Monday, March 17, 2014

Setting and theme in Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per

This is a subject about which someone could write a really good article. This is however not that article; this is nothing but a quick glance in the direction of an idea. That idea is that Henrik Pontoppidan has cleverly used setting as a structural device in his novel-of-ideas, Lucky Per. There are two main ways this is done: as expansions of the characters being examined at the moment (you know, the way setting is usually used in a novel), and ironic commentary about the philosophy Per is embracing at the moment. What's that mean? I will explain.

Per is more than once called a troll, a hill troll who has crawled from his cave to walk in the sun with men, but who is allergic to the full light of day. There are many other trolls in Lucky Per, but Per is the most important troll, or at least he's the central troll. Per's lodgings are of two sorts in the novel: either they are dark and primitive rooms with low ceilings, or they are cold and soulless hotel rooms. He is most at home, most productive and most himself in the dark caves for the majority of the narrative. Per's fiancee, Jakobe Salomon, lives in a Baroque palace, surrounded by gilt and marble and tile, bright reflections and crystal chandeliers and white linens and polished silver plate. Very old-money Europe, very anti-troll.

When Per is attempting to become one of the smart set, one of the powerful elite of Copenhagen, he tries hard to make himself at home in Jakobe's family mansion. The Salomons and their circle of friends are not comfortable around Per, who talks too much, too loudly, and primarily about himself and his shallow understanding of society and politics. Eventually Per travels around Europe and has some of the hard edges of his character rounded off and learns how to act in society. The better he can control himself and comport with the wealthy and the intelligentsia, the less attractive he finds the crystal and gilt and velvet. The longer Per travels across the Old World, the more the luxury hotel rooms oppress him. The only places he really feels at home when he's away from Denmark are wild places, the Alps and the forests, the open fields and the river valleys.

It is also worth noting that when Per travels to Copenhagen to seek his fortune, he quite literally brings rural Jutland with him in the form of his elaborate plans to create a canal system and a massive harbor. So there's Per in his dark little cave of a room at the back of a house near the harbor in cosmopolitan Copenhagen, laboring over plans to modernize and industrialize his hated rural place of origin so that he can move into a marble mansion and pull Denmark into the same league as rich and powerful European nations like Germany. All of these settings, rural and urban, pull in different directions against the ideas of progress in the form of investments, factories and liberal anti-religious education. There is a philosophical tug of war going on in Lucky Per. It seems that no matter which direction our hero is tugging, the background of the scene is tugging in the opposite direction.

Currently (I'm on about page 412 of 554) Per is in a lovely agrarian valley in Jutland, where he avoids his mother's funeral, his fiancee, a group of investors who want to back his engineering plans, his fiancee's married sister who wants to seduce him, and his soulless hotel room near the old Copenhagen market. Per keeps telling himself that he will borrow money from his hosts, wealthy titled landowners, for his planned trip to America. Per keeps putting that conversation off, as he puts off his departure for America and his marriage to Jakobe. The valley with its gentle river is beautiful and Per loves nothing so much as sitting in a rowboat, pretending to fish, listening to the water lapping at the shore. Jakobe, pregnant and waiting for Per in Copenhagen, worries that she will never see him again. Per thinks hardly at all of his fiancee (he has no idea she carries his child) and thinks too much about the local pastor's pretty daughter. The local pastor meanwhile has taken on Per as a conversion project, hoping to lead the young man away from both his prejudice against Lutheranism (built upon the severe and bleak preaching of Per's father), and his prejudice against Danish backwardness. This is a hard struggle, as Per is much more politically sophisticated than the pastor. But it is important to note the settings here, specifically the clean, bright and cheerful house of the pastor, so different from the dark cave of a parsonage in which Per grew up.

This is a pretty sloppy post and I'm not really illustrating any of this well. The thing is, there's a philosophical argument (or two or three) going on at the surface level of Lucky Per. Pages and pages of characters debating the relative merits of commerce and industry, of national pride, of the value of tradition versus the necessity of progress, and the question of religion (a positive force or a terrible repressive cage?). All of these fights take place within the principle action of the story, but at the same time Pontoppidan pulls against whatever point is being argued on the surface by having the background of the scene argue for something else. Did I say tug of war? The whole novel is a tug of war. The closer Per gets to whatever he wants at the moment, the harder the world surrounding him in the book pulls him away from the object of his desire. My bet is that the author sides with the ironic world that points in whatever direction Per is not traveling. The background acts as a Greek chorus, commenting and warning. I'm not sure I've quite seen this before in a novel, not this consistently. Here's a book where setting is a character, another voice in the room with the protagonist and his friends, talking past the invented people to speak directly to the reader, if the reader will listen.

(Also, this is my 700th post. Think of that. Huh, I say. Huh.)


  1. When someone mentioned this book - you were in that thread - I poked around and found a description that emphasized the engineering and made the book sound like Soviet socialist realism. But I kept poking and found another that described the book as you do, but without explaining how it could possibly work. It sure sounded interesting, though, and I am enjoyoing hearing about how the book actually works.

    I wish I had bookmarked either of those addresses. Oh well.

    1. If I was going to be a really serious essayist, I'd fill this post with specific details, examples of how the foreground and background pull against each other, quote the text, build an argument, etc. Alas, it's just this, these generalizations of mine. Lucky Per is a good book, though. A surprising, very modern book. It deserves an affordable, properly edited and proofed edition.