The infallible human artist test

Kierkegaard taking his daily menneskebad – a people bath *

If you were there, or saw the above scene at a gallery or in a movie, you might not remember the date, time or even exact place, but you will forever recollect the scene. Bring it to life again and again as it returns to you.

Do you ‘remember’, or do you ‘recollect’ something? Actually all human beings do both. Unless of course they fall victim to bouts of amnesia or aggressive forms of senility. Our profound ability to remember and recollect vast amounts of information is one of the precious gifts that all humans have. But equally profound is the difference between re-membering and re-collecting something. Don’t try and think about this difference too hard. Just feel it. Yes, you re-member a certain date for a particular reason, or the name of a distant aunt, but you re-collect (gather up again) a scene on that date, or scenes in which your aunt featured.

Thus, once you move beyond remembering the fact that your far flung aunt was called Matilda, you begin to re-collect Matilda. Even if you never met her, you will make efforts to conjure a scene about her; piece together things that people told you so as to conjure a Matilda Movie or maybe a Matilda soundscape. Or both. You are in fact being the artist you innately are. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do art. Humans recollect: create scenarios and populate them all the time. And this means you innately understand and can recall moods, atmospheres, colours, smells, emotions, things or people and their features and characteristics. No human is without this gift. It is this gift that leads us to dream.

Your powers of recollection are infallible proof that you are an artist. But don’t just take my word for that, listen to the beautiful words of my guiding light and great mentor Søren Kierkegaard:

Hukommelsen er umiddelbar og kommes umiddelbart tilhjælp, Erindringen kun reflecteret. Derfor er det en Kunst at erindre.

Remembering something is immediate and is there to help in an instant. Recollection is utter reflection. Thus to recollect is an art form.

(The author’s own translation and interpretation)

Stadier på livets vej – Stages on life’s way **


I don’t know where Kierkegaard gets this reputation of being perennially doom and gloom. For in his book Stages on life’s way (Stadier på livets vej in the original Danish), he writes some of the most inspiring, heartening and ‘loving-of-people’ words I have ever read. I suppose it’s because in this tabloid, quick-fix age, there is the problem that he has to be read deeply and several times over. The culture now seems to be – read a book and then never go near it again. Great thinker-writers like George Steiner and Michael Ondaatje have championed the cause of deep reading and the re-reading of the same book to discover its true beauty and significance. Deep reading of books also requires silence or relative quiet, which is hard to come by these days.

I also wonder whether Kierkegaard is being translated into English correctly. Or rather, I think he has often been translated correctly but not so as to reflect the underlying meaning in what he says and impart that to a modern age. I am personally, I admit, a champion of rewriting a book in its new language. The success of my A Fortunate Man (Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke Per) shows why, I think.

A facsimile of the original text of Stages on life’s way, showing the start proper – In Vino Veritas – Pre-recollection. The first paragraph contains the lines: “forgetting is the curtain that is closed; recollection the Vestal Virgin that delves behind that curtain.”

Stages on life’s way is a continuation of Either/Or. But with Kierkegaard this time trying, in my view, to work out how he will ever get his beloved Regine back now that she’s rejected a lifelong platonic relationship with him and gone and married another man. Part of his answer lies in recollection – or recall if you like – and what’s fascinating for me is that Kierkegaard says that recollection is only present if it’s a happy recall. Once we begin recalling nasty events, we zoom in on the horrible details and are back in the realm of immediate memory – remembering.

Take homesickness, as Kierkegaard does. A negative thing when you concentrate on the detail. But when you are back home and conjure that feeling of longing for home, which you felt whilst away, you not only conjure an illusion, you artistically create that illusion as a scene and all their emotions and placements until they feel right. It is a sublime feeling. To envisage homesickness once you are back home is art creation. You have created an ideal and it took quite a bit of effort. And as a work of art, it is always there. We are in the realm of the immortal and spiritual. There is nothing physical about it until it’s brought from behind the curtain again. As Kierkegaard says, try and throw away a recollection and, like Thor’s hammer, it will just come back at you – eventually.

It is for this reason that we venerate old people. Old people lose the memory of detail – it becomes shaky – but their recall of scenes in their lives is vivid and those scenes carried the scent of the humanly experienced before they were preserved and corked in the memory. The old amongst us sound the well of eternity as they delve to recollect and they are known as wise and possessing this eternal gift. The child on the other hand carries eternity within it but, as yet, has no real recollection.

A Catholic procession near my old school in Salford – we are all artists and art is everywhere.

