Lucky Per 
by Henrik Pontoppidan, translated by Naomi Lebowitz.
Lang, 558 pp., £44, November 2010, 978 1 4331 1092 4
Show More
Show More

Once upon a time, when provinces still existed, an ambitious young provincial would now and again attempt to take the capital by storm: Midwesterners arriving in New York; Balzacian youths plotting their onslaught on the metropolis (‘à nous deux, maintenant!’); eloquent Irishmen getting a reputation in London; and Scandinavians – Ibsen, Georg Brandes, Strindberg, Munch – descending on Berlin to find a culture missing in the bigoted countryside. So also Henrik Pontoppidan’s hero, an unhappy clergyman’s son who flees the windswept coasts of Jutland for a capital city which is itself narrow-minded and provincial in comparison with the bustling centres of Europe. Denmark has just lost a war, and an important territory, to Prussia: one in ‘a long row of national humiliations’ in ‘a doomed country that, in the course of one man’s life, had fallen into ruin, wasted away to a pale and flabby limb on Europe’s body swelling with power’. Denmark itself is to Europe as Jutland is to Copenhagen; and we must never underestimate the degree to which that ‘national misery’, which is secretly a part of every national history and identity, is also part and parcel of the personal or psychic identity of its inhabitants.

In the Northern or Protestant countries, cultural dissatisfaction is indistinguishable from religious misery as well, and from a dogmatic Christianity whose doctrinal debates set the agenda for most of the cultural and intellectual life of the Danish 19th century, from Kierkegaard’s complex and subtle polemics all the way to Brandes’s call for a secular national modernity in its closing years. Pontoppidan’s 1898 novel (untranslated into English until now, despite his 1917 Nobel Prize) will not exactly tell the story of a moral and sexual revolt against the oppressive institutional power of the Church, but it breathes a properly Nietzschean hatred of Christianity that testifies to the tenacity of the grip of religion on this society, in revolt fully as much as in submission.

Our present-day postmodern religious fundamentalisms are far enough away from these 19th-century clerical struggles for the novel to have little more than historical interest for us, if this were all it registered. The title, however, sends us in another direction, that of the peculiar word ‘luck’, and of the fairytale to which it alludes (the German translation indeed borrows the Grimms’ title, ‘Hans im Glück’, for the novel itself). Luck, to be sure, plays a fundamental role in the Bildungsroman in general, and it may be worth recalling the paradigmatic ending of the first and most influential of them, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, of whose hero it is said: ‘You make me think of Saul, son of Kish, who went forth to seek his father’s lost asses and found, instead, a kingdom.’

Yet this particular fairytale is perhaps not so affirmative when it comes to the value of chance meetings. It tells of a country boy who seeks, not to make his fortune, but only to return home with it (he has just served an apprenticeship of the traditional seven years and received his accumulated savings in the form of a lump of gold). In the first of many chance meetings, admiring the alacrity of a passing horseman, Hans is offered the horse itself in exchange for the troublesome lump of gold, an offer he is happy to accept. Then, after being thrown by the horse, he is not unwilling to exchange it for a cow, led by a farmer who explains the advantages of its sustenance, in the form of milk, butter and cheese. But it milks poorly, and a passing butcher persuades him of the benefits of a young pig, for which he gladly exchanges it; a bargain then soon enough replaced by the swap of a fat goose; and so on and so forth until he loses the final avatar – a grindstone – in a well and, no longer burdened by that weight either, joyously reaches home with nothing left in his pockets at all. ‘There is no man under the sun so fortunate as I,’ he cries happily as he greets his mother. We should take into consideration the possibility that this really is a happy ending.

So it is that the naive Hans becomes the very prototype of foolishness and good fortune all at once; and it is a modern and sophisticated version of this paradox that Pontoppidan offers us in this unusual novel. We must remember that, like the German Glück, and quite unlike what obtains in most other languages including our own, the Danish lykke has the double meaning of ‘luck’ and ‘happiness’ – a combination not necessarily obvious, but on which the German fairytale also turns. Presumably, in the rural landscape of the Grimms, the combination implies that you would not be able to get out of the eternity of rural drudgery without some truly remarkable accidental encounter; or perhaps, on the other hand, that you would be very lucky indeed to know happiness in such a setting. At any rate, in modern (industrial) times the two meanings seem to separate from each other and to become relatively autonomous: you can be happy without luck, you can be lucky without necessarily knowing happiness.

