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Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943)


Danish novelist whose realistic and pessimistic novels depicted the social evils and the miserable situation of the peasant proletariat. Henrik Pontoppidan shared with Karl Gjellerup the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917. Thomas Mann called him "a full-blooded storyteller." Although Pontoppidan was a sharp critic of modern Danish society, he did not join the ranks of doctrinaire naturalism writers. First and foremost, he modestly considered himself a "popular storyteller."

"In the years before and after our last war, a pastor named Johannes Sidenius lived in one of the small market towns of East Jutland that lie hidden among green hills at the base of a thinly wooded fjord. He was a pious and stern man. In his outer appearance as in his whole way of life he differed sharply from the other inhabitants of the town who, for many years, viewed him as a troublesome alien whose peculiarities left them, by turns, cool and resentful." (from Lucky Per, 1898, translated by Naomi Lebowitz)

Henrik Pontoppidan was born in the town of Fredericia, on the Jutland Peninsula. His father was a follower of N.F.S. Grundtvig, a radical theologian, and mother, whose maiden name was Oxenbøl, was the daughter if a government official. They had sixteen chidren; Henrik was one of the middle ones. The family moved to Randers, another Jutland town; it was briefly occupied and sacked by Otto Von Bismarck's Prussian and Austrian troops in 1864. This period of destruction left a deep impression on Pontoppidan, who later returned into the invasion in his works.

As a protest against his family, Pontoppidan did not continue its ecclesiastical traditions. Instead he entered Copenhagen's Polytechic Institute but by 1879 he interrupted his nearly completed engineering studies. Pontoppidan left Copenhagen and until 1910 he lived in North Sealand. Between 1877 and 1882 he worked as a teacher at a folk high-school, run by his brother. During this period Pontoppidan wrote a collection of short stories, Stækkede vinger (Clipped Wings), which was published in 1881. His first story, 'Et Endeligt', had been published in the journal Ude og Hjemme.

While living in the Zealand countryside Pontoppidan married Mette Marie Hansen and thereafter he supported himself by writing. After travels in Germany and Italy, Pontoppidan settled in Copenhagen.

In his early works Pontoppidan studied the contrast between nature and culture, environment and human aspirations. In the short story 'Kirkeskuden' (The Ship Model) from Clipped Wings an orphaned gypsy youth, Ove, is raised by a minister and his wife. He sets a votive ship from the church into the water, and it immediately sinks. Like Herman Bang (1857-1912), another major writer of the period, Pontoppidan turned his back to Brandes's call of naturalism in literature. "I turned to the novel," he recalled in his autobiography, "an artistic form which had in former days been neglected and had thus acquired a bad reputation, but which during the nineteenth century had developed and elevated itself to the ranks occupied by drama and the ancient epic." ('Autobiography' by Henrik Pontoppidan, in Nobel Lectures: Literature, 1901-1967, edited by Horst Frenz, 1999, p. 152)

Up to 1890, Pontoppidan produced over 10 books, but he is most famous for his later works, three large novel series, Det forjættede Land (3 vols, 1891-95, The Promised Land), Lykke-Per (8 vols, 1898-1904), and  De Dødes Rige (5 vols, 1912-16). All the protagonists in these ironic novels try to change their own life or society, but their attempts lead to disillusionment and downfall under the burden of environment. Pontoppidan analyzed many of the ideas and beliefs of the age, but especially he attacked religious orthodoxies. The principal character is an idealistic priest. Lykke-Per in an engineer, who is anchored to the world, which can be measured and weighed.

The trilogy The Promised Land was about followers of Grundtvig and his rival, the evangelical Indre Mission. It drew a psychological portrait of the aspirations, temptations, and ultimate destruction of the pastor Emanuel Hansted, a religious idealist. Pontoppidan wanted to create a work, in which a picture of modern Denmark is presented through individuals and their fates in social, religious, and political conflicts. Trade unions were established from 1879, the cooperative movement began in 1882, The Peasant Party became the largest party, but the issue of parlamentarism and the refusal of the ruling Right to share power caused much political bitterness and passivity. Emanuel Hansted participates in the spiritual and political life of his community. His idealism is shattered, Emanuel leaves his family and moves to Copenhagen, starts an affair with a cosmopolitan woman, and sinks into mystical religiosity, and ends in a mental institution, where he dies.

In 1888 Pontoppidan's first marriage ended when his wife returned to the country to live with her parents – she was a peasant girl with whom Pontoppidan tried to share a Tolstoyan life. In 1892 he married Antoinette Cecilia Caroline Elise Kofoed; they had two children. When a number of other writers devoted themselves to personal themes and were tired of continuous parlamentary crisis, Pontoppidan mocked failures of the government. Skyer (1890) was a collection of stories, in which he attacked the cowardice of people, who tolerate backwardness.

