Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Lykke-Per as a Danish novel, or how the Danes found hygge

My supplemental reading for Pontoppidan’s The Fortunate Man was Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (2014), an amusing and sociologically sharp look at Scandinavian cultures.  Booth, a magazine writer, is married to a Dane and lives in Denmark, and the book was inspired by the routine appearances of Denmark at or near the top of various surveys of happiness.  “What,” he thought, “these people! Happy!”  I am paraphrasing; see p. 1.  “’Well, they are doing an awfully good job of hiding it.’”

Booth hits a range of topics central to, or at least brushed against, in Lucky Per.  It was surprising to read about the Danes’ love for and constant display of their flag, the Dannebrog, which other Scandinavians find a little weird, and then come across this in Pontoppidan:

… [Per] was momentarily overcome with an actual feeling of bourgeois contentment.  So much so that when he saw the red and white of the Danish flag catching what little wind there was above one of the villa gardens, he was quite moved.

‘My God, Jakobe – our good Dannebrog!’ he cried.  (Ch. 16)

The flag stuff is in Chapter 12 of Booth, a chapter titled and about hygge, which at its best means something like “relaxed coziness.”  At some point I realized that one of restless Per’s problems was that he lacked hygge.  In Chapter 25, Pontoppidan directly told me that I was right.

That basic lack of either a need, or desire, in his character to create his own comfortable space around himself… was once again starkly exhibited here.

Den Mangel paa Evne til at skabe Hygge om sig, der var ham egen… mærkedes ogsaa her.

Here we see, by the way, translator Paul Larkin’s habit of refusing to pick a single word but rather including several (“need, or desire” for “Evne”), to catch the nuances, I guess.  Kinda wordy.

So one thing that Lykke-Per is for Danes is a part of the historical argument about how they got from there to here.  How they changed from grim, pious Lutherans to happy, atheist Lutherans.  How they found their hygge.

Per’s father is a Lutheran minister of the grimmest type.  Early in the novel, Per thinks of his family, and most Danes, as “a grotesque kingdom of humpbacked underground trolls who shunned the bright light of life” and Denmark as “an upside down land where small things were deemed to be big and the crooked declared straight.”  (Ch. 6)  Later, he realizes that he, too, is a troll.  Scott Bailey has a post describing a number of the novel’s trolls.  But even if Per is a troll, he is different.  This is Booth again:

As The Economist put it in their Nordic special edition, Scandinavia is a great place to be born… but only if you are average.  If you are averagely talented, have average ambitions, average dreams, then you’ll do just fine, but if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams, great visions, or are just a bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first.  (Ch. 14, pp. 111-2, ellipses in original)

That’s our hero Per, who literally wants to dig up and remake Denmark.  Maybe he is crushed; maybe not.

One way to read the novel is as a book about Denmark, about Danishness.  Who cares, the non-Dane might ask.  A good question.  Tomorrow I will try an approach that is less specifically Danish.


  1. Oooo, fascinating! I am always up for a novel about Danishness. And why would anybody *not* put the Dannebrog everywhere, it being so cheerful and summery? Or Christmasy, as the case may be, or birthdayish...yeah, they do it a lot.

  2. You would like the Michael Booth book.