In the summer of 1937, Ernst Bloch, the redoubtable German-Jewish literary critic, utopian humanist, and exile from Nazi persecution, was browsing the paper in his new home of Czechoslovakia when an item brought him up short. The novelist Henrik Pontoppidan had died at the age of 80 in his native Denmark. Bloch moved swiftly to set down his thoughts and sent the resulting, impassioned eulogy to another newspaper, the German-language Prager Weltbühne, for publication. “A great writer has been pronounced dead,’’ he lamented.
This is one of those dark instances in which the world cheats itself of the few great things that are in it. Most people, it would seem, do not recognize the name of Pontoppidan, despite the Nobel Prize that crowns it. Even fewer have read Hans im Glück, that dense, deep, unique work.
The title was from the German edition of Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per (Lykke-Per in Danish). Published in two volumes in Copenhagen in 1905, the book had also appeared in Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Romanian and Dutch; won praise from such luminaries as Thomas Mann; and propelled its author to a 1917 Nobel Prize in Literature. Twenty years on, Europe may have had bloodier matters on its collective mind, but Bloch, ever hopeful, found himself dreaming of a more pacific world where Lucky Per would “be counted among the essential works of world literature’’ – a “near future,’’ he wrote, in which Pontoppidan might “finally begin to live.’’
The embarrassment of this prediction was not so much that it was wrong as that it was premature. Bloch soon received a note from Pontoppidan, who pointed out tactfully that he was not in fact dead, but at home in a coastal suburb, celebrating his ninth decade. And what’s more, still writing; the third volume of his memoirs would appear the following year, a fourth in 1940. (Only in 1943, after an abridgment of the whole had been published as On the Way to Myself, did the novelist, now 86, finally breathe his last.)
The historical record in English doesn’t indicate quite where the adjective “erroneous’’ belongs here – whether Czech journalists had accidentally misreported Pontoppidan’s death or whether, as seems likely, they were simply saluting a Nobel laureate on his 80th birthday, and Bloch, still adjusting to a new language, had misread. But perhaps the ambiguity is fortuitous, one of those places where life gusts up to reveal its stitching.
In Denmark today, Lucky Per is a literary touchstone, and the basis for the most lavish film production in the country’s history. Elsewhere, the name of Pontopiddan is virtually unknown. And because his legacy has amounted, in essence, to a tale of two audiences – one at home, one abroad – it seems only fitting that the first false report of this great writer’s death should arise from things lost in translation.
Even in 1937, Pontoppidan’s readership in his mother tongue was larger and more durable than Bloch, stranded elsewhere in a fragmenting Europe, could have understood. A pastor’s son and engineering-school dropout, Pontoppidan had made his name and a modest living with his very first story collection, Clipped Wings, published in 1881, when he was 24. Two more collections and assorted journalistic piecework followed over the next decade, along with a handful of promising books in the half-invented genre he called “smaa Romaner’’– novellas, give or take a few thousand words. This early writing focused on life in the peasant towns of Jutland, the easternmost lobe of the Danish archipelago. It was Pontoppidan’s home territory – his pen-name in the Copenhagen Morgenbladet was “Rusticus,’’ the man of the country – and he aimed to “delyricize’’ it in the manner of a Nordic Flaubert, flensing away the sentimentality of his Romantic elders. The titles alone suggest a posture of wintry pragmatism: From the Huts, The Polar Bear, The End of Life, The Bone Man; Fate was not kind, a story called A Death Blow insists, perhaps superfluously. Yet these tales betray a tender streak, too, a kind of gallows humor, along with a deep-running feeling for the place. Even the bleakest of them abound with a quality of passionate seeing: the sun “melting the tar out of the timber walls,’’ the wagon rolling out of the forest “as if out of another century’’.
It was a fourth collection, Clouds, that in 1890 announced Pontoppidan’s full range. To the early works’ Flaubertian ironies, Clouds added Balzacian hunger, reaching from the provinces to a capital in the throes of modernization. Pontoppidan was now in his thirties, a husband and father, and perhaps this, too, had enlarged him. In any case, Clouds was his “most significant and most widely read work’’ to date, according to a critical biography by PM Mitchell.
