Thursday, April 3, 2014

It looks pretty miserable - It was a glorious life - Pelle the Conqueror

The strange life of books.  I just finished the first volume of Pelle the Conqueror (1906) by Martin Andersen Nexø.  It’s a terrific novel.  Lots of people would enjoy it.  Young Pelle and old Lasse, his father, are Swedes working as laborers on a Danish farm that is almost feudal in its organization.  “’It looks pretty miserable,’ said Lasse” (183), and it is, yet “It was a glorious life, and Pelle was happy” (71).  Both are true.  Maybe that is part of why the book is so good.

Pelle is just a kid, running around with the cattle, happy when the sun is shining or school is out or adults are fair, unhappy when it is too cold or the schoolmaster makes him memorize hymns or when his father drinks too much.  The really miserable stuff goes on around Pelle in the adult world of violence, sex, and booze that he does not yet understand.  But he is a tough little kid.

Pelle’s childhood had been happy because of everything; mingled with weeping, it had been a song to life.  Weeping, as well as joy, is heard of music; heard from a distance it becomes a song.  And as Pelle gazed down upon the world of his childhood, only pleasant memories shimmered toward him through the bright air.  Nothing else existed, or ever had.  (239)

Now,  I think that in terms of prose that is the single worst piece of writing in the novel, but it says what I have been trying to say.  The style is normally not so blunt, but rather constrained by the limited point of view of either Pelle or his father.  Nexø had been reading some French novels, I would guess Zola, although Nexø ‘s style is plain where Zola’s is ornate.  Let me save this for tomorrow.

Pelle the Conqueror is a novel in four volumes, published from 1906 through 1910, and I have only read the first, Childhood.  How the later novels, 700 pages more, compare I do not know.  Childhood covers agriculture / the countryside; successive volumes move to apprenticeship / town and factory work / the big city, with Pelle eventually  becoming a labor organizer.  I accuse Nexø of schematism!  This sounds Marxist because it is – after World War II Nexø moved to East Germany! –  although I do not believe I would have figured it out on the evidence of Childhood alone. 

The 1987 Bille August film version of the book covers only the first volume of the whole thing.  The movie is actually more miserable than the novel, since it is so relentlessly focused on the world outside Pelle’s head, but is a joy to watch because of the acting and filmmaking, or so I remember it.  The movie inspired a revised translation of the first two volumes of the novel by Steven T. Murray, which, as far as I can tell are not in print.  An old translation is available online, but if you can get it you want the 1989 revision.  As the editor says in an afterword:

The 1913 translation of the present book, for example, omitted any references to sex (even barnyard procreation), bodily functions, body parts (the word “stomach” seemed to be particularly taboo), and anything else the translator deemed too immodest to put into print.  Needless to say, this resulted in mysterious gaps in the story, as well as wreaking havoc with the author’s style and intent.  (244)

Significant parts of the book would make no sense at all.  This novel is earthy.  That is a great part of its appeal, along with the characters, the interesting setting, the effective language, all of that.  Maybe a day or two more on all of that.  A lot of readers would like this book.


  1. Dang, now you're making me want to read it again. I have the 1989 translation, but only the first volume. It would be interesting to read the whole thing; I had no idea (or perhaps no memory of) that Nexø moved to East Germany of all places.

  2. I think only the first two volumes were ever re-translated. Something fizzled. So Pelle the Organizer is only readable in the old translation. Or in Danish. Or German. German socialists were apparently the first readers to appreciate little Pelle.

    Which is funny, given how universal the book felt to me. But of course the childhood part may be different. Everyone was a kid once.

  3. I poked around Worldcat a little and sure enough, hardly anyone has any of these. 3 and 4 are only in the old translation that I can see. I'll look on Google Books and whatnot for those when my connection gets fixed; it's really wonky ATM.

  4. I have Volume 2 at hand, so we will see how enthusiastic I am about moving on to the last half. My guess: I will have no choice.

  5. Is this book why your schematism was acting up?

    The serious damage that poor translations can do!

  6. Np, it's Chernyshevksy who has inflamed the schematism. Pelle was like a soothing ointment.

    I do vaguely wonder if the translation is such that the last two books of the novel are worth reading at all. It's like those old censored Zola translations that are now, finally being replaced - probably a Zola fan should just be patient. Except those are appearing gradually. No one is finishing Pelle.

  7. I never read the novels, I'm not even sure they're in Portuguese, but I absolutely adored the movie! Max Von Sydow was riveting in it, a portrait of human frailty and fatherly devotion like I've never seen before in cinema.

  8. Max von Sydow was perfect for the role. It was him; he was it.