Lucky Per (May 2019 Readalong)

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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.

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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!

 

 

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Levant Trilogy Readalong

Harriet Pringle is a levelheaded young Englishwoman recently married to a feckless intellectual. (Her carefulness apparently doesn’t extend to her choice of husband, though Guy is careless rather than actively bad.)

The time is the early 1940s. Guy is attached to the British Council in Bucharest. When war breaks out, the Pringles and other assorted expatriates make their desperate way to Athens, only to find the war pursuing them.

These events are told in three wonderful and accessible novels by the mid-twentieth-century writer Olivia Manning, collected as The Balkan Trilogy.

Recently, I was evangelizing for these books, as is my wont, and Scott from seraillon took the bait. Happily, he enjoyed them as much as I hoped he would. That’s when I suggested we read The Levant Trilogy, which picks up where the other books finish, with the Pringles washing ashore in an Egypt living in fear of Nazi conquest.

We’ll be writing about The Levant Trilogy in the first week of August. I suppose you could read them without reading The Balkans first, but I don’t recommend it. So if you want to join us–and we hope you do!–and are new to Manning you have some work ahead of you. But don’t let that put you off! The books are longish but you can really tear through them. (Max has been reading them recently too.) They offer a fascinating and oblique (fascinating because oblique) look at the world part of the Second World War.

So what do you think? Olivia Manning in August? Please join us!

Jean Giono Readalong

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Later this month, Scott of seraillon (I hope you read his blog regularly: it’s excellent) and I will be reading of Jean Giono’s first novel, Hill, published in 1929 and recently reissued in the indispensable NYRB Classics series. We hope you will join us!

Here’s what the publishers have to say about Hill:

Deep in Provence, a century ago, four stone houses perch on a hillside. Wildness presses in from all sides. Beyond a patchwork of fields, a mass of green threatens to overwhelm the village. The animal world—a miming cat, a malevolent boar—displays a mind of its own.

The four houses have a dozen residents—and then there is Gagou, a mute drifter. Janet, the eldest of the men, is bedridden; he feels snakes writhing in his fingers and speaks in tongues. Even so, all is well until the village fountain suddenly stops running. From this point on, humans and the natural world are locked in a life-and-death struggle. All the elements—fire, water, earth, and air—come into play.

From an early age, Jean Giono roamed the hills of his native Provence. He absorbed oral traditions and, at the same time, devoured the Greek and Roman classics. Hill, his first novel and the first winner of the Prix Brentano, comes fully back to life in Paul Eprile’s poetic translation.

The idea for the group reading came out of a series of exchanges we had about my review of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. In his defense of Seethaler, Scott said he was “reminded too of some of Jean Giono’s pastoral novels, which also have a third person narrator whose reliability one is scarcely conscious of needing to question, the narration almost seeming an organic aspect of the landscape.” That got me intrigued: I wanted to know more about this narrative voice, and since I had just learned of the reissue it all seemed fated to be.

So even though I know nothing about Giono–beyond the wonderful National Film Board of Canada animated film of The Man Who Planted Trees that was a staple of my childhood (directed by Frederic Back, it’s indelibly narrated by the aptly named Christopher Plummer–those tones!)–the good news is that Scott knows a lot. So between us we have a  perfectly average amount of knowledge to share.

Please consider joining us–and let us know if you decide to do so! We’ll be posting about the book in the last week of May and look forward to working through it together with you all.

Added 8/19/16: You can find my thoughts on Hill here, BTW.