And Per is himself lucky both physically and mentally: a robust and attractive physique endowed with an inventive, perhaps even genial mind, capable of imagining his vast Jutland engineering project at an early age and of drawing up its plans even before any formal or professional training. But he also knows that ‘you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast, the fairytale’s golden-brush boar, capture and bind it – booty for the fastest, strongest, bravest.’

This means contacts and even, if possible, a wealthy marriage. Indeed, the bias against this provincial Christianity secures a unique privilege for Pontoppidan (and his hero) – access to the world of Judaism. Lykke-Per is one of the few great European novels to make a central place for Jewish life and experience; but unlike Daniel Deronda and its abstract discussions of Zionism, it offers a rare portrait of the glittering Jewish high society of Copenhagen, along with a glimpse of the misery of eastern Jewry, driven into exile by the pogroms. Jakobe, a gifted and intelligent young Jewish heiress (but one far less attractive than her younger sister) is Per’s first fiancée, and the object of a passionate attraction which never reaches the fulfilment of marriage. Jakobe’s life finally makes her into a co-protagonist of the novel, whose unexpected destiny (she founds a school for refugee children in Central Europe) poses the same question as Per’s own, a question that at first looks like that of happiness or luck, but which proves to posit yet a third alternative, namely that of success. The originality of the novel lies in its tripartite permutation of these themes, as momentous for the form of the novel as such as it is for the existential fate of individuals themselves in this modernising late 19th century.

The end of feudal society was famously dramatised by ‘la carrière ouverte aux talents’ – the freedom of youths to follow their ambitions, and to become generals in their twenties or to leave their villages and seek their fortunes in Paris. It is true that literature was most often fairly selective about the content of such careers, and that abandoning the various handicraft skills of the village usually left the novelist with few options: politics, art, marriage into high society, and above all money, about whose source once again a high degree of generality was imperative. Henry James never specified the source of the Newsome fortune in The Ambassadors, and the apocryphal story – the production of chamberpots – is perhaps just another fable about form and content. For even if money in general could easily be translated into something more exciting, such as power, the specificities of production – the content of the career – were universally discredited by spreading commodification (itself a kind of generalisation or abstraction). One of the most decisive things that happened to narrative in the 19th century had to do with the problematisation of its formal conclusions, which closed their narrative circuit in earlier and simpler societies either by way of a happy ending (in fairytales, for example, or romances) or a catastrophic defeat. Those older endings had content, as we might put it in philosophical language; in the new world of money and business, the whole social variety of existential outcomes was slowly reduced to a new set of abstract categories: the opposition between success and failure. Winning the girl is success, losing the war is failure: these abstractions do not on the face of it involve earning or losing money, but it is in reality the abstraction of money as such that governs the new system and which begins to impose the new simplified classification in terms of the stark alternatives of winning or losing, success or failure.

The formal result, for the novel, is strange and paradoxical, yet momentous: all successes grow to be alike, they lose their specificity and indeed their interest. Success sinks to the level of emergent mass culture – which is to say, fantasy and wish-fulfilment. Only the failures remain interesting, only the failures offer genuine literary raw material, both in their variety and in the quality of their experience.

It is the spread of commodification into the far corners of society which will come to define the novelist’s basic form-problem in the course of the 19th century, making it more and more difficult to write an interesting narrative about success. You would have to arouse the reader’s interest in specific production techniques: something even Zola was unable to do without a heavy dose of symbolism, without making them mean something else and something more. And you would have to earn the reader’s sympathy for the successful men themselves, with their arrogance and their aggressiveness, their contempt for the rest of us, their supreme self-satisfaction and self-confidence. The last of this species – Zola’s Octave (inventor of the first department store) and Maupassant’s ‘bel ami’ – still marry into money, but finally trace a route for their successors that leads out of literature into mass culture and the bestseller, whose fundamental drive is neither pity nor fear, nor comic joy and euphoria either, but rather wish-fulfilment, the fantasy of the lives of the rich and famous.

So little by little serious literature must abandon the story of success; nor is Per Sidonius successful in that sense. But the male novel had one last trick up its sleeve: the theme of renunciation, a world-weary gesture that runs all the way through the century from the aged Goethe to Henry James, and which offers the further advantage of a distant kinship with sainthood. Whether Lykke-Per has any relationship to this particular motif will bear heavily on our judgment of the originality of the novel.