Growing up in a poverty stricken part of Manchester – actually Salford to which Manchester is near – with many of us of Irish immigrant stock, there was little talk of innate artistic propensities. The fact of us as human artists. Quite the reverse. But Kierkegaard told every one of us many many years ago in his beautiful text, Stages on life’s’ way, that we are all great artists. All we need do is re-collect all those scenes and moments as the artistic beings we are. We are the soul’s movie makers.




Paul Larkin

Gaoth Dobhair

Mí Bealtaine 2019


* I was unable to find the source of this image, so if any readers are aware of it, please let me know so that I can credit the creator.

** Cover of my Kierkegaard colleague Niels Cappelørn’s edition of ‘Stadier pa livets vej’ – Stages on life’s’ way (Niels’ book is in Danish only as far as I know).

Haruki Murakami, Kierkegaard, Christmas and the Winter Sun-Shift

Haruki Murakami, Kierkegaard, Christmas  and the Winter Sun-Shift


Haruki Murakami – A worker bee


Magic realism is supposed to be Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s forte, yet he is in fact closer to a worker bee, as we shall see. But a worker that can suddenly and miraculously transform our world into a range of astonishing phenomena. Just like bees. The Danish thinker and writer Søren Kierkegaard, meanwhile, is supposed to be a depressing, dour we may as well all slash our wrists right now this minute Germanic Lutheran, but is in fact very often hilarious. Just like the Danes.

‘Merry Christmas’ the postcard says – yes, these are those ‘dour’ Danes …


Never judge authors, or indeed races of people, by oft repeated shibboleths about them. Both of these brilliant writers are far more complex and surprising than their typical rubrics would indicate. They also have far more in common than has ever been remarked upon, as far as I know. In my long experience as a writer and reader, fiction authors and writers are often the best thinkers and philosophers. A lot less boring usually, also.

A spaghetti pot – mundane or magic? Or both!

With Murakami  and Kierkegaard, their mutual magic is, ironically we feel, to be found in the commonplace, because that’s the only place human astonishment can begin. Astonishment starts with an ordinary thing and ends in transcendence. In this I seem to stand Kant and other philosophers on their heads, as they think the sublime must be something very rare. But it is we humans who impart material things like paintings, toothbrushes, music and poems with magic. Astonishment is Christmas to which we impart specialness with those daft hats, tinkling bells and tinsel and the lowly babe in the refugee camp manger. Magic. Our better selves. The sublime. Humans are magic incarnate. There are of course other miracles at that manger if we dream it to be so.

Christmas and the winter Sun-Shift are upon us. They never fail to excite me and gladden my heart. Every year. And there’s an ancient reason for that.


The modern age’s ‘wine to water’ miracle – dumbing down to ‘facts’.


The modern age, Kierkegaard once said, has managed the strange miracle of turning wine into water. Very funny but also very profound. It is a crucial point. For though I’ve just said that astonishing things come from the commonplace, that is not to glorify the commonplace but to go back into it and feel the miracle there. That added ingredient of human magic again. To imagine water, if you like, into becoming wine. To write or paint water into wine. To raise water to the level of magic – ‘the wine dark sea’ of Homer or the Norse ‘Swan Plain’ (a lake). The modern age does the opposite of this, straining everything down into a pot of alleged ‘facts’. The Science of less is more. More water. Far less wine. I must have been born to be a thinker because like Kierkegaard  I always wondered why we couldn’t have both. More wine. More Water. More magic. Why would anyone object to magic?


On the surface at least, Haruki Murakami does often appear prosaic and deadpan in his writing. As if he’s having a chat with his readers – dialogue with readers being his intention. So the phone rings as he’s cooking. Terrific! It’s the start of the ‘Wind Up Bird Chronicle’ and the hero ‘Toru’ is boiling spaghetti. We get all the social realist stuff; the detailed list of what’s in the kitchen – that the pasta is spaghetti, that it’s boiling on a gas ring, the radio is playing music and the phone starts to ring. I’m not a great fan of social inventories in literature but Murakami manages to weave a fascinating sociology – a sort of print out of the fabric of Japan – into a set of beguiling mysteries and weird occurrences. Having been to Japan and having practised its martial arts and worshipped some of its film makers, his ‘Bird’ chronicle is like the whole of Japan in all its rigid formality and flamboyance captured in one single book. Then, with a final look back at the spaghetti, Toru finally answers the phone  and the weirdness begins. Murakami is like a book version of David Lynch. It is an extraordinary experience – like exactly where is this bird or birds that are frequently referred to? It is at once a statue in a garden, a night bird and a dawn chorus.

But Murakami also does funny. Take this from his ontological (about life) memoir about running, ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ – in this case competing in a triathlon. In one passage, Murakami has to abruptly move from swimming frantically in the sea to pedalling furiously on a bike: “you feel like a salamander that’s developed overnight into an ostrich.”

