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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Lucky Per

by
Henrik Pontoppidan


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Lucky Per



Title: Lucky Per
Author: Henrik Pontoppidan
Genre: Novel
Written: (1904) (Eng. 2010)
Length: 554 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: Lucky Per - US
Lucky Per - UK
Lucky Per - Canada
Hans im Glück - Deutschland
  • Danish title: Lykke-Per
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Naomi Lebowitz

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine, broad novel of its time and place

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Review of Books . 20/10/2011 Fredric Jameson


  From the Reviews:
  • "So it is that the naive Hans becomes the very prototype of foolishness and good fortune all at once; and it is a modern and sophisticated version of this paradox that Pontoppidan offers us in this unusual novel. (...) The formal result, for the novel, is strange and paradoxical, yet momentous: all successes grow to be alike, they lose their specificity and indeed their interest. Success sinks to the level of emergent mass culture -- which is to say, fantasy and wish-fulfilment. Only the failures remain interesting, only the failures offer genuine literary raw material, both in their variety and in the quality of their experience." - Fredric Jameson, London Review of Books

  Quotes:
  • "The drawing of the principal figures in Lykke Per is so firm, all those parsons, merchants, students and peasants stand out with such a strength in the luminous air of the long-drawn narrative that we are tempted to place Pontoppidan only just below the great names of European fiction, and national enthusiasm may be excused for ranking him positively in a line with these." - Edmund Gosse, Times Literary Supplement (20/12/1917)

  • "Lykke-Per is the book of a man who is at war with life, but his is not one of those great inspiring wars, that lift men to a higher plane; it is a bitterly cynical war." - John George Robertson, Contemporary Review (3/1920)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lucky Per is Nobel laureate Henrik Pontoppidan's classic novel of late nineteenth century Denmark, first published in several installments between 1898 and 1904 (and, astonishingly, only now available in English translation). Here Pontoppidan sets the staid, agrarian and religiously conservative culture against the forces of modernity, with rapidly modernizing Copenhagen increasingly in tune with the rest of Europe. His protagonist is Peter Andreas Sidenius, who comes from a prominent clerical family -- and distances itself as soon as he can from it, preferring 'Per' to his given name, and rarely admitting to any connection with the widespread Sidenius clan. Per is presented as, as one character describes him: "the prototype of the active man of the 20th century" -- but Pontoppidan's novel is not a simplistic one of modernity triumphing over outmoded tradition; Per's path, triumphs, and failures offer a far more nuanced view of these changing times.
       One of eleven children of a particularly severe pastor, Per is the odd child out from an early age, and as soon as he can escape to Copenhagen to study engineering he does. He always found life at home restricting, and he is in search not just of greater freedoms but also of opportunity: life as he knew it growing up seemed so dreadfully limited, and there:

he felt himself a stray alien in conventional society. His countrymen seemed merely like self-righteous Sideniuses, whitewashing the earth's glitter and glory with their petty bourgeois sense of duty and their arrogant Pharisaic scorn.
       Per, meanwhile, has great and grand ambitions -- wanting to revel in and reveal all that glitter and glory. He certainly doesn't lack self-confidence:
For he knew now he was born to become, in his domain, the morning horn-herald, the path-breaker in this sluggish society of thick-blooded sons of pastors and sextons. Little Ivan was right. This world was waiting for him -- just for him.
       Per's youthful dream is an ambitious engineering project, on a national scale, an expansion of Danish canals and harbors that would facilitate greater commerce and ease transportation of goods (what amounts to a transformation that would fully tie Denmark into the international capitalist system of the times). He has a grand vision, even if his engineering isn't quite up to it, certainly at first (and one of the weaknesses of the novel is how unconvincing Per's engineering skills are: he barely attends school, and it's hard to believe he ever learned enough to tackle such a huge undertaking; at least Pontoppidan realistically has him fall on his face regarding the details a few times).
       Most of Lucky Per deals with the time when Per is in his early twenties, seeking to establish himself and to put his grand idea into practice. There are ups and downs with that, but it is something he continues to pursue, eventually also traveling abroad for a time to study similar large-scale projects elsewhere. He is not always taken very seriously, but also not readily dismissed; typically, those who meet him aren't quite sure just what to make of him:
"What kind of a man was that ? Good God ! He slammed the front door so hard he knocked down a piece of the ceiling plaster ! What kind of a man is that, I ask."
     "Well, he will do more mischief than knock down plaster, that lout !"
     "But what kind of a man is he ?"
     "You tell me ! A crazy man, I think, or a charlatan, or, maybe, a genius. Time will tell."
       Per certainly wants to shake things up, and if not always immediately successful, he does make an impression.
       Per is also one of these people who seem to be born under a lucky star. He struggles some, occasionally, but for the most part stumbles from one bit of good fortune to the next, whether it's the friend who commits suicide and leaves him some money to the heiresses who fall for him. (Pontoppidan shows some wicked humor with some of this as well, as for example Per eventually meets a sister of the suicide, who is touched by the flowers she found on her brother's grave, and certain Per left them there -- while Per in fact doesn't even know where the poor slob is buried.)
       Per also goes through quite a few women, eventually finding favor with the girls from the Salomon family -- first temptress Nanny, then the more sober Jakobe, whom he eventually becomes engaged to. As with many things, Per is ambivalent about his attachments. Aside from his feelings -- which tend to be of the flighty sort, bouncing back and forth and all around, depending on circumstances -- there are all sorts of other considerations, not the least of which is that the Salomons are Jewish. Per is also always tempted by great wealth -- which the Salomons have -- but also mulls over things like Jakobe's age (she's slightly older than he is). It is a peculiar dance that Pontoppidan presents between Nanny, Jakobe, and Per, involving also various other suitors (and, eventually, Nanny getting married) as well as a pregnancy; if not exactly a cad, Per certainly remains ... unsettled as to what woman he wants at his side (beyond the moment -- it's enough for a pretty lass to show up somewhere and immediately: "Per started to look more carefully at the pastor's daughter", etc.).
       While Per disassociates himself from his family, rarely admitting to the Sidenius-family-connection, he can't entirely break the bonds to it. He returns home to his father's deathbed, and occasionally meets family members in Copenhagen; the death of his mother, then, also leads him further back into the fold. Per's is not a blind rush towards the modern and new, casting off all that holds him back: realistically, Pontoppidan finds that old ties still do bind, too. Indeed, Per repeatedly finds: "he was leading a double life", in various variations.
       Lucky Per is a long, wending novel that is both Bildungsroman, of a self-absorbed but ambitious young man trying to find his place in the world, and a mirror and judgment of Danish society and circumstances at a time of great social and cultural upheaval. It is set in a period when that: "European wave of culture [...] swept over the country". Many prominent real-life figures of the time appear, thinly disguised, and representatives of many parts of society -- journalists, clerics, artists, bankers and industrialists -- figure in the story, making for a broad picture of Denmark at the end of the nineteenth century, with especially Copenhagen now in "the rank of the world's greatest cities", where everything "became every day, more European".
       Per is an interesting figure, ambitious but also fickle; he is very lucky, in many respects, but as he was warned early on:
especially the lucky are the most unlucky, and this can well be a man's lot particularly in our day. In nine-hundred and ninety-nine of every thousand cases, we lack the capacity to make good use of luck so that it becomes more gain than loss. And in our age, we have not learned to trust the marvelous -- that's it. We feel, at the table of Luck, like a peasant at a King's banquet.
       And so Per is, indeed, a figure of his times.
       With its considered portraits of many of the secondary characters -- particularly several of the female figures -- Lucky Per is also not entirely dominated by its protagonist. Pontoppidan weaves a complex, big picture; occasionally he overextends himself, leaving some looser threads, but on the whole this is a fine and often fascinating work of fiction, both as character-study ("I am only myself", Per claims, even as he tries to figure out who exactly that might be) and novel of its age.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 June 2011

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Links:

Lucky Per: Reviews: Henrik Pontoppidan: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan lived 1857 to 1943. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1917.

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© 2011 the complete review

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