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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

What I'm going to say in Copenhagen


I recently completed the translation of what is considered to be Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan’s most important book – Lykke Per, which in my translation is called “A Fortunate Man”.

Lykke Per is a typically big 19th century novel with a large cast and layered subject matter. It took several years to translate. The translation was graciously funded by the Danish Arts Council and also could not have been successfully completed, in my view, without the help of the Pontoppidan Society in Denmark and in particular its leading light and co-founder Flemming Behrendt who has now become a friend and literary soul mate. Lykke Per is so rich in cultural and linguistic allusions and metaphors that the advice of a native expert, on the period in general and on Pontoppidan in particular, is vital to the success of the work. The translation will be published next year when general copyright restrictions on Pontoppidan’s titles will no longer apply. Some of my ‘almost ready’ early chapters can be read at the Pontoppidan Society’s website here:

It is in the above context that I have been asked by the Pontoppidan Society to deliver a lecture in Copenhagen next week (Monday the 13th of May). The title of my talk is - “Hvor Lykke-Per møder Kierkegaard, Nietzsche og den rigtige Superman” – which translates as “Where Lykke Per meets Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and the real Superman”.

Cic Saor readers may not be surprised at the fact that I found certain moments of great philosophical import in the Superman III movie.

I knew Sarah Lund before she even knew herself ...

Copenhagen has a special place in my heart. My first ship’s papers were signed there when I was just 17 and I learned Danish as a young boy does – so that it lives in my dreams and the rhythm of my bones when I hear or think of its klang. I love Copenhagen as a city (broad swathed in its roads and parks - a truly sophisticated European city reflected in its ancient waters and canals). The people are also my people. They are warm, friendly, love beer, good food and what we call “the craic” and could nearly pass off as Irish were it not for a sometimes shocking blondness, women smoking pipes, disturbingly high foreheads and orderly queues and transport timetables.

Or put another way, the cityscape now so familiar to Cic Saor readers because of The Killing and Borgen is as familiar to me as the tattoo that I had done in Nyhavn dock when still a youth.

Pontoppidan - a country man who loved Copenhagen

Despite growing up in the countryside, Henrik Pontoppidan also made Copenhagen his own and one of the delights of translating Lykke Per was to move, psychologically as it were, through its winding streets again, but this time savouring the atmosphere in or around the 1870/80s – the period in which Lykke Per is nominally set.

It still surprises a lot of people when they discover that Henrik Pontoppidan won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1917. For despite this prize and the generally very high standard (and philosophically important) nature of his work, Pontoppidan is surprisingly little known outside of Scandinavia and only a fraction of his work has seen the light in English and this last point forms part of the motivation for my lecture.

Isbjørnen - The White Bear

One other thing that perhaps sets the Danes apart from the Irish is, despite the Viking Age, their tendency towards a certain modesty and reticence, whereas Irish people (outside of Donegal at least) will not hesitate to let you know that they are great altogether. In my talk I will be stating that Danes have not perhaps shouted loudly enough about Henrik Pontoppidan. For make no mistake, he deserves to be ranked alongside Herman Melville (The Whale or Moby Dick), Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and, the only real Scandinavian literary worldwide colossus, Henrik Ibsen, who was Pontoppidan’s contemporary.

Some of Pontoppidan’s larger works like Sandinge Congregation, The Promised Land and (especially) Lykke Per, and then brilliant novellas like Night Watch and The White Bear stand comparison (in their social embrace, breadth of intellect and depth of soul searching), with anything written by those august, truth seeking authors of the 19th Century.

Where Pontoppidan is concerned, and rather like Per Sidenius the eponymous hero of Lykke Per, the Danes seemed to have contented themselves with peeping over the border at the “giants” in Deutschland and beaming with pleasure because that literary genius Thomas Mann (one of Tolstoy’s great acolytes and inheritors) declared Lykke Per to be a seminal influence on his own work. But In my humble opinion (OK I’m not humble at all – I think I'm great altogether!), we need to move up several gears to really appreciate and more importantly celebrate Henrik Pontoppidan’s achievement.

(Thomas Mann greatly influenced by Pontoppidan)

It is not the fact that a great writer like Thomas Mann celebrated Pontoppidan but the fact that with books like Doktor Faustus, Mann found a way to fuse ancient myth with human reason to create a new fable, a pointer if you will, to a new kind of transcendence and then that Pontoppidan was able to match and sometimes surpass writers like Mann.