Well … we see how he can take natural science and play with it. More is more. Darwin meets the miracle of human art.

Life-changing humour is one of the places where Kierkegaard and Murakami meet and there is another, just as important, shared trait – the existential choice. What to do with your life.


Very early in his journals, the diaries he kept throughout his life, Kierkegaard asks what is it – this thing, this idea – for which he would could live and die? This motif runs across all of Murakami’s books, or at least the ones I’ve read. When we are a good bit into his Bird chronicle book, the unemployed Toru says “I don’t have an image of the one thing I really want to do.” It’s Kierkegaard’s leap again and it stems, must stem, from a period of doubt. Depression even. Depression is normal. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, said Kierkegaard. Toru retreats into a well.  Just as Murakami does in his running book. Just as Kierkegaard did with his tungsind – his heavy mind. Looking deep down into their own subjective, psychological, deep wells. We can only ever grasp life if we first grasp ourselves.

Towards the end of ‘What I talk about when I talk about running,’  which title is  in itself a homage to another writer saint, another Knight of Resignation – Raymond Carver – Murakami gives an extraordinary description of what he initially calls ‘Runners Blues’. After completing an Extreme Marathon of over 60 miles, he falls into what he describes as “resignation”. He becomes more introspective and says “you might even call it a philosophical or religious” mental state. In fact, it becomes clear that the whole book is at least partly a product of this depression, these ‘Runners Blues’ and Murakami’s emergence on the other side of them. And what does he emerge to? Well in typical documentary Murakami style, he says that all that running and in particular his later change to triathlons may well have been like “pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in it” but, and it’s a big existential but, he goes on to say that “what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart.” And so he decides he will  keep on running. Keep on greeting other runners. Keep on trying. We are right back with Kierkegaard. Murakami-san is talking just as much about writing and creating art here as he is about running. You have to feel it in your heart before it can move you to artistic creation. You might fail countless times, or feel like a failure, but joy comes from the simple act of trying. Them comes the miracle. The leap that actually does bring you to other side.

What Murakami really wants to do is to write. The running and other forms of sport help him to do that. In other words, he uses physical work to keep his mind and body in great shape to prolong what he really likes doing for as long as possible. Work is exalted. The idea of exertion and effort is exalted. The idea of the body as the temple of the soul, or at the very least as a precious receptacle, a vehicle for profundity, is vibrant. But at the same time, and just as with Kierkegaard, you sense strongly that Murakami really feels for all those people who are not living their life to the full. He writes about and for them because he sees the danger –  the ‘sin’ Kierkegaard would say and he’s right – of not using mind and body at full throttle. For all their mutual weirdness, they are full of empathy.

Walk, run, keep moving and engaging, to keep your creativity sharp

In essence, I feel what really unites Kierkegaard and Murakami is their sense of duty to their art and their craft. That includes physical exertion – walk, run yourself through that wall that brings you to inspiration at the other side of physical exertion. That they devote long hours to walking the town as Kierkegaard did – his daily ‘people bath’ –  or running marathons in Murakami’s case, is to pay  homage, to hone and polish their artistic selves. They are both Knights of Persistent Art but they understand the significance of this in both its negative and positive spheres. This negative artistic sphere is the knowledge that you are a Knight of Infinite Resignation as Kierkegaard put it. This means that you are no saint who can do miracles by the simple act of being. Unlike Knights of Faith who cure the sick, part the seas at will, or conjure the birds from the trees, with a wave of  their hands, the artistic Knight of Resignation must paint or write miracles into being with not only inspiration but perspiration. In performing this sacred act, they are almost on a par with the Knights of Faith. Through their art of bringing the impossible into being, they attain the highest heights of faith in that higher sphere of life and the soul. These are just other terms for the unknowable but felt God. I don’t care whether you call it a Divinity or the Glory that is in all matter.

As with other great festivals that humans celebrate all over the world, Christmas is not a question of a series of facts, but what you passionately feel in your heart and your art.

I send best wishes to all my many readers for a Happy Christmas and a peaceful, creative New Year.


