Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The wisdom of Old Mrs Pepperpot

When I finished my keynote talk at a conference this past Monday, the session chair informed the audience that the speaker had a blog and had written a post about giving a keynote talk. I felt a bit akward because the post was in fact about this particular talk. I must be more careful in what I write.

The conference was about Little Old Mrs Pepperpot, or rather about her creator, Alf Prøysen. It is always exciting to go to a conference wholly devoted to a single author, and it so happened that many years ago I was in the same place, Hamar in Norway, at a conference devoted to Tormod Haugen. The author was sitting in the front row. This time Prøysen wasn't sitting in the front row, but if he had been, I think he would be very pleased. His all oeuvre was given detailed attention: children's books, picturebooks, songs, poems, short stories, newspaper columns and even a sculpture of Mrs Pepperpot. I must admit my ignorance: I didn't know much about Prøysen beyond Mrs Pepperpot, and what I had known I had forgotten. At the exhibition in the library I saw a book that I once had translated into Russian (it wasn't printed, but broadcast in a children's radio programme, which Prøysen would have liked). Apparently this book is as indispensible on Christmas Eve in Norway as Donald Duck is in Sweden. I like the idea of a national poet on Christmas Eve better than an international icon. 

At least half of the conference participants were not children's literature people, which is another thing I liked about it. When people outside children's literature for some reason or other have to talk professionally about a children's book or a book about childhood, they look at it with fresh eyes and therefore see things that we child lit experts miss because we think they are too obvious. It has been ages since I read or heard such a brilliant formal poetry analysis. More like this, please!

I have repeatedly reflected on why small nations frequently produce crosswriters. Using a bit far-fetched evolutionary criticism, a small nation cannot afford too much specialisation. For better and for worse. 

I also enjoyed Prøysen museum. I am quite sceptical about writer museums because most of them are terribly boring, showing the writer's manuscripts, his desk, her typewriter, his teapot, her suitcase. Seen one, you've seen them all. This one had taste and tact, and it made me want to know more about Prøysen. It wasn't a cute theme park about Mrs Pepperpot. (Afterwards we were taken to the cottage where he was born, which was like hundreds of other cottages where writers were born, full of authentic artefacts. It wasn't half as interesting). 

My talk, titled "The wisdom of Old Mrs Pepperpot" was about learning from books. But of course we also learn from museums, conferences, pictures, conversations and a bowl of ice cream at a sidewalk cafe in the city of Hamar. 

In an interview for the local newspaper I dared to state that Prøysen has been more influential than Ibsen. Will I ever be admitted to Norway again?

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