Monday, March 9, 2015

Life began to be a bit easier when he had drowned himself in the sewer - in volume 3 Pelle the Conqueror continues to be good

Having now read the third volume of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Pelle the Conqueror (The Great Struggle, 1909) I can answer the question that had worried me – does Nexø ruin his fine novel of the life of a poor Danish farm boy by turning it into Communist propaganda?  The title was a bad sign, and this is the book where Pelle moves to Copenhagen and becomes a labor organizer.

Also, I had to shift translation.  After the great 1987 film version of Pelle the Conqueror, the first two volumes were newly translated in complete versions, but volumes 3 and 4 are still only available in the 1913 which I was warned leaves out the earthy stuff, for example the word “stomach.”  So of course as I was reading the novel, all I could think about was how the word “stomach” was probably supposed to be right there.  It was like the book was haunted.

But no, so far so good.  The novel, by the end of volume 3, is the story of a man who becomes a labor organizer, a Bildungsroman in which a good part of the Bildung involves the solidarity of the international working class.  The one character who is a genuine Communist is presented as saintly but crazy, a religious fanatic (“’Revolution is the voice of God,’” Ch. 16).  In a novel that is not full of literary references, he feels like a refugee from Dostoevsky:

“’Last night I dreamed I was one of the starving.  I was going up the street, grieving at my condition, and I ran up against God.  He was dressed like an old Cossack officer, and had a knout hanging round his neck.’”

I am not convinced that Nexø ever quite figures out how to dramatize the union organizing side of the novel, a hard problem, but he has no difficulties with scenes of the life of the poor in Copenhagen.  Much of the novel is set in a slum tenement, the “Ark,” that gets most of the best writing:

When he passed from the brightly lit city into his own quarter, the streets were like ugly gutters to drain the darkness, and the “Ark” rose mysteriously into the sky of night like a ponderous mountain.  Dark cellar-openings led down into the roots of the mountain, and there, in its dark entrails, moved wan, grimy creatures with smoky lamps…  Here they moved about like greedy goblins, tearing away the foundations from under the careless beings in the "Ark," so that one day these might well fall into the cellars…  (Ch. 8)

The building is the sewer drain of the city, collecting its waste people.  Another favorite detail is the “bluish ring of vapor [that] always hovered, revealing the presence of the well, that hidden ventilation shaft for the thronging inmates…  (Ch. 17)

That miasmatic shaft is where the novel begins, actually, where the children play on the “sticky flagstones” where “all that one touched wore a coating of slime.”  Yet Pelle thinks of this pit as the setting of a fairy tale (those goblins are his).

… the waste-pipes stuck straight out of the wall, like wood-goblins grinning from the thicket with wide-open mouths, and long gray beards, which bred rose-pink earthworms, and from time to time fell with a heavy smack into the yard…  in the greenish, dripping darkness, sat curiously marked toads, like little water-nymphs, each in her grotto…  (Ch. 1)

Eventually the goblins make one of the above metaphors made literal during an especially severe winter, when the desperate residents begin plundering the building itself for fuel, first the moldings, then the railings, then every second step of the staircase, then – well, you can guess the fate of the “Ark.”

It is clear enough that there is an argument here, but it is made with the tools of art.  Too bad Nexø rarely makes the portions about union organizing as vivid, the great Parade of the Unions that ends the novel excepted.

So, on to Volume 4, Daybreak, which is perhaps where Nexø ruins his novel by etc. etc.

The title quotation, from Chapter 9, makes the novel sound more miserable than it really is.


  1. The Ark passages sound quite Dickensian, like the omniscient narrative voice in Bleak House. Or like Saffron Hill in Oliver Twist, maybe.

  2. L'Assommor is partly set in a large tenement apartment, too, so Zola is the more direct source, but Nexø never really sounds like Zola to me. Much more, in his more baroque passages, like a Germanicized Dickens. There is even a really nice Christmas chapter!

  3. I've got the 1913 translation downloaded now, so one of these days I'll tackle it. I do have the newer trans. of vol. 1, but vol. 2 is kind of hard to come by.

  4. Impressive that you have Volume 1, even. I read and am reading university library copies.

    I do hereby declare, having read one volume of the old version, that it'll do.

    More importantly, I really am happy that the subsequent books have been worth reading, even if not as good as the first book.

    1. I was a comparative literature major and took some Scandinavian lit courses. I therefore own things like vol. 1, and The Queen's Diadem, and other items which cost a ridiculous amount at the time. Not a ton or anything.