Haruki Murakami as a Knight of Persistent Art

             Maximum Respect






@Paul Larkin_Nollaig_2018

New York Review of Books reviews ‘A Fortunate Man’

Fortunate Man Book Cover

The Danish Tolstoy



Henrik Pontoppidan rules over the province of Danish letters with a grey-bearded authority akin to Leo Tolstoy’s or Henry James’s. The author of three sweeping epics,Det Fortjættede Land (The Promised Land, 1891–1895), Lykke-Per (A Fortunate Man, 1898–1904), and De Dødes Rige (The Kingdom of the Dead, 1912­–1916), he was awarded the 1917 Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor he shared with his exact contemporary, the now little-read Karl Gjellerup. Ernst Bloch admired him, and Georg Lukács likened his novelistic achievement to Flaubert’s. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 1927, Pontoppidan was lauded by Thomas Mann in an open letter to the Danish newspaper Politiken, describing him as “a full-blooded storyteller who scrutinizes our lives and society so intensely that he ranks within the highest class of European writers.” In August, a cinematic adaption of Lykke-Per by the Academy-Award winning director Billie August opened in Danish theaters.

And yet, Pontoppidan’s writing has remained almost entirely unavailable to English-language readers. He has occasionally been invoked as proof of the Swedish Academy’s penchant for giving Nobel Prizes to seemingly obscure minor writers (Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, once asked: “Who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?”), though it’s probably safe to assume that such judgments are not based on any great familiarity with Pontoppidan’s writing. Lykke-Per, his masterpiece, was not published in English until 2010 (in a translation by Naomi Liebowitz titled Lucky-Per), and only then in an academic edition costing a little over $80. At long last, an affordable new translation by the Irish writer and filmmaker Paul Larkin, published by the Danish Museum Tusculanum Press and bearing the more English-friendly title A Fortunate Man, is now available. Though I do not always agree with Larkin’s choices (in particular, regional dialects and Danish colloquialisms are often rendered in a rustic, sometimes archaic English, like something out of Thomas Hardy), it is on the whole an impressive, fluent achievement. It presents the first real opportunity for English-language readers to encounter what the scholar Flemming Behrendt, in his afterword, calls one of the most re-read and talked about novels in Danish literary history.

Published serially between 1898 and 1904, A Fortunate Man offers a vast, fictional panorama of Danish society in an age of social and industrial change and cultural renewal. It is set against the backdrop of a Copenhagen that, in the final decades of the nineteenth century, was transformed into a battleground of struggles between conservatives and progressives, Christians and atheists, the old and the new. The influential critic Georg Brandes gave a series of lectures on modern European literature, championing French naturalism and Darwinian freethinking, that inaugurated the prolific cultural and intellectual flowering known throughout Scandinavia as the Modern Breakthrough, encouraging writers like Ibsen, Strindberg, Hamsun, and Jacobsen. (Brandes appears in A Fortunate Man under the guise of the aesthetician Dr. Nathan.) And while Denmark’s defeat by Bismarck’s Prussian troops in the war of 1864 had instilled a pervasive sense of national humiliation, the feeling that a new and better age was dawning was shared by many. The expansion of the railways, the building of new industries, and the city’s growing working-class neighborhoods led Copenhagen’s population to more than double between 1864 and 1896.

A Fortunate Man tells the story of Per Sidenius, the descendant of a long line of austere clergymen, who revolts against the dogmatic piety of his family home and embarks on the young man’s familiar march on the metropolis, where he intends to seek fame and fortune as an engineer. His great ambition is to build a massive harbor project on Denmark’s west coast that will, he fervently believes, “transform Denmark into an industrial manufacturing power of the first order.” Neglecting his studies at the College of Engineering, Per spends his days and nights in his poky abode, reading up on hydraulics and turbines and making elaborate and detailed drawings.

But even stronger than his belief in the soundness of this project is Per’s belief in his own purpose. Strong and handsome, ambitious and self-absorbed, Per ruthlessly schemes and plots to overcome his poor, provincial origins and conquer the city’s elites: “He knew that his destiny lay far beyond the realm of everyday concerns and mediocrity. He felt the blood of one who was born to rule coursing through his veins and nothing but a place at life’s top table, in the company of the world’s highest freeborn men, was good enough for him.”

A Fortunate Man breathes the excited, tempestuous air of its time, but it often feels strikingly modern. What is Per if not an ancestor of the Silicon Valley positivists of our time? His zealous belief in man’s ability to master nature is hardly distinct from the conviction, common enough among tech gurus today, that mortality is a disease with a cure like any other. And just as our contemporary tech-utopianism is a kind of ersatz religion, so Per’s ambitions are often couched in a language with a distinct theological hangover. Walking through Copenhagen’s streets early one morning, for instance, Per hears the factory horns blowing and stops to listen to them “with the air of a worshipper being called to prayer”:

At first there was just a couple of blasts coming from the direction of Nørrebro, then one started in the docks at Christianshavn; eventually the sound was coming from everywhere—a cock crowing with a thousand voices, an Evangelium for a new age, which one day would drive away all the dark forces of spookery and superstition—never to return!

