November 12, 2019, 20:11

A Neglected Modern Masterpiece and Its Perverse Hero

A Neglected Modern Masterpiece and Its Perverse Hero

Imagine a novel about an ambitious, slightly coarse, provincial young man, determined to make his name in the capital city. He is tall and strong, with uncanny blue eyes—“sea-cold,” “merman” eyes. He talks too loudly. One of the capital’s most polished journalists dismisses him as a “swaggering farmboy.” Even the rich heiress who almost marries him agrees with him that he is like a mountain troll from a fairy tale; her sister, on first meeting him, noticed his “slightly provincial shoes.” But he has brilliance and will, and others welcome this young engineer with a head full of projects as “the prototype of the active man of the twentieth century,” a figure from a different, luckier tale, an Aladdin (as one of his friends crowns him) who will surely prosper and triumph. The novel describes this journey.

Now imagine that the novel systematically subverts the swelling arc of the bildungsroman—that, on the cusp of each achievement, some ghostly hand pulls our hero back from victory. He is about to leave his mark in the capital city, but eventually withdraws. He is about to marry the rich heiress, but calls off the engagement. He returns to the country and starts a family with a modest country girl, but he isn’t happy there, either: “He was like a clock whose insides had been carefully removed, piece by piece.” In fact, our Aladdin seems destined to follow the serial emaciations of “Hans in Luck,” one of the Grimms’ fairy tales, in which Hans, having been paid in gold by his master, is persuaded to exchange his gold for a horse, then his horse for a cow, then his cow for a pig, and so on, until finally he loses everything, and returns home happy and unencumbered. His luck is his reduction.

The hero of this novel comes to the conclusion that all worldly treasures “lost their worth as he got closer to them.” He spends his final years living in virtual isolation in a remote rural area in the north of the country. After his untimely death, a notebook of his is found, which contains these beautiful words of fatalism and rebellion:

When we are young, we make immoderate demands on those powers that steer existence. We want them to reveal themselves to us. The mysterious veil under which we have to live offends us; we demand to be able to control and correct the great world-machinery. When we get a little older, in our impatience we cast our eye over mankind and its history to try to find, at last, a coherence in laws, in progressive development; in short, we seek a meaning to life, an aim for our struggles and suffering. But one day, we are stopped by a voice from the depths of our beings, a ghostly voice that asks “Who are you?” From then on we hear no other question. From that moment, our own true self becomes the great Sphinx, whose riddle we try to solve.

This shattering, sometimes unbearably powerful novel, completed in 1904, was written by Henrik Pontoppidan, who won the Nobel Prize in 1917. It is considered one of the greatest Danish novels; the filmmaker Bille August turned the story into a nearly three-hour movie called, in English, “A Fortunate Man” (2019). The novel was praised by Thomas Mann and Ernst Bloch, and is effectively at the center of Georg Lukács’s classic study “The Theory of the Novel” (1920). In Danish, it is called “Lykke-Per”; in German, it was given the title of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “Hans im Glück.” And in English? In English, it didn’t exist, having gone untranslated for more than a century, until the scholar Naomi Lebowitz administered the translator’s equivalent of a magic kiss and roused it from shameful oblivion. Published nine years ago in academic format, “Lucky Per” has finally appeared in Everyman’s Library, in Lebowitz’s fluent and lucid version, with an excellent introduction by the novelist and critic Garth Risk Hallberg. Our luck has caught up with everyone else’s.

Have I spoiled the plot by revealing the ending? The critic only gives away in silver what the great novel eventually releases as gold. Besides, it’s almost impossible to discuss “Lucky Per” without discussing the shape of its plot, because the radical oddity of the book is so bound up with the hero’s final renunciations. At first sight, “Lucky Per” looks like a stolid work of realism. It is almost six hundred pages long. Through its ample halls moves a large cast of characters, from several layers of Danish society—middle-class clergymen, rich merchants, lawyers and politicians, writers and intellectuals. There is much conversation about the coming century: the fate of the nation, the future of technology.

