Larissa's Reviews > The Polar Bear

The Polar Bear by Henrik Pontoppidan
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's review
Dec 12, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2008, short-stories, vicarious-travel, in-translation, danish
Read in December, 2008

I obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through an inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California's Southern Library Facility, you really made my day. Or maybe even my year.

This was such a lovely short story, filled with the type of elegant, visual prose that writing instructors the world over are pointing to when they admonish their students to "Show!" and "Not Tell!" But even so, the dialog and the fluidity of the story are never bogged down in lengthly, over-flowered passages. Observe our first introduction to the novel's protagonist:

"Imagine for yourself, dear Reader, a large, flaming red face, with a snow-white, tousled beard hanging down from it; and hiding, here and there is the rough chinhairs, more old remnants of green cabbage slop, breadcrumbs or tan-colored snuff tobacco than one might find completely appetizing...It should also be pointed out that Pastor Muller was exactly six feet one and a half inches tall, that he had lost a finger on his left hand, and that he presented himself to the world, summer and winter, in the same marvelous costume, consisting of a moth-eaten dogskin cap with a visor, a pair of gray checkered trousers stuck into a pair of massive boots that stank sourly of whale oil, and a short, shiny old hunting jacket, a so-called "rump-cooler," that was buttoned tightly over his huge, giant-like body..."

The Polar Bear is a novella about Thorkild Muller, a reclusive, undereducated, and outcast Danish pastor who is reassigned to a parish in Greenland. Muller quickly finds a sense of belonging and fulfillment living with the Inuit, and becomes integrated into their nomadic society. In his old age, however, Muller returns to Denmark and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a confrontation with the Danish church.

It's wonderful, which is actually extremely tragic, in that most of you won't have access to a copy to read and those of you who do out there in Southern California don't seem to take advantage of it. (The borrower slip in the back of the book shows that this was only rented from the library once in April 2005. So, shout out to my library buddy in California--you have excellent taste.)

As translator James Massengale notes in his Afterword,

"There has been a real need, in our modern Scandinavian literature classes, for an exuberant story with no battle of the sexes, no lengthy account of awful diseases, no "depressing realism." The Polar Bear was chosen partially as an answer to the common student reaction of the type: "do the Scandinavians always get depressed or divorce, or commit suicide in their stories?" The answer, as far as this novella goes, is certainly no; but that does not mean our story is simplistic, or that it lacks depth or "debate." The choice also has the advantage of bring to students' attention the name of an outstanding but less-known Danish author, Henrik Pontoppidan, who, despite winning a shared Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, has not remained within our American-Scandinavian teaching "cannon." He needs to be reinstated, along with a number of other Scandinavian writers of both sexes who have been brushed aside by the great Ibsen/Strindberg steamroller and the restrictive policies of some of the larger publishing houses."


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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Kim Forsythe I had James Massengale as a professor a few years ago and we read The Polar Bear in his class. (I also work in the UC library system at UCLA and often have to go to the Southern Regional Library Facility to pick up stuff!) Great story! Reminds me I need to add it...

Larissa I'm so thrilled that someone else (in the US) has actually read this. Messangale's translation was so fluid, too. From that alone, I'd guess that he was a really interesting professor.

How do you like working in the UC libraries--and what do you do? It seems like they have a really extensive Scandinavian collection among all the branches.

Kim Forsythe Sorry! I thought I had replied to this earlier..

I'm a student assistant at Special Collections in the research library. Needless to say, I love it! Special Collections doesn't have a wide selection of Scandinavian literature, however the UC system does (as you know). The stacks upstairs from where I work has some good stuff and a few rows (a lot for any library outside Scandinavia!)of works in translation and in their native language. I do love sitting in between stacks looking for new books. I found a crime novel called Polis, Polis, Potatismos! (Police, Police, Mashed Potatoes!). Can't wait to read it.

Birgit Alsinger Larissa: Thank you for a beautiful and thorough review of the Polar Bear. It really touched my heart, and it`s so good to learn that someone out there in the great big world knows how to appreciate this fine, old writer.

Larissa You are so very welcome, Birgit. I'm very glad to find someone else who loves this story as much as I do. I started learning Danish basically on the basis of this story and another one by Pontoppidan, "The Royal Guest." I think he's just a fantastic writer and I wish he had more lasting recognition.

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