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pelle the conqueror

5 august 2018

Earlier this summer, I was whisked across the island of Bornholm to the boyhood home of Martin Andersen Nexø. The occasion was a lecture on the early life and literary apprenticeship of the author of Pelle the Conqueror. Since I don't understand a word of Danish, I opted to sit in the courtyard of the Andersen Nexø home/museum while the lecturer rambled on indoors. I figured, what better time to start reading Pelle the Conqueror on my phone. Sitting on the steps above the stone-paved courtyard of the house, I read about the boy Pelle and his father Lasse arriving at the courtyard of Stone Farm, the setting for the first volume of Pelle. It was a happy serendipity.

Everything I'd known about Pelle the Conqueror came from Bille August's 1987 film of the novel. Or at least of the novel's first section. Pelle was written in four, each the length of a substantial novel, and attempting all four is beyond my scope at the moment. I read Part I, "Boyhood" ("Barndom" in Danish), which deserves its place in the canon of European coming-of-age novels. Andersen Nexø's novel is not as relentlessly bleak as the film version, but it certainly doesn't sugar-coat 19th-century peasant life. Pelle remains an important achievement in bringing the lives of common people into world literature.

Lots of 19th-century novels deal with the urban poor, from Dickens to Zola to Stephen Crane. It's harder to think of ones that deal with rural poverty in any kind of realist/naturalist way. Picturesque peasants appear in many a Victorian novel, for sure, and are sometimes even central, as in Thomas Hardy; but I doubt you'd want to take Tess of the D'Urbervilles as sober commentary on the state of the agricultural laborer. Novels from any period that deal with rural realities are thin on the ground. Farm labor, the central condition of the mass of Western people for millennia, only began to appear in realistic art when it was starting to vanish as a lived condition: in the novels of Władysław Reymont, Bolesław Prus, Willa Cather – and Martin Anderson Nexø.

Again, from Bille August's film, I was expecting nonstop misery from the first volume of Pelle. Max von Sydow as Pelle's father Lasse gives one of the great performances of hapless abjection in world cinema. But the overall tone of Andersen Nexø's novel, while not exactly rosy, is surprisingly sanguine. Pelle is a "conqueror," after all. He will go on in three sequels to become a tradesman, an activist, and something of a socialist hero. Andersen Nexø thus foreshadows Pelle's resourcefulness and power, as the boy learns to herd cattle, to read, to stand up to bullying, to lead other boys.

One of the stronger themes in August's film, the ethnic prejudice that Danes bear against Swedes, is a minor matter in the novel. Lasse and Pelle have a hard time getting hired at first, because they're Swedish (but also because they're a two-fer, Lasse refusing work with employers who won't also hire Pelle). Some of the Danes don't like them, making fun of their dialect and their manners. But for the most part, Bornholmer peasants in the novel are as downtrodden as Swedish ones, and national differences come to be erased as class bonds are formed.

Times are hard, the gentry can be brutal, and Pelle is a motherless child. But he is also an irrepressible growing boy. He lives close to nature and drinks in its marvels. Lasse, meanwhile, is depressive, alcoholic, a womanizer, and illiterate. Life with such a dad is no idyll. But Andersen Nexø gives Lasse a consistent character note of non-violence. As badly as he treats himself, Lasse would never mistreat Pelle. He would never even beat other people who mistreat Pelle, a non-violence that Pelle finds somewhat shameful (and does not himself share, as he grows and is able to defend himself). The depiction of the father/son relationship in Pelle is multifaceted and really well-drawn.

As in any coming-of-age story, the plot is provided by the arrow of time. Pelle is growing and learning, and the book is designed to get him to the next stage of life, when he will travel to the Bornholm metropolis of Rønne and become a cobbler's apprentice. Martin Andersen, before taking the pen name Nexø from his boyhood village, followed Pelle's career path from the stables and pastures to the tradesman's shop. I often argue here that a writer need have no particular immersion in a world to write well about it, but the autobiographical thrust of Pelle the Conqueror certainly adds to its ethos.

Pelle the Conqueror, or "Boyhood" at least, reminded me more of Halldór Laxness' great novels Independent People and The Fish Can Sing than any other fiction I've read. Partly because both Andersen Nexø and Laxness were products of Scandinavian islands, partly because of the themes of rural struggle, partly because of the socialist philosophy that connected the two authors. But partly too because of an irrepressible hope that burns through the squalor that both writers depict. Laxness uses magical realism where Andersen Nexø would use naturalism, but the feelings they evoke are similar. I don't know that I will rush to read the other three Pelle volumes, but I am glad I lucked into reading the first.

Andersen Nexø, Martin. Pelle the Conqueror. Book 1: Boyhood. [Pelle erobreren: Barndom.] 1906. Translated by Jesse Muir and Bernard Miall. 1913. iBooks.