“O.K., it’s time you guys got your own HBO subscriptions.”Cartoon by Brooke Bourgeois

But one reason it’s generally unwise to talk about a single style called “realism” is that prose narrative is so often lured away from conventional verisimilitude by rival genres, notably allegory and fairy tale. The book’s opening chapter is at once familiarly “realistic” and heavy with the ironic fatalism of the folktale. In a small market town in East Jutland, Per Sidenius is one of eleven children growing up in an austerely religious family. His father is a pastor with an ascetic hatred of the body. His mother is bedridden. While his brothers and sisters mutter their prayers “in a sort of underworld blindness to the light and full of a dread of life and its glory,” Per is a singular, rebellious life force. He sneaks out of the house to go sledding, he flirts with a local girl. When a parishioner complains to the pastor that Per has been stealing apples from his garden, the wayward son is severely admonished at family dinner, warned that he could end up like Cain, the first murderer, whom God cursed thus: “You will be a wandering fugitive in all the earth.” His siblings weep in dismay, but Per silently scoffs. At the age of sixteen, he escapes this prison, and goes to Copenhagen to study engineering at the Polytechnic Institute. The coming-of-age novel, Per’s sentimental education, will now begin in earnest, as the dark, religious family grotto recedes into the distance of legend.

Alas, the past cannot be escaped so easily. Fable and allegory curl themselves like creepers around our hero’s feet. Per has, in effect, been exiled from Eden, for the Adamic sin of stealing apples. But his home wasn’t Edenic, and besides, he doesn’t share his father’s Christian faith. If he hasn’t committed a sin, how can he be cursed? All the secular energy of this novel—and it has a magnificent, liberating secular power—pushes against the reality of the pastor’s Old Testament damnation. Yet Per is cursed: he’s destined to wander, destined to quest, and destined to fail. With a steady, returning beat, closer to allegorical verse than to realist fiction, the novel reminds us of its guiding theme: the homelessness of its hero, condemned to spend his life in the lonely quest for a metaphysical safe harbor. So is Per’s curse a religious curse or a fairy-tale curse? And what is the difference between the two?

Per’s odd life path might simply be the result of being born into the Sidenius family. The Sideniuses, we learn at the novel’s opening, trace their lineage, through generations of ministers, all the way back to the Reformation. It’s a family tree of unimpeachable piety and dreary episcopal conformity, with one exception. An ancestor, also a pastor, known as Mad Sidenius, somehow went off the rails. He drank brandy with the peasants, and assaulted the parish clerk. In a novel haunted by insanity and suicide, the memory of this family outcast is important. The potentially blasphemous question rears its head again: if it’s a curse to be a Sidenius, is Per cursed by generations of unerring piety, or by that ancestral aberrant flash of madness?

