Pelle the Conqueror begins:
It was the first of May, 1877, just at dawn. From the sea the mist came sweeping in, a gray trail that lay heavily on the water. There was movement in it here and there; it seemed about to lift, but closed in again, leaving only a strip of beach with two old boats lying keel uppermost upon it. The prow of a third boat and a bit of breakwater showed dimly in the fog bank a few paces off. At regular intervals a smooth gray wave would come gliding out of the mist up over the clattering pebbles of the beach, and then withdraw again; it was as if some great beast lay hidden out there in the fog, lapping at the land.
I think you can see here what I meant by “plain style” as applied to Martin Andersen Nexø, and which I mean relatively, relative to Zola or the more florid mode of Jans Peter Jacobsen. He is not trying to impress anyone with unusual colors or vocabulary. Yet he easily communicates not just the look but the movement of the shore, even before the curious metaphorical turn at the end. The wave as the tongue of a hidden sea monster is not so plain.
Assuming the reader has not, like I had, seen the movie, there is little clue what the book will be about or who might be observing the scene. Pelle and his father Lasse are out in the fog at this point, out with the beast, coming to Denmark.
I cannot resist the next paragraph. Still just scenery.
A couple of hungry crows were busy with a puffy black object down there, probably the carcass of a dog. Each time the licking wave glided in, the crows rose and hovered a few feet up in the air with their legs extended straight down toward their booty, as if invisibly attached. When the water sighed back out again, they dropped down and buried their heads in the carrion, but kept their wings spread, ready to lift off before the next lick of the wave. This was repeated with the regularity of clockwork.
Nexø is serious about the tongue metaphor – it licks its way through the paragraph. The crows are perfect, right? The scene, previously organic becomes mechanical. The clockwork leads to the introduction of people in the next paragraph, or actually just the sounds of people in the fog – shouts, bells, a horn, oars. More sounds: “a quarryman’s iron cleats on the cobblestones,” “a loud morning yawn,” a scolding and a slap, a Mendelssohn hymn. And finally, the sight of some people, a boat crew.
They were leaning forward, their hands clasped and hanging between their knees, and puffing on their pipes. All three wore earrings to ward off colds and other evils, and all sat in exactly the same position, as if each were afraid of being the slightest bit different from the others.
I guess those are people. The funny thing about all of this, however good it is, is that the great virtue of Pelle the Conqueror is its characters, mostly vibrant Pelle and his pitiful father, but also lots of secondary and even incidental characters who are unlike these sailors individually drawn. Maybe a glance at some of the characters tomorrow.