Why More People Should Read This Danish Masterpiece

Garth Risk Hallberg on Lucky Per, the Great Scandinavian Novel

By  Garth Risk Hallberg

In the summer of 1937, Ernst Bloch, the redoubtable German-Jewish literary critic, utopian humanist, and exile from Nazi persecution, was browsing the paper in his new home of Czechoslovakia when an item brought him up short. The novelist Henrik Pontoppidan had died at the age of 80 in his native Denmark. Bloch moved swiftly to set down his thoughts and sent the resulting, impassioned eulogy to another newspaper, the German-language Prager Weltbühne, for publication. “A great writer has been pronounced dead,” he lamented:

This is one of those dark instances in which the world cheats itself of the few great things that are in it. Most people, it would seem, do not recognize the name of Pontoppidan, despite the Nobel Prize that crowns it. Even fewer have read Hans im Glück, that dense, deep, unique work.

The title was from the German edition of Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per (Lykke-Per in Danish). Published in two volumes in Copenhagen in 1905, the book had also appeared in Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Romanian, and Dutch; won praise from such luminaries as Thomas Mann; and propelled its author to a 1917 Nobel Prize for Literature. Twenty years on, Europe may have had bloodier matters on its collective mind, but Bloch, ever hopeful, found himself dreaming of a more pacific world where Lucky Per would “be counted among the essential works of world literature”—a “near future,” he wrote, in which Pontoppidan might “finally begin to live.”

The embarrassment of this prediction was not so much that it was wrong as that it was premature. Bloch soon received a note from Pontoppidan, who pointed out tactfully that he was not in fact dead, but at home in a coastal suburb, celebrating his ninth decade. And what’s more, still writing; the third volume of his memoirs would appear the following year, a fourth in 1940. (Only in 1943, after an abridgment of the whole had been published as On the Way to Myself, did the novelist, now 86, finally breathe his last.)

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The historical record in English doesn’t indicate quite where the adjective “erroneous” belongs here—whether Czech journalists had accidentally misreported Pontoppidan’s death or whether, as seems likely, they were simply saluting a Nobel laureate on his 80th birthday, and Bloch, still adjusting to a new language, had misread. But perhaps the ambiguity is fortuitous, one of those places where life gusts up to reveal its stitching. In Denmark today, Lucky Per is a literary touchstone, and the basis for the most lavish film production in the country’s history. Elsewhere, the name of Pontopiddan is virtually unknown. And because his legacy has amounted, in essence, to a tale of two audiences—one at home, one abroad—it seems only fitting that the first false report of this great writer’s death should arise from things lost in translation.

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Even in 1937, Pontoppidan’s readership in his mother tongue was larger and more durable than Bloch, stranded elsewhere in a fragmenting Europe, could have understood. A pastor’s son and engineering-school dropout, Pontoppidan had made his name and a modest living with his very first story collection, Clipped Wings, published in 1881, when he was 24. Two more collections and assorted journalistic piecework followed over the next decade, along with a handful of promising books in the half-invented genre he called “smaa Romaner”—novellas, give or take a few thousand words. This early writing focused on life in the peasant towns of Jutland, the easternmost lobe of the Danish archipelago. It was Pontoppidan’s home territory—his pen-name in the Copenhagen Morgenbladet was “Rusticus,”  the man of the country—and he aimed to “delyricize” it in the manner of a Nordic Flaubert, flensing away the sentimentality of his Romantic elders.

The titles alone suggest a posture of wintry pragmatism: From the Huts, The Polar Bear, “The End of Life,” “The Bone Man”; “Fate was not kind,” a story called “A Death Blow”  insists, perhaps superfluously. Yet these tales betray a tender streak, too, a kind of gallows humor, along with a deep-running feeling for the place. Even the bleakest of them abound with a quality of passionate seeing: the sun “melting the tar out of the timber walls,”  the wagon rolling out of the forest “as if out of another century.”

It was a fourth collection, Clouds, that, in 1890, announced Pontoppidan’s full range. To the early works’ Flaubertian ironies, Clouds added Balzacian hunger, reaching from the provinces to a capital in the throes of modernization. Pontoppidan was now in his thirties, a husband and father, and perhaps this, too, had enlarged him. In any case, Clouds was his “most significant and most widely read work” to date, according to a critical biography by P. M. Mitchell.

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In short order, Pontoppidan was trading letters with Georg Brandes, the leading promulgator of a “Modern Breakthrough” in Danish culture; living in Copenhagen year-round; and contributing to Brandes’s brother’s newspaper as “Urbanus”—the man of the city. Most importantly, he was beginning work on an ambitious cycle called The Promised Land, which would bid farewell to peasant life. Across three smaa Romaner, it traced the story of Emanuel Hansted, an idealistic young curate who moves from the city to the provinces and is ultimately destroyed by them: “Here lies Don Quixote’s ghost,” runs the epitaph in the novel, “who was born to be a good chaplain, but thought himself a prophet and a saint.” The work was a popular success; English versions of its first two installments were printed in London in 1896. But even as the trilogy was being gathered into a single volume, Pontoppidan was embarking upon a still more ambitious project—indeed, one that claimed ambition as its central mystery.

