Monday, March 16, 2015

It's very unpleasant, but it's true - Pelle the Conqueror takes an idealistic turn

“It’s very unpleasant,” said Ellen, with a shudder.  “But it’s true.”  (Ch. 23)

A mother is commenting on a painting by her son Lasse that depicts a scene of a sad working-class on-the-job accident.  She describes one side, the miserable side, of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Pelle the Conqueror, his four volume novel of a Danish farmboy’s development into a leader of the international class struggle.  Then there is the joyful side stated in the title:

“Everything seems to turn out well for you, Pelle,” said Morten suddenly.  (Ch. 23)

Which is what happens at the end of idealistic Bildungsromanen.  All of the suffering and struggle creates the person.  The last volume, Daybreak (1910), is where Nexø can demonstrate his results of his experiment.

Morten, last seen as a fanatical Communist has become an almost bourgeois writer.  Guess what book he plans to write after the line above, less than a page before the novel’s end, guess its title.  Pelle himself becomes a bookworm for a period – “People wondered, at the library, over the grave, silent working-man who took hold of books as if they were bricks” (Ch. 7).  Karl Marx and Henry George are favorites, and a curious passage involves a long mental argument with Darwin and Origin of Species (Ch. 9) which leads to Pelle opening a cooperatively-operated shoe factory.

Please note that along with all of these books, Pelle’s son is, at the end of the novel, studying to be a painter of the fine art variety.  Daybreak is where artistic and intellectual matters become important for the first time.  Nexø is thinking in developmental stages.  At the library, Pelle becomes friends with a patron, a wealthy librarian, Brun, sadly afflicted with booklung (“the dust of the books attacked his chest, and every minute his dry cough sounded through the room”) who assists Pelle in various ways.

Brun has a strange resemblance to the patron in an earlier development novel, Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer (1857).  The more I looked, Daybreak began to resemble Stifter, like a proletarian Indian Summer.  The introduction of a gardening theme made me sure that Nexø knew Stifter:

They soon became familiar with the plants in their own way, and entered into a kind of mystic companionship with them, met them [the plants!] in a friendly way and exchanged opinions [with the plants!] – like beings from different worlds, meeting on the threshold.  (Ch. 11)

Later there is a discussion of whether or not plants think.

Much of the material of Daybreak is practical: the mechanics of a cooperative business, or plans for worker housing.  But such was the case for Stifter’s novel, too, even if the concerns were more aesthetic.  By the end, everything must be in order.  Order is unfortunately not the most artistically interesting aspect of Nexø’s world, although it rounds off the four novels logically.

To reiterate: the first volume, Childhood, a surprising masterpiece, easy to recommend widely.  The next two, Apprenticeship and The Great Struggle, lesser but still well written and conceived.  The last volume of Pelle is artistically the worst of them.  It is more abstract, with more of Pelle thinking.  There is less room for the raggedness of life so well described in earlier volumes.  But it is good enough that anyone who has read the first three would be nuts to skip it.


  1. Wait, wait, wait, how do you arrive at a shoe factory via Darwin?

  2. "a long mental argument with Darwin and Origin of Species which leads to Pelle opening a cooperatively-operated shoe factory" sounds like a chapter of What is to Be Done?

  3. Good question. Pelle is a shoemaker, let's start there. He has reconciled himself to machinery, a running argument since Vol. 2; thus, a factory.

    The Darwinian argument is that starting with a "survival of the fittest" concept and granting that the rich and powerful have become that way because of their tooth & claw strength, because they are fittest, the weak (the poor) have to act collectively in order to match and defeat the strong. Like ants. Nexø uses ants as an example. A good example in some ways, worrisome in others.

    The big, big difference between Nexø and Chernyshevsky - as you might guess, I was tempted to write about just this - is that Nexø assumes that establishing a successful cooperative business is very difficult. And he is interested in the difficulties. I am not convinced he makes such great fiction out of them, but rhetorically he is so far ahead of Chernyshevsky. Nexø looks like an idealist, not a fool.

  4. That's what I was going to ask about thanks!

  5. I was all like, cooperative shoe factory, uh oh. But Nexø was all like, don't worry so much.

    1. I'm reading Bulgakov's 1925 Heart of a Dog, which is of course in part another response to Chernyshevsky's scientific utopia. NCh is like the Cervantes of Soviet Russia; his fingerprints are everywhere.

  6. 1925? Ah, that's so late, it never ends.