Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per

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.

 

 

Wharton, Multatuli, Aridjis: Update 2

After succumbing to the mystery infection a few weeks ago, I’ve now had a problem with a torn retina, so have not been able to write or read much all week. So thanks to LibriVox I’m listening to an audio version of Northanger Abbey, which is huge fun – just what I needed. Meanwhile, here’s another update on recent reading while recuperating before the eye problem:

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), A Son at the Front (1923). Library of America eBook Classic (downloaded free from their website some while ago). This is very different from the New York society novels I’ve posted about previously: The House of Mirth (1905); The Age of Innocence (1920); The Children (1928); and the two companion pieces not set in high society New York, both about thwarted, painful love: bleak, wintry Ethan Frome (1911), and the ‘hot Ethan’, Summer (1917). A Son at the Front is clearly born out of the author’s selfless work during WWI supporting refugees and others in need. The grateful nation of France made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Her experiences on the home front and travelling to the front lines clearly influence the narrative. What’s so unusual about it is the singularly unsympathetic nature of its protagonist, the vitriolic Paris-based American artist John Campton. He and his wife Julia had divorced years before the novel opens, days before the outbreak of war. Julia had married a wealthy financier, and Campton is disgruntled and jealous that his poverty until recent times when he’d finally become successful has prevented him from spoiling the lad as the stepfather’s millions had enabled him to. His and Julia’s beloved son, having been born, by accident, in France, is called up for military service. His sense of duty impels him to participate.

Most of the novel relates Campton’s increasingly desperate efforts to use his influence as a successful society portraitist to extricate his son from the front. He has to compromise his artistic and personal ethics to further his career in a corrupt wartime world behind the lines, and in order to further his campaign to protect his son. This adds to his rancour, and makes him more spiteful and selfish than usual. Most interesting is the way his spiky relationship with Julia softens, as they find common cause. This is complicated by his irrational detestation of her self-effacing husband, sensitive to Campton’s jealousy (he has much more clout with top politicians and military) and capacity to save his stepson.

This is not yet another grim war novel, then; it relates with stark frankness Campton’s slow discovery of a warmer, more human and sympathetic version of himself that the personal catastrophes he experiences bring about. The home front is shown to be less than completely noble, and the ineptitude and corruption of those who wield political, financial and military power is revealed in ways not usually found in other ‘war novels’.

Multatuli, Max Havelaar, or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. NYRB Classics, 2019. First published in Dutch 1860. Translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay. Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer provides useful context. The author’s real name was Eduard Douwes Dekker, a former colonial officer in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); his pseudonym is Latin for ‘I have suffered much’ – appropriate for this narrative of the exploitation of the native Indonesians at the corrupt, exploitative hands of the European colonisers. But it’s not just a bromide against imperialist oppression; the outrage and moral indignation is wrapped up in an extraordinary Tristram Shandy kind of satire. The first and liveliest part of the novel is narrated by a sanctimonious, avaricious, stupid prig called Batavus Drystubble, whose chief aims in life are to further his career in an Amsterdam coffee house, and to pose as a pious, efficient functionary. His account reveals him to be a pompous hypocrite and fool. He comes into possession of the manuscript which forms the bulk of the novel, relating how Havelaar’s experiences as a colonial official in mid-19C Indonesia cause him to write an exposé of the criminal abuses, corruption and greed of the colonisers, who treat the locals appallingly: they endure slavery, extortion, cruel punishments and even death to maintain the lucrative trade in coffee, indigo, pepper and other luxuries coveted by their duplicitous overlords.

Multatuli Havelaar coverIt’s an extraordinary novel, combining hilarious satire with incisive criticism of the injustices exposed. Like Sterne, the author employs a wide range of digressions and narrative modes, from lists and letters to redacted versions of the ‘found MS’, with disclaimers from the appalled Drystubble at what he considers to be its ‘fake news’ content. Ch. 19 is a heartbreaking account of one representative young man’s sufferings under the brutal Dutch regime, which corrupts the indigenous leaders and makes them complicit in the colonists’ systematic exploitation of their people. There’s an enormous, pseudo-serious apparatus of footnotes provided by the author at the end, where his genuine anger reveals itself unmitigated by the satiric pose in the body of the novel.

There are some passages which labour the moral point at excessive length, and some of the digressions weaken the flow – but it’s at times a gut-wrenching critique of inhumanity in the pursuit of wealth.

Aridjis Sea Monsters coverChloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters. Chatto and Windus, 2019. I was disappointed by this novel, which is inferior to its two predessors by this interesting and usually reliable author. It’s a whimsical account of a 17-year-old’s flight from her privileged Mexico City life with loving parents to indulge a passion for a fickle Goth boyfriend whose sullen charisma she mistakes for the real thing. There’s some lovely imagery and prose that’s more sustained in the earlier novels, and an interesting interlude early on in the flat where William Burroughs conducted his ill-fated William Tell experiment.

In radio and podcast interviews Aridjis has said the plot is based on events in her own life, which probably explains why it reads like a self-indulgent adolescent’s fantasy. I felt for the poor parents as she languished moodily on a gorgeous tropical beach, lusting after new, more glamorously seedy male idols (boyfriend has lost interest in her, not surprisingly) without a thought for the pain she was inflicting back home.

Links to previous Aridjis posts – Asunder and Book of Clouds.

B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.

 

Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.