The following account of the work of Henrik Pontoppidan is by Sven Söderman, Swedish Critic
Henrik Pontoppidan belongs to the generation of writers who followed closely the “modern renaissance” of Danish literature after 1870, which had as its principal representatives Georg Brandes, Holger Drachmann, and J.P. Jacobsen. As a writer, his particular province is the novella. As an observer of human nature, as historian of the moral life of his time, he assuredly ranks first among contemporary Danish novelists. Born in Jutland in 1857, he was the son of a Protestant minister whose ideas were tinged with the doctrine of Grundtvig. He was educated at a polytechnical college. Later he taught school, but soon he gave up all professions to follow only his vocation as a writer. His first book, Staekkede vinger [Clipped Wings], appeared in 1881; since then he has published a great number of books, among them works of great and lasting value. During his youth he had bitter experiences of the Danish character and life which must have been a determining influence on his career as a writer. All his work is a struggle against what seemed to him deceptive and perfidious illusions, false authority, romanticism, superstitious belief in beautiful phrases, and the intoxication of lofty words, exalted sentiments, and moral fear. In a word, it is “the process of lyric putrefaction” by which the society of the Old World, in his judgment, is heading toward its rum.
Thus in Sandinge menighed (1883) [The Parish of Sandinge], he finds fault with the falsities in the higher educational system; in Skyer (1890) [Clouds], he criticizes the leftist Danish politician of sonorous but empty phrases under the provisory laws of Estrup; in Den gamle Adam (1894) [The Old Adam] and Højsang (1896) [Song of Songs], he exposes the ravings of the amorous imagination and lofty sentiments; and in Natur (1890), he exercises his irony on the exaltation of nature. Mimoser (1886) [Mimosas] supports a theory completely opposed to the idea which had been dominant since Björson defended it in En hanske [A Gauntlet], the idea which demanded man’s purity and fidelity in sexual relations. Det ideale hjem (1900) [The Ideal Home] is a defence of matriarchy against marriage. Nattevagt (1894) [Night Watch] and the play Asgaardsrejen (1906) [The Wild Chase] contain attacks against modem art and lyric poetry which are only objects of luxury. To anaemic culture, the enemy of life, Pontoppidan opposes nature as it is developed in freedom. He shows an ardent sympathy especially for the social and revolutionary struggle and for the ideas of rational positivism However, he never speaks in his own name; the characters whom he puts on stage speak for themselves, but the spirit of his books is revolutionary. What is curious, however, is that he himself was nourished on the “stale milk of romanticism” and that he is a lyricist in spite of his realistic spirit – a deep-seated contradiction which has permitted him to clothe reality in romantic veils and at the same time to undermine romanticism by means of irony.
Pontoppidan’s masterpieces are the three-volume novel Det forjaettede land (1891-95) [The Promised Land] and the novel Lykke-Per [Lucky Peter), originally published in eight volumes (1898-1904) but later condensed (1905) – two monumental works which give a tableau of the spiritual life of Denmark after 1860. The first of these novels, a vast picture of rustic life, portrays the opposition between the peasants and the inhabitants of the cities. It shows that even the most enthusiastic attempts to restore these classes to unity are doomed to certain failure. The principal character, an idealistic priest from Copenhagen, motivated by a strong feeling of duty, wishes to live with the peasants in order to lift them out of their condition; but he finds himself deceived in his faith in the people, as well as in his mission as a priest and the possibility of adapting it to everyday life and actions. He ends as an unbalanced visionary. Lykke-Per, on the contrary, is a young provincial, an engineer, who has firmly decided to achieve happiness in the capital. Contrary to the priest of Det forjaettede land, he is a man who is interested only in positive reality; he dislikes everything religious, metaphysical, or aesthetic. He behaves like a man of energy whom nothing can stop in the realization of his bold plans. But he also lacks that strength of domination over himself which is the necessary condition for a free soul, and he falls victim to that Christian romanticism which he has in his blood and which is precisely what he scorned. What is remarkable in this book is the masterly exposition of the essential differences between Jewish and Germanic ideas. A third cycle of novels, De dødes rige (1912-1916) [The Kingdom of the Dead], whose last parts were completed during the World War, also gives a whole series of images of Denmark at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Its subject is the unfortunate attempt of a radical politician to awaken a “people who are sleeping”. It contains interesting social descriptions and vivid portraits (based on living models), but on the whole this work cannot be compared with the key works of the preceding period.
Henrik Pontoppidan has been called the classicist of the new Danish realism. He writes in a nervous and supple prose which has the peaceful, regular rhythm of healthy breathing. He narrates simply and easily without vain search for artistic words, but he has the rare gift of expressing reality clearly and in a lively manner. One finds the whole of Denmark in his writings: Jutland, the islands, and the capital; the commercial city and the country with its manors, its parsonages, its schools, and its taverns. One feels that the author has lived what he writes about. Moreover, the countryside is not described for itself but for the men who live there; it has value only because it conditions men. The essential object of Pontoppidan is man and his destiny, and in the objective description of human destiny he reveals himself as an incomparable artist. He has knowledge of the different classes of Danish people; he really knows their language, their manners, their habits, and their disposition. He is skilled in making out of his characters portraits in prominent relief, but he knows also how to endow them with an intense interior life which expresses their personalities. When one has read his work, one remembers a great number of distinctly individualized characters and the conditions of their existence. It is a broad avenue traced across Danish life during several decades. In the two central works, especially, there are admirable descriptions and characters whose emotional lives are portrayed in changing psychological situations and in scenes of great beauty. All the details appear, but the different parts of each novel and its details are put together effortlessly to give a generally unified work. Henrik Pontoppidan is an epic author of great range who, in an imposing endeavour, seeks to realize a work of monumental dimensions.
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