1917 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation

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1917 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation

Karl Gjellerup received the Nobel Prize in Literature on 8 November 1917. There was no award ceremony, presentation, or lecture that year. This account of the works of Gjellerup and fellow winner Henrik Pontoppidan was written by Sven Söderman, Swedish critic, sometime after the awarding of the prize.

Karl Gjellerup was born in 1857 and died on October 11, 1919. Like Henrik Pontoppidan, he came from a family of ministers. He chose a career in the clergy although he felt no special calling for it; rather his inclinations drew him strongly toward literature, and alongside his “bread and butter studies” he devoted himself to reading the Greek, English, and especially the German classics. In the course of his theological studies, he came gradually to take a purely negative attitude toward theology and became attracted by the literary radicalism led by Georg Brandes. In 1878 he made his literary début under the pseudonym of “Epigonos” with a short novel entitled En idealist [An Idealist]. He published next, in quick succession, a series of tales and poems in which he posed as a fanatic enemy of all theology and as a sworn partisan of Darwin and the doctrine of evolution.

After this first period of anti-theological battles, not marked by a profound originality, Gjellerup undertook a trip abroad during which he collected his thoughts and found his intellectual equilibrium. At the same time his literary talent took on more distinct outlines: the description of an era, Romulus (1883); the beautiful short story “G-Dur” (1883) [G-Major], a portrait of intimacy; and especially the great drama Brynhild (1884), which marks the peak of his talent during this period. The theme of this drama is the episode of the Volsunga Saga in which Sigurd and Brunhilde, finding themselves on the same mountain, are separated by their destiny but dream of and desire one another. This waiting, full of torment, this quiet desire, imbues with sentiment the tragedy which is presented with strength and with great poetic and pictorial richness. The verse, especially in the choruses composed in the ancient fashion, attains great lyric beauty. The scope of the work is due to its depth and form; through its idealism and moral elevation it contrasts absolutely with the other productions of the naturalistic period during which it was written. In spite of his freedom of thought, Gjellerup had at bottom only a few common bonds with the naturalistic school. He had, on the contrary, many more addresses with German classicism, with the literature of antiquity, and with the wealth of sentiments of Wagner, and when he realized this fact, he broke sharply and publicly with the school of Brandes in his travel book, Vandreaaret (1885) [Wander Year]. His literary production (plays, lyric poems, stories) was henceforth oriented toward idealism, but at the beginning it only barely succeeded from the artistic point of view, even though the richness of his poetic gifts was always visible in it. The best of the books he published during the last years of this period was the charming novel Minna (1889), a truly beautiful love story and a delicate study of feminine psychology which must be classed in the highest rank of Scandinavian novels. Let us cite also that novel with the broadest foundations and a solid construction, Mølkn (1896) [The Mill], a curious analysis of the state of mind of a murderer who becomes remorseful and denounces himself; it is a work of tragic grandeur. Less remarkable as works of art, but expressive of Gjellerup’s high moral ideas about marriage and the relationship between the sexes, are his modern bourgeois dramas Herman Vandel (1891), Wuthhorn (1893), and Hans Excellence (1895). These dramas are not a plea for marriage. Indeed, the author puts the idea of marriage above banal conventions, and precisely because he puts it so high, he does not find it realized in ordinary marriages. He proposes as a purer model the free union, even though it would not have the consecration of church or state, provided that this union is the only one in a human life.