Per Sidenius’s engineering ambitions are inextricable from his desire to rid himself of the poison of his religious past, and he can sometimes resemble Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who said that “man is something that must be overcome.” (Indeed, Per’s youthful battle cry is, “I will! Therefore it is done.”) Believing man to be “the master of the earth and absolute ruler,” he views Christianity as an unnatural inversion: “a grotesque kingdom of humpbacked underground trolls who shunned the bright light of life, where the poor were counted as blessed, the meek exalted and death was the only glorious salvation—an upside down land where small things were deemed to be big and the crooked declared to be straight.” For Per, the Christian concepts of guilt, pity, and compassion are little more than a hoax designed to prevent man from reaching his full potential.

Like Jens Peter Jacobsen’s influential novel Niels Lyhne (1880), which Pontoppidan would have read, A Fortunate Man is often intensely atheistic, and testifies to the oppressive influence of Christian fundamentalism on Danish society. Pontoppidan read Nietzsche while at work on the novel and was surely inspired by the German philosopher’s assault both on Christianity and the cult of rationalism. One of the novel’s more memorable characters is the heretical pastor Fjaltring, whose medieval contempt for the liberalizing movement within Christianity is articulated in wonderful, rather belligerent monologues. Like Nietzsche, Fjaltring finds it difficult to reconcile the Old and the New Testaments, and even suggests that one is the travesty of the other. And like that other great religious scold, Søren Kierkegaard, he warns of the difficult passion true faith requires: “But if the man called Jesus was not the son of God, who then can guarantee that Our Lord did not in fact place him amongst us, and allow him to be tortured and suffer an ignominious death, so as to serve as a terrifying example of what true faith requires?”

It is a great credit to Pontoppidan’s imaginative sympathy, though, that his depiction of religious conflict includes the Christian worldview but also that of a minority often targeted by Christians. As strange as it may sound, one of the few vibrant and complex portrayals of Jewish life in the nineteenth-century European novel happens to have been written by this son of a provincial Danish pastor.

When Per’s ambitions are obstructed by his professors and other high-ranking engineers, all of whom dismiss the harbor project as a naïve and youthful fantasy, he finds an ally and supporter in Ivan Salomon, the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant family. It is Ivan who gives Per his nickname—“Hr. Lucky Per! The Fortunate Man personified indeed”—and who grants him entry into the Salomon household and the wider world of Copenhagen’s Jewish bourgeoisie.

More importantly, it is through Ivan that Per meets Jakobe, one of the Salomon daughters, and the novel’s sometime co-protagonist. Though less conventionally attractive than her flirtatious sister Nanny, Jakobe possesses a commanding intellect: she is prodigiously well read, widely traveled, and firmly independent. She is also, from a young age, painfully conscious of the degradation and injustice that Jews encounter everywhere from their Christian neighbors across Europe. In a striking passage, she recalls seeing on a trip to Germany a group of Jewish refugees at Berlin’s main railway station, outcasts fleeing the pogroms in Russia:

All summer long, she had been reading newspaper reports about these legions of refugees and the shameful acts which the mob had visited upon them—either to the indifference of the authorities or even with their outright collusion. The newspapers described how Jewish homes had been set alight with the families still inside; Jewish families had been robbed down to the very clothes they stood in; their women had been violated and abused; old Jews and children alike had been stoned to the point where gutters ran with blood.

The experience in Berlin, and the casual bigotry she finds wherever she goes, incites Jakobe’s hatred of Christianity, which she regards as little more than “a pitiless executioner of her kinsfolk.” In a wonderfully blasphemous letter to Per, Jakobe writes that she would only ever consider a rapprochement with Christian beliefs on the condition that the Church admits its guilt: “The Church must beg forgiveness for its sins. On its knees willing to suffer for the truth—the truth it has suppressed—for injustice, which it has blinded.”

Generations of readers have celebrated Pontoppidan’s moving portrayal of Jakobe, and it is not hard to see why. (I doubt many male novelists have deigned to write about their female characters’s menstrual cycles: “Her natural functions had always been characterized by a marked irregularity.”) Jakobe is the ideal foil for Per, to whom she is eventually (but only briefly) engaged. The vicissitudes of their difficult relationship provide the novel with some of its most memorable scenes: Per showing off his physical prowess by outrunning a horse carriage at the Salomon’s country home, much to the dismay of his future in-laws; or the touchingly intimate days Jakobe and Per spend together hiking in the Alps, days that are like “a new baptism” for Per, who in his excitable, devil-may-care state fires a revolver at a wooden crucifix: “Here’s a shot to herald the dawn of a new century!”

