Monday, May 6, 2019

Pontoppidan's Lykke-Per - the views people published in books were rarely meant to frighten or provoke real thought

The Happiest People in the World, the Danes, had a terrible idea in 2004.  They assembled committees and created an official Danish Culture Canon, with each art represented by, for some mystical reason, exactly twelve works.  One of the canonical books is Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke-Per (1898-1904), a major novel by a Nobel Prize-winner that for some reason never made it into English until 2010, and was again translated in 2018, so now we have two of them.  Odd.  Bille August made a film version, that’s the reason for the duplication.

I read the British-English – or Irish-English – version titled A Fortunate Man, translated by Paul Larkin, while the American-English title is Lucky Per.  Both titles hide an ambiguity.  In Danish as in German, “lucky” can also mean “happy.”  Our hero Per is certainly lucky sometimes, but is he happy?  That’s the 700-page question.

Unluckily for me, Lykke-Per is a Novel of Ideas, and I am bad with those.  It is a Bildungsroman in which the hero works through a series of competing philosophies or at least stances towards life.  My impression is that Pontoppidan would like readers to engage seriously and thoughtfully with these competing ideas, reaching a synthesis, a conclusion.

Books could be a great diversion.  But the views people published in books were rarely meant to frighten or provoke real thought.  (Ch. 25)

But not this one.  Luckily for me, Lykke-Per is a Novel of Ideas, presenting a useful and necessary challenge to my usual standards.

The ethos of the novel is resolutely atheist and anti-Christian in the Nietzschean sense.  The novel is structured like a parabola, with some parallel scenes on each side of the arc, and a peak, or a pit, depending on which way you think the parabola is going, which includes a hilarious culminating moment of extreme Zarathustrianness and a sojourn in Rome.  Lykke-Per is a real descendant of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), so it is will be no surprise to readers of Wuthering Expectations that the center of the novel is in Rome.  Experienced readers of Goethe et. al. will also guess where the story ends up.

Per’s story, the hero’s story, that is.  Many others are right now busily reading Lucky Per because Dorian Stuber suggested a readalong.  He was intrigued by the novel’s depiction of Jewish life in Copenhagen, and particularly the Jewish heroine, Jakobe.  She is an unusual creation, perhaps even something new in fiction, and her story goes in some directions that I don’t remember seeing in earlier fiction.  Per’s story has some resemblance to, oh, the city-conquering Rastignac in Père Goriot or the willful Julien Sorel in Red and Black, as well as the protagonists of earlier Bildungsroman like Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry.  But Jakobe’s story is something else, something not found in Daniel Deronda or Sholem Aleichem.

Lykke-Per was originally published in eight volumes from 1898 to 1904.  It is really as much a roman fleuve as a Bildungsroman.  I have dropped in some of the original covers, borrowed from a superb Danish Pontoppidan site, which has the searchable texts we will all need as we work on the novel together.  We live in an age of miracles.  One of the covers, the one that could almost show Rastignac at the end of Père Goriot, is from a 1959 edition.  The one with the moon is from the 1903 seventh volume, Lykke-Per, his Journey to America.  Per never goes to America!  That title is ironic.

For the rest of the week, I guess I will get to work on this novel.


  1. This will be good, reading all the takes on this novel. The final post I wrote about the book a few years ago, a magnificent summation of the themes and plot, is of course one of the posts I accidentally deleted during some fumbling about with the blog. I leave it up to you to imagine the aptness of my conclusions. Really good stuff.

    Also, in re your question on twitter, the Danish Pontoppidan site says:

    "In 1918, Pontoppidan made another revision of the text which cannot be said to serve it best, but which has since been the text that has been published by Gyldendal from 1984 in an orthographically distorted form. This can be read in detail in Chapter 4 of my thesis from 1964 on Henrik Pontoppidan's recast. It is also this 4th edition that forms the basis of the American translation of Naomi Lebowitz, which appeared in 2010 at the German publisher Peter Lang, but wrote himself back further."

    Larkins uses what, the second edition? Maybe I'll get a copy and read that. Just yesterday I found out about the movie version. We might watch that this weekend.

