Friday, February 17, 2017

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil by Henrik Pontoppidan

Danish social realism
Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan won the 1917 Nobel Prize in Literature. English-language readers are unlikely to have heard of him, however, because very few of his works have been published in English translation. Emanuel, or Children of the Soil, was originally published in 1891 under the Danish title of Muld (Soil), and it is the first book in a trilogy known as Det Forjaettede Land (The Promised Land). The English edition was published in London in 1896. Perhaps this first volume didn’t sell well enough to justify publishing the remaining two volumes of the trilogy, or maybe this book was deliberately singled out for translation because, from what I can tell from a little research, it is the happiest portion of the trilogy and therefore most likely to appeal to a broad audience.

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil, is a naturalistic novel that depicts a period of class conflict in Danish history. In the late 19th century, the proliferation of liberal and democratic ideals among the peasantry began to undermine the authority of the conservative aristocracy and the Church. This story takes place in two adjacent villages of a seaside parish in rural Denmark. The town of Veilby is where the wealthier landowners reside, while Skibberup, a fishing village along the fjord, is populated by a lower class of peasants. Governing over the religious interests of this domain is Provst Tönnesen, a conservative clergyman of the old school who believes the rabble out to know their place. His condescending attitude incites dissent among the Skibberup masses.

Into this insular conflict comes Emanuel Hansted, a newly ordained priest assuming his first clerical appointment as the Provst’s subordinate. He lives under the Provst’s roof and assists him in the spiritual duties of the parish. Unlike the Provst, Emanuel is sympathetic to the peasantry and bears a romantic conception of the farming life as a truer, more honest way of living in communion with nature. At first Emanuel is reviled by the residents of Skibberup for his association with the Provst. Over time, however, he begins to win them over with his sincerity and good intentions. This only draws the ire of his superior, however, and Emanuel soon finds that contradicting the Provst may prove threatening to his clerical career.

Pontoppidan’s novel provides a vivid slice of Danish rural life. The villages and their inhabitants are rendered lucidly real by his descriptive prose. Like any story in a pastoral setting, it can get picturesque at times, but there are glimpses of a darker, grittier side to country life that grounds the narrative in a sense of authenticity. Likewise, the accompanying love story gets a bit too cute from time to time, but Emanuel’s social awkwardness and the rituals of 19th-century courtship bear a ring of truth. The class struggle and conflicting ideologies, as played out in this Scandinavian microcosm, are really quite interesting, and take the story to a higher philosophical level than a typical peasant romance. The story not only engages the reader but also provides an introductory education in the social history of Denmark.

It’s a shame that so few of Pontoppidan’s writings have been translated into English, because if this book is an accurate indication of his body of work, he appears to be a writer of rare quality and a deserving recipient of his Nobel laurels. Emanuel is an admirable work of early 20th-century world literature worth seeking out.
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