For the astounding thing about Pontoppidan is that he could be both a rural Tolstoy and an urban Dostoevsky as and when it suited him. Not only did he manage to forge new myths and create characters like the tragic and profound, but ultimately heroic, rich Jewish heiress Jakobe Salomon, he also managed, exactly like Dostoevsky, to engage his society in a polemic that probes the very deepest questions of existence. As far as I am aware, there has never been a general review of Pontoppidan’s work that makes these fundamental comparisons between the greatest 19th century writers and those coming from Scandinavia. Though we do have George Steiner's brilliant book on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky - Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I stand to be corrected on all of this.

I also use the word "polemic" deliberately here. We have been continually told that Dostoevsky was “polyphonic” in his approach – being scrupulously fair and allowing each character to speak and exist independently of the author's views but I don’t buy that, or rather it is not the whole story. Yes it is true that Dostoevsky’s dramatis personae are truly dramatic, fully rounded creations existing in their own time and space and very often not in agreement with the author’s views, but after reading Dostoevsky at length I feel more that he often posed his characters against himself as devils' advocates – he was essentially debating (sometimes ferociously) with all of them. The image of Dostoevsky debating with the Dark One, of course, is entirely apt.

Reading a Dostoevsky book is like walking into a social occasion or pub and there’s a full scale row going on about the meaning of life – this happens, in Ireland at least. As far as I know, only Leon Trostky gives me backing in my view of Dostoevsky’s formal approach and its devil's advocate structure, as he says something similar in his broad ranging work – Literature and Revolution.

Likewise, I believe that Henrik Pontoppidan was not just polyphonic but often playing Advocatus Diaboli - in dialogue and dispute with his characters, very few of whom attracted his full endorsement.

There is another element, finally, that brings Pontoppidan into the ranks of a much larger and equally auspicious range of philosopher-writers - going from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Søren Kierkegaard in the mid 1880s to Thomas Mann and Wittgenstein a century later. These authors were all searching for a form of transcendence, so that we might be lifted out of a nightmare world where love and human empathy counts for nothing, where man becomes capable of the most base cruelty and avarice on an industrial scale. I for one have read nothing as psychologically terrifying as Dostoevsky's Demons, but the fanatical cruelty of celebrated painter Jørgen Hallager in Pontoppidan's Night Watch comes very close to the same intensity (Hallager enjoys a sympathetic hearing at first from the author before his descent into intransigent madness).

Henrik Pontoppidan can be counted amongst that noble academy whose lodestar was not old Europe but the extremities of the “Western” World in Russia and North America. For unlike, say Flaubert, he realised that realism was not the only truth – that the sweep of nature and the depths of the human spirit did indeed somehow transcend mortal, “rational” life. In Lykke Per, Per Sidenius and Jakobe Salomon are heroes, whereas Emma Bovary is simply flippant and superficial and clearly annoys her creator to distraction – as if all of human nature is reduced to this. Ultimately, a mean and dispiriting view of the world. Pontoppidan, on the other hand, has created heroes in epic tales that do not end when you close the final page – the story lives on as myth; there is no final conclusion. By definition, therefore, Pontoppidan is far more than a pedantic realist.

More than anything, however, Henrik Pontoppidan was aware of the history, stature and dignity of his ancient calling - his role as a Nordic Skjald – a poet of the Danish race.

Henrik Pontoppidan - Lion of the North
(24 July 1857 – 21 August 1943)

@ Paul Larkin
Carrick, Gaoth Dobhair
Mí na Bealtaine 2013

For those Cic Saor aficionados who happen to be in Copenhagen during the time of my lecture here are the details – in both Danish and English

Pontoppidan Selskabets årsmøde/Pontoppidan Society AGM:
Mandag 13. maj kl. 17.00/Monday 13th May - 17.00

"Hvor Lykke-Per møder Kierkegaard, Nietzsche og den rigtige Superman" "Where Lykke Per meets Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and the real Superman"

Location: Mødet finder sted hos Gyldendal i København, indgang Pilestræde 51, Opgang B, 3. sal (porten er åben til 17.45). Entré for gæster til foredraget: 50 kroner.

Location: Gyldendal Publishers, Copenhagen. Entrance @ 51 Pilestræde, Stairwell B, 3rd Floor. The entrance is open until 1745. Admission for guests 50 kroner.

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Title: What I'm going to say in Copenhagen
Date posted: 06 May '13 - 17:31
Filed under: General
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