In Defense of Henrik Pontoppidan (and Other, Lesser-Known Laureates)

Thanks to Pete for pointing out Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece about this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a humorous piece, and though perhaps it doesn’t tread new ground with regards to its criticism of the Nobel Prize (and how much we as a literary community still value it, despite our kvetching about the award winners each year), Gopnik does get in some nice quips. (My personal favorite being “The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie.”)

All the same, I’d like to take the opportunity to defend one of the lesser-known Nobel Laureates who are laughingly brushed off in the article: Henrik Pontoppidan. Says Gopnik,

Last week also revealed that, however much we may discount the Nobel Prize, we still prize it. No matter how many times the worthy losers console themselves with their fellows—who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?—we’d all still take the meatball if the Swedes would only offer it. You would have thought that the second-rate nature of some prize-winners would have produced a general degradation of the prize. If you give the Oscar to the likes of “Ordinary People” and “Chariots of Fire” often enough, won’t your prize be worth a bit less? Just the opposite: the more often an established prize goes to a dubious candidate the more valued it becomes.

Pontoppidan was an influential member of the so-called “Modern Breakthrough” movement in Scandinavia in the late 19th Century and won the Nobel–in an odd combo award with fellow Dane Karl Gjellerup–in 1917, for, as the Nobel committee rather anticlimactically put it, “his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark.” His novel Lykke Per (Lucky Peter) is quite famous, although it–along with Pontoppidan’s other novels–has since fallen shamefully out of English translation.

I ran across one of Pontoppidan’s short stories, “The Royal Guest” in an anthology called The Royal Guest, and Other Classic Danish Narrative. It’s a wonderful story and after finishing it I instantly set about finding more of Pontoppidan’s work in English. There’s little to be found, unfortunately, although the University of Wisconsin did translate two more of his stories as part of their “Wisconsin Introduction to Scandinavia” (WITS) series. My personal favorite is “The Polar Bear,” which is just a lovely, lovely modernist story about a bohemian Danish pastor who is sent to minister in Greenland.

It was really on the strength of just these two short stories that I decided to try to learn Danish. I wanted to be able to read all of Pontoppidan’s (and other Great Danes’) work, and, if possible, make it available to others to read in English as well.  And so I’m going to take this opportunity to re-post the (very) informal review I wrote in 2008 on “The Polar Bear.” It (the story) is well worth your while, and is very cheaply available ($5 a piece) with all the other titles in the WITS series on the University of Wisconsin Scandinavian Studies website. Skål!


“The Polar Bear”
By Henrik Pontoppidan, Translated by James Massengale

I obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California’s Southern Library Facility, you really made my day. Or maybe even my year.

This was such a lovely short story, filled with the type of elegant, visual prose that writing instructors the world over are pointing to when they admonish their students to “Show!” and “Not Tell!” But even so, the dialog and the fluidity of the story are never bogged down in lengthy, over-flowered passages. Observe our first introduction to the novel’s protagonist:

Imagine for yourself, dear Reader, a large, flaming red face, with a snow-white, tousled beard hanging down from it; and hiding, here and there is the rough chinhairs, more old remnants of green cabbage slop, breadcrumbs or tan-colored snuff tobacco than one might find completely appetizing…It should also be pointed out that Pastor Muller was exactly six feet one and a half inches tall, that he had lost a finger on his left hand, and that he presented himself to the world, summer and winter, in the same marvelous costume, consisting of a moth-eaten dogskin cap with a visor, a pair of gray checkered trousers stuck into a pair of massive boots that stank sourly of whale oil, and a short, shiny old hunting jacket, a so-called “rump-cooler,” that was buttoned tightly over his huge, giant-like body…

The Polar Bear is a novella about Thorkild Muller, a reclusive, undereducated, and outcast Danish pastor who is reassigned to a parish in Greenland. Muller quickly finds a sense of belonging and fulfillment living with the Inuit, and becomes integrated into their nomadic society. In his old age, however, Muller returns to Denmark and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a confrontation with the Danish church.

It’s wonderful, which is actually extremely tragic, in that most of you won’t have access to a copy to read and those of you who do out there in Southern California don’t seem to take advantage of it. (The borrower slip in the back of the book shows that this was only rented from the library once in April 2005. So, shout out to my library buddy in California–you have excellent taste.)

As translator James Massengale notes in his Afterword,

There has been a real need, in our modern Scandinavian literature classes, for an exuberant story with no battle of the sexes, no lengthy account of awful diseases, no “depressing realism.” The Polar Bear was chosen partially as an answer to the common student reaction of the type: “do the Scandinavians always get depressed or divorce, or commit suicide in their stories?” The answer, as far as this novella goes, is certainly no; but that does not mean our story is simplistic, or that it lacks depth or “debate.” The choice also has the advantage of bring to students’ attention the name of an outstanding but less-known Danish author, Henrik Pontoppidan, who, despite winning a shared Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, has not remained within our American-Scandinavian teaching “cannon.” He needs to be reinstated, along with a number of other Scandinavian writers of both sexes who have been brushed aside by the great Ibsen/Strindberg steamroller and the restrictive policies of some of the larger publishing houses.


One thought on “In Defense of Henrik Pontoppidan (and Other, Lesser-Known Laureates)

  1. Pingback: Lucky Us: Lykke Per Now Available in English « The Afterword

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