He would name his new hero Peter Andreas Sidenius, and the book after a nickname, “Per.”  And if Emanuel Hansted’s refined background and tragic end had been the projections of a young man on the make, Pontoppidan would grant Per something of his own “Aladdin’s luck,” along with great swaths of his personal history.

Pontoppidan was embarking upon a still more ambitious project—indeed, one that claimed ambition as its central mystery.

The most significant of these sharings was a family background: Per Sidenius would be the black sheep of an old and extensive ministerial line of pietist clerics. (Cue Pontoppidan’s trenchant autobiography: “My father was a parson. That is basically my entire saga.”) Estranged as a child from his Jutland home—marked out, he feels, by fortune—Per heads off at 16 for the big city. He is following the map drawn by his realist forebears, but also, interestingly, reversing the trajectory of The Promised Land.

In Copenhagen, Per pursues his fortune along a series of charmed paths. Really, they are the same path. He enters the Polytechnic Institute and just as quickly departs it. He flirts with artistic circles but outgrows (he thinks) their “fleas and filthy bedrooms.”  He falls in and out of love at least five times. And through all these stormy impulsions, he clings to the ambition he has conceived for himself: to usher “little, poor” Denmark into the 20th century by means of “his great work.”

That the word “work” here indicates a feat of civil engineering, rather than of art, is one of several key ways in which Lucky Per tacks away from the traditions it otherwise reckons by: bildungsroman, yes, but also folk tale, religious confession, künstlerroman  . . . Per’s engineering schemes (as the critic Fredric Jameson has noted) link personal and national destiny in a way that even the boldest of the künstler’s creations cannot. When Per dreams of changing the world, he is thinking not only of moral sentiments but of shipping routes, capital flows, and the liberation of a rural proletariat through the power of the sea. Nonetheless, his projects encode, as eloquently as any poem or painting, a psychological self-portrait. Or does it not speak to his suppressed desires that his proposed masterpiece, a “tentacled canal system,” will bring estranged Jutland towns like the one he’s just fled into communion with all the ports of the great world? Such industrial-strength hubris bulks up the irony, too:  Per seems a little crazy to dream so big, yet we nontechnicians feel uneasy dismissing him. And by the midpoint of the novel, via his rude charisma and his engagement to a banker’s daughter who might civilize him, Per stands on the cusp of realizing his dream.

But fortune in Lucky Per is as mysterious as in life. For it is precisely at this moment that Per’s rise stalls out. His outer attainments—funds, love, renown—seem only to underscore an inner emptiness. “Who am I? I can’ t say,” he murmurs at one point, early on, and that remains his strength and his curse, the abyss from which no success can save him. Still, Per is nothing if not stubborn; his motto is the Nietzschean “I will.” And so the book’s second half completes the fairy-tale arc of journey and return. We watch him strip away his ambitions one by one, breaking the connections he’s made, mending the ones he’s broken, drawing ever closer to a new, perhaps unreachable goal.

Lucky Per appeared in seven installments, from 1898 to 1904. Pontoppidan, an obsessive reviser, kept editing well into the 1910s. Nonetheless, the book was already understood to place its author, in Mann’s phrase, “within the highest class of European writers.” Writing in Heidelberg, the Marxist György Lukács gave Lucky Per a prominent place in his influential Theory of the Novel, alongside Don Quixote and A Sentimental Education. Meanwhile, in Stockholm, Fredrik Vetterlund, a conservative who found Pontoppidan’s generation insufficiently high-minded, commended Lucky Per and The Promised Land to the attention of the Swedish Academy: “These belong, by virtue of their richness, their portrayal of the soul, their narrative art, and their overall effect, to the most eminent works [of ] Nordic novel-writing.”

One imagines Pontoppidan as too skeptical a temperament to have cared much about accolades. He was now halfway through the last of his three great novel cycles, The Kingdom of the Dead, and his outlook on “the soul”  had darkened considerably. A proximate cause was Europe’s catastrophic plunge into war. Yet in one respect, fortune stayed with him. It was felt in the Academy—never exactly insensible to the literary charms of Scandinavia—that the Nobel was now best bestowed on writers from the small, neutral countries of the north. Pontoppidan, increasingly austere, would have to share the prize with his more moralistic countryman, Karl Gjellerup. But the award was widely understood not as a split decision for two half qualified writers so much as a ticket brokered between extremes: “Gjellerup’s idealism and Pontoppidan’s talent,”  in the brisk assessment of the Norwegian daily Verdens Gang.

