A forgotten Danish novel, first published more than a century ago and well-known in Europe, appears for the first time in English translation.
In this serial novel, which blends the grim moralism of Ibsen with the careful description of French realists like Zola and Flaubert, Pontoppidan spins a long story that borrows much from his own life. Peter Andreas Sidenius, Per for short, is the son of a Protestant minister in the Danish countryside, the fjord-carved coast of Jutland. One of 11 children, he has always been a willful boy, and “already, at an early age, a deliberate insubordination surfaced in him in the face of the rules and customs of the house.” One thing he surely doesn’t want to hear about is God or his father’s long-winded tales that always carry with them a moral of how good Christians should live. It takes some doing, but after demonstrating his intelligence, Per is allowed to go to Copenhagen and enroll in an engineering course—and to good ends, for he has a plan to straighten out the fjords, build canals, and turn Denmark into a major economic power. Some of the people he comes into contact with in school, his boardinghouse, and the local cafes “where he wasted more time and money than he could afford" dismiss him as a dreamer and his plan as too immature, but others encourage him. In this connection, he forms a friendship with Ivan Salomon, scion of a wealthy Jewish family, whose sister Jakobe becomes a source of fascination for Per—yet not enough that he can break away entirely from convention. Per, in his spiritual torment, becomes an embodiment of Kierkegaard-ian angst, while Jakobe, refreshingly, is a fully rounded, sympathetic character, a kind of literary cousin to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Pontoppidan’s novel is a little fusty here and there, but as a bildungsroman, it merits company alongside the best of Knut Hamsun and Thomas Mann.
A welcome, if much belated, entry in modern European literature in translation and deserving of a wide readership.