Henrik Pontoppidan’s life began much like his fictional hero’s. He was born in 1857, the son of a Jutland pastor, into a family that had produced countless clergymen. Unlike Per, Pontoppidan seems to have remained on friendly terms with his family, despite drifting away from his inherited Christianity. In his memoir, published in 1940, three years before his death, he declared himself to be an out-and-out rationalist, dismayed by the tenacity of religious superstition. Like Per, he left the provinces to study engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen of the eighteen-seventies and eighties has been described (by the critic Morten Høi Jensen) as “the first real battleground of European Modernism.” A parochially Protestant culture was beginning to do intellectual trade with the rest of Europe: French realism and naturalism, Darwinism and radical atheism were the imported goods. The two most talented conduits of these new freedoms were the novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen and the critic Georg Brandes, both of whom make appearances in fictionalized form in “Lucky Per.” Jacobsen translated Darwin’s major work into Danish, and wrote what is surely one of the most fanatically and superbly atheistic novels in existence, “Niels Lyhne” (1880). A lyrical aesthete and a Flaubertian prose polisher, he is pictured, in “Lucky Per,” as the sickly poet Enevoldsen, fussing with his lorgnette at a Copenhagen café while worrying about “where to put a comma.” Jacobsen was championed by Brandes, whose lectures at the University of Copenhagen in 1871 were an inspiration for a generation of Scandinavian writers. (Brandes and Pontoppidan corresponded for decades.) Brandes had read Mill, Hegel, Feuerbach, Strauss. A fervent atheist, he introduced Danish readers to Nietzsche and, late in life, wrote a book entitled “Jesus: A Myth” (1925). He was an advocate of European naturalism, and of fiction that attended to the social and political moment. It was time, he argued, to open Denmark up to the outside—a movement that became known as the Modern Breakthrough. In “Lucky Per,” Brandes appears throughout the novel, more invoked than encountered, as the dominating Dr. Nathan, sometimes nicknamed Dr. Satan. Brandes was Jewish, and Pontoppidan, remarkably alert to European anti-Semitism throughout the novel, writes that Per had kept his distance from Dr. Nathan because of this: “He simply didn’t like that foreign race, nor did he have any leaning toward literary men.”

But Per’s life will soon be changed by another Jewish character, and one who shares the bulk of the novel with him: the fierce, brilliant, troubled Jakobe Salomon. Per meets Jakobe through her brother, Ivan, who decides, early in the novel, that Per has the potential of a Caesar on whose brow God has written “I come, I see, I conquer!” Per’s imperial impulses are manifest in his vast utopian engineering project, which envisages “a system of canals on the Dutch model” that will connect Denmark’s rivers, lakes, and fjords with one another, “and put the cultivated heaths and the flourishing new towns into contact with the sea on both sides.” His dream is a physical enactment of Brandes’s Modern Breakthrough. He also shares Brandes’s atheism. “There was no hell,” Per reflects, “other than what mankind, afraid of love’s joy and the body’s force, created in its monstrous imagination.” The Anglophone reader is sometimes reminded of Thomas Hardy or D. H. Lawrence. Per exults in the healthy secularism of the body: “The embrace of man and woman was the heaven in which there is oblivion for all sorrows, forgiveness for all sins, where souls meet in guiltless nakedness like Adam and Eve in the garden of paradise.”

With the ruthlessness of the provincial hero, Per decides that marriage to an heiress of the vast Salomon merchant fortune will speed him on his way. At first, though, he stirs in Jakobe a deep-seated hatred of Christian culture, and she treats him with an insulting haughtiness. Bookish, sensitive, twenty-three, and already considered a bit of an old maid by her family, Jakobe had been a sickly child, and the target of anti-Semitic bullying. Per triggers in her a memory, at once sharp and hallucinatory, narrated with dreamlike indulgence by Pontoppidan, and one of the novel’s most potent scenes. Four years earlier, Jakobe had been in a Berlin railway station. Her eye was caught by a group of “pitiable, ragged people surrounded by a circle of curious, gaping onlookers.” When she asked a station official how to get to the waiting room, he replied that with her nose she should find it easy to smell her way there. On the floor of the waiting room were hundreds more desperate, emaciated paupers. Suddenly, she realized that they were Russian Jews, on their way to America via Germany. She had heard of the pogroms, and was astounded that this “infamy crying out to heaven could happen right before Europe’s eyes with no authoritative voice raised against it!” Per’s Nordic frame and blue eyes make her think of two police officers she glimpsed in Berlin, who seemed the embodiments of the “brutal self-righteousness” of the Christian society she lives in.

With great ironic power, Pontoppidan convinces us that Jakobe and Per must inevitably hate each other, and then, soon enough, that these two damaged creatures could have found comfort only in each other. Their relationship is passionately erotic and ardently intellectual; Jakobe, again like some heroine out of D. H. Lawrence, is helplessly attracted to Per, despite the blaring correctives from her conscience. The couple have in common their committed atheism, their hatred of the established church, and a sense of being “chosen”—by theology, by race, by similarly heroic notions of destiny.

