Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943)

In commemorating the centenary of the birth of the Danish novelist Henrik Pontoppidan on 24 July 1957 it would be the natural thing to attempt to write a reassessment of his works in the light of modern literary research. Pontoppidan is, however, one of those numerous Danes whose work is scarcely known in this country, despite his being one of the most important – indeed, perhaps the most important – of Danish novelists. Apart from the English summary to Knut Ahnlund's dissertation of last year, only four articles on him have to my knowledge appeared in English, and of these only one was written by an Englishman; this is the article written by J.G. Robertson in The Contemporary Review in March 1920, an article, incidentally, in which the writer evinces a great admiration for Pontoppidan, while not showing any tendency to hide his faults. A general appreciation is, then, available, and it would therefore be appropriate to deal with a somewhat more specialized aspect of his work: his judgement of the society in which he lived.

Pontoppidan's life was uneventful, but it gave him admirable opportunities for studying the various aspects of life in the Denmark of his day, and also to some extent for comparing Denmark with other countries after he received a travelling scholarship. He was the son of a parson and experienced a strict upbringing in Fredericia and Randers, leaving home at an early age to become a civil engineer. He never finished his training, preferring instead to teach at his brother's folk high school. While there he married a farmer's daughter, but neither his career as a teacher nor his marriage to a country girl was a success. He left the high school, and his marriage was later dissolved. After this he went to live in Copenhagen for a time, and then finally settled down in the country and devoted his time to writing.

Throughout his life Pontoppidan viewed the Denmark he knew with a profound sense of tragedy; he saw it as a land of decadence and self-seeking, a mere caricature of the land that had once ruled the Baltic and whose influence had been felt far beyond, and it is in the light of this that his writings must be judged. For different as such works as Landsbybilleder (Pictures from the Villages) and De Dødes Rige (The Realm of the Dead) are from each other, they are both products of this same feeling in the author. He spent his life looking for the cause of the dearth which he saw around him, and his search goes from the purely superficial judgement of the early short stories with their crass naturalism and their agitation for better material conditions to the profound studies of the Danish national character as Pontoppidan conceived it in the great novels of his mature period.

In his very earliest work he is content to view the poverty which was so widespread in the country districts and to see in the abolition of this the final solution to Denmark's misery. In these – for the most part short stories – he cries shame on the upper classes for their lack of interest in the conditions of those less well off than they, condemning the treatment accorded to those no longer able to take care of themselves, and crying in despair at the irreverence with which even their dead are treated when the poor child's grave is dug up to make room for the nobility.

Pontoppidan was in fact the first Danish novelist to deal seriously with the conditions 377 of the poor, and in so doing he made way for authors such as Aakjaer and Skjoldborg who devoted most of their energies (at least in their prose writings) to the same thing. With Pontoppidan, however, social criticism of this sort was only a passing phase: he quickly perceived that the real cause of Denmark's ills lay below the surface, and accordingly there are signs even in these early works of the approaching moral criticism of the Danish people which was to dominate the main part of his writings, and in which complacency, self-seeking and the lack of a sense of reality are revealed as the principal weaknesses of the Danish nation. For instance, he does not criticize the farmers merely because of the way in which they treat their inferiors, because of the accommodation they offer them and the way in which they speak to them, but in a work such as Sandinge Menighed (The Parish of Sandinge) he goes on to contrast the misery of Lone with the 'happy, well-fed farmers' in their meeting-house, singing joyful hymns and oblivious of the grim reality around them; and in Idyl he even develops this theme further by telling how the farmer's comfort is not disturbed, but on the contrary is increased, by the 'cheerful' sound of the threshing being done by the poor farm labourer while he himself is resting during the winter evenings.

From this attack on complacency in one particular class it is not a very far cry to an attack on the Danish national character as a whole as envisaged by Pontoppidan, and already in En Fiskerrede (translated as A Fishernest in the American Scandinavian Review, vol. VIII, 1927) he shows the first signs of this attack. In this story he censures the modern population, not because they plunder a ship, but for the despicable, underhand way in which they do it, contrasting it violently with the manly way in which they would have done it a couple of centuries before. Here, then, for the first time, Pontoppidan deals with the decadence which he sees in modern Denmark.

It is, however, in Skyer (Clouds) that this thought finds its full expression, in such stories as Ilum Galgebakke (The Gallows Hill at Ilum), showing how the peasants of olden days reacted to oppression, and contrasting this with the way in which the modern farmers react to the new oppression of an autocratic government – by holding meetings and talking about it. This collection of stories is almost entirely concerned with situations arising from the provisional laws which were enforced by the Cabinet despite opposition from the Folketing, and Pontoppidan emphasizes throughout the contrast between what the Danes say they will do and what they actually do. Both violent hatred of the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister, Estrup, and an air of disappointment, almost of melancholy, are apparent in the stories, but any remaining doubts as to Pontoppidan's essential demand are removed on reading his cry for 'a brand new people' in To Gange Mødt (Twice Met). Bad as the government might be, the ultimate remedy is in the hands of the people themselves, but they show themselves incapable of applying it.

That Pontoppidan longs for spiritual renewal – or at least a change of heart – in the Danes is already apparent in the early novel Isbjørnen (The Polar Bear), in which Pontoppidan might almost be said to have found his 'new people' – in Greenland. He spends much of his time extolling the Greenlanders for their simple virtues, only to compare and contrast them with the Danes as Thorkild Müller finds them on his return home – oppressed, but unwilling to do anything about it, even to the extent of thinking that Müller is mad when he refuses to oppress them and demand his tithes. These Danish farmers cut poor figures at the side of their 378 Greenlandic neighbours who still retain the qualities which were once to be found in Denmark and which Pontoppidan now seeks in vain.

These themes are continued and developed in the first major novel, Det Forjættede Land (The Promised Land), which marks both the culmination of Pontoppidan's early work dealing especially with rural conditions and the beginning of a new approach to the subject. Published in three parts, from 1891 to 1895, it is naturally a much more profound study than the earlier works and in it we reach the decisive stage in the development from a superficial, material criticism to a moral one, and also the development from works dealing essentially with the people as a conception to novels in which the interest is centred on the individual. It is none the less a judgement, a moral judgement of the Danish nation as a whole, dealing with people from all parts of the country, all classes and all political parties; it may well be considered as a first analysis of the deeper-lying causes of the decadence about which Pontoppidan is so much concerned. Apart from Hansine and possibly her father and mother, there is scarcely a person in this book whom Pontoppidan does not condemn in one way or another. Not that all the characters are equally despicable: Provst Tønnesen and Pastor Petersen are not exactly admirable characters, but Pontoppidan has a certain amount of respect for them. Tønnesen is what he says he is, and even though in the first book, Muld (Soil), Pontoppidan has to put him in an unfavourable fight in order to gain our sympathy for Emanuel and his new friends, he treats him on the whole as a worthy enemy. Indeed, on the occasion of the bishop's visit one cannot help feeling that the author grudgingly admires Tønnesen's outspokenness in the discussion on politics, in which the bishop has earlier played a rather unfortunate role.

With its profoundly pessimistic view of the Danish nation Det Forjættede Land can easily be interpreted as a negative work, attacking everything and everyone, and offering no solution. But Pontoppidan is in fact quite positive in it, for he is fighting for a principle in the abstract; his characters have no principle at all, no life force, and that is what he deplores in them. In its portrayal of people of this sort Det Forjættede Land is closely linked to such early works as Skyer and points the way forward to such novels as De Dødes Rige.

As in Skyer the reaction of the ordinary people to the provisional laws is also dealt with here, but the author's criticism of them is even more biting, and considerably more subtle. With bitter irony Pontoppidan juxtaposes the people's mourning at the funeral of Emanuel's son and their curiosity and impatience to learn the result of the previous day's debate in the Rigsdag; and when the news arrives, they completely forget the occasion which has brought them together; the heartbroken father is forgotten; his sermon is scarcely heard; hardly has the earth been cast on to the coffin before the 'mourners' are on their way home, loudly condemning the action of the government. But it is not many days before their zeal is spent, and they decide to wait and see what happens before resorting to any sort of violent demonstration. The author's scorn for these tactics of wait and see is amply displayed in the scene portraying the meeting of the local council. And arising out of this situation is yet another charge of self-seeking, this time with the bishop as the scapegoat. He has contrived to get himself elected to the Folketing by taking Emanuel's part against Tønnesen and thereby gaining the support of the local population; it is suggested that he should attend the protest meetings (which are the sum total of the people's anger and resentment) organized 379 after the proclamation of the provisional laws, but he prefers to maintain what he calls his 'Archimedean standpoint, outside the political parties'. The bishop is not referred to often, but by means of an episode of this nature Pontoppidan contrives to make him into a symbol of the instability and selfishness which he is attacking.

So much for the people as a whole. What then of the individuals themselves? Throughout Muld Hans Jensen is a staunch supporter of Provst Tønnesen and an opponent of Væver Hansen and his party, but by the second volume of the trilogy he has seen his advantage in changing colours and becoming 'the well-known leader of the farmers, Hans Jensen from Vejlby'. Niels Damgaard is different, but no better, hiding his ambition under a cloak of piety and following the fashion by starting yet another religious sect based on a new interpretation of the ritual of baptism. Pontoppidan goes to considerable pains to show the development of his hypocrisy. If we examine the local grocer or either of the school teachers, we shall find the same sorts of traits in all of them.

There are, however, one or two characters who command our respect if not our affection, a number, that is, who cannot be classed entirely as self-seekers. Væver Hansen is the most striking of these. He is not an attractive person, nor can it be suggested that he is acting entirely from idealistic motives; but Pontoppidan goes to the trouble of explaining his actions against a background of past wrongs to his father and a resultant desire for revenge. He has a strong will and strength of purpose, and on that account alone we have to respect him, even if it is not easy to decide exactly what his aim is.

And then there is Aggerbølle, the veterinary surgeon who ruins himself through his love of card-playing. In a way he is a foil to Emanuel, like him having come to the country full of romantic hopes and fancies, and like him having been completely disappointed and disillusioned by the experiment. He is portrayed as a weak character, but he is not despicable in the way that so many of the others are, and when he talks of evil spirits in the air, one cannot help feeling that it is Pontoppidan himself speaking. It is worthy of note in this connexion that Aggerbølle is looked down on by the rest of the 'respectable' population; they certainly give him sufficient economic help to keep him off the parish, but it is with considerable condescension. With all his faults, Aggerbølle is better in the eyes of the author than any of the others in the village, and consequently his humiliation is seen in a tragic light.

These are, however, only occasional exceptions to the general charge against the Danes, which in this work is extended so as to embrace a class for whom Pontoppidan has previously shown considerable sympathy: the poor. In fact, from being an oppressed class in his early works, they have now become a class of self-seekers as much as anyone. Svend Øl and Per Brændevin, with whom Pontoppidan is most concerned, come to Emanuel's evening gatherings, not so much out of a genuine desire to take part as on account of their just having received some poor-aid which Emanuel has arranged for them – they feel that if they come and show their gratitude there might be more for them at a later date. Very little sympathy is betrayed for their community as a whole, and although the section dealing with a visit Emanuel pays to them contains a full description of squalor and misery, the tone is very different from that in the short stories. No longer are Pontoppidan's paupers deserving, but lazy and greedy, unwilling to help themselves, ungrateful drunkards who believe the parish has been charitable to them merely because it wanted to 380 keep them out of the work-house and so keep their votes for the day when they would be needed for the farmers' candidates. Pontoppidan might very well have suggested this in his early work, but there is no indication whatever of its being true in this case, and it is quite apparent that he is in fact deliberately limiting what he has said before. Until now he has tended to define good and bad according to their social standing, but this is no longer true, and class differences play a considerably less important part in the rest of Pontoppidan's production. We are aware of poverty and riches, but they cease to have any significance.

It was at this time (1894) that Pontoppidan published Nattevagt (Vigil), that is to say just before the last book of the trilogy, entitled Dommens Dag (The Day of Judgement), in which he completely leaves the last vestiges of what we for the sake of convenience may call 'social criticism' and concentrates more on the personal tragedy of Emanuel Hansted and the Babel-like discord within the various sectarian movements in Denmark. This was in its turn followed by a series of non-critical, semi-romantic short novels. Nattevagt is normally considered a work in which Pontoppidan reasserts in the strongest possible terms the charges and the methods he has used in his early work, using Jørgen Hallager as his mouthpiece. But the mention of Hallager as a photographic retoucher in Lykke-Per (Lucky Peter) seems rather to indicate the failure of his attitude and the failure, therefore, of Pontoppidan's former critical attitude towards society, and Nattevagt must in fact be considered a transitional work heralding a new phase in Pontoppidan's production. In the scene where Thorkild Drehling, who is a much more attractive person than Hallager, comes to say goodbye to his colleague, there is a violent discussion in which they both state their attitudes. Jørgen Hallager's are those to which Pontoppidan has adhered in the past; Thorkild Drehling's are those to which he is going to adhere in the future:

I know that you can meet sorrows and disappointments in life which hurt you far more than hunger and cold.… Just look down any street and notice the faces you meet there. For every one that is marked by anxiety for his next meal, overwork or any other form of hardship you will find ten, indeed twenty, in whom you can read as from an open book of the thousand and one secret worries which harass mankind without taking rank and condition into account; indeed they are perhaps felt most of all by those to whom life appears to have been most gracious… sorrows caused by love, worry on account of one's parents, loneliness, tiredness of life, fear of death, fear of life, what have you.

That this is the statement of a new programme is quite apparent from the following works, all of which deal with these new aspects of human suffering. In Det Forjættede Land Pontoppidan has already been approaching this new treatment of human beings; it is as though he has been coming to the conclusion that the material improvements with which he originally sought to improve society in fact must occupy a secondary place, that individual problems can be of much greater importance. The following works all deal with the private affairs of these individuals, even though they are seen against the background of a society which still fills Pontoppidan with disgust; even Lykke-Per with all its breadth is fundamentally a personal story. A more 'social' note is certainly struck again in Mands Himmerig (Man's Heaven), but the personal element still plays a much more important role than it used to, and the book has nothing whatever to do with the material welfare of any part of society.

381 Self-seeking continues to play a dominant role in the later works, and Pontoppidan even develops this theme in some respects. In Lykke-Per for instance the press emerges as one of the causes of the low morale in Denmark; as it grows in power it could obviously have an enormous influence for good, but it prefers to pander to the public taste in order to drag the public in the direction in which it wants to go when the time comes to vote. This is indicated through the figure of Dyhring in Lykke-Per; it is developed in De Dødes Rige in the portrayal of the party press as envisaged by Pontoppidan, and more especially in the way in which it makes use of Mads Vestrup; and it achieves its fullest expression in Mands Himmerig, which deals exclusively with the press, the weakness and self-seeking of those who control it and profess to have the well-being of Denmark at heart, and the way in which the one man who tries to awaken the Danes is hated by all and finally wears himself to death in his efforts.

Another theme which is developed to a considerable extent in the later works is the hollowness of the Church, against which he makes the same charges as against the individual. Pontoppidan, having been brought up in a strict, and perhaps rather narrow home, had quickly reacted against the claims of the Church and of Christianity as a whole. In his early works he criticizes the Danish State Church for its insufficiency, but generally speaking he does not develop his attitude to it in these books, preferring instead to deal with the sectarian activity, which at that time was so widespread in Denmark. He views it with complete scepticism, as is perhaps best seen in Det Forjættede Land. Now, however, he shows an everincreasing interest in the State Church, and in De Dødes Rige he tries to deal it its death blow. What has previously been attributed to insufficiency is now put down to self-seeking, which when found in the Church seems to be even worse than in the individual. In this book Pontoppidan seems to be dogged by a fear of the increasing power of the State Church and its priests, all of whom are fighting for their own private views – as he maintained in his lecture Kirken og dens Mænd (The Church and its Men) in 1914 – and none of whom have undergone a religious experience. The climax of this gigantic attack on the State Church is reached in the portrayal of the manner in which it deals with Mads Vestrup, in whom Pontoppidan sees a priest who has undergone the experience which the others lack. It is a mark of the bitter irony of the novel that Vestrup's rivals, the State Church party, silence him by pretending they are going to employ him on work to which a priest is more suited. The final picture of Mads Vestrup, defeated, collecting articles on church affairs and not being allowed to write any himself, is one of the most harrowing scenes Pontoppidan ever wrote, and it is perhaps a shame that he did not leave it at this instead of letting Vestrup die suddenly and then contrasting his funeral with that of the upstart millionaire, Søholm. The Church is a perennial theme in Pontoppidan's work, but it cannot be said that it is a central theme; it is rather treated as another reflection of the Danish national character, and as such it is dealt with in the same way as individuals, and charged with the same vices.

Pontoppidan's other main charge against the Danes, their lifelessness and lack of a sense of reality, is also developed in the later novels. In Lykke-Per this characteristic is contrasted with the virility of the Jewish circles in Copenhagen, of whom Pontoppidan gives a vivid, although perhaps slightly idealized, portrayal. As a link between the two sides of society we have Per Sidenius, the Dane engaged to the 382 Jewish girl, trying to deny his own nature, desperately endeavouring to escape the inheritance which he has received from his forefathers, most of them pastors in the Danish State Church. But Per is himself in fact a symbol of the Danish character; he fails in his engagement; he is weak when on the point of really achieving something and getting at least a part of his plan for a new bonded harbour and a canal system in Jutland accepted; he is reminded of his inheritance and gives up the whole scheme, which is later copied by a mere sycophant. It is to some extent open to discussion whether Per's own story is tragic or not, whether, in fact, he must be considered a failure, or whether he must be thought of as having achieved the peace of mind which he has longed for throughout the novel. In fact it is a combination of both, but tragic it is, as it must be when seen from Pontoppidan's own point of view. Per lacks the virility the author is seeking, and although he most certainly does achieve peace of mind as a philosophizing road-mender in the north of Jutland, he is most certainly a failure, for he only achieves this serenity by renouncing the very virtues which have been on the point of raising him above the level of the average Dane.

This is the factor which distinguishes him so sharply from Torben Dihmer in De Dødes Rige, who also withdraws from society and finds peace and consolation in an invalid existence, cut off from all human intercourse. But Per withdraws because of a weakness in himself, whereas Dihmer does so out of sheer disgust with the society around him. Per symbolizes the Danish character, but Dihmer represents rather the desire to reform it which seems doomed to failure.

De Dødes Rige, the third of Pontoppidan's great novels, is in some ways the finest of them, but it is certainly the most bitter. It bears scarcely a trace of the violence of Pontoppidan's early works, being the considered opinion of a mature individual. But the theme is the same as in the others: a cry of despair at the futility which is so apparent in Denmark. The author is still looking for virility and honesty, and this is the cause of one of the most interesting of all his portraits of a priest. Mads Vestrup is honest, and this, if not his belief, earns him the respect of the author. He is one of the very few of Pontoppidan's priests who gain our sympathy, and unlike Emanuel Hansted, another who is certainly true to his ideals, he is close to reality throughout. He knows the Danes for what they are, and, like the author himself, he tries to shake them into a consciousness of their situation. But he fails; and as a mark of his contempt Pontoppidan symbolically lets Torben Dihmer renounce the medicine which alone can keep him alive in 'the realm of the dead'.

There is a quite unified development in Pontoppidan's work. In his search for the cause of the dearth which he sees around him – and as such his work must fundamentally be considered – he looks first at the superficialities and then proceeds to a much more profound analysis in which he discerns two main causes of evil: the Danish lack of a sense of reality, and self-seeking, two themes which can easily be traced throughout his work; and they can also throw light on much that otherwise is ambiguous in the extreme. As the author proceeds from a material judgement to a moral one it becomes easier for him to see and appreciate the 'nonmaterial' sufferings that he has not mentioned before – and so we are presented with such characters as Jakobe in Lykke-Per and Torben Dihmer, Jytte Abildgaard and Mads Vestrup in De Dødes Rige. And at the same time as the personal element plays a larger and larger part, class distinctions, which are of supreme importance in the earlier work, disappear almost entirely.

383 Because Pontoppidan is so preoccupied with things so specifically Danish, some knowledge of Danish history and culture from 1880 to 1920 is really necessary in order fully to appreciate the depth of his thought. None the less it ought to be possible for the foreign reader to appreciate the subtleties of his portrayals and the force behind them, and this is to some extent borne out by the numerous translations of his works which do in fact exist in languages other than English. He must have been a considerable success in Germany where most of his works are available in translation. Many, too, are translated into Swedish and Dutch, and further away from the Germanic tradition there are numerous translations into Polish and Hungarian, and rather fewer into Russian. Apart from two books from Det Forjættede Land the only works available in English are two of his shorter novels and two short stories. It seems unfortunate that a writer of Pontoppidan's stature should be virtually unknown here despite his having shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with another Dane (Karl Gjellerup) in 1917, and despite the great influence which he has exerted on the Danish prose of this century. Nexø's novel Pelle Erobreren (Pelle the Conqueror) was dedicated to 'The master, Henrik Pontoppidan', and without him it is unlikely that the realist novels of the twentieth century, which are among the truly great achievements of modern Danish literature, would ever have existed in their present form.

W. Glyn Jones