ears. Why have older people larger ears than children? The siblings seemed older than most people I had met before, but now it strikes me that they may not have been much older than I am now. My father was in any case younger than I am now. Why had he brought his "little lad" to meet the old siblings of Hovdala Castle?

I assume he wanted to take me with him into Kathasaritsagara. It was there in the castle, just behind the door to the room where we sat eating the cookies and after coffee Casimir opened it and we entered Ali Baba's treasure cave, which at Hovdala Castle went by the name of  "the Green Stateroom" or "the Hunting Room". There were suits of armor and old weapons; cutlasses, muskets and crossbows, stuffed animals; elk heads, badgers and foxes, while glass cabinets displayed strange objects from all over the world. I later told my friends that I had seen a shrunken human head from the Amazons, but I am now not so sure about that. However, I remember quite clearly that there was a blowgun with poisoned arrows.

And there was, of course, the Ocean of Tales. Casimir Ehrenborg reverently lifted up the musket of Little Mads, which the notorious Snapphane leader had received from the hands of the Danish king. A magnificent weapon in ebony, with marquetry of  mother-of-pearl. The old baron turned out to be a brilliant storyteller and for the eight-year-old and his father he vividly told how Little Mads and four of his Snapphanar by Swedish riders had been chased far down into the South. In a forest clearing, Litte Mads had been compassed by a Swedish posse and his horse was killed under him. The desperate marksman sought cover behind the horse carcass, bit off a bullet and filled the barrel of his short musket with gunpowder, but in the deep snow he had lost the key to the wheel lock and could not find it. He tried to tighten the lock with his bare teeth, but was hit by bullets in both legs and when he tried to crawl into the bushes, he died after being hit in the back of his head by a Swedish musket butt.

While he told us the story, Casimir Ehenrenborg handled the musket of Little Mads illustrating his tale by pointing it towards us, raising it as if to beat us with it and in the end he lifted it to his mouth indicating how the threatened marksmen had tried to uncertain his weapon and as a grand finale the baron swung his head to indicate how Little Mads had received the blow from the gun-butt.

While thinking back on that episode and through my mind's eye watching my father standing among all those hunting trophies, I realize that even he was a hunter. Admittedly, my animal devoted father could never have been able to shoot an innocent beast of any kind. For sure, he was not a true hunter, but a journalist. What he was chasing was not animals, but stories. His hunting grounds were Kathasaritsagara. Instead of searching trails in the woods, he sought out people and many of them were odd personalities; religious fanatics, artists, petty criminals, local bohemians, gipsy kings, and circus people, those who were familiar with Kathasaritsagara and who  like pathfinders, such as Uncas or Chingachgook, could assist my father on his fishing tours on the Ocean of Tales.

Sometimes he would take me with him on his expeditions. For example, to the circus, which we both loved. We were sitting so close to the ring that sawdust whirled around us when the horses passed by and I could look into the mighty elephants' small eyes. During the break, it could happen that he took me to meet the circus manager. I remember Eli Benneweiss, who was heading the biggest Scandinavian circus at the time. A tanned man with a deeply furrowed face above a perfectly contour cut, squared white beard. In his elegant circus wagon he invited my Father for a whiskey while he was talking about circus life. He told us how nice it was when Scandinavian Law had liberated him from the constant troubles connected with the keeping of frustrated, wild beasts. This in spite of the fact that it was when Eli Benneweiss had introduced wild animal numbers to his circus that the family business had begun to pay off in earnest. Eli's half-brother was one of the world's most renowned tiger tamers and had been working in Hollywood.

Eli Benneweiss stated that "you will not find a circus´ soul in the humiliation of wildlife. It thrives through magic and compassion. The audience will not identify itself with a whipped lion, but instead empathize with the trapeze artists´ boldness as they jump headlong into the air under the circus dome, or when the tightrope walkers are performing their tricks high above the spectators' heads, where they sit with their hearts in their throats. And the clowns ... they are the ones who keep a circus alive. The hardest thing for a circus director is to find good clowns. A circus falls or rises with its clowns. Through his or her art, a clown manifests the circus´ soul. A clown act is among the hardest things any artist can accomplish. It is not enough to be funny. A genuine clown must be a magician, a craftsman, he must be endowed with an artist's soul, with unique charisma, Great geniuses like Chaplin, Grock and Popov. The clown evokes our sympathy. We identify with him, it is he who leads us into the world of the circus. As in the classic clown number with the White Clown and Auguste. The White Clown with his fantastic outfit; the white make-up, the bright red mouth and ears, the peaked cap and his magnificent embroidered costume – he is the dandy, the puffed-up virtuoso, possessed by  superiority´s sadism. Against him stands the Auguste clown, with his baggy, excessive suit, the large broken shoes, his unruly hair and red nose. An almost insane loser, an uneducated tramp pitted against an arrogant aristocrat. Who wins their comic encounter? The Auguste, of course. But neither he, nor the white clown, are particularly nice or compassionate characters. They are usually vicious and sadistic. They are like us. We do not have to like them, but they act as mirrors reflecting how pathetic, how laughable we all are. It's circus, it´s beyond good and evil, it is both close and distant, surprising, astonishing. It's art. It's magic."

To hear Eli Benneweiss talk was to dive into Kathasaritsagara a place where there is an imminent risk of getting lost, to  lose the grip on the audience and drown. It is utterly embarrassing to witness a magician who is unable to hide the mechanics behind his tricks, or to see a juggler drop his balls, just as embarrassing as it is to have to listen to a failed story teller. The one who suffers the most is the failed magician, juggler or storyteller. It requires a firm and experienced hand to be able to travel across the Ocean of Tales. I do not know if I am a worthy companion, but I dare to make an effort and do it now by entering the world of ghost stories.

When I was a boy I was fascinated by the clowns. However, they were both amusing and frightening. It was maybe their deep humanity that grabbed me, their world beyond good and evil - Kathasaritsagara. I shall now tell you a ghost story. If I am going to succeed in fascinating and frightening you, I do not know, but such an uncertainty is part of the excitement while a narrator and his audience navigate together over Kathasaritsagara.”

This how I introduced my evening of storytelling. I may tell you the ghost story at another time. I do not know if I managed to grab hold of my audience at Hovdala, but I hope I managed to do it.

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