Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"a remarkably repulsive story" by Henrik Pontoppidan: The Apothecary's Daughters

This is a remarkably repulsive story, which it would have been far better to leave in a language which would necessarily have kept the knowledge of it within narrow limits. Some of the dramas and tales which Scandinavia is giving us just now are not things to be grateful for.
That short and pithy review of Henrik Pontoppidan's short novel The Apothecary's Daughters is from The Spectator, published 12 April 1890, upon the publication of the first (and possibly only) English translation of the book. The translation, which seems quite fine to me, is by Gordius Nielsen. I might tell you that the story also seems quite fine to me, and has caused me great discomfort in that I'm having a difficult time finding more English translations of Pontoppidan's works. I would like to read more of his works.

Henrik Pontoppidan was a Danish writer (1857-1943) who shared the Nobel prize in literature with some guy named Karl Gjellerup in 1917. Reading Pontoppidan began for me as a bit of a joke when Amateur Reader announced his Year of Danish Literature. Also, a coworker of mine had read The Apothecary's Daughters in the original Danish and recommended it to me.

The novel(la) concerns the marriages and subsequent unhappiness of Betty and Kamma, the titular daughters. The apothecary, upon his retirement at age 60, moves to the country (in Jutland, it seems, but that's never made clear) where he plans to raise his teenaged daughters away from the corrupting influence of the city. The village where the innocent family lives is bounded on the landward side by two great estates, the lords of the estates being eligible bachelors, both around 40 years of age. Inevitably, the sisters marry the two lords, much to the consternation of the local families who've had their eyes upon these wealthy bachelors for decades.

Kamma, the elder daughter, discovers quickly that she has married a notorious adulterer "(quite a common milkmaid was openly spoken of)", and she leaves him in shame, moving back to her father's house. Her husband pleads with her to return but she refuses him and eventually he disappears and is never heard from again. Betty, the younger sister, has better luck, for a while. She marries Anton Daniel Frederick Drehling, a respectable member of the upper house of Parliament, who loves Betty madly and takes her on an extended honeymoon all over Europe. They return to the estate on Jutland when they discover that Betty is with child. She bears a son, but soon after Anton must return to Copenhagen to serve in Parliament. There he meets, quite by accident, a woman from his past, for whom he once suffered a burning passion. Things progress from there, in all the usual ironic and comic ways:
He began talking in an absent-minded manner about travels, the troubles of a travelling life, and about foreign countries. And as it now happened that they had visited the same places, and there seen the same things and met the same people, he entered almost against his will into lively conversation.

Mrs Condering possessed a peculiar curt, clear, often quite pertinent and, in talking about people, not unfrequently a light sarcastical manner of expressing herself, which involuntarily captivated her listeners. She appeared to have lived and seen a great deal more than most people; seemed equally intimate with Vienna high life, the seaside life along the Channel, and with the Parisian theatrical news. Gradually Anton was carried away by these old recollections of places and worlds which formerly had been so dear to him, so that he quite forgot his uneasiness.
In tone, the book is surprisingly similar to the tales of Gogol and Chekhov. Here's one of my favorite bits, about the apothecary going a-hunting ["Sancho Panza" refers to the assistant apothecary, a faithful servant named John]:
As soon as they had commenced to ramble out in the enclosed fields round the town, a peculiar commotion was invariably raised in its outskirts. Women looked out for their poultry; mothers gathered in their children; while at home, in the apothecary's shop, the little weak apothecary's wife shuddered in her roller chair, although she knew that Sancho Panza, according to her own express demand, was close by in case anything unusual should occur.

This uneasiness was all the more inexplicable as scarcely any destruction had ever been caused of any kind whatsoever; if we except once, when, by a pardonable oversight, the apothecary had had the ill luck to mangle a lady's old brown muff, which, together with some old hairy stuff, was laid out for an airing on a lawn behind the furrier's garden; and another time when a small shot, in a yet undiscovered manner, went astray into the calf of a passer-by. With these exceptions, nothing between heaven and earth had the least serious molestation to complain of.

But Apothecary Byberg's heart swelled every time that he, through his spectacles, noticed the flurry which the mere sight of his person on these occasion caused around him. He triumphantly enjoyed the sneaking fear with which dogs and cats slunk past him along the house walls, when, with manly steps and the gun barrel peeping up over his shoulder, he walked along the resounding flags of the street.
Pehaps The Apothecary's Daughters is a bit slight, and I must assume it's nothing at all like the later novels of Pontoppidan, which all look pretty good. If nothing else, it's piqued my interest in reading more from the author. I have requested the 2010 English translation of Lucky Per from the university library. Lucky Per is a 600-page social novel that allegedly moves through every stratum of Danish society. So that'll be interesting.


  1. Good, some division of labor. Thanks goodness.

    The library I'm leaning on has lots of Scandinavian obscurities, but no Pontoppidan at all, or none in English. The "hunting" scene is pretty good.

    1. I'll also be reading some Dinesen in a while. Not "Seven Gothic Tales," though.

      The Pontoppidan was not bad. Not brilliant, but tempting enough. "Lucky Per," according to the library system, is on it's way to me.

      Later this year, "The Long Ships," I think. Are you reading that one? Have you already read it? I forget.

    2. No. I'll write about Njal's Saga next week, and that might be it for the Vikings. It would be too easy to get completely tangled up with the Vikings. They are very interesting!

    3. I wouldn't mind if you were tangled up with Vikings... Scott, congratulations on doing a reprint! Good work.

    4. Another very small publisher, but the cover is gorgeous and I've been able to correct a couple of typos and one historical error about how many planets were known in 1601, which is nice. It's also a smaller trim size, hence a higher page count, which will make the book appear more substantial than it actually is. Which amuses me. I have to look over page proofs this weekend. Hurrah!

      I'd happily read Tom reading Vikings for an extended set of posts.

  2. I like the tone of the writing. The sections you included here are pretty entertaining. The interaction between Anton and Mrs Condering is described in a way that reminds me a bit of Constance Garnett's translations of Anna K.

    1. The whole book has a definite Connie Garnett feel. Maybe that's why I kept thinking of Russian literature while reading it. Right now I'm going back and forth between Michelle's "Out of Tune" and Tolstoy's "The Cossacks." Have you read that Tolstoy? "Hadji Murad" is apparently a sort of companion piece to it. The two novellas sort of bookend Tolstoy's career. Very interesting stuff.

    2. Yes, I read The Cossacks a few years ago. I remember liking some scenes a lot, though I don't remember too much of it anymore. Unlike the Death of Ivan Ilyich and Anna Karenina, which I have reread multiple times, I only read The Cossacks once.