As for failure, in a situation in which everyone agrees that tragedy as such has become problematical, it is scarcely sustainable either for male protagonists in the long run, tending to degenerate into self-pity or impotence, as in its classic embodiment in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. At best it could recover a more eccentric or pathological interest with the identification of the will to failure and the satisfactions of inferiority as passions in their own right.

After that the novel belongs to women, along with the opera and the ballet: marriage will then almost by definition constitute their failure, with the novel of adultery virtually the only form that can lay some claim to being a modern tragedy. This is why, after the end of the marriage comedy, which became so remarkable a vehicle in Jane Austen’s hands, the stories and destinies of women come to offer the richest raw material for literature: they are stories of failure, epitomised in the novel of adultery.

It is women’s compensation for their exclusion from the Bildungsroman as such, and it is questionable whether the latter has itself been able to survive the catastrophe of 19th-century ‘success’, save perhaps for that one variant which does not depend on business society: the novel of the artist.

The problem is that the artist novel faces form-problems and contradictions of its own, which Ernst Bloch identified in a famous series of essays. For it is not enough to tell the reader that your protagonist is a genius, you must prove it somehow. But how? By inserting a work within the work, and giving a sample of his achievements (which may well be better than the novelist’s own, but which ought in any case to be different)? The result is most often what Bloch calls a utopian hole or absence at the centre of the work, a transcendence which can only be imagined, a space that only the future can colonise. Otherwise, it might be better to make these putative works failures as well, as in Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu or Zola’s Cézanne novel, L’ Oeuvre; at which point the protagonist rejoins the long and dismal line of capitalism’s outcasts and rejects.

Lykke-Per deftly sidesteps this second dilemma by making its genius an engineer and by submitting, as its work within the work, a project that can be imagined and judged on its own merits, indeed a project whose fundamental ambition conjoins the novel’s theme of modernisation and of the national destiny with that other even more fundamental one of luck, happiness and success, which is to say of desire itself. National allegory is alone achieved at that price, the coincidence of the collective destiny with that of the individual.

Per’s scientific gift (although it does not yet quite strike the note of the two cultures debate) is itself an implicit judgment on the major Danish intellectual and cultural figure of the period, Georg Brandes (a scarcely disguised character in the novel, and also, not coincidentally, a Jew). Brandes was a giant figure for all of Northern Europe, a tireless champion of the avant-garde, very much including Nietzsche, and a major player in that late 19th-century European cultural revolution which led both to modern art and modern industrial development. Brandes/Nathan is an essential station on the line of development of Per’s Bildungsroman; but his repudiation is no less characteristic of the form, marking the abandonment of a vision of a purely aesthetic and cultural modernity for a more comprehensive development that includes the national and the economic as well.

Yet engineering does not really take us that far away from art, inasmuch as Per, like any ‘great artist’ in embryo, has nourished the project of his Hauptwerk from adolescence on: it is (like the ending of Faust) the draining of the marshes and the opening of a series of waterways in Jutland that will shift the very position and strategic importance of Denmark in Europe itself:

Per’s proposal is to move the south Jutland landing back to the old place, or rather a bit north of that, namely Tarp, at the mouth of the Varde River. From there, traffic could go further inland. This waterway, deepened and straightened, with the help of a couple of locks, would be connected with the Vejle river and together they would form the most southern of the two channels that, according to his plan, would unite in conjunction with the Belts, the North Sea and the Baltic.

He writes that only the completion of at least one of these lines of connection could bring a competition with the north German ports, especially Hamburg, whose growing business power, he contends, is the real danger that threatens Denmark’s independence. Denmark’s defeat in the battle for business markets that, secretly or openly, is the concern of international politics, will be more and more fateful; on the other hand, a victory would be a golden triumph and, gradually, Denmark would become the centre point of Europe, moving Russia’s rising developing might and culture farther and farther east.

The plan is utopian and realistic/historical all at once, and I can only think of Saccard’s dream of colonising the Middle East (in Zola’s L’ Argent) as a comparable moment in the 19th-century novel. Yet it remains unfulfilled; and the novel stands or falls with this unresolved dissonance, in which the project is suspended at the very moment in which (unlike the manias of Balzacian characters, for example) it finds practical and financial support and could actually be realised.