Garth Risk Hallberg, in his introduction, says that Jakobe Salomon is “as intelligent as anyone out of James, as bold as anyone out of Austen, as perverse as anyone out of Dostoyevsky,” and adds that, “with all due respect,” the frankness and amplitude of Pontoppidan’s depiction of the Salomon household leaves George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda “in the dust.” I like it when writers are made to run races with one another, precisely because we’re supposed to be above such competitions, and I also think that Hallberg is right. Jakobe is utterly alive and complex, and burns at the living center of the book. Pontoppidan endows her with an extraordinary intellectual restlessness, and allows her some of the most movingly lucid secular proclamations I have ever encountered in fiction.

One of these statements, a long letter that she writes to Per, becomes an eloquent, scalding testament to her atheism and her faith in the known limits of our worldly existence. She excoriates Christianity’s “exaggerated anxiety about death” and, following Nietzsche, complains about the link between the fear of death and “slave morality”:

Never will I forget the impression that some plaster casts of bodies excavated in Pompeii made on me. There were, among others, a master and his slave, both evidently caught by surprise in the rain of ash. . . . But what a difference in the facial expressions! On the slave’s face, you could read the most confusing puzzlement. He was overturned on his back, his eyebrows were raised up to his hairline, the thick mouth open, and you could virtually hear him screaming like a stuck pig. The other, by contrast, had preserved his mastered dignity unto death. His almost-closed eyes, the fine mouth pressed shut, were marked by the proudest and most beautiful resignation in relation to the inevitable.

My primary complaint against Christianity’s hope of eternal life is that it robs this life of its deep seriousness and, with that, its beauty. When we imagine our existence here on earth as only a dress rehearsal for the real performance, what remains of life’s festiveness?

“I’d like to give you an allowance, but who carries cash anymore?”Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez & Al Batt

The powerful secular argument of the novel resides in the freedom and intensity of Per and Jakobe’s brief relationship. There’s a marvellous scene in the Austrian Alps, where Per has travelled after the couple’s engagement, and where Jakobe has arrived without notice. The time they spend together in the Alps constitutes their true marriage, “a new birth and baptism.” One day, out walking, they come across a crude wooden cross, a simple hillside shrine with a rough painting of Jesus. Per tells Jakobe a fable that he heard as a child, about a farm boy who wants to become a great shot, a “magic marksman.” But in order to achieve this the boy must go out at night, find an image of Christ, and shoot a bullet through it. Every time the lad tries to do it, his confidence wavers, his hand shakes, and he fails the test. He remains “a common Sunday hunter” for the rest of his life.

Per turns back to the hillside shrine. “Look at that pale man hanging there!” he says. “Why don’t we have the courage to spit from disgust right in his face.” Per takes out his revolver and fires at the image of Jesus, while yelling, “Now I shoot in the new century!” As the cross splinters, a second, hollow boom sounds through the valley, like “infernal thunder.” Per blanches, and then laughs, remembering the signposts he had seen earlier: “Take notice of the echo!”

Heavy, God-infested, magnificently metaphysical, unafraid to court ridicule, and playing for the highest possible stakes—they don’t write like that anymore. They didn’t write much like that in 1904, though Knut Hamsun, in 1890, and Jens Peter Jacobsen, in 1880, and above all Dostoyevsky, the great progenitor, had all sounded something like this, not so long before. Given the novel’s astonishingly raw atheism, how are we to read the “religious” renunciation of its ending? At the novel’s close, Jakobe and Per appear to be living alone, and each is now committed to a life of religious seriousness, though neither is a religious believer: Per in the remote north, living in monkish retreat, and Jakobe in Copenhagen, where she has founded a charity school for poor children.

