Friday, February 28, 2014

"a not very reassuring expression" Henrik Pontoppidan's social realist novel Lucky Per, part one

"Do you remember from your Danish reader a legend about a hill troll who crept up through his hole to live among men, but sneezed frightfully every time the sun broke through the clouds?"
That's Peter Andreas Sidenius, the hero of Henrik Pontoppidan's 1898 social realist novel Lucky Per, describing himself to Jakobe Salomon. Peter (or "Per," as he calls himself) is one of the novel's many troll figures (there is also Per's father, a dour priest from a very long line of dour priests, and a drunken landscape painter, and God knows who else; I don't know my Danish troll stories). Per has crept up through his hole--that is, separated himself from his rural priestly family on Jutland--and moved to Copenhagen to study engineering (Per has an aptitude for mathematics) and to raise himself above his hill troll origins. Because Lucky Per is loosely erected on the bones of the Danish fairy tales "Lucky Peer" (Hans Christian Andersen) and "Clod-Hans" (traditional), Per Sidenius keeps stumbling backwards into higher circles of society, into patrons and wealthy established families, and into these groups Per wishes to ingratiate himself and fit in, if not actually dominate:
For the first time in his life, he met here people to whom he felt inferior. Even in conversations with the young girls and their friends, he needed to call on all kinds of artifice to cover up the lacks in his culture and hide the big holes in his knowledge. In secret, he tried, with as much speed as possible, to catch up with what he had missed in his general education.
I feel a great kinship here with poor Per, though I hope I am less clumsy socially than he is. Except that I'm not:
Gradually, as he overcame his social insecurity that had, until now, put a damper on his self-confidence, he began the annoying habit of talking incessantly, in any situation. After having read ten or so books of Dr Nathan and like-minded authors, he felt competent to range widely through an array of knowledge, supporting himself with provincial naivete, in every discussion about the great coming Age of Enlightenment.
Sort of like me on the internet. The "great coming Age" refers to Per's big plan, to build a series of canals across Jutland, to widen channels between the major Danish islands, to construct an immense harbor on the west coast of Jutland that will rival Hamburg, to promote industry, to build wave- and wind-powered generators in Kattegat Bay and transform all of rural Denmark into an industrial power. All of this, of course, to distance himself from his provincial priestly family and their gloomy religious outlook. Over time Per's plans become increasingly complex and far-reaching, and as the descriptions accumulate, it gets pretty hysterical.

But this is only a comic novel in the way that Dickens or Turgenev or Dostoyevsky wrote comic novels. There is a lot of serious business going on. Jakobe Salomon, one of the many daughters of the wealthy Jewish merchant Philip Salomon, takes a sort of liking to young Per after Ivan Salomon (Jakobe's brother) decides to be Per's secret patron. Per begins to spend a lot of time in Jakobe's company while he is attempting to woo her little sister Nanny:
He had the highest respect for Jakobe who, with such ease, could speak of an ancient Greek philosopher and the newest Bismarck policy without sounding like a bluestocking. In spite of a not very reassuring expression she at first directed towards him, and in spite of the fact that she did not often show him her most accessible side, he set a high value on talking to her about what she had been reading or was thinking of reading.
What Per doesn't know is that when Jakobe looks at him, she involuntarily sees a pair of Prussian lieutenants she encountered at a Berlin train station, where boxcars of Russian Jews who were being forcibly emigrated to America were detained. There is an ugly scene displaying European antisemitism, a scene to which Jakobe's mind flashes back in Per's company. Per, on his part, had no interest in--and even some considerable aversion to--friendship with Jewish families until it occurred to him that Nanny was flirting with him and that Nanny stood to inherit a great deal of money. Per is the hero, but he's not heroic. Troll, remember?

There's a lot of good stuff in this novel. It's also well-knit structurally, and characters and events are beginning (at page 150 or so of 554 large and dense pages) to swing back around to complicate the plot in a Dickensian sort of manner. Though this is not a Dickens novel. It is a very good novel so far, though, and it's a pity it's so little known and only recently translated into English (I'm reading Naomi Lebowitz' 2010 translation on Peter Lang Books). Thomas Mann thought quite highly of Lucky Per. I can see why.

2 comments:

  1. The mix of trollishness and canal-building is what is really tempting about this one, the fairy tale + realism mix. What is more realistic than engineering? It is probably not as strange as it sounds. But strange enough.

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  2. I'm sure that to non-Danish readers, the trolls are pretty invisible. Per lives in a couple of dark, low-ceilinged rented rooms in the back of an old house. The local avant-garde art bar is dark and dank and low and smoky, and now that I think of it, Per's family home in Jutland was dark and close and smoky and his garret room had a low ceiling and was practically a cave below a mountain summit. But if I hadn't looked for trollishness, I would just have thought that darkness and cave-like spaces were a symbol of lack of sophistication or something. The other (or one other, anyway) fairy tale thing is more overt: whenever Per has a setback, he falls into a fantasy of victory as if he is a mythological hero, a fairy tale champion. Someone or other has commented that this falling into fantasy rather than facing reality is a trait that holds real-life Denmark back (it's been observed that Denmark was late to the party for the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and who knows what else). I can't remember if a character in Lucky Per makes this observation about fantasy, or if that's an actual Danish critic I encountered en passant somewhere. But the book could be read as strictly realist, if one didn't look for the fairy tale world pushing at the seams.

    I'm taking a break from Per to read a collection of HC Andersen tales, that are 1000 times better than I remembered them being. I'm not sure how my continued reading of Pontoppidan's novel will be when I'm through the HCA. It's all pretty weird and interesting, though. I wish there was more Pontoppidan available in English.

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