Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Kids these days: where are the youth going in Lucky Per?

I'm somewhere in the middle of Pontoppidan's Lucky Per, and a whole lot of stuff is happening. Per's grandiose plans (to widen several of Denmark's rivers and create a network of shipping canals in Jutland with a harbor on the western shore that will rival Hamburg) have begun to gain support in Copenhagen among a group of wealthy bankers and investors. Even Per's sworn enemy, the elderly and influential engineer who laughed at Per's ideas a few years earlier, has become an enthusiastic supporter, now that he's been named director of the project by the investment group. This grates against Per's pride, naturally, as do the continuous requests for Per to clarify and revise his original design. Per has spent the last year and a half or so traveling about the Continent, observing large engineering projects, reading philosophy and exposing himself to the glory of nature. Per's own enthusiasm for, his belief in the worth of, the project begins to wane.

Meanwhile, his early religious background has begun to resurface, a tendency that worries his fiancee, Jakobe. Jakobe and Per have agreed that religion is a falsehood, especially the Christian faith, and that it is life here on earth, the immediate existence and reality, that matters, and all thoughts of afterlife or sin or judgment are childish, a "slave mentality." Per might be waffling on his side of this agreement. It is unclear what Mr Pontoppidan thinks of all this. His characters enthuse about the need to imagine themselves as something greater than they are; this is how Denmark will find its way into the future. Religion is troll stuff, fit for the caverns but not for life as men living in the full sun. There are odd echoes of The Brothers Karamazov in the sustained arguments about Christianity in Lucky Per. Nothing so striking as the Grand Inquisitor scene, though. The Danish rebellion against religion is a lot like the Danish rebellion against rural life: these are the ancient shackles which hold the nation back, and youth must march bravely into the cities to confront reality, armed with science, machines, cigars and beer.

The young men who turn their backs upon tradition and the previous generations in Lucky Per are not the nihilists of Russian literature from a few decades earlier. Per Sidenius is not Bazarov (from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons). Bazarov believes in nothing, and wants to tear everything down because it's all built on lies, and when it's all gone, he has no interest at all in building anything new to replace it all. Russian nihilists, of course, are rebelling against the tyranny of the Tsar and feudalism as well as the perceived tyranny of the established church. Denmark's "20th-century men" are rebelling against a perceived provincialism, the idea of Denmark as a small and insignificant nation that will be swallowed up by progressive, industrialized Germany. The primary force, for example, behind the sudden interest in Per's canal/harbor plan is economic competition against Germany. Also, it must be said, the investment group backing Per is doing so because the royal family is backing a similar plan for a canal and harbor on Zealand, and none of the rising business class want that kind of power and influence to fall into the hands of the king and his cronies.

Denmark, then, especially Copenhagen's new money, starts to catch up with Per's vision of the country. Meanwhile Per wanders Europe, thinks about love and nature and God and eternity and his place in all of it, and concerns himself less and less with Denmark and Copenhagen's new money. It's hard to say where Per is going. I was going to lard this post up with excerpts, maybe the first page and a half of Chapter 14, but then I didn't. I might throw something up tomorrow if anyone is interested.

8 comments:

  1. Scott, how long is this novel? I just read that it was published in eight volumes. Are you planning to read through the entire thing in one go?

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  2. It's about 600 pages. Big pages, with lots of text. Maybe Anna Karenina big. Not quite War and Peace big. Those original Danish volumes must've been tiny little cloth-bound books.

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  3. Stifter's Indian Summer had the same publisher, and I think wa about the same size, so I understand and sympathize with any struggle with the unwieldy and likely kind of ugly book.

    Should there be more novels of engineering? I go back and forth.

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    1. I'm okay with the cover. The text is in dire need of a proofreader, with all sorts of typos and clunky layout issues. I'm just lucky someone translated it into English, I guess.

      A lot of science fiction from the 1950s is essentially about engineering. But it would've been cool if Dickens had written a novel about canals and locks; he really could've worked that material, I think. Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda approaches being a novel of engineering, but doesn't quite make it. I'll have to think about this one.

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    2. Graham Swift's Waterland, now that I think of it, is about canals and locks. And brewing beer. It's almost an engineering novel. Almost. It's really a version of Finnegans Wake.

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    3. Ok, the movie of Waterland did not get that idea across.

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    4. Locks, dredgers, breweries. The circular nature of history, a la Vico. Men and women oppressing each other. Life on the banks of waterways. Sex and violence (that probably made it into the film, I'm guessing). The failures of education. Sins of the fathers visited upon their children, etc. All the stuff about the canals and the draining of the fens seems pretty detailed, specific.

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  4. http://beyondeastrod.blogspot.com/

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