Henrik Pontoppidan: Lucky Per

May 31, 2016

Reading about Denmark pointed me in the direction of actual Danish literature which is apparently best exemplified by Lykke Per by Henrik Pontoppidan, a Nobel laureate. I was little sceptical: the book was written at the end of the 19th century and has received a lot of acclaim at the time.

My scepticism turned out to be warranted: almost seven hundred pages of a very strange plot with caricature characters and endless musings about purpose of life and religious belief. Many reviewers are delighted by his style and breath of the vocabulary but if it’s there, it didn’t really translate.

Others are excited by the breath of the characters — they must have been reading a different book. The main protagonist, Per, keeps finding new ways to act like an idiot in every chapter — he rebels against his religious family, tries to buy his way into higher society and makes ends meet only because of generosity of an acquaintance (who makes Per his heir before committing suicide), treats the people around him like crap if he doesn’t see a way how to benefit from them, throws away his education, despises the free-spirited artists he hangs out with, abuses his benefactor, cheats on his fiance and so on and so forth. Per is despicable and one has a strong urge to slap him every other page.

The other characters are mostly caricatures — his devout parents, siblings who had to grow up too early, conservative public servants hindering his master plan, tragic artists, or money hungry financiers who don’t understand the meaning of his project. Basically the only character with any depth is his fiance, Jakobe, and her after-Per story might make for a good novel.

A positive aspect of the book is that it is rather readable. Despite its age, the style isn’t as convoluted as it could have been. Admittedly, it might have been slightly modernized during translation in 1980’s.

Personally, I hope modern Danish literature is more readable. Lykke Per really felt like a required school reading without any emotional payoff. It would have been better if it came with a voodoo doll of Per so that I could relieve my frustration over his stupidity.