Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Magic Socialism and the Ghost of Pelle Erobreren

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Magic Socialism and the Ghost of Pelle Erobreren

Article excerpt

FOR SEVERAL DECADES during the twentieth century, Martin Andersen Nexo's Pelle Erobreren [Pelle the Conqueror] was on lists as one of the world's ten greatest novels, and socialism as one of the ten greatest ideas. They joyfully supported each other; Pelle was passionately praised as a prototype of the "renegade socialist leader" (Ruhle 334). Then, together, they faded away. Nexo himself, in line with his own political evolution, replaced his former protagonist in a later novel with Pelle's estranged friend, Morten the Red, the carrier of a tougher communism, who is consistently angered by Pelle's diplomatic compromises. Still, in the last pages of Morten's trilogy, the new hero is haunted in his sleep by the ghost of the dead Pelle, who is allowed to call him a heartless and sentimental revolutionary. And Pelle's earlier dream of socialism still haunts our imperfect governments, a dream whose virtual disappearance seems to have sucked the hope out of the future. One critic, in 1969, spoke for many when he bluntly asserted that students of Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Mann, Broch, Faulkner and readers of Sartre, Butor, and Robbe-Grillet could still turn with intense interest to Flaubert and Dostoyevsky but no longer to Nexo's Pelle, who seems confined to his historical moment. Pelle is too brave in his forward march, too single-minded in his uncomplicated integrity, too unproblematic for our times, which might feel better reflected by Turgenev's Superfluous Man than by a positive hero of the revolution. Yet, in a trenchant scolding of modern audiences who patronize A Doll House as being old-fashioned, Theodor Adorno insists that the motive for such a response is a cover-up of the guilt deriving from the secret sense that we have not finished our business with the powerful demands Ibsen makes on us to cut through the layers of bourgeois rationalizations spewed forth by false idealisms (see Adorno 161; Naganowski 131-2). Perhaps we can discover a similar guilt behind the smug dismissal of Nexo's great novel as excessively tendentious.

In fact, Nexo draws energy for every promise of political and historical progress from a repeated regression into Pelle's childhood related as a "lognehistoric" of his own, a lying-story in the Danish folk-expression (see Nexo, "Pelle Erobreren som Selvbiografisk Vaerk" 49). Following the anti-progressive lead of Wordsworth and Rousseau, Nexo linked solitude with solidarity and the poet with the prophet in their missions of re-education. He like they yoked political passions for judgment and justice to the wonder Baudelaire associates with the child in the genius and convalescent, whose fresh curiosity continually feeds the spirit (see Baudelaire 2:687-700). Neither Nexo nor Pelle is ever detached from this source of strength, but they are sustained by the tenacious and scrupulous memory Nexo ascribes to the child of poverty (see Nexo, Erindringer 1:15). As a penitent parent and union organizer, Pelle relates to his son, Lasse Frederik, and his sister stories the reader has already enjoyed as the adventures of the first volume now told as recollections of his impoverished and hard-working childhood in which "den store Gaard, Landlivet, Stenavaerket og Havet--det var som en AEventyrbog for de to Brostensborn" (Nexo, Pelle 4:808) ["the big farm, the country life, the stone-quarry and the sea--they all made up a fairy-story for the two children of the pavement" (4:478)]. (1) Of that constant remembrance Bachelard notes: "L'enfance voit le Monde illustre, le Monde avec ses couleurs premieres, ses couleurs vraies ... le monde de la premiere fois" (101) [childhood sees the illustrated world, the world with its first colors, true colors ... the world of the first rime]. It raises childhood out of time and sanctifies it with all its terrors, humiliations, and warmth as an agency of hope and energy on perpetual recall for the tough and tender circumstances of history.

Maxim Gorky notes, in his autobiography that often parallels Nexo's, that after witnessing so much misery as a child, so much cruelty and crudeness, he yearned to go [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII. …

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