Jakobe’s independence and quiet dignity provide a respite from Per’s coarse manners and sense of entitlement, and the suspicion sometimes arises that she is the novel’s true conscience, its better self. Even as their engagement is broken the narrative seems to expand rather than diverge; it is as if Pontoppidan was so affected by his own creation that, unlike Per, he could not bear to be without Jakobe, whom we never entirely lose sight of.

Still, it is Per Sidenius and his conflicted, beleaguered soul that Pontoppidan plumbs. A proper Bildungsroman, the novel parades its hero through a variety of conflicting influences, from his dogmatic father to the progressive Dr. Nathan, the liberal-minded Pastor Blomberg, and the Nietzschean Fjaltring. Per senses early on a division within himself, an inability, as he puts it, “to be reconciled to a specifically defined life philosophy.” He undergoes a series of moral and religious crises throughout the novel, and even at one point rekindles his interrupted faith and marries the daughter of a provincial pastor, settling down far from the crowded Copenhagen of his youth. But even this quiet life in the country cannot calm Per’s restless soul:

As sure as day followed night, and then night came again; and just as if all life on earth was born out of this dialectic between the dark and the light, so too was religious life conditioned by this inexorable paradox that, with its conflicting forces, ensured that the soul was in constant flux. A Christian faith that was not continually renewed by doubt was a lifeless thing – nothing more than a broom handle, a crutch which might help a soul to forget its lameness for a while, but could never be a life-affirming construct.

A more didactic novelist might have viewed Per’s retreat as an opportunity to condemn modern society, with its teeming masses and blind, mechanical advances. Pontoppidan was indeed ambivalent about the triumph of modernity over tradition; as a young man, he had become known for his social-realist sketches of the plight of Denmark’s rural poor. But Pontoppidan neither reproves nor moralizes; like Chekhov, he knew the novelist’s duty was not to offer solutions but simply to ask the right questions. Per’s disillusionment with modern society is thus permitted to coexist with Jakobe’s cosmopolitanism. Late in the novel, Jakobe has again traveled to Berlin to visit a childhood friend, and there feels “like someone who had come home to her own kingdom.” She entertains no illusions about the perils of the modern metropolis, the dangers and risks associated with living in such dirty, crowded spaces, and yet she finds in it a beauty also:

A huge city containing millions like this possessed something of the magic of the ocean. There was something of the siren call of the rolling waves in this murderous existence, in this wild tumult, this incessant ascending and descending, which right to the moment of extinction continued to hold out the promise of new and limitless opportunities.

Pontoppidan is always of two minds about things, and it is for this reason that A Fortunate Man, while being one of the great novels about modernity, never once buckles under the weight of the ideas and currents it depicts. Pontoppidan is repeatedly drawn out into the abundance, the noisy pluralism of life, even as his hero travels deeper and deeper into the small privacy of his own being. The narrative’s spaciousness, Pontoppidan’s humane breadth and tolerance, remains deeply affecting throughout. As Thomas Mann put it in his birthday letter:

As a genuine conservative, [Pontoppidan] maintains the novel’s grand style in a breathless age. As a genuine revolutionary, he sees in prose above all a scrutinizing power. With that charming, indeed captivating, stringency which is the secret of all art, he judges the times and then, as a true poet, points us towards a purer, more honorable way of being human.

A Fortunate Man, by Henrik Pontoppidan, translated by Paul Larkin, is published by Museum Tusculanum Press and distributed by the University of Chicago Press.



Why everybody should read ‘A Fortunate Man’

Very occasionally in your life, you will experience a moment where your efforts in a particular discipline all meld together into a sense of great harmony. That something you did was exactly as you wanted it and had worked for. It doesn’t matter whether you excel at knitting, crown green bowling, flower growing, bird watching, darts or painting. They are all forms of play, of fun and enjoyment, the basis of all art; but also represent years of practice, dedication, grim determination even, in the face of past failures in your chosen calling.

Just one of those moments when everything goes right; all your abilities and interests, your passions, coalesce to create something unique.

My translation of A Fortunate Man – called Lykke Per in the original Danish – by one of Denmark’s best ever authors, Henrik Pontoppidan, is one such moment for me. Of course, I got crucial help from others when translating, writing and imagining this book into existence. It’s a huge story with a large cast of characters. It was also written in what’s now regarded as ‘old fashioned’ Danish and depicts a time when horses or shanks’s pony (your legs) were the main means of transport and people still differentiated between formal and informal modes of address (De and Du in Danish), with professional titles also used – Hr Engineer, Pastor, Doctor and so on. Thus I consulted experts in various fields and in particular the sagacious Flemming Behrendt from the Pontoppidan Society who also wrote the afterword to my book. Then at the other end of the process was my brilliant editor at Tusculanum Press, Jordy Findanis. But overall A Fortunate Man is my creation with the original author in the Danish – blessed Henrik Pontoppidan – at my shoulder.