These dramas, whose tendency is religious despite their individualistic revolts, form a transition between the first ideas of the author and those which characterize the last and most significant period of his literary life. It was without doubt the enthusiasm for the musical drama of Wagner, to which he devoted a masterly work, which led him to the study of Buddhist wisdom with its annihilation of the personality in the universal world of Nirvana. Among the works written by Gjellerup in the twentieth century, the best ones are inspired precisely by these speculations on India and place on stage Hindu subjects which he has treated so poetically and idealistically that they have aroused general admiration. This period of his work began with a musical play, Offerildene (1903) [The Sacrificial Fires], the legend of a young disciple of Brahma who in the simplicity of his pious soul discovers wisdom beneath the literal sense of the law, and who wishes to preserve in the world the three sacrificial fires: the fire of the soul, the flame of love, and the fire of the funeral pyre which consumes the body. Philosophical thought is here allied freely and harmoniously with the creative imagination of a poet. In the great mythic novel, Pilgrimen Kamanita (1906), which contains a history of Buddha’s era, Gjellerup has elucidated the essential characteristics of the Buddhist conception of the world, its doctrine of renunciation, its effort toward perfection, and its dreams of paradise, of Nirvana, and of universal destruction. Kamanita is the man in search of earthly satisfactions who, after séeing the fragility of all things, desires instead eternal treasures. We follow him not only during his earthly life but also during the different transformations he undergoes in the “Western Paradise,” in which the tropical sumptuousness of India is rediscovered. Those who have destroyed themselves awaken here and leave their lotus buds to participate in the dance of the blessed and to undergo new incarnations, following which their souls begin a new existence in the empire of the Buddha of the hundred thousand cycles. In spite of its uninterrupted speculations on Hindu philosophy, this poem exercises a singular fascination. Quite intuitively the poet seems to have penetrated into the spirtiual life of a far–off people and to have expressed their dreams of it with the visionary’s gift. In certain passages of this poem one finds the spirit of the Arabian Nights, and certain parts of the Western Paradise present a penetrating picture of the sumptuous magnificence of the life of the blessed. In the same way the drama Den fuldendtes hustru (1907) [The Wife of the Perfect One], which deals with the purifications that Buddha’s wife must undergo to attain perfection, is a masterpiece. The author has succeeded in permitting his own nature and genius to shine through these dogmatic and philosophical revelations of a millennial philosophy. Gjellerup’s last great work, Verdens vandrerne (1910) [World Wanderers], with its half-Oriental, half-western moral, does not attain the same artistic beauty, but it contains beautiful details and holds our interest through a mysticism full of imagination as much as through the development of the action.

Karl Gjellerup was that strange combination, a scholar as well as a poet. His inventive imagination and his gifts of visionary poetry were often difficult to harmonize with his specific knowledge and his lively intelligence. His earlier works are characterized by very broad but sometimes clumsy descriptions, philosophical rather than spontaneous. They occasionally neglect artistic form, but they are always rich in ideas and full of promises of originality. Among them are such remarkable works as Brynhild and Minna. A poet who gathers all the flowers; a spirit that séeks tirelessly until it reaches its true domain in the world of Hindu mysticism, in which his profound thought and his ideal effort to clarify the enigmas of truth and life are combined with his artistic instinct: such is the Gjellerup of the second period. Thought charged with emotion, a great knowledge of the soul, a great desire for beauty, and a poetic art have given birth to works of enduring value. The author of Pilgrimen Kamanita and Den fuldendtes hustru has justifiably been called the “classic poet of Buddhism.”

Henrik Pontoppidan belongs to the generation of writers who followed closely the “modern renaissance” of Danish literature after 1870, which had as its principal representatives Georg Brandes, Holger Drachmann, and J. P. Jacobsen. As a writer, his particular province is the novella. As an observer of human nature, as historian of the moral life of his time, he assuredly ranks first among contemporary Danish novelists. Born in Jutland in 1857, he was the son of a Protestant minister whose ideas were tinged with the doctrine of Grundtvig. He was educated at a polytechnical college. Later he taught school, but soon he gave up all professions to follow only his vocation as a writer. His first book, Staekkede vinger[Clipped Wings], appeared in 1881; since then he has published a great number of books, among them works of great and lasting value. During his youth he had bitter experiences of the Danish character and life which must have been a determining influence on his caréer as a writer. All his work is a struggle against what seemed to him deceptive and perfidious illusions, false authority, romanticism, superstitious belief in beautiful phrases, and the intoxication of lofty words, exalted sentiments, and moral fear. In a word, it is “the process of lyric putrefaction” by which the society of the Old World, in his judgment, is heading toward its ruin.

