Henrik Pontoppidan

Henrik Pontoppidan

THE LAUREATE: Henrik Pontoppidan was born in Jutland in 1857. He came from a family of vicars and writers, studied engineering, taught in public schools and finally ended up writing bitingly accurate accounts of Danish life. He was apparently a pioneer of the Danish novel, and his most famous work, Lykke-Per, was recently enrolled in the Danish Cultural Canon. He died in 1946

WHAT I’M READING: One of his few works in English, Emanuel, or Children of the SoilREVIEW: So, I’ve been making fun of Henrik Pontoppidan a bit over the course of this project. At first, the idea of a prize-winning author, that is, an author who has won the prize, being just a guy who looked out of his window and wrote about what he saw (the Nobel citation: for his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark) struck me as being utterly ridiculous.

Well, Emanuel is also utterly ridiculous. Emanuel, a priest from Copenhagen, is transferred out to a parish in the middle of nowhere as assistant to the mean old priest who actually wants everyone to pay their tithes on time, in full and in cash. Jerk. On his first night there, Emanuel goes to pray for a girl in the village, and everyone is friendly, but when he stands up and starts sermonizing, they completely shut down. What gives, Danish peasants?

Turns out, they want someone who will share his life story and talk to them like one human being to other human beings, instead of carefully crafted speechifying. So he does that, then falls in love with and marries the girl he healed the first day he’s there, then meets the schoolmaster who all the young people admire and who admires him for some reason. The old priest is mad at Emanuel because he’s getting to actually relate to the people he ostensibly protects, so he calls the bishop to check out what’s happening. It turns out that Emanuel’s mother was a nun (or something, I’m not quite sure) in these same two villages, and she did the same sort of thing twenty years before, but didn’t have the courage to stick it through to the end, so she married into dull society. Anyway, the mean old priest gets transferred, Emanuel and his new peasant bride turn the old priest’s mansion into a public high school and everyone lives sickeningly happily ever after. This is precious idealism at its worst. Ugh.

RECOMMENDED: No, but I’m not giving up on Pontoppidan yet. The British Library just digitized and reprinted another of his novels, The Apothecary’s Daughters, and someone recently translated Lykke-Per into English. I will ILL them.

WHAT’S NEXT: 1917 Week continues with Karl Gjellerup’s Minna


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