Gjellerup was almost instantly forgotten. Pontoppidan, on the other hand, would have an outsized influence on 20th-century Danish literature. In 1906, when Martin Andersen Nexø published his own magnum opus, Pelle the Conqueror, the dedication was to Pontoppidan: “the master.”  And up through the 1950s, Danish novelists would apprentice themselves to his innovations. A writer so well known in his own time, and resolutely of no party, was perhaps destined to fall comparatively out of vogue amid the radical upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. But his reputation soon recovered. When, at the turn of the millennium, Denmark’s paper of record, Politiken, surveyed readers on “the greatest Danish novel of the 20th century,” Lucky Per came in second, edged out only by Johannes V. Jensen’s historical epic The Fall of the King. And 2018’s sumptuous three-hour film adaptation by the Oscar-winning director Bille August would seem poised to cement Lucky Per as Denmark’s version of the Great Scandinavian Novel, full stop.

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Still, overseas, Lucky Per and its author remain as unrecognized as Bloch seemed to fear 80 years ago. Only a few dozen pages of Pontoppidan’s fiction have been translated into English since Volume II of The Promised Land appeared in 1896. And by 2007, these too were emphatically out of print, so that even as Denmark’s Culture Ministry was inducting Lucky Per into the country’s official canon, Bill Bryson could lump it in with the work of other Nobelists “whose fame would barely make it to the end of their own century.” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik waxed similarly invidious a few years later: “Who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov, than of . . . Henrik Pontoppidan?” Of course, neither of these writers made claims to have read him, so perhaps this is simply a way of begging the bigger question: why has so little of Pontoppidan’s work reached the English-speaking world?

There is always the possibility that certain untranslatable facts of culture have held Pontoppidan back—but this theory seems belied by both common sense and the work itself. To be sure, Denmark is a little nation (“Lilliputian,” Lucky Per calls it) but that never stopped Kierkegaard or Isak Dinesen from finding readers. And, to be sure, there are elements of Pontoppidan’s great social tapestry—ecclesiastical mores, “fascine constructions”—that history has rendered moot . . . but more moot than the Chancery Court of Bleak House? More moot than Middlemarch’s Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832? It seems to me, rather, that one of Lucky Per’s major feats of engineering is to charge the putatively local concerns of 1870’s Denmark with storm and strife that resonate today.

Aesthetically restless, Pontoppidan would gradually subsume the clipped lucidity of his youth into a larger panoply of modes that, in Lucky Per, amounts almost to an encyclopedia.

There is, more plausibly, the obstacle posed to translation by Pontoppidan’s literary language. His reputation in Denmark is as an exemplar of classical prose. Aesthetically restless, Pontoppidan would gradually subsume the clipped lucidity of his youth into a larger panoply of modes that, in Lucky Per, amounts almost to an encyclopedia: satire and pathos, speechifying and repartee, lyrical evocations of Copenhagen’s grit, moils of introspection that stretch logic as if attempting to engineer modernism itself, and—perhaps his favorite effect—a periodic clearing into transparence. The net result is high style, and high tension. “Pontoppidan keeps his [prose] as a pastor’s wife does the floor of her living room,” wrote the critic and friend Vilhelm Andersen. And he’s right: given everything that’s packed inside, the room is impressively well kept. But what really drew me in, when Naomi Lebowitz sent me her translation in 2010—the first I’d ever heard of this forgotten masterpiece—was the fire that so often seems on the verge of shooting from the walls.

In fact, returning to Lucky Per now, on the eve of its republication, I’ve begun to suspect that what has held it back from wider renown is the very thing that guarantees its posterity: what Bloch calls its “contradiction,” Jameson its “cosmic neutrality,” and Pontoppidan himself its “double vision.” That is, the book elevates the tensions of its style, the wildness and the control, the passion and the doubt, to the level of a compositional principle, which in turn becomes a philosophical outlook on the most bracing paradoxes of life itself.

This is easiest to see in Per’s family relationships. Pontoppidan’s model for storytelling was, he wrote to Andersen, “the unattainable pattern: There once was a man named John,” and Lucky Per’s opening gives us “a pastor named Johannes Sidenius” living among “the green hills of East Jutland.” Within a few sentences, the mists of folklore clear, and we see this pastor as he appears to his town’s gossipy citizens: the aloofness, the self-regard, the ascetic unconcern for the figure he cuts, the faintly ridiculous “dark blue glasses.” By the end of the chapter, when the pastor’s rebellious son Per leaves home on a boat “slowly steam[ing] out through the endless bends of the fjords,” we’ll be ready to throw our sympathies in with our hero.

Garth Risk Hallberg
Garth Risk Hallberg
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of City on Fire. His writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The New York Times, Best New American Voices 2008, and The Millions; His novella, A Field Guide to the North American Family, was published in 2007.





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