Lucky Per (May 2019 Readalong)


The only thing I do more than read–and honestly I do it much more–is to trawl the internet looking for new books to read. This is insane, because I have hundreds of unread books. And more are coming into and through the house all the time. My problem, I’ve recently learned, is that I am a time fantasist. I have a poor sense of how long things will take or what I can reasonably accomplish. (My wife, by contrast, is a space fantasist: for example, she thinks there’s always room for everything in the house, her car, etc. Luckily, she is a time realist and I am a space realist. Of such balances are happy marriages made.)

Anyway, one way I’ve found to commit to a reading project is to invite others to join me, so that I’m accountable to them. The strategy doesn’t always work: I’ve flaked out on plenty of group readings. But sometimes it does.

All of which is to say that I recently learned that Everyman’s Library will be publishing what I think might be the first English translation of Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per. Published in installments between 1898 — 1904 (which seems a long time; there must be a story there), the novel was lauded by the likes of Thomas Mann and Ernst Bloch. Naomi Lebowitz has brought it to English; I gather a film version was recently made, though I’ve no idea if it was released in the US/UK.

Here’s what the publisher has to say:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

I’m always intrigued by what the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari called “minor literature,” whether that be literature from less well-known languages or languages written by minorities within a well-known language (their example is Kafka’s German, inflected by Yiddish and written in a predominantly Czech-speaking city). And the idea of a doorstop always appeals to me (it’s almost 700 pages). But mostly I am curious about the (lamentably unnamed) love interest, the Jewish heiress. I’m especially curious to compare Pontoppidan’s portrayal of Jewishness to George Eliot’s in Daniel Deronda, which I read about ten years ago.


Why am I telling you all this? Because I want you to join in! If you have experience with and knowledge of 19th century literature, Danish culture, Jewishness, novels of development, or either luck or happiness, so much the better. But no worries if you don’t!

The book comes out in April; I plan to read it once my semester ends in early May, with a view to discussing it in late May. So check your calendar. Are you game? Are you free? Can you help me a time realist here? Let me know in the comments!



39 thoughts on “Lucky Per (May 2019 Readalong)

  1. Thanks for posting this — I’ve never heard of this book! But how can one resist “the greatest Jewish heroine in European literature”! Plus you really piqued my interest with the mention of Daniel Deronda, my favorite Eliot novel. I’m always fascinated by these European views of Jews and Jewishness as a fabled Other. So count me in for the read-along. Thanks again for posting. Eric


  2. 1. It is – or, strangely, was – what the heck is Museum Tusculanum Press – the only English translation, but not brand new, I think? Peter Lang, 2010? Nice of big shot Random House to pick it up, though. I wonder how many copies it can possibly sell.
    2. The May writing schedule stinks for me, but otherwise, I’m a “maybe.” I have experience with luck and happiness!
    3. All 700+ page novels should be published over the course of 8 years. What’s the hurry? And they should then be collected not as single books but rather as box-sets of the eight little volumes. How pleasant and civilized that would be.

    • 1. Huh. Weird. Just wait until you see how many people I sign up for this readalong! They’ll sell… several?
      2. Oh, I hope you can join, Tom. You’d have so much useful background/contextual knowledge–in addition to your insights on the book itself, of course.
      3. Pleasant & civilized indeed!

  3. The time realist in me will tell you that I have no idea what I’m doing next week, so it would be foolhardy to plan 5 months ahead. The time fantasist in me cannot possibly think of a reason why I would not be able to read a 700-page book in 5 months’ time (it’s 5 months away; I’ll have plenty of time then!) The book lover in me is always astounded by your ability to find curious and fascinating-sounding books, and is always up for a challenge. So, by a vote of 2 to 1, I’m in! (I just hope nobody asks for a recount in April.)

  4. This looks like just my thing especially since over read Daniel Deronda quite recently. And my best friend is like you are with time. I always carry a book around when I’m supposed to meet her because I know she will be late!

    • Wonderful! So glad to have you on board, Melissa, especially because I know you will actually finish the book! How do you do it? You seem to devour 700-page masterpieces of world literature on a weekly basis!
      I am never late by a lot, but I am always late by 5 minutes…

  5. Count me in, completely outside of my usual fare (although it’s large & translated so fits in a bubble somewhat), and that entices me.
    You know I’ll probably become time poor, be focused on some obscure writing theme & just end up with another fat volume on the shelves, but there’s no harm in that either.

  6. I read Lucky Per in the spring of 2014. It’s a good, good book, a powerful social novel, a satire more in the vein of Tolstoy than Dickens. I read it in the Peter Lang edition Tom mentions above. It’s great that this book is coming out in an edition that doesn’t cost $50/copy (I checked it out from my university library), and hopefully it will find a larger readership. Per’s relationship with Jakobe Salomon (the Jewish heiress) is an important element in the novel, and I think Pontoppidan treats Jakobe like a real human rather than a caricature. A good book, I repeat, well worth reading.

    • Now I’m looking even more forward–thanks, Scott. Not sure you’re up for reading it again so soon, but even if not, we’d certainly benefit from your insights if you want to contribute to the conversation.

      • I probably won’t have time to re-read Lucky Per next year, but I’ll surely be following the discussion and will chime in if I become convinced that I have something worth saying. I’ve got a couple of other (earlier and shorter) Pontoppidan novels on the shelf, so maybe I’ll read those and compare/contrast or something clever like that. I’m very excited to see this edition coming out. Thomas Mann thought highly of Lucky Per, for good reason.

      • Both the chiming in and the comparing sound wonderful! I’d no idea there were other Pontoppidan novels translated–though to be fair, until recently, I’d never even heard of him! I’ve been meaning to re-read Buddenbrooks (been 25 years…). Do you think that would be good preparation for Lucky Per?

      • I’m not sure Buddenbrooks and Lucky Per share much in the way of theme or authorial intent (if one can be so presumptive as to talk about intent); Mann writes about art and money (as I recall; it’s been a long time since I read that book, and I was pretty young and not so empathic at the time) while Pontoppidan writes an allegory about Denmark’s place in modern Europe. Sorry, that might be a sort of spoiler. I can never tell. But it is never a bad time to read Thomas Mann!

        Pontoppidan’s short novel The Apothecary’s Daughters (1890) is pretty good. I’d forgotten I’d read that one. I have not yet read Emanuel, or Children of the Soil, though I have it on the shelf. I believe it’s also a sort of satire, poking holes in the idea of the rustic idyllic life.

        Hopefully this comment shows up in the right place; I can’t quite figure out how to reply to a specific comment!

      • That is interesting and helpful. I wonder if Fontane is a closer literary relative. I think he has at least one novel set in Denmark when it belonged to Germany. Basically, I know almost nothing about Denmark–looking forward to learning something (at least about its canals…)

      • I feel I am busier now than when I taught! Out of “fear” that I would be bored, I have packed my plate with Bible Study Fellowship International, a trip to Japan, and several trips to the hospital for my father’s heart. But, all is good, and I am eager to participate in this wonderful adventure you have planned for us. I was hooked not only by your post, but by the wonderful ‘blurb’ describing the novel. Talk about having an anticipatory set! (Are you too young to remember that Madeline Hunter strategy for teaching? ☺️)

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  9. Okay, I’ve got a 12-week-old in the house but I’m in for this! If I have to, she’ll be forced to listen as I read this aloud.

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  11. It’s not that clear whether it’s a canal or a harbour as it seems to change through the book. It seems more like a MacGuffin to me.

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