Between 1898 and 1904 Pontoppidan wrote the eight-volume novel Lykke-Per, the saga of the aspirations and the defeat of the engineer, surveyor, and highway inspector Peter Andreas Sidenius, called Per. He is an opposite to Emanuel Hansted, who pursues unselfish goals. Per is the son of a priest, he rebels against his upbringing, and devotes himself into a great industrial project. After failures due to his weakness to act, he finds again traditional Christianity. The restless protagonist shared many of the experiences of Pontoppidan himself, but the character has also been regarded as a national type. Georg Brandes appeared in Lykke-Per as Dr. Nathan, whose highly active inner thought processes "were played out on his face as a series of convulsive facial tics and movements."  Pontoppidan occasionally corresponded with Brandes. The Marxist critic Georg Lukács wrote: "Pontoppidan's irony lies in the fact that he lets his hero succeed all the time, but shows that a demonic power forces him to regard everything he has gained as worthless." (The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature by Georg Lukacs, translated from the German by Anna Bostock, 1971 p. 111) It was this work, that earned Pontoppidan the Nobel Prize.

In spite of the prize, Pontoppidan remained relatively little known outside Denmark, and only a few articles appeared on him in English. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, Thomas Mann wrote that "As a genuine conservative, he asserts the importance of an expansive style to an impatient world. As a genuine revolutionary, he sees in prose novels, above all, a scrutinising power." ('Afterword' by Flemming Behrendt, in A Fortunate Man by Henrik Pontoppidan, translated by Paul Larkin, 2018, p. 767)

The last of Pontoppidan's major novels, De Dødes Rige (The Kingdom of the Dead), painted a pessimistic social panorama of the political change of Denmark. The last parts were completed during the the World War. In the gloomy story a Jutland estate owner, a Danish Prince Myshkin, wishes to aid the workers on his properties, and sees them turn against him. Enslev, a politician, pursues his career without really caring the people whose support he needs. "Now I am dying, and yet I have never lived," says one of the characters. Pontoppidan's later works include four plus one volume memoirs (1933-43).

From 1928 Pontoppidan lived in Charlottenlund, a suburb of Copenhagen, where he died on August 21, 1943. Pontoppidan's last novel, Man's Heaven (1927), told the story of a ruthless man in a currupt country who wants to benefit from the war. Thorsen, a journalist, supports participation in the war, against the view of the unconcerned people.

For further reading: Henrik Pontoppidan by K. Ahnlund (1956); 'Henrik Pontoppidan as a critic of modern Danish society' by Ernst Ekman, in Scandinavian Studies, 29 (1957); 'Henrik Pontoppidan: The church and Christrianity after 1900' by Glyn W. Jones, in Scandinavian Studies, 30, (1958); The Theory of the Novel by G. Lukács (1971); Henrik Pontoppidans samfundskritik by Bent Haugaard Jeppesen. (1977); Henrik Pontoppidan by P.M. Michell (1979); A History of Scandinavian literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); 'A History of Danish Literatures', ed. by Sven H. Rossel, in A History of Scandinavian Literatures, vol. 1 (1992); 'Scandinavian novel' by George C. Schoolfield in Encyclopedia of The Novel, Vol. 2 (1998) 'Biographical-Critical Essay' by Sven Södermalm, in Nobel Lectures: Literature, 1901-1967, edited by Horst Frenz (1999); Den umulige kærligheds nødvendighed hos Henrik Pontoppidan by Elsebeth Diderichsen (2002); Livsrusen: en bog om Henrik Pontoppidan by Flemming Behrendt (2019); Danish Literature as World Literature, edited by Dan Ringgaard and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen  (2019); Lykke-Per og Platon: en studie i Henrik Pontoppidans roman Lykke-Per by Preben Lilhav (2020)

Selected works:

