Saturday, March 22, 2014

Per's Progress: miscellaneous last thoughts on Pontoppidan's novel "Lucky Per"

I finished Henrik Pontoppidan's novel Lucky Per a couple of days ago, and I have put off writing a final post about the book because I did not want to interpret the novel; I wanted to find a way of discussing what's in it instead of just writing down what I think about it, because I was--for a variety of reasons--quite discomfited by the final chapters and my discomfiture distracted me from the novel itself. But I think I can finally write about what's on the page rather than how I feel about the book (a nice delusion, that; as if any of us can write merely about what the author has written without filtering it through ourselves). Anyway, I am going to give it a try.

Lucky Per is constructed of a number of overlapping and simultaneous structures. There is the bildungsroman, the life story of Peter Andreas Sidenius, son of a rural Danish priest, a boy who dreams of transforming Denmark. There is the social novel, where Pontoppidan displays and comments ironically on many of the social classes within Denmark in the late 19th century. There is the political novel, where Pontoppidan displays and comments ironically on many of the national characteristics of Europe outside of Denmark, including at many steps the Danish hatred of Germany and the growing European antisemitism. There is also the examination of the role of religion in an industrialized free-market society, the question of spiritual authority in the age of science. This last structure is possibly the most important one in the novel, as the question of faith is what creates the biggest changes in Per's life. All of these structures are held together by the powerful glue of irony.

The religious issues are examined in Lucky Per via a dialectic that starts on the first page and carries the narrative to the final scene. I am unsure if Pontoppidan presents what he thinks is a synthesis at the end of the book, or if he simply exhausts all the opposing ideas in play at the time he wrote the book. I will say that the ending of Lucky Per strikes me as bleak, for Per has attempted to reconcile the contradictions inherent in modern society and to find a balance between progress and faith and a universe of meaningful, directed causality, and he has failed. He can, by the time he's in his early 30s, believe in nothing. He finds himself a man who has rejected everything. A man who has rejected everything has no place in society. Society has no place for a man who has rejected everything. Per divorces his wife and abandons his three children, turns his back on everything he has known and all the plans he had for himself and Denmark, and goes to live in solitude along a rocky, wind-swept coastal highway where he works alone for twenty years and then dies of cancer.

I am not sure what Pontoppidan means by this, unless he is saying (and here I go, interpreting for you) that the problems of modern life cannot be reconciled, that we all have to take up positions that contain within them contradictions that can't withstand close examination, and that there is no way out of this modern situation except by isolating each of us, which will destroy society. Maybe. Like I say, the book is bleak, at least in my reading, though Per himself seems to think he has found a way to survive, if not a way to be happy and a useful member of society. He can have no family, he can have no dreams beyond his immediate labor and his next meal and his eventual death, which death he welcomes a la Wittgenstein (who, when at the age of 50 learned he had inoperable cancer, allegedly said, "Good!").

I'm getting lost in all this unresolved existential angst. Per becomes a Nietzschean, though not the Ubermensch Per strove to be in his youth. Let's back up a bit, I guess. Per comes from a repressive, conservative Lutheran home that he rejects early on and this rejection causes such friction between Per and his pastor father that Per is sent away to Copenhagen to study mathematics, for which the boy has an aptitude. At school in Copenhagen, hundreds of miles from his father, Per decides to become an engineer and creates a plan to build a system of canals across Jutland, connecting to a large free port he will build on the western coast. One of the ironies of Lucky Per is that Per has stolen the basic idea of this massive project; in his youth there was talk of dredging the river that runs through his hometown, to widen the mouth of the harbor and deepen the waters to allow larger vessels and thus increase the trade. Per has simply taken this idea and applied it to a larger territory. Because he is a prideful young man and cannot hide his arrogance, and because he cannot take criticism and so drops out of engineering college, Per will never realize his great project to industrialize rural Jutland. When the plan is taken over by unscrupulous investors and another engineer takes credit for the idea, Per is incensed but fails to remember that the idea was never his own to begin with.

Over the years, as Per attempts to become a powerful force to propel Denmark into the future, he comes into intimate contact with every level of society, but fails to find a place at any level. During his travels between social strata, Per also attempts to find some sort of personal philosophy upon which he can base his life. He is at peace with his engineering drawings, at least for a decade or so, and he feels no pressure upon him when he is alone in nature. In nature Per thinks he might see the hand of God, and so he tries to reconcile himself to some understanding of religion, and this dialectic zigzags alongside the dialectic concerned with power, money and technological progress. There are moments in both dialectics where it seems that Per has found synthesis, a place he can stop and declare himself on solid metaphysical ground. Alas, the contradictions which inhere in each of these metaphysics quickly are unearthed, and Per stumbles along once more, always the seeker, never to find what he seeks. A lot of the action of the novel is Per moving away from flawed points of view, one after another. The closest Per comes to stability is when he is about 30, married to the daughter of a liberal "free-thinking" parson, working on a drainage project in a farming district (a paltry version of his grand engineering scheme, but one which has immediate and clear positive results for real people), meanwhile skiving off for weekly theological debates with a sort of primal Christian pastor who is despised by Per's father-in-law. Here's a bit of one of those debates. The pastor, Pastor Fjaltring, speaks first here:
"I don't have any illustions. Our time has turned religion into marketplace wares and you can't blame people for looking for shops that sell the goods most cheaply."

