Once upon a time, when provinces still existed, an ambitious young provincial would now and again attempt to take the capital by storm: Midwesterners arriving in New York; Balzacian youths plotting their onslaught on the metropolis (‘à nous deux, maintenant!’); eloquent Irishmen getting a reputation in London; and Scandinavians – Ibsen, Georg Brandes, Strindberg, Munch – descending on Berlin to find a culture missing in the bigoted countryside. So also Henrik Pontoppidan’s hero, an unhappy clergyman’s son who flees the windswept coasts of Jutland for a capital city which is itself narrow-minded and provincial in comparison with the bustling centres of Europe. Denmark has just lost a war, and an important territory, to Prussia: one in ‘a long row of national humiliations’ in ‘a doomed country that, in the course of one man’s life, had fallen into ruin, wasted away to a pale and flabby limb on Europe’s body swelling with power’. Denmark itself is to Europe as Jutland is to Copenhagen; and we must never underestimate the degree to which that ‘national misery’, which is secretly a part of every national history and identity, is also part and parcel of the personal or psychic identity of its inhabitants.
LRB 20 October 2011 | PDF Download