  • Stækkede vinger, 1881 [Clipped Wings]
  • Sandinge menighed: en fortælling, 1883 (3rd. ed., 2002) [The Parish og Sandinge]
  • Landsbybilleder, 1883
  • Ung Elskov, 1885 [Young Love]
  • Naadsensbrød, 1885
  • Mimoser: et familjeliv, 1886 [Mimosas]
    - The Apothecary's Daughter (tr. G. Nielsen, 1890)
  • Isbjørnen, 1887
  • Fra Hytterne, 1887
    - From the Huts (tr. 1901)
  • Isbjørnen, 1887
  • Spøgelser, 1888
    - Aave (suom. F. J., 1896)
  • Krøniker, 1890
  • Skyer, 1890 [Clouds]
  • Natur. To smaa Romaner, 1890 (Vildt, En Bonde)
  • Det forjættede Land, 1891-95 (Muld, 1891; Det forjættede Land, 1892; Dommens Dag, 1895)
    - The Promised Land (vols. 1-2 translated by E. Lucas, 1896)
    - Multaa: ajankuvaus (suom. Jakob Pehkonen, 1893)
  • Minder, 1893 [Memoirs]
  • Ørneflugt, 1893
  • Nattevagt, 1894
  • Den gamle Adam, 1895 [The Old Adam]
  • Dommens dag: et tidsbillede, 1895
  • Højsang, 1896 [Song of Songs]
  • Naar Vildgæssene trækker forbi, 1897 (in Politiken; Fortællinger I, 1899; Noveller og Skitser. Et Udvalg, 1922)
  • Det forjættede Land I-III, 1898
  • Lykke-Per, 1898-1904 (Lykke-Per: Hans Ungdom, 1898; Lykke-Per finder Skatten, 1898; Lykke-Per: Hans Kærlighed, 1899; Lykke-Per i det Fremmede, 1899; Lykke-Per: Hans store Værk, 1901; Lykke-Per og hans Kæreste, 1902; Lykke-Per: Hans Rejse til Amerika, 1903; Lykke-Per: Hans sidste Kamp, 1904) 
    - Lucky Per (translated by Naomi Lebowitz, 2010) / A Fortunate Man  (translated by Paul Larkin, 2018)
    - Onnen poika 1-2 (suom. Katri Ingman, 1957)
  • Fortællinger I-II, 1899
  • Lille Rødhætte, 1900
  • Det ideale Hjem, 1900 [The Ideal Home]
  • De vilde Fugle: et Skuespil, 1902
  • Borgmester Hoeck og Hustru, 1905
    - Burgomaster Hoeck and His Wife (tr. 1999)
  • Asgaardsrejen, 1906 [TheWild Chase]
  • Det store Spøgelse, 1907
  • Hans Kvast og Melusine, 1907 [Hans Kvast and Melusine]
  • Den kongelige Gæst, 1908 (new ed., 2002)
    - 'The Royal Guest', in The Royal Guest and Other Classical Danish Narratives (eds. P.M. Mitchell and K.H. Ober, 1977)
  • Torben og Jytte, 1912
  • De Dødes Rige, 1912-16 (5 vols.)
    - film: Das Totenreich (1986), dir. by Karin Brandauer, teleplay by Herbert Asmodi, prod. by WDR, Köln
  • Storeholt, 1913
  • Kirken og Dens Mænd, 1914
  • Henrik Pontoppidans breve, 1914-43
  • Enslevs Død, 1915
  • Favsingholm, 1916
  • Et Kærlighedseventyr, 1917
  • En vinterrejse: nogle dagbogsblade, 1920
  • Noveller og Skitser. Et Udvalg, 1922-26 (2 vols.)  
  • Romaner og Fortællinger, 1924-26 (7 vols.)
  • Mands Himmerig, 1927
    - Man's Heaven (tr. 1927)
  • Det ideale Hjem og andre Noveller og Skitser, 1930 (3rd. ed., 2003)  
  • Drengeaar, 1933 (memoirs)
  • Hamskifte, 1936 (memoirs)
  • Arv og Gæld, 1938 (memoirs)
  • Familjeliv, 1940 (memoirs)
  • Undervejs Til Mig Selv, 1943 (memoirs)
  • Erindringer:  Samlet udgave af Drengeaar, Hamskifte, Arv os Gaeld, Familjeliv, 1962
  • Magister Globs papirer, 1979 (ed. by Thorkild Skjerbæk)
  • Ørneflugt og andre krøniker, 1979 (ed. by Thorkild Skjerbæk) 
  • Kronjyder og Molboer, 1989
  • Enetaler, 1993 (ed. by Johan de Mylius)
  • Meninger & Holdninger, 1994 (ed. by Erik H. Madsen)
  • Henrik Pontoppidans breve. I-II, 1997 (ed. by Carl Erik Bay and Elias Bredsdorff)
  • Henrik Pontoppidans digte, 1999 (ed. by Børge Andersen)
  • Smaa Romaner 1885-1890, 1999 (ed. by Flemming Behrendt)
  • Sandinge Menighed og andre Noveller og Skitser, 2002 (afterword by Jens Smærup Sørensen)
  • Den kongelige Gæst og Andre Noveller og Skitser, 2002 (afterword by Torben Brostrøm)
  • Det ideale Hjem og Andre Noveller og Skitser, 2003 (afterword by Tage Skou-Hansen)

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