Throughout, Per is hard to comprehend in his cloudy questing. At one moment—around the time of his mother’s death—he is pulled back toward his inherited faith, repenting his lust for worldly success and begging forgiveness from God. But fifty or so pages later his recoil from Christian self-sacrifice is palpable once again; he is repelled, for instance, by Thomas à Kempis’s lament, in “Imitation of Christ,” that “truly, it is an affliction to live in the world.” Per reflects that he is at home neither among ascetic Christians—the piety of the Sideniuses—nor among “the children of the world”: the luxury of the Salomons. And yet, troubled by this very homelessness, he feels that one must choose: on one side, renunciation; on the other, the world. Which is it to be? For it is necessary to take a stand, to “swear fidelity . . . to the cross or champagne.”

In the end, Per surrenders to the religious impulses of a faith he seems to stand outside of. We have been here before, in this world of a deformed and contradictory atheism. Raging heroes in Dostoyevsky, Jacobsen, and Hamsun enjoy denouncing a God they don’t believe in. But Per Sidenius is stranger still, because he seems to want to imitate a Christ he doesn’t believe in. Thomas Mann praised Pontoppidan as a kind of gentle prophet, for having “judged the times and, like the true poet which he is, pointed toward a purer humanity.” In a suggestive afterword, the novel’s translator, Naomi Lebowitz, notes how Per “restlessly evicts himself” from all those places which could offer him refuge. Subtler than Mann, she also sees Per’s journey as the discovery of, finally, “an authentic and transparent sense of self . . . the need to be himself, by himself.”

The novel encourages such readings. Per’s notebook, written in his final years, contains the following entry: “Honor to my youth’s expansive dreams! And I am still a world conqueror. Every man’s soul is an independent universe, his death the extinction of the universe in miniature.” In this reading, “Lucky Per,” though rather Scandinavian in its religious intensity, is a still familiar version of the bildungsroman, in which our hero ventures out into the world, tastes success, tastes the ashes of success, and retreats to ponder, on his own authentic terms, the riddle of the self that has always preoccupied him. Fredric Jameson has suggested that we should see this as a happy ending, albeit an ironic one, in which Per has “managed to get beyond success or failure.”

Yet how can we accept the ironic wisdom of this ending without smothering the vital force of the novel’s earlier secularism? Where have the “magic marksmen,” willing not only to spit at Christ but to shoot at Christ, gone? Where has Jakobe’s proud Roman master scuttled away to? You don’t have to be a fully paid-up Nietzschean to feel that if you no longer believe in the Christian God you should no longer believe in that Christian God’s slave morality. If you have rejected the content of the faith, why mimic its more self-punishing practices? Per’s imagined choice between cross or champagne is not only a false choice but a mutilated one, posed by a reduced version of Christianity. In fact, “Lucky Per” emerges as a savage critique of the persistence, in Danish culture, of a certain Kierkegaardian masochism, in which all choices are made religious rather than secular, purifyingly negative rather than complicatedly affirmative. Kierkegaard said that one had to be a kind of lunatic in order to be a true Christian. Is there a difference between this form of religious madness and actual madness? “Lucky Per” inserts its secular, novelistic lever into just this question.

What if Per’s final renunciation is a narrative false flag? Instead of looking at Per, we should perhaps look toward Jakobe, whose own renunciation takes her into the world, not away from it, and who seems to manage this turn without compromising her defiant secularism. She is the novel’s true hero. How do you get back to Eden? Back to the place you inhabited before the original religious curse? Back to a home before religion made it a home you could be exiled from? If you are a wandering, homeless Christian, scarred by original sin, the answer might be: in the arms of a wandering Jew—but one whose own itinerancy is unseduced by the lure of religion, whose own secularism is not tempted by the simplicity of religious masochism. In the strange switchback of their lives, Per and Jakobe each redefined the meaning of luck. The shame was that they could not share it. Lucky Jakobe, unlucky Per. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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