  2. "wrote himself back further"

    Damn Google translate. I have no idea what that phrase is supposed to mean.

  3. Yes, Larkin is the 1905. So the two translations could really be quite different in places. Huh. Note to everyone reading Lebowitz: your version does not "serve it best." Sorry. The Pontoppidan scholar who wrote the Afterword to Larkin more or less says that the 1918 edition stinks!

    I had forgotten about your accidental purge - I was wondering where the rest of the series had gone. I can still use your "troll" post, though; thanks in advance.

  4. Ah, look! Opening Chrome to leave a comment has worked! As for what I meant to say about Lucky Per,I can barely remember, except that I am enjoying this book immensely. I look forward to talking more with you about it when I am farther along.

  5. Good, there is a lot to enjoy in the novel. It had some aspects that wore me down, but that is a separate issue. Have you reached the middle yet, the peak Zarathustra moment, when Per suddenly pulls his revolver? Wowza.

  6. I'm excited by the prospect of the Lebowitz translation in an affordable edition. When it first appeared under an academic label it was prohibitively expensive. Something about the Larkin version put me off; can't remember what.

    I strongly recommend Pontoppidan's novella 'The Royal Guest', which is included in a volume of Danish fiction published in the 70s, translated by P.M. Mitchell and Kenneth H. Ober (it also has stories by J.P. Jacobsen and Herman Bang). 'The Royal Guest' is a superb, haunting work - something Dreyer might have turned into a great film.

    I remember reading some silly, parochial piece about the Nobel Prize, in which the writer cited Pontoppidan as yet another ridiculous, obscure, unworthy winner. Obviously he'd never read a word Pontoppidan had written; I suppose the oddness of his name drew attention (as opposed to Rudolf Eucken or Paul Heyse). Hopefully other works from Pontoppidan's vast oeuvre will start to appear in English in the future, though I wouldn't bet on it.

  7. I expect we will see a lasting effect much like that of the last Bille August film-driven literary event. Meaning, none. But at least the books will be there. At least this time, we got the entire novel, not half of it as with Pelle the Conqueror.

    Pelle is better than Lucky Per. As, you know, art. I don't know if that will fit anywhere else, so I'll say it here.

    I just finished "The Royal Guest" - thanks! It is a satyr story, which I can hardly believe. I thought only the English literature of the time was overrun with satyrs, but anyway here is another.

    You cannot say that Wuthering Expectations is not responsive to its readers.

    The Larkin translation is odd. I have a suspicion that he thought Lebowitz was too flat. Well, he fixed that all right.

    I am now looking forward to a Karl Gjellerup revival.

  8. Both titles hide an ambiguity. In Danish as in German, “lucky” can also mean “happy.”

    In Russian too, and it's extremely frustrating if you want to translate something. I just read a wonderful Bunin story (but I repeat myself; why isn't Bunin better known?) about a ship flying the deathly yellow quarantine flag making its way up the Red Sea (it's "The Lord's Spear," from 1913; I don't think it's ever been translated). Everyone on board is bothered by a couple of carrion birds perched atop the foresail (fok in Russian, straight from Dutch like all Russian maritime vocabulary); a sailor finally takes a pistol and starts blasting away at them, but only manages to hit one -- the other, "the enemy of all life," sits up there glaring at them. "Memento mori," mutters the captain, as they go to the mess and get drunk. At the end the narrator goes up on deck at night and sees the man on watch duty: he's not too bright, he has cheap Japanese fans and postcards in his cabin, "but may the jealous God preserve even his schast'e!" Does schast'e mean 'luck' or 'happiness' here? Yes.

  9. I guess it is good for literature, really. Irony and ambiguity, that's what we want. But the translator has to make a choice.

  10. Yes, Lykke-Per sounds very cheerful to me, which I gather is the exact opposite of what it is.

  11. I will supply another jolly quotation about the heroine, Jakobe, from Ch. 22:

    "Her definitive life philosophy had increasingly become the idea that joy could be found only in struggle - if not for any other reason than that this offered the highest form of oblivion. Life in that sense was exactly like all-out war: those in the thick of the action thought least about their own safety and the blood and gore spilling around them."

    No, it is not a cheerful book.