In short order, Pontoppidan was trading letters with Georg Brandes, the leading promulgator of a modern breakthrough in Danish culture; living in Copenhagen year-round; and contributing to Brandes’s brother’s newspaper as Urbanus – the man of the city. Most importantly, he was beginning work on an ambitious cycle called The Promised Land, which would bid farewell to peasant life. Across three smaa Romaner, it traced the story of Emanuel Hansted, an idealistic young curate who moves from the city to the provinces and is ultimately destroyed by them: “Here lies Don Quixote’s ghost,’’ runs the epitaph in the novel, “who was born to be a good chaplain, but thought himself a prophet and a saint.’’ The work was a popular success; English versions of its first two installments were printed in London in 1896. But even as the trilogy was being gathered into a single volume, Pontoppidan was embarking upon a still more ambitious project – indeed, one that claimed ambition as its central mystery.
He would name his new hero Peter Andreas Sidenius, and the book after a nickname, Per.’ And if Emanuel Hansted’s refined background and tragic end had been the projections of a young man on the make, Pontoppidan would grant Per something of his own “Aladdin’s luck’’ along with great swathes of his personal history.
The most significant of these sharings was a family background: Per Sidenius would be the black sheep of an “old and extensive ministerial line’’ of pietist clerics. (Cue Pontoppidan’s trenchant autobiography: “My father was a parson. That is basically my entire saga.’’) Estranged as a child from his Jutland home – marked out, he feels, by fortune – Per heads off at 16 for the big city. He is following the map drawn by his realist forebears, but also, interestingly, reversing the trajectory of The Promised Land.
In Copenhagen, Per pursues his fortune along a series of charmed paths. Really, they are the same path. He enters the Polytechnic Institute and just as quickly departs it. He flirts with artistic circles but outgrows (he thinks) their “fleas and filthy bedrooms’’. He falls in and out of love at least five times. And through all these stormy impulsions, he clings to the ambition he has conceived for himself : to usher “little, poor’’ Denmark into the 20th century by means of “his great work’’.
That the word work here indicates a feat of civil engineering, rather than of art, is one of several key ways in which Lucky Per tacks away from the traditions it otherwise reckons by: bildungsroman, yes, but also folk tale, religious confession, künstlerroman . . . Per’s engineering schemes (as the critic Fredric Jameson has noted) link personal and national destiny in a way that even the boldest of the künstler’s creations cannot.
When Per dreams of changing the world, he is thinking not only of moral sentiments but of shipping routes, capital flows, and the liberation of a rural proletariat through the power of the sea. Nonetheless, his projects encode, as eloquently as any poem or painting, a psychological self-portrait. Or does it not speak to his suppressed desires that his proposed masterpiece, a “tentacled canal system,’’ will bring estranged Jutland towns like the one he’s just fled into communion with all the ports of the great world? Such industrial-strength hubris bulks up the irony, too: Per seems a little crazy to dream so big, yet we nontechnicians feel uneasy dismissing him. And by the midpoint of the novel, via his rude charisma and his engagement to a banker’s daughter who might civilize him, Per stands on the cusp of realizing his dream.
But fortune in Lucky Per is as mysterious as in life. For it is precisely at this moment that Per’s rise stalls out. His outer attainments – funds, love, renown – seem only to underscore an inner emptiness.
“Who am I? I can’t say,’’ he murmurs at one point, early on, and that remains his strength and his curse, the abyss from which no success can save him. Still, Per is nothing if not stubborn; his motto is the Nietzschean “I will.’’
And so the book’s second half completes the fairy-tale arc of journey and return. We watch him strip away his ambitions one by one, breaking the connections he’s made, mending the ones he’s broken, drawing ever closer to a new, perhaps unreachable goal.
Lucky Per appeared in seven installments, from 1898 to 1904. Pontoppidan, an obsessive reviser, kept editing well into the teens. Nonetheless, the book was already understood to place its author, in Mann’s phrase, “within the highest class of European writers’’. Writing in Heidelberg, the Marxist György Lukács gave Lucky Per a prominent place in his influential Theory of the Novel, alongside Don Quixote and A Sentimental Education. Meanwhile, in Stockholm, Fredrik Vetterlund, a conservative who found Pontoppidan’s generation insufficiently highminded, commended Lucky Per and The Promised Land to the attention of the Swedish Academy: “These belong, by virtue of their richness, their portrayal of the soul, their narrative art, and their overall effect, to the most eminent works [of ]Nordic novel-writing.’’
One imagines Pontoppidan as too skeptical a temperament to have cared much about accolades. He was now halfway through the last of his three great novel cycles, The Kingdom of the Dead, and his outlook on “the soul’’ had darkened considerably. A proximate cause was Europe’s catastrophic plunge into war. Yet in one respect, fortune stayed with him. It was felt in the Academy – never exactly insensible to the literary charms of Scandinavia – that the Nobel was now best bestowed on writers from the small, neutral countries of the north. Pontoppidan, increasingly austere, would have to share the prize with his more moralistic countryman, Karl Gjellerup. But the award was widely understood not as a split decision for two halfqualified writers so much as a ticket brokered between extremes: “Gjellerup’s idealism and Pontoppidan’s talent,’’ in the brisk assessment of the Norwegian daily Verdens Gang.
Gjellerup was almost instantly forgotten. Pontoppidan, on the other hand, would have an outsized influence on 20th-century Danish literature. In 1906, when Martin Andersen Nexø published his own magnum opus, Pelle the Conqueror, the dedication was to Pontoppidan: “the master.’’ And up through the 1950s, Danish novelists would apprentice themselves to his innovations.
A writer so well known in his own time, and resolutely of no party, was perhaps destined to fall comparatively out of vogue amid the radical upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. But his reputation soon recovered. When, at the turn of the millennium, Denmark’s paper of record, Politiken, surveyed readers on “the greatest Danish novel of the twentieth century,’’ Lucky Per came in second, edged out only by Johannes V Jensen’s historical epic The Fall of the King. And 2018’s sumptuous three-hour film adaptation by the Oscar-winning director Bille August would seem poised to cement Lucky Per as Denmark’s version of the Great Scandinavian Novel, full stop.
Still, overseas, Lucky Per and its author remain as unrecognized as Bloch seemed to fear 80 years ago. Only a few dozen pages of Pontoppidan’s fiction have been translated into English since Volume II of The Promised Land appeared in 1896. And by 2007, these too were emphatically out of print, so that even as Denmark’s culture ministry was inducting Lucky Per into the country’s official canon, Bill Bryson could lump it in with the work of other Nobelists “whose fame would barely make it to the end of their own century’’
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik waxed similarly invidious a few years later: “Who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden and Nabokov, than of . . . Henrik Pontoppidan?’’ Of course, neither of these writers made claims to have read him, so perhaps this is simply a way of begging the bigger question: why has so little of Pontoppidan’s work reached the English-speaking world?
There is always the possibility that certain untranslatable facts of culture have held Pontoppidan back – but this theory seems belied by both common sense and the work itself. To be sure, Denmark is a little nation (“Lilliputian,’’ Lucky Per calls it) but that never stopped Kierkegaard or Isak Dinesen from finding readers. And, to be sure, there are elements of Pontoppidan’s great social tapestry – ecclesiastical mores, “fascine constructions’’ – that history has rendered moot . . . but more moot than the Chancery Court of Bleak House? More moot than Middlemarch’s Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832? It seems to me, rather, that one of Lucky Per’s major feats of engineering is to charge the putatively local concerns of 1870s Denmark with storm and strife that resonate today.
There is, more plausibly, the obstacle posed to translation by Pontoppidan’s literary language. His reputation in Denmark is as an exemplar of classical prose. Aesthetically restless, Pontoppidan would gradually subsume the clipped lucidity of his youth into a larger panoply of modes that, in Lucky Per, amounts almost to an encyclopedia: satire and pathos, speechifying and repartee, lyrical evocations of Copenhagen’s grit, moils of introspection that stretch logic as if attempting to engineer modernism itself, and – perhaps his favourite effect – a periodic clearing into transparence. The net result is high style, and high tension.
“Pontoppidan keeps his [prose] as a pastor’s wife does the floor of her living room,’’ wrote the critic and friend Vilhelm Andersen. And he’s right: given everything that’s packed inside, the room is impressively well kept. But what really drew me in, when Naomi Lebowitz sent me her translation in 2010 – the first I’d ever heard of this forgotten masterpiece – was the fire that so often seems on the verge of shooting from the walls.
In fact, returning to Lucky Per now, on the eve of its republication, I’ve begun to suspect that what has held it back from wider renown is the very thing that guarantees its posterity: what Bloch calls its “contradiction,’’ Jameson its “cosmic neutrality,’’ and Pontoppidan himself its “double vision’’. That is, the book elevates the tensions of its style, the wildness and the control, the passion and the doubt, to the level of a compositional principle, which in turn becomes a philosophical outlook on the most bracing paradoxes of life itself.
This is easiest to see in Per’s family relationships. Pontoppidan’s model for storytelling was, he wrote to Andersen, “the unattainable pattern: There once was a man named John,’’ and Lucky Per’s opening gives us “a pastor named Johannes Sidenius’’ living among “the green hills of East Jutland.’’ Within a few sentences, the mists of folklore clear, and we see this pastor as he appears to his town’s gossipy citizens: the aloofness, the self-regard, the ascetic unconcern for the figure he cuts, the faintly ridiculous “dark blue glasses.’’ By the end of the chapter, when the pastor’s rebellious son Per leaves home on a boat “slowly steam[ing] out through the endless bends of the fjords,’’ we’ll be ready to throw our sympathies in with our hero.
Yet a funny thing happens on the way to the city: we glimpse an interior world that threatens to hold us back in the town. First a neighbour threatens, in a private meeting with the pastor, to report Per to the town council for stealing apples. As if translating appearances for one too myopic to read them, he emphasizes the cost to the pastor’s position: such a report “will not make your appointment to this parish look good.’’ But the echo that comes back suggests the pastor’s true concern, not an indignant “my appointment!’’ but a broken “My son . . .’’
In a later incident, when he confronts Per directly, we are securely grounded in the son’s perspective, and participate in Per’s “contempt’’ for the old man. For a moment, the feeling seems mutual. The father snaps, “It’s gone that far with you, has it?’’ But then the perspective flits in an odd direction: he has said this, we are told, “without revealing that his worst anxiety’’ – Per committing some more fleshly sin – “has already, in reality, been allayed.’’
There is the usual authorial bemusement here at an old man’s prudery, but also a rare emotional force to his fear for his son’s soul. And rarer still is the negative capability that would leave such a clash unresolved – the way our subjective sense of the father, deepening, doesn’t overwrite our initial objections so much as sit alongside them in anxious correction.
This curious quality of suspension and reversal haunts the rest of Lucky Per no less than its folkloric echoes. Once in Copenhagen, under the influence of new acquaintances, Per attempts to shed his bohemian indifference about attire:
He had already ascertained that, to certain eyes, a white shirtfront and an immaculately fitted coat could have more significance for a young man’s future than a prolonged, dedicated, ascetic diligence. Nothing vital was lost so long as appearance was maintained.
Pontoppidan is a great poet of mood, in the sense that his characters are always in one, and that the moods are astutely observed, cross-hatched, even counterintuitive. Where a typical realist might show us a character doing one thing and feeling another, Pontoppidan gives us Per doing one thing, feeling another, and then, in some hidden vault of the self, feeling a third thing he doesn’t even feel he feels. On the surface, he is rather proud of himself as he strides through the streets. But the word “ascetic’’ is enough for us to feel the pastor’s memory ghosting along beside him, trailing the crowd of mocking neighbors we understand must have made Per ashamed. For us, at least, appearance has not been maintained.
And this Oedipal ambivalence is only one of the book’s double visions. In the course of its long unfolding, dozens more characters bloom into parallactic dimension: from Chief Boatswain Olufsen, who prides himself on his “little miscellaneous garden,’’ to his wife, who steals out to water it with her “nightclothes still under her apron’’; from Trine, the good fairy of the Olufsen household, to Fru Engelhardt, who starts as Anna Karenina and ends as Mae West; and – still a startling conjunction – from the anti-Semitic painter Fritjof Jansen to Lea Salomon, a level-headed Jewish matriarch who loves her husband but, wonderfully, will not let him kiss her right hand.
