- A Stranger in His Own House:Nothingness and Alienation in Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per
A Great Author Has Been Reported Dead
Six years before his death, in 1937, the Czech newspaper Prager Weltbühne printed an obituary about the Danish Nobel Prize-winning author Henrik Pontoppidan. The reason behind the premature obituary was that celebratory writings in Danish newspapers, due to Pontoppidan's recent eightieth birthday, had led to a rumor in the German-speaking world that the Danish author had died.1
The obituary in Prager Weltbühne was written by Ernst Bloch, the German philosopher. It starts with Bloch dramatically proclaiming that "a great author has been reported dead" (Ein großer Dichter ist tot gemeldt).2 In most obituaries, this would probably be followed by a short biographical sketch, but not in Bloch's piece on Pontoppidan. The only biographical information offered in the obituary is a short mentioning of the fact that Pontoppidan was a Nobel laureate, though Bloch does not mention that it was in 1917 that Pontoppidan won the Nobel Prize, which he shared with the now lesser-known author Karl [End Page 521] Gjellerup. Instead of focusing on Pontoppidan's life, Bloch spends the majority of the obituary discussing Pontoppidan's most famous novel, Lykke-Per, which he refers to with its German title, Hans im Glück.
Bloch originally became acquainted with Pontoppidan through his friend and mentor Georg Lukács, with whom he had a somewhat tumultuous relationship.3 Referring to Lykke-Per as one of a few great novels that takes the problem of modernism seriously, Lukács had written on Pontoppidan in his seminal Theory of the Novel (Die Theorie Des Romans ) from 1914. Similarly, Bloch also praises Lykke-Per, saying that it is to be "counted as one of the basic books of world literature" (das man zu den Grundbüchern der Weltliteratur zählen darf), as it is "one of the most profound documents about real humans and their inner contradictions" (eines der tiefsten Dokumente vom Wirklichen Menschen und seinem Widerspruch) .4 No wonder the praise in the obituary made Pontoppidan happy, as he wrote Bloch to thank him for securing the legacy of Lykke-Per, while letting him know that he still was very much alive.5
Lykke-Per, or Lucky Per, as it is called in Naomi Lebowitz's English translation from 2010, was originally published in eight volumes from 1898–1904.6 Immediately after the publication of the final volume, Pontoppidan revised the novel into three parts, and in a subsequent edition, he further revised the novel into two parts; an edition that up until today has been the most reprinted version of the novel. Pontoppidan, however, kept revising the novel for more than 20 years, which has created a textual fluidity and, in the words of the Pontoppidan scholar Flemming Behrendt, prompts a continual discussion among scholars about "the extent to which Pontoppidan knew how the course of his novel would run and how it would end."7
The title of the novel is a loan from Hans Christian Andersen's last novel, Lykke-Peer, from 1870. Where Peer in Andersen's fairy-tale-like [End Page 522] novel dies after reaching the pinnacle of success, the ending of Pontoppidan's novel, where Per dies lonely in the desolate westernmost part of Denmark, is more ambiguous. Is this end an expression of resignation, as the novel becomes both tragic and disillusioned? Is it the opposite, namely, a happy ending of sorts, as we should read Per's death and final years as an expression of happiness, which especially more recent readings of the novel suggest? Or is it perhaps Per's final renunciation, as James Wood asks in the New Yorker, a "narrative false flag?"8
The question of how we are to understand the ending of Lykke-Per has been raised repeatedly in recent years' scholarship on the novel. Posed as a question of how the novel deals with modernity, the concern for the ending of the novel is a result of a larger ideological interest in how the novelistic form...