Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Last Greek: a fragmented overview of Pontoppidan's trolls

Peter Andreas "Per" Sidenius, the hero of Henrik Pontoppidan's novel Lucky Per, is one of Scandinavian literature's troll characters, a beast who crawls forth from a cave to live in the world of men. Pontoppidan maintains this troll image throughout the novel, interweaving it with the image of the "20th-century man," who is someone with no time for culture and polished manners and a good liberal arts education because he is instead obsessed with certain ideas of progress and dominance (over nature, over tradition, over other men and other nations, over the precise shape of the future, etc). Per has spent a good deal of energy over the first half of the book distancing himself from his rural priest of a father, who has just died believing himself reconciled with his wayward son. The wayward son, after the funeral, leaves behind a clear sign that no reconciliation has taken place.

There is a lot in this book about family and the relationship between "modern" sons and their "old fashioned" fathers. Which might explain why I'm re-reading Turgenev's Fathers and Sons while I'm reading Lucky Per.

One of Pontoppidan's clever tricks with this novel is the way Per views his own basic humanity (a reader might call it his basic sense of goodness) as a weakness, a poison in his blood that is part of the troll heritage he strives to put behind him. In solitary moments Per has deep feelings of love for a select few humans, feelings he must quash in order to maintain his "20th-century man" forward motion. For example, Per has managed to become engaged to Jakobe Salomon, oldest daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant in Copenhagen. Per originally pursued Jakobe for money only, but it becomes clear to him that he is in fact in love with her. This is something he will not plainly express to his fiancee.
"I want you to say it, at least one time, to hear how it sounds when my dearest tells me he loves me. Do it now, Per."

"But dear, I have really often told you that..."

"But you haven't said those words, Per[...] Listen, now--you just repeat my words so it will be a mutual acknowledgment: I"

"I," he repeated.

"Love."

"No, this is really too stupid Jakobe," objected Per, red in the face and with his hand on her mouth.
Later, Per is alone in his dark trollish apartment, when he realizes he misses Jakobe and writes a letter to her:
"Perhaps in certain moments of discouragement I could complain about my fate that let me be born in a country where, long ago, a pastor's son named Adam married a parish clerk's daughter Eve and gradually filled the earth with these million Sideniuses. But when now I look back over the past years, I feel that a guardian angel has followed me through life and, although I have often been wayward and chased after false glitter, I am here now with the golden crown of triumph in my hand: you and your love.

I feel the need to hold you again in my thoughts and thank you before I go to sleep. What I could not, before, manage to say when I sat with you and you asked me to, I now will whisper to you in the still of the night: I love you!"

When, in a solemn mood, he read through the letter the next day, he thought it affected and burned it. He wrote her another letter, instead, in which he spoke mostly about his book. "The printing is taking a devil of a time..."
That should serve as a nice representation of Per's relationship to his own feelings, his fear of backsliding into a sentimental and weak troll.

The troll theme is carried by more characters than Per and by more settings than Per's hometown. Here is a bar in Copenhagen, a cave filled with trolls:
The cafe where he had now become an habitue and where he wasted more time and money than he could afford was called "The Pot." It was frequented by a bohemian clique known as "The Independents," consisting of younger, and singular older, beautiful souls, genuine talents who, nevertheless, had in some way become stalled, either never really maturing or growing old before their time.
The Independents are mostly trolls: Fritjof Jensen, a painter who looks like a Viking, a sick melancholic poet named Enevoldsen, a figure painter named Jorgen Hallager "with a bulldog face, inciter and anarchist, who wanted to overturn society, reform art, abolish academies, and hang all professors, but who supported himself legitimately as a retoucher for a photographer." There is also Reeballe,
a bow-legged, wig-wearing dwarf with one shining eye and one dim, whose long yellowing goat's beard hung over his always dirty shirt front--the inevitable target of all caricaturists in the city's humorous papers. He willfully circulated among the tables, often in a fairly drunken condition, with a chewed cigar stump in the corner of his mouth and with one or both hands tucked behind him in his waistband, darting here and there among people he didn't even know and mixing his nonsense into their conversations. He, also, wanted to reform the world, but in the classic spirit. His ideal was Socrates, with his standpoint of clear, sober knowledge. In moments when his mind was fully befogged, he liked to strike his breast and call himself "the last Greek."
There is of course also Lisbeth, the aging actress and artists' model, who has posed for all of the Pot's figure painters and sculptors, and slept with most of them, and who worries that she's losing her looks and livelihood. Hey, wait a minute. Where have I met these people before? Yes, in Fathers and Sons, and in some Gogol stories, but also in the London smart set passages from Lawrence's Women in Love, and in the streets and cafes of Chris Isherwood's Berlin Stories. Probably also at my own table when I spent time in dark cafes during my twenties, when I smoked Sobranies and ate psychedelic mushrooms and called myself a little undiscovered genius when I wasn't off practicing with my band. Ah, youth. Et cetera. Insert cliche image of a middle-aged man's laughter at himself.

I see I haven't really approached the "20th-century man" theme, with all its concerns over engineering, construction and money. Maybe next time. I confess to a sneaking suspicion that Pontoppidan is trying to tell me that we are all trolls at heart, and that maybe being a troll isn't so bad. We'll see what the second half of the novel implies.

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