No discussion of this novel can be complete without addressing the depiction of Jewish life that takes up much of its middle act. That geometric fact alone would be noteworthy, issuing as it does from a pastor’s son, but Pontoppidan’s treatment of his Jewish characters is even more remarkable for its variety, its complexity, and its frankness. In this regard, his only real competitor among lapsed-Protestant writers is George Eliot, and with all due respect, Lucky Per’s Salomon family, among whom Per finds a fiancee and a fortune, leave her Daniel Deronda in the dust.
One strength of the portrayal is its lived reality. The Salomons palpably share the world in which their author moved, rather than being imagined ex nihilo, or researched into being. Indeed, we might say that the cosmopolitan Copenhagen of Lucky Per belongs more to them than to the title character. As the first long chapter dedicated to the Salomons makes clear, their links to the ghettos and shtetls are generationally attenuated; they are, rather, representative of the class of cultured, moneyed, and assimilated Jews who in the 1870s, along with their Gentile analogues, were leading sleepy Denmark into the future.
Yet with his mastery of implication, Pontoppidan makes clear that this belonging, in all senses, is unstable. Philip Salomon, the nature-loving “King of the Exchange,’’ grows a little nervous when he steps out into the country, away from the protections of city life; his feeling of security has slipped. Meanwhile, the “jolly’’ Romantic Fritjof collapses into a hateful singularity of vision, a sort of fascist nostalgia for the lost privileges of race. And for all Per’s unease at Fritjof’s jeremiads, his complex and shifting feelings toward the Salomons seem driven by his own sense of a vanished birthright. It’s not their money he’s after, though that might help with his canal plan. It’s what he perceives – incorrectly – as their comfort in their own skins.
One of the great strengths of Lucky Per is the way it gives play to all shades of anti-Semitism, often without the moral scare quotes we feel in Eliot. Against the charms of impetuous Nanny Salomon, or of her brother Ivan, an ingratiating bachelor whose “deepest self” is “altruistic, childlike, empathic,’’ Pontoppidan sets the prejudice not only of Fritjof and his circle, but of Per himself. He sees Nanny, at first, as an “Oriental beauty’’ and dismisses Ivan as “a foolish little Jew.’’ If he comes to feel pleasure, even admiration, in the company of the Salomons, it is less a mark of distinction in his character than a function of habitual exposure to other people, which in Pontoppidan can wear down a bias but never quite wear it out.
It might be tempting, early on, to mistake the character’s point of view for the author’s. When we enter the Salomon household, we enter, too, the tropes of phrenology. The father, Philip Salomon, must, among other qualities, have “uncommonly thick red lips.’’ The court jester, Uncle Heinrich Delft, enjoyable for reasons that have little to do with any stereotype, must nonetheless have an “ape-like head.’’ His sister Lea’s beauty, and the suggestion that he himself is “a testimony to the irregularity with which characteristics peculiar to the Jewish race emerge,’’ open up an interesting double reading: perhaps his ugliness is the aberration? Yet some “peculiar characteristics’’ certainly attach to the initial portrait of Jakobe, the brilliant oldest Salomon daughter, with her “large hooked nose . . . wide mouth . . . and . . . short, recessed chin.’’ The impression made on Per is “disagreeable,’’ and it seems impossible to say in this moment that a novel that would see her so clinically doesn’t share the sentiment.
But then something amazing happens. The instant Per leaves the room, Jakobe complains, “But the staring eyes! I found him rather repulsive.’’ And for all her intellectual gifts, her distaste, driven home by another echo, is no less physical than Per’s. “He made an unpleasant impression on me, like a horse with glass eyes.’’ Later, Jakobe will decide that perhaps she has assessed too harshly his “peculiar attributes of character.’’ And in the space of a phrase, we see stereotype become stereoscopic – every perspective has its opposite, everything is fathomlessly deep. And superficial: tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to. What is left but for the two of them to fall in love?
This surprising development is the largest single instance of double vision in the novel, as it grants us privileged and extended access to Jakobe’s mind. Indeed, she becomes almost a co-protagonist; it is no stretch to call her, as Lebowitz has elsewhere, “one of literature’s greatest and most interesting heroines.’’ Jakobe is as intelligent as anyone out of James, as bold as anyone out of Austen, as perverse as anyone out of Dostoevsky. Moreover, she is Per’s doppelgänger, driven by her own ambitions and urges.
