Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per. Everyman’s Library, 2019, translated from the Danish of a revised edition of 1918 by Naomi Lebowitz. First published 1898-1904
A bildungsroman normally traces the development and growth of a young person into maturity. They learn from the abrasive contacts they experience in the course of the narrative and find some kind of fulfilment and completeness. Lucky Per is sort of the opposite. I don’t know what you’d call it – a kind of anti-heroic renunciation of conventional worldly and emotional success – which Per initially craves in conventional ‘[fairytale] hero hoping to make good’ manner (he’s likened to Aladdin, among others) – in favour of acceptance of spiritual quietude and the ascetic resignation of a secular anchorite. An unlearning curve.
Peter Andreas Sidenius (nicknamed Per) is the son of a puritanical, undemonstrative pastor father in rural Jutland (like Pontoppidan). It’s a dour land, and the father’s upbringing is stern and critical. Nowadays I suppose we’d call him a religious fanatic, a fundamentalist. He’s lacking in the loving kindness and charity aspects of the religion he’s distorted into something terrible and austere. Spirited and rebellious, Per leaves as soon as he can, at the age of sixteen, to indulge his ambitious engineering schemes and find fame and fortune.
Interestingly his autodidact’s crackpot plans to harness nature’s wind and wave power through the use of turbines have become reality. In this richly symbolic novel they represent Per’s misguided, doomed attempt to harness his own powerful nature and direct it in ways that would force him to compromise himself with the bureaucratic, materialistic custodians of worldly power and finance who he despises as much as he does his father’s loveless religion or the artists he dismisses as ‘aesthetes’.
His burning desire for fame slowly turns to a realisation that his idea of success is really a revolt against his upbringing: he has to learn what it is he’s truly striving for. Fame, he discovers, is a delusion, and the famous luck he’s noted for favours the fool.
In Copengagen he pursues a wealthy and powerful Jewish financier to back his grandiose schemes, and becomes engaged to the man’s beautiful, troubled daughter whose resistance he systematically breaks down. This is another in a sequence of surrogate families. He longs for the mutual connection he never experienced as a child. He falls in love several times, pursuing his quarry relentlessly, then tiring of her.
He’s not cut out for romance or marriage, though he tries both, and finds them uncongenial, against his nature. His reverse arc towards solitude gradually becomes irresistible.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche dominate his thinking during his extended existential-philosophical crisis and ultimate rejection of Christianity (demonstrated in the Alps when he shoots his gun to destroy a crucifix: it’s ‘the courage to kill off idols’ that lesser mortals lack: ‘I shoot in the new century! he exults, with a disturbing hint of the brutal totalitarianism of that century).
He yearns to belong and to love/be loved, yet lacks the wherewithal to participate in such relations. There’s a void inside him, and he struggles to reconcile this with his worldly aspirations. As the novel progresses he confronts his true self: like the troll legends of his childhood, he longs for the life above ground with humans, but is incapable of surviving outside the dark cave. Exile is alluring. At a desperate moment he sees in a flash –
the foundation of existence: it was that cold and silent, ever indifferent, pervasive wilderness of ice he had seen on his first journey through the Alps.
It’s an audacious, philosophical novel that abides by many of the conventions of 19C fiction, but has its own unique plan: ‘lucky’, as the title in Danish suggests, means both fortunate and happy; Per comes to realise that there are different orders of fulfilment in a paradoxical world that’s full of reversals, and that finding out who he is involves painful abjurations of what he once thought he wanted. Like the character in the fairytale ‘Hans in Luck’ on which this plot is loosely based (as the translator points out in her Afterword), he grows into authentic selfhood by trading down, divesting himself of the trappings he once thought he craved and learning to value and live by his own kind of ‘natural theology’.
There are some unfortunate casual anti-Semitic elements in the narrative consistent with the bigoted views of the time. Per is more broadminded and tolerant than most of his acquaintance, but still harbours an innate dislike of this ‘foreign race’. But he also envies the Jewish Salomon family he nearly joins through marriage for their strong sense of selfhood and identity.
His fiancée Jakobe Salomon is a brilliantly realised, complex and passionate character, far more likeable than moody Per. She’s engaged in a parallel course of self-discovery to Per’s – though her destination is very different from his. One of the outstanding scenes in the novel is a flashback to a Berlin railway station, where she saw hundreds of ‘fantastic, ragged forms’, all ‘sallow and emaciated’, scarred and terrified: these are the Russian Jews she’d heard about, fleeing from the pogroms, on their way to haven in an America which would no doubt reconsider accepting them as refugees. She’s even more horrified by the callous, inhuman behaviour of the jeering onlookers. The ‘gutters were running with blood’ chillingly anticipates the rise of the Nazis that Pontoppidan lived to witness.
There are many other aspects of this rich, dense novel (it’s nearly 600 pages, packed with ideas, debates and philosophical-existential wranglings – so much more could be said about it). Tom at Wuthering Expectations has posted some thoughtful and stimulating pieces about all this here.
As a novel of ideas and a cocky young man’s struggle to make sense of existence in a godless world of self interest, ruthlessness and duplicity, it’s extraordinary. A ‘forgotten masterpiece’, as the Introduction by Garth Risk Hallberg calls it.
There’s a rather plodding but fairly faithful (apart from a softened ending) film version directed by Bille August in 2018 available on Netflix. It even riffs on the phrase ‘fear and trembling’. Unfortunately it calls Per ‘Pete’ throughout.
Thanks to Meredith at Dolce Belleza for initiating the collective reading of this novel by the 1917 Nobel prizewinner for literature.