I’m not going to explain all the many reasons why this translation is such a success and don’t want to say very much about this heartrending but paradoxically uplifting tale. I urge you all dear readers to simply get the book and be astonished. Once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down.

I do, however, want to make a point about the scandal of needless poverty and its echoes in A Fortunate Man – indeed very many of Pontoppidan’s works – and how this teaches us something about language and therefore translation. But to get to that point, I need to describe, very briefly, the way I approach translations.

The late and much lamented artist, writer and thinker John Berger is a moral, political and artistic lodestone for me and I want you to hear what he told us in his last book, Confabulations, about the art of translation. It was a Eureka moment for me. But I wasn’t discovering something new in what John says; rather I was confirmed and uplifted in what I already knew. This too is a form of astonishment. To be confirmed by others in your convictions.

Essentially John Berger rejects the idea that human language is exclusively verbal and textual. He describes the key to “true” translations of literary works as being in the discovery of – “what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written.” What we must discover is the atmosphere, the inner drama, the motivations and context of the original author as he or she brought their texts to life. The key thing is that, beyond the different individual languages, is a meta-language that we immediately know. The linguistic Mother of all Mothers. No language is entirely separate. We all know symbols and signs, gesticulations, feelings in the air, a space charged with a particular colour.

There is a wonderful scene at the start of A Fortunate Man where our young hero, Per Sidenius, is tobogganing, or ‘sledging’ as the old term is in England, on a snow-swept hillside above a provincial town. There is deep snow, twinkling stars, a racing moon and silvery ethereal clouds. The atmosphere is heightened further by the fact that the young Per shouldn’t be there at all and his absence from home has been discovered.

As he does in the whole of this novel, Henrik Pontoppidan puts his heart and soul into the depiction of this scene, but the words on the page are just the tip of that vibrant, “quivering’” – as John Berger puts it – pre-verbal entity that I wanted to bring into my text of the same scene. How to conjure that excitement. The thrill. The audacity. Then the rooftops and the red street lamps in the snow-clad town below. The feel of them.  A dictionary cannot help me in that imaginative leap. Listen to John:

We read and reread the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them, to reach, to touch the vision or experience which prompted them. We then gather up what we have found there and take this quivering almost wordless ‘thing’ and place it behind the language into which it needs to be translated. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the ‘thing’ which is waiting to be articulated.

Yes, language is a logical, physical thing, but it’s also visceral, metaphorical and a dream state. So a word or many words might occur to the translator once he is in that pre-verbal place. They may not be exact translations but they release the exact vision of the scene in the new language.

Charlie Chaplin

Elsewhere in Confabulations John Berger writes about Charlie Chaplin and two things strike me very forcibly here. One is that Chaplin’s performances were pre-verbal – all depended on body language and the reactions of others to it and then the scene in which the event was staged. Yes we laugh at his slapstick and it’s obvious, but then we feel the pathos, just by a raised eyebrow or the start of his walk down a long road. This is discourse without words and we all ‘get’ it.

Henrik Pontoppidan spends a lot of time in this sort of discursive space. He will describe a physiognomy, or bodily features and body language, at length, so we are left feeling that visceral intensity of understanding that lies behind a mere description. It may be tragic, or comic, or suddenly profound and uplifting. This is exactly what Charlie Chaplin does. Also, Chaplin showed the scandal of poverty and the dignity of poor people in making it through. Even finding time to create art in that pressed space. In the same way, John Berger shows us the lives of rural peasants and the way they become washed up amongst the urban poor. All this is more about empathy and emotion than words.

In relative terms, the fact that Henrik Pontoppidan placed a great deal of his literary focus on poverty has attracted little attention, as far as I know, but this was indeed a central theme in his work, and not just in his early social-realist period, which is where this is most discussed. Poverty features very strongly in A Fortunate Man, as part of Pontoppidan’s – I would argue – overarching ‘folkelighed’; his embrace of the common people. Pontoppidan’s descriptions of poverty, the desperate need for money, and its baleful effects on the soul, are equal to anything that Dostoevsky wrote.