Per felt obliged to defend his father-in-law's perspective. Without naming anyone, Pastor Fjaltring answered that a benign, half-patronizing or, perhaps, merely curious relation to the great question of life was, in his eyes, worse than no relation at all. "Faith is a passion and where that does not exist, it makes mere sport of God. To stir up a certain spiritual vigor artificially in the populace is so far from preparing the earthbound for a serious and sincere faith--or even for serious doubt--that, on the contrary, it destroys the seeds, which lie in the soul of every person, of a real relationship with God.[...] The hurried progress of the machine age carries over to the religious life. When people from all spheres are habituated to satisfying their needs with the least possible personal effort, they demand also, in the realm of belief, that faith be acquired without too much strain or too much time. And the preachers of God's word [...] generally do not have the will to resist that demand."
These conversations are the death-knell to Per's relationship with his father-in-law, who is just the sort of preacher Fjaltring describes. Per thinks, for a brief time, that he has found a spiritual guide in Pastor Fjaltring. That ends when Fjaltring is discovered dead in his home, having hanged himself out of despair at his wife's death. Per finds himself once more walking away from a metaphysic that cannot bear up under the strain of real life. This time, however, there are no more alternative ideas waiting for him to try out. There is nothing left, and as I said above, a man who believes nothing has no place in society. And so Per abandons everything, divorces his wife and goes off to live in a place too small to be even a village, where he will use up his remaining days, laboring and dying. Because he has nobody, Per writes his thoughts into a journal, which is discovered when the house is being cleared out after Per's funeral. The final pages of Lucky Per are largely a list of Per's final ideas about existence, a declaration of independence from metaphysics and society:
I am still a world conqueror. Every man's soul is an independent universe, his death the extinction of the universe in miniature.

This thought has been ascribed to Voltaire: If God did not exist, mankind would have invented Him. I find more truth in the reverse: If there really is a God, then we should seek to forget Him, to raise up men who will to do good for goodness' sake, not out of fear of punishment for their bad deeds.

We are surrounded, in life, by so many things that become our property by chance. One day we discover that we need a dresser. We go to the cabinetmaker and buy one that happens to be there. We examine it indifferently. Perhaps it's not to our taste, but at the moment we have decided to buy it; when it becomes our property, a secret transformation takes place in the relationship between us and this chest of drawers. Carefully we brush our hand over the polished surface and, with love and solicitude, keep watch when the movers carry it up the stairs; if we are forced, later in life, to part with it, it feels as if a piece of ourselves is missing. That is the mystery of possessions. Is it also of faith?
I don't know what Pontoppidan felt about any of this. I think there's a clear message against pride in Lucky Per, as demonstrated by Per's inability to realize his self-aggrandizing plans for the canals and harbor, and later by Jakobe turning her efforts and her fortune to a school for poor urban children, finding use to be more important than happiness. It's possible that, like Per, Pontoppidan sees the contradictions of the modern world to be impossible to reconcile. The novel's title in Danish is Lykke Per. "Lykke" means not only "lucky," but also "happy." Per is, in his own estimation, lucky. He is never happy. The title exposes one of Pontoppidan's many ironies in this book. I remain discomfited by the novel. That's probably what Pontoppidan intended.

12 comments:

  1. While I enjoyed your posts on "Lucky Per," I don't think they made me want to read it. And maybe that's all right. Or not. Unsure.

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    1. Lucky Per is like a lot of early Modernism. The author points out that we are lost, we feel betrayed by our forebears, and the future looks grim. Nothing is settled, nor can it be. And then suddenly WWI happened, a horror none but a madman could've imagined. 400 pages or so of this book play like comedy; it's just in the end, when Pontoppidan moves toward his conclusions, or maybe his inability to draw conclusions, that Lucky Per is revealed to be a tragedy. Like all good fiction, the novel makes me feel sad for humanity and reminds me that we need to treat each other better than we do. Even setting that aside, I can see why it was an important book in its time.

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  2. I just figured out that Per is Denmark. I am such a dope. Pontoppidan is saying that unless Denmark can resolve her internal and external conflicts, she will end up a lonely, isolated little nation on the cold and barren north shore of Europe, ignored and insignificant, which might be just what Denmark needs. That was pretty obvious; I don't know why I didn't see it until just now.

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  3. "Like all good fiction, the novel makes me feel sad for humanity and reminds me that we need to treat each other better than we do."

    Really? Good fiction makes you sad? Surely some good fiction can do something more positive and uplifting for you. Perhaps I have been reading the wrong books because my reactions are different.

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    1. I don't read fiction to be uplifted, whatever that is. There is also nothing wrong with feeling sad for humanity. Most people don't feel that way enough of the time, in my opinion!

      But I will say that it might be more accurate to say "like a lot of good fiction" than "all good fiction," yeah. Though I am trying to think of any good fiction that doesn't at least in passing evoke the sadness of humanity. I am coming up with nothing.

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    2. I'm afraid that I'm with you on this one. Even Wodehouse (delightful Plum!)

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  4. Am I misremembering your effusive, upbeat praise for James Joyce's comic masterpieces, Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake? Perhaps that was someone else.

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    1. I praise those sad, terribly beautiful books, yes. I praise their said, terrible comic tragic beauty. I am shaken, and declare them masterpieces. The final chapter of Finnegans Wake is one of the saddest things ever written. So wholly human, so tender. It's Joyce's tenderness in the face of such sadness that is so remarkable. Like Chekhov or Woolf. Ulysses is sad, too. These are two lovely books everyone should read. My praise might be upbeat, for I am always cheered by beauty, I suppose. But both novels made me sad in a very powerful way. Maybe we're just having a difference over semantics here.

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    2. I found what I said: "There is no way to meaningfully describe the experience of reading Finnegans Wake, especially the experience of finishing the book, of the last chapter’s absolute magic and beauty and terrible, dreadful sorrow."

      I should learn some new adjectives.

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    3. Ah, the story underlying all of the verbal fun in Ulysses is so sad! Poor Poldy, poor Molly, poor Hamnet. That last one is wrong - I have forgotten the son's name.

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