Thus in Sandinge menighed (1883) [The Parish of Sandinge], he finds fault with the falsities in the higher educational system; in Skyer (1890) [Clouds], he criticizes the leftist Danish politician of sonorous but empty phrases under the provisory laws of Estrup; in Den gamle Adam (1894) [The Old Adam] and Højsang (1896) [Song of Songs], he exposes the ravings of the amorous imagination and lofty sentiments; and in Natur (1890), he exercises his irony on the exaltation of nature. Mimoser (1886) [Mimosas] supports a theory completely opposed to the idea which had been dominant since Bjernson defended it in En hanske [A Gauntlet], the idea which demanded man’s purity and fidelity in sexual relations. Det ideale kjem (1900) [The Ideal Home] is a defence of matriarchy against marriage. Nattevagt (1894) [Night Watch] and the play Asgaardsrejen (1906) [The Wild Chase] contain attacks against modern art and lyric poetry which are only objects of luxury. To anaemic culture, the enemy of life, Pontoppidan opposes nature as it is developed in freedom. He shows an ardent sympathy especially for the social and revolutionary struggle and for the ideas of rational positivism. However, he never speaks in his own name; the characters whom he puts on stage speak for themselves, but the spirit of his books is revolutionary. What is curious, however, is that he himself was nourished on the “stale milk of romanticism” and that he is a lyricist in spite of his realistic spirit–a déep-seated contradiction which has permitted him to clothe reality in romantic veils and at the same time to undermine romanticism by means of irony.

Pontoppidan’s masterpieces are the three-volume novel Det forjaettede land (1891–1895) [The Promised Land] and the novel Lykke-Per[Lucky Peter], originally published in eight volumes (1898–1904) but later condensed (1905)–two monumental works which give a tableau of the spiritual life of Denmark after 1860. The first of these novels, a vast picture of rustic life, portrays the opposition between the peasants and the inhabitants of the cities. It shows that even the most enthusiastic attempts to restore these classes to unity are doomed to certain failure. The principal character, an idealistic priest from Copenhagen, motivated by a strong feeling of duty, wishes to live with the peasants in order to lift them out of their condition; but he finds himself deceived in his faith in the people, as well as in his mission as a priest and the possibility of adapting it to everyday life and actions. He ends as an unbalanced visionary. Lykke-Per, on the contrary, is a young provincial, an enginéer, who has firmly decided to achieve happiness in the capital. Contrary to the priest of Det forjaettede land, he is a man who is interested only in positive reality; he dislikes everything religious, metaphysical, or aesthetic. He behaves like a man of energy whom nothing can stop in the realization of his bold plans. But he also lacks that strength of domination over himself which is the necessary condition for a free soul, and he falls victim to that Christian romanticism which he has in his blood and which is precisely what he scorned. What is remarkable in this book is the masterly exposition of the essential differences between Jewish and Germanic ideas. A third cycle of novels, De dødes rige (1912–1916) [The Kingdom of the Dead], whose last parts were completed during the World War, also gives a whole series of images of Denmark at the end of the ninetéenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Its subject is the unfortunate attempt of a radical politician to awaken a “people who are sléeping.” It contains interesting social descriptions and vivid portraits (based on living models), but on the whole this work cannot be compared with the key works of the preceding period.

Henrik Pontoppidan has been called the classicist of the new Danish realism. He writes in a nervous and supple prose which has the peaceful, regular rhythm of healthy breathing. He narrates simply and easily without vain search for artistic words, but he has the rare gift of expressing reality clearly and in a lively manner. One finds the whole of Denmark in his writings: Jutland, the islands, and the capital; the commercial city and the country with its manors, its parsonages, its schools, and its taverns. One feels that the author has lived what he writes about. Moreover, the countryside is not described for itself but for the men who live there; it has value only because it conditions men. The essential object of Pontoppidan is man and his destiny, and in the objective description of human destiny he reveals himself as an incomparable artist. He has knowledge of the different classes of Danish people; he really knows their language, their manners, their habits, and their disposition. He is skilled in making out of his characters portraits in prominent relief, but he knows also how to endow them with an intense interior life which expresses their personalities. When one has read his work, one remembers a great number of distinctly individualized characters and the conditions of their existence. It is a broad avenue traced across Danish life during several decades. In the two central works, especially, there are admirable descriptions and characters whose emotional lives are portrayed in changing psychological situations and in scenes of great beauty. All the details appear, but the different parts of each novel and its details are put together effortlessly to give a generally unified work. Henrik Pontoppidan is an epic author of great range who, in an imposing endeavour, seeks to realize a work of monumental dimensions.

[© The Nobel Foundation, 1917.]

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1917 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation

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1917 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation