My rating: 7/10.
This early years autobiography left me curious as to the next stage in Bjarnhof’s life. The internet is curiously empty of much information about a man who became a celebrated member of Danish musical and intellectual society.
Desperately bleak in parts; often deeply moving.
This is the story of a boy whose early years were filled with an array of tragic and challenging issues, not the least of which is his growing blindness. Looking back on his childhood from many years in the future, the tone is stoic yet unsparing of the details of the situation and actions of Karl Bjarnhof’s family and childhood associates, and his own reactions and thoughts.
Karl, from his own self-description, was a stubborn and introspective child, occasionally impulsive, and often unable to explain his own actions or respond emotionally appropriately to the out-reaching of others. The deep love of his parents for their troubled child comes through clearly and poignantly, though Karl does not acknowledge those feelings in so many words in this account.
A gifted mathematician and musician from childhood, though these tendencies were initially dismissed, Karl went on in his adult life to gain international fame and respect as a cellist and organist, and later as a writer and radio broadcaster.
I can’t say I exactly “enjoyed” this autobiography. It immediately pulled me in and kept me enthralled, but it is a painful account to read, and it left me saddened, even knowing that Karl’s persistence in following his inner vision won through, and that he went on to lead a creative and fulfilling adult life. There is a certain understated humour to some of the anecdotes, but much of the book comes across as serious and unsmiling in tone. I suspect that some of the sparingly written vignettes will be etched in my memory for years to come.
Karl Bjarnhof was born in 1889, and died in 1980. His vision faded throughout his childhood and teen years; he became fully blind at the age of nineteen.
From the inner cover of this vintage 1960 Penguin edition:
Karl Bjarnhof in this brilliant autobiographical novel tells the story of a boy marked out from his fellows by the gradual onset of blindness.
The boy himself is not depressed, though other people may make him miserable: the boys in the yard will not play with him because he is too ‘stupid’ to see the ball; his mother nags at him for being ‘peculiar’; his schoolmaster punishes him for not being able to do the sums set on the blackboard. When eventually he is taken to an occulist he is told he has ‘eyes like a hawk’ because while he was waiting for his test he memorized the letters on the chart.
This story is devoid of self-pity or sentimentality. It gives a complete picture of a childhood in a small town in Denmark, with a gallery of unforgettable characters, both comic and pathetic. The book is profoundly moving, and deserves its outstanding success; the Danish book trade awarded the Golden Laurels (for the most outstanding book of the year) to Kark Bjarnhof in 1956 for The Stars Grow Pale; it has been published in nine countries, and was a Book Society Recommendation.
‘The book is a thing of beauty, of tenderness, and, at times, humour; which has, too, a strong adventurous streak.’ – Elizabeth Bowen in the Tatler
‘The sheer beauty of the writing … is exquisite …[The boy’s] world is completely his own, yet Mr. Bjarnhof, by his almost uncanny power of communication, puts the reader right into it.’ – Rumer Godden in the Bookman
From the back cover:
Karl Bjarnhof was born in 1898 in the small town of Vejle in Denmark. His family lived in very moderate circumstances and was hard put to provide proper medical assistance for the boy, who began to go blind at an early age. He has been totally blind for many years.
Bjarnhof’s musical talents and interests were manifest from the very beginning, and he developed into one of Denmark’s best violoncellists, although he no longer performs in public.
He is now known chiefly for his radio work as feature writer, music commentator and quizmaster, and above all for his exceptional talents as radio interviewer. He has been the editor of a Copenhagen newspaper, and has written several novels and numerous feature articles on a wide variety of subjects ranging from music, literature, art and the theatre to the state of the world in general.
The Good Light, published in 1960, continues Karl Bjarnhof’s story. Both books are readily available through ABE.
Though I personally found The Stars Grow Pale an interesting, and often compelling, read, I would hesitate to recommend it unless the reader is a serious collector of rather obscure autobiography, or has a previous interest in Bjarnhof’s early years. Well written, in a distinctive style – or at least well translated with clarity and artistic flair – it is nonetheless a work which may not appeal to the broadest range of readers.