#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews LUCKY PER by Henrik Pontoppidan

Lucky Per is extraordinary in many ways, but perhaps the most extraordinary is that it is only now available in English (in two separate translations – the other is A Fortunate Man, translated by Paul Larkin, 2018) more than one hundred years after it was written. How could the English-speaking world ignore for so long a novel which deals with the concerns that very world was grappling with in the early twentieth century; a novel that predicts the social, political and philosophical struggles that would shape the decades to come?

Perhaps it was an issue of form and timing. Lucky Per was first published in Denmark in 1905 and saw an early German translation, before Pontoppidan won the Nobel Prize in 2017. But with 1922 then on the horizon – the year that saw the publication of Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway and the first part of Moncrieff’s translation of À la recherche du temps perdu – it’s conceivable that by the time Lucky Per came to their attention, English-language publishers felt its panoramic, almost Victorian scope, the way it seemed to favour an omniscient narrative mode over interiority, was somehow outdated. 

But Lucky Per does something highly unusual. It certainly sits within the tradition of the great nineteenth-century novelists – Zola, Eliot, Dostoyevsky et al – but its concerns, and in particular its psychological insight, feel very modern. In fact, Per’s personal existential journey feels like the passage from the nineteenth century into the twentieth.        

The novel is essentially a Bildungsroman, following Per as he breaks out of his constrained rural, religious childhood and attempts to turn himself into a leader of men, an iconoclast who will drag Denmark into the industrialised future. There is more than a whiff of the Nietzschean superman here, but it seems Pontoppidan was wary of the consequences of such philosophy. Per’s thrusting will to power is balanced by the liberal and more protean thought of his erstwhile lover, Jakobe. By the end of the novel her enlightenment wins out over the intolerance and absolutism of the ideas Per is toying with. His attempts to bring his grand projet to fruition are constantly thwarted – principally by his own character flaws, by his inability to compromise and his belief that the purity of his own vision will defeat all opposition.    

This trajectory might suggest otherwise, but for me Per’s demise is not tragic. While his withdrawal to a small domestic life in the country, and from there to an even more constrained existence in the most remote part of Denmark, looks very much like a fall from grace, in fact it is a journey inward. Per discovers his ‘luck’, or ‘will’ or ‘god’ is somewhere deep within him. Reading this, I felt very much like I was witnessing a literary movement – away from observational omniscience and towards the exploration of the interior life. 

I’m not sure Pontoppidan would approve of such an interpretation, but ending this remarkable work, it seemed to me that with Lucky Per he was closing the book on the great nineteenth-century no

Reviewed by West Camel

LUCKY PER

Written by Henrik Pontoppidan

Translated by Naomi Lebowitz

Published by Everyman’s Library / Alfred A. Knopf (2019)


West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now. www.westcamel.net.

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Category: February 2020Reviews

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