Thursday, August 14, 2014

“It’s probably that socialism, isn’t it?” - Pelle The Conqueror, Volume 2 - suspense in starvation itself

At the end of the first volume of Pelle the Conqueror, our young hero was triumphantly, expectantly leaving the countryside for the town, farm labor for a skilled trade, and his father for independence.  In Volume II, Apprenticeship (1907), he achieves all of that but is ground back into the dirt.  At the end, he is leaving again: next stop, in Volume III, Copenhagen and who knows what else.

Behind him he had left everything, and he just kept staring forward – as if the great world might appear at any moment before the bow.  He didn’t bother to think about what was to come or how he would grapple with it – he simply longed for it!  (concluding lines)

Does the third volume end the same way, more or less?  It almost has to, doesn’t it, given that there are four volumes.  Down then up, four times.

The second part of Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel is still quite good.  The first book was better, certainly, for a number of reasons:

1.  Pelle’s father, Lasse, is a wonderful character, and by necessity there is now less of him.  Whenever he does appear, the novel perks up.  In future volumes, he is presumably gone for good.  The new minor characters are still just as good.

2.  In the middle of the bildungsroman, the story is less satisfying on its own.  The first book had a natural place to end.  I now have a dilemma.  Stephen T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally translated only the first two volumes of Pelle, so if I want to continue I will have to resort to the bowdlerized 1913 version.  But what choice do I have; I can’t stop in the middle.

3.  Maybe this is just me, but with stories like this I always find the childhood of the character more interesting than his adolescence.  This is true in Dickens, in Proust, you name it.  The authors are following an accurate model of development, where the child is working on his relationship with the outside world while the teenager becomes more self-involved and awkward.  The child’s defeats are mostly from something external, the adolescent’s from his own humiliating mistakes.

Having said that, a couple of Pelle’s most significant obstacles in Apprenticeship are also external, and an important part of his larger story, which ends, I believe, with Pelle becoming a labor organizer (Nexø was himself a Communist).

First, Pelle is now poor, perhaps poorer than he was on the farm:

There was suspense in starvation itself: were you going to die of it, or weren’t you?

Pelle was poor enough that everything lay ahead of him, and he possessed the poor man’s wide-open spirit  (68)

Nothing more material than food and its absence.  “Why should you carry on as if the world were collapsing because you didn’t have a tub of pork and a heap of potatoes to face the winter with?” (68)  Pelle has to learn how to be poor.

The other external force is industrialization.  Pelle falls into one of the worst possible apprenticeships, shoemaking, just as mass production is wiping out shoemaking as a skilled trade.

“It’s probably that socialism, isn’t it?” says Jeppe scornfully.  (126)

But Jeppe, a master shoemaker on the verge of obsolescence, has it backwards.   I am a little bit worried that Pelle the Conqueror will become more didactic – no, I mean propagandistic – as it goes along.  But so far, so good.


  1. The meanings of words change over time, so it is interesting to think of the word "socialism" then and now. Of course, the meaning -- in addition to being context-bound by time and place -- has variations based on perspective: a person's position in society matters when words like "socialism" are uttered. Sometimes an idealistic word, and sometimes an obscene word, "socialism" remains open to debate.

  2. The character thinks that the decline in his trade is caused by socialists, who he thinks of as some kind of outside agitators. In reality, the rise in the number of socialists was caused by the decline in the trade. That's what I was getting at; that's the irony I think Nexø was going for.

    Nexø is writing just over a hundred years ago. I don't think "socialism" has changed all that much. Has it? Maybe I am assuming too much about what seems to me like common knowledge.

    1. I think socialism has changed a bit in meaning; at Nexø's time it was a new thing and a source of hope; looking at the dangerous turn to extreme right and left-wing parties in Europe recently, socialism is now considered a worthless, evil thing that left the continent bankrupt.

    2. I guess I was thinking more of a dictionary definition of the word.

      The shoemaker is way ahead - he already thinks the socialists are evil. That idea will presumably be turned on its head as Pelle discovers and joins a union somewhere in the next couple of volumes.