But this is what happens with all Per’s plans and desires: they are abandoned at the moment of success. His love affair with Jakobe dissolves at the very moment of marriage: one can’t say that it is broken off by a quarrel, or that the love affair that seems to come between them is anything more than a pretext, even though he also ‘loves’ the new infatuation (indeed, this one he goes so far as to marry, in a liaison that dissolves as readily as the old one). This is not, I think, the existential fear of commitment, on the order of Kierkegaard’s seducer or Sartre’s Age of Reason. Nor do we have to do here with Fourier’s ‘butterfly temperament’, or the more serious professional conquests of a Don Juan. What is authentic is Per’s capacity for new enthusiasms, intellectual as well as sentimental: but this renewal of interests does not exactly result in their conflict, in some painful hesitation between two desires, or the proverbial clash between love and duty. Per knows a double success – he has been adopted (figuratively) by a wealthy older woman and taken to Rome to experience the treasures of the city and its high society (shades of James, whose characters were there at much the same time), and in his absence the great engineering project for the seacoast has been taken up by some influential people and seems on the point of realisation – but then he receives a message urgently calling him back to Copenhagen to promote the scheme, which is the project of his life. His refusal to do so is not to be understood as the hesitation between two desires, two temptations, even though it does seem to be expressed in terms of indolence, new and luxurious pleasures, the inability of the will to throw off these weak and effeminate indulgences and to embrace his duty (or his destiny). In fact, Per is not a particularly pleasure-oriented figure, and Rome has nothing special for him, save as an excuse not to hurry back to Copenhagen.

No, I think the situation stands otherwise, and could perhaps be put like this: now that he knows the great project can be completed, he loses interest, he no longer needs to complete it. I think that what startled its contemporaries about this strange novel was not the representation of the usual motivations, but rather the sense of something new, one of those as yet unnamed and perhaps unnameable psychic discoveries for which the novelists of the period – from Dostoevsky to James – desperately searched, in the exhaustion of traditional narratives.

Perhaps the most plausible competitor in this struggle of interpretations is the now current topic of melancholia, which would seem very apt to describe the strange feeling-tone of a lack of feeling that characterises Per. Lack of feeling does not here mean the absence of passion – Per has many and diverse passions – but rather the failure of any of his passions or interests to cut deeply, to make their mark on a fundamental indifference which is not experienced in anxiety (as in the various existentialisms) but rather as a kind of permanent ground-bass of existence. This cosmic neutrality can itself take on a range of tonalities: from the ecstatic encounters with a nature that generally takes the form of an inorganic sublime (from rocks and mountains to the mines in which Per works for a time), to a more properly melancholy calm, as when Per accompanies the coffin of his mother back to the tiny port village in which he and his brothers and sisters grew up:

Per had already, for some time, been shipboard on the open sea. Like a giant floating sarcophagus, the ship’s large, dark body glided over the peaceful surface in the twilight while smoke billowed over it like mourning crêpe. The sky was covered with clouds and hung heavy and black over the horizon. Here and there was a rift in the clouds through which a few pale stars peeked down like angel eyes watching over the solemn journey of the corpse.

Pontoppidan’s discovery, if we judge it to be that and do not reduce it to older narrative stereotypes, is something closer to the Freudian or Lacanian death wish: the idea that beneath all our conscious desires, which may or may not be satisfied, beneath all the successes that ought to bring fulfilment and at least a passing moment of satisfaction, there persists some immortal drive that can never be silenced (except by organic death) and which, ‘in us more than us’ and insatiable, renders both success and failure meaningless. But we must avoid the temptation of a religious or ascetic interpretation, and the accents either of asceticism or of existential pathos and Pascalian ‘misery’. We must resist the temptation to see Per’s final return to Jutland as a withdrawal from the world:

The place had a special attraction for him personally and, as he now realised, just because of its sterile and sad deserted nature, its full solitude. It seemed to him that he never had looked so deeply into himself as at that moment. It was as if he saw the ground of his own Being uncovered and was staring at it. When, in spite of all the good fortune that had come his way, he wasn’t happy, it was because he had not wanted to be happy in the general sense of the word.

‘In the general sense of the word’: yes, this turns out to have been the novel’s project – to change the sense of the word, to modify our sense of what luck or happiness means. ‘Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux,’ Camus concluded superbly, at the end of his book on the uselessness of passion. In just that way we must imagine that the fairytale of stupid Hans has a happy ending; and that Lucky Per himself has managed to get beyond success or failure.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences