An Ironical Melancholic

Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943) is a monument in Danish literature. He is a classic. His three great novels, The Promised Land, Lucky Peter, and The Kingdom of the Dead are panoramic pictures of a half century of Danish society. His main characters – minister Emanuel Hansted, engineer Peter Sidenius and landowner Torben Dihmer – describe a smoothly rising arc of human decline and hard-won inner triumphs.

Henrik Pontoppidan, a minister's son, was a ironical melancholic whose divided emotions acted as marrow in his bone-hard view of the Danes. Pontoppidan had stamped his countrymen as constrained, mole-like people long before the Jante Law. He found them a people without "the adventurous courage to desire their own divine nakedness"; a people of "pure Sideniuses" with all the weaknesses of Peter Sidenius. However, in Pontoppidan's writings, Sidenius was a disguise for the author himself and he knew very well that he was tarred with the same brush.

Like his younger contemporary, the French André Gide, he reacted against his strictly orthodox Christian upbringing. Also like Gide, he never cut himself off from the values and paradoxical realities he had, "taken in with his mother's milk."

Growing up in the home of a minister gave Pontoppidan the feeling of being outside of and above the surrounding society. Already as a 15-year-old he founded and, with self-confident authority, led a little private discussion and drinking club of private school students in his east Jutland childhood town of Randers. He himself wrote the minutes in the miraculously preserved club registry. In the club journal a class comrade's description of him included this: "The strangest character trait is a mixture of cheerfulness and melancholy that often overwhelms him. In that case he is very dark and uncommunicative towards others and likes solitude and silence best. When the melancholy passes, he is cheerful and friendly once again."

Pontoppidan held on to his somber characteristics with the same permanence that legal zealot Hoeck held on to his arrogance and his wife her vanity. Hoeck is a Sidenius on his mother's side and Lucky Peter is one on his father's side. Pontoppidan believed strongly that personality traits were hereditary, both in individuals and in a whole populace like the Danes.

Henrik Pontoppidan was a seminal author in a time of historic and cultural upheaval. He had one foot in each camp while trying above all to keep a cool head. He blazed with a desire to comprehend the deepest secrets in human life and every fiber of his writing reflected that bonfire. He regarded himself as "a foot soldier in the eternal battle for human liberation", but he never recognized any General. His irony and his melancholy prohibited that.

In his youth he was the poet of protest. Protest damned Emanuel Hansted, but caused Happy-Per's resignation. In The Kingdom of the Dead, resignation turned into suffering. Irony—which was youth's defense against rawness—took off and perhaps melancholy got the upper hand. The 60-year-old Nobel Prize recipient said to a youth culture he found too materialistic, "To live is to suffer. It is not just for pleasure that we populate the land." However, pride and severity remained, as facets in a polished diamond. To the end it reflected a nation's history and today it serves as an almost inexhaustible source of insights into Danish thoughts and sentiments of the time.

If anyone yearns for intimacy in the large, panoramic body of works, they just have to go to Burgomaster Hoeck and His Wife, one of Pontoppidan's so-called "minor novels." Few other of Pontoppidan's texts gets so deep under the skin in a psychological dissection of the characters than this dramatically simple tale of a marriage and its impossibilities. One would have to be a dogmatic feminist not to be able to see the situation from the husband's side as well – even though circumstances make him into the executioner. The subtitle A Double Portrait has a double meaning. It describes both the portrait of a couple and each of their portraits or comprehensions of the other. As in Kurosawa's film Rashomon, Demon's Gate, we get the same story told several times by each of its narrators. A third narrator, the Burgomaster's wife's expatriate sister, mixes in with a viewpoint that must not be confused with the author's. He seems most concerned with the tragic inevitability of his story and he really makes it hurt. It is a story as hopeless as Dante's Inferno.

The only hopeful note is that Pontoppidan lets the story take place in 1883, a score of years before it was written. The dinner table discussion between the Burgomaster and his sister-in-law reflects a time when women's liberation—led in Denmark by George Brandes, who had his own dishonest intentions in the matter—was still small, but about to make itself felt. Marriage in its patriarchal form at the turn of the century was the subject of Pontoppidan's cheerfully sanguine treatise, The Ideal Home, which suggested the establishment of the matriarchy and the liberation of love. In Burgomaster Hoeck and His Wife he argues persuasively for what one should avoid in such a relationship form. Without the cruelly executed responsibility for his daughter, Ingrid, the Burgomaster probably would have divorced.

The story is not outmoded a hundred years later. Today we still succumb and permit ourselves to commit mental cruelty the magnitude of which we, tragically, can't even conceive. The words of poet, Viggo Stuckenberg—whom Pontoppidan admired warmly—written from his own raw experience, still apply. "That two who love each other can each other wound / More than bitter foes who seek vengeance all the world around."

Pontoppidan's tale still causes pain.