And she opens, in one of Pontoppidan’s signature clearings, a view to the real wages of anti-Semitism. It is a flashback to a Berlin train station, where, waiting to depart for the south, she sees, “some way off on the platform, a group of pitiable, ragged people, surrounded by a circle of curious, gaping onlookers held back by police.’’ And then on the large, half-darkened waiting room floor, hundreds of the same kind of fantastic, ragged forms she had seen on the platform . . . men, women, children, gray-bearded old men, suckling infants lying on their mothers’ breasts. Some were almost naked; many had bloody bandages around their foreheads or hands; all were sallow, emaciated, dirty, as if they had been wandering for days in the sun and dust.
It dawns on Jakobe that these must be the Russian Jews she has heard about, refugees from a pogrom:
She had read in the newspapers, every day through the whole summer, about these crowds of refugees who were half wild with terror over the scandalous crimes perpetrated against them, abetted by the indifference of the authorities. . . . She had tried to console herself by assuming the picture to be exaggerated, since such inhumanity, committed by a powerful and industrious populace, would be impossible in this century of freedom and enlightenment.
But this novel, with its relentless probing for what lies beyond our blind spots, will leave standing no final protection from the human truth – not class, not learning, not ideology – and in these moments when a character grows strong enough to drop her blinders and simply see, as the novelist sees, Lucky Per becomes not just great, but prophetic.
And still at its centre stands Per Sidenius, likeable-unlikeable, mercurial and unchanging, Nietzschean and Darwinian and Freudian and perhaps even Marxian, all and none of the above.
He is the novel’s largest paradox, its toughest selling point in a black-and-white world . . . and, I’ve come to feel, its richest reward. For where Jakobe is the great positive presence in the novel, formed of earthly qualities and attributes, Per, her equal and opposite, is a kind of negative space, an emanation of spirit. In his parabolic fall away from Jakobe in the book’s long third act, he passes through marriage, parenthood, homes, but no position is stable. The only things that seem to leave a mark are his lifelong sense of exile and his restless forward drive. It is Per’s intimation, as he nears one of the great, strange conclusions in the history of the novel, that the burden is not his alone to bear:
We seek a meaning to life, an aim for our struggles and suffering. But one day, we are stopped by a voice from the depths of our being, a ghostly voice that asks, “Who are you?’’ From then on, we hear no other question. . . . Is what we call the soul merely a passing mood?. . . Or do we have as many souls in us as there are cards in a game of Cuckoo. Every time you shuffle the deck a new face appears: a jester, a soldier, a night owl.
The restless reshufflings of Lucky Per appear, in this light, an attempt to bring into focus an existential predicament we still, a century later, resist seeing clearly. Jakobe’s vision in the train station may throw us into the realm of tomorrow morning’s headlines, but Per is the most audaciously modern thing here: he is, like us, on the way to himself.
Whether he ever gets there is in some sense the engine of suspense driving us forward. But a clue lies in the title, a final obstacle of translation, a final doubling of vision. The Danish word “lykke,’’ like the German “glück,’’ means in a single stroke both “happiness’’ and “luck.’’ No English word can quite convey the meaning, though Lebowitz lets it rustle through a range of nearby idioms – “by chance,’’ “hazard,’’ “fortunately.’’ In the novel’s stunning last chapter, our “lykke’’ Per is aging and alone on the Jutland heath, but in full (he feels) possession of himself. We are free to believe him or not, to see him as happy but not lucky, or lucky but not happy, or both things, or neither, but in any case the curious light that seemed to shine behind previous clearings in the text now pours through – “a conclusion of resignation,’’ Bloch wrote in his misbegotten eulogy, “yet illuminated, like the final paintings of Rembrandt.’’
Per Sidenius in these pages is the apotheosis of Pontoppidan's prismatic vision, the transparency that is the sum of all colors. And naturally, he is the final reversal in a novel full of them. He may have failed at his "great work,'' but the author standing behind him manages to "keep the wound open,'' as real artists must do. If only for a few moments, he clears a channel that seems to connect what we would more comfortably view as incommensurable seas: proximity and distance, joy and sadness, the fairy tale and the avant-garde, the 19th century and the 21st. Whatever the vicissitudes of literary fortune, it is our luck he belongs to us now.
This is the introduction by Garth Risk Hallberg to Lucky Per by Henrik Pontoppidan, published by the Everyman Library