By a happy set of coincidences, in 1906 Pontoppidan made this commitment to ‘ordinary’ folk culture clear to his literary comrade Martin Andersen Nexø, the author of Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobereren in Danish). Nexø’s book was made world famous by the Danish director Bille August who made the 1987 film version starring Max von Sydow. The happy coincidence comes not just in the fact that Pontoppidan and Nexø were literary, social brothers in arms – Nexø dedicated his Pelle book to “the Master, Henrik Pontoppidan” – but by the fact that Pelle director Bille August and his son Anders August are now completing a film version of Lykke Per and, as with my book, the international English language version will be called A Fortunate Man.

You can see the first brilliant trailer for this film here – don’t worry if you don’t have Danish:

In correspondence with Nexø to thank him for his “Master” dedication, Pontoppidan says that they are as one in trying to create a literature that showed possible scenarios (I paraphrase) for “the art of living” – levekunsten in the Danish – which Pontoppidan describes as the “most difficult of all the arts”. A life-art, if you will, that was based on the lives of ordinary folk and not the finer points of elitist aesthetics. Again in his sweeping portrayals of the masses and their lives, and in his brilliance as a polyphonic writer, Pontoppidan bears equal comparison with Dostoevsky – especially in Dostoevsky works such as Demons and Crime and Punishment.

The sometimes biting burlesque of Chaplin, the emotion of a Dickens, the deep soul searching of Dostoevsky, the respect of the dignity inherent in manual labour as depicted by say Waldo Emerson or Jack London; the hot coals of love and lust and the shock-of-ice rejection thrown on that love – say in Thomas Hardy. Pontoppidan is all of these things. But he goes further and challenges both his characters’ and readers’ assumptions and dispositions; so that we feel we have to make an effort to decide what we believe and what is ‘true’ about these people and these events. We are there beyond mere words once again. In this ‘ironic’ approach to storytelling Pontoppidan is very close, of course, to Kierkegaard.

It is a quintessentially Scandinavian approach to art.

A Fortunate Man will begin appearing in shops at the end of this month (July 2018) but readers can order at a discount from the publishers – Tusculanum Press here:

I would also encourage my many readers to contact their favourite bookshop and request that the book be stocked as this encourages them to look beyond the ‘usual suspect’ list of authors and publishers.

There is an excellent, and very erudite, review of my translation by Rasmus Vangshardt – for those who can read Danish at least- in Kristeligt Dagblad. This article has the advantage of also explaining why this great novel never ‘broke through’ internationally, until now. It can be read here (but via a paywall I think):

This followed an article by Bjarne Nørum in the same newspaper that fruitfully highlights my view of the art of translation and the upcoming film referenced above – with the same paywall proviso.




@ Paul Larkin, Carraic, Dún na nGall

BBC Today presenter Nick Robinson loses his ‘impartial’ way amongst my non-existent tattoos and “broad” accent.


The ‘impartial’ Nick Robinson


In the late 1980s, during my time as a BBC Production Trainee in Manchester, I worked with the well-known BBC journalist Nick Robinson.  He is now a presenter on the ‘Today’ radio programme.  Nick and I worked together in as much that we worked for the same TV programme Brass Tacks, attended production meetings together and shared the same set of offices.

In a recent inaugural lecture in memory of my late and much lamented former Brass Tacks producer, Steve Hewlett, Nick Robinson describes me in the following way:

“Our team included a former merchant seaman with a broad Scouse accent and arms covered in tattoos. I have worked with few like him in TV since.”

The full text of Nick Robinson’s lecture can be read here:

Anyone who has ever taken the slightest genuine interest in me discovers immediately that I am from Manchester. Not Liverpool (where Scousers and the ‘Scouse’ accent comes from). In fact, I was born in Salford, which Manchester is near, as my dear, fellow Salfordian Tony Wilson always so beautifully put it. Moreover, anyone who knows about the North West of England, as Nick Robinson claims to do in his lecture, would never commit the Cardinal Sin of confusing a Manc such as me with a Scouser. The reverse is of course also the case.

Now we come to my arms.

Thankfully, I have the same arms now  as I did in the late 1980s when I was at BBC Manchester. I have one tattoo on my arms and one tattoo only. This tattoo is located on my upper right arm, but I have never been in the habit of flaunting it as is the mode these days. In other words, my arms are not and never have been “covered in tattoos”.

Finally, and most important to me, I have a name. Nick Robinson is not interested in my name, so did not do the usual journalist routine of ringing or mailing a mutual colleague to jog his memory as to my identity before writing his nonsense about me. Nor does he seem to remember that the subject of his lecture, Steve Hewlett, and your author made a hard hitting film for Brass Tacks about injuries to young Irishmen on building sites in London.

Where did Nick Robinson get this caricature image of me, which has clearly remained in his mind for several decades? It is of course a posh boy’s stereotype of a working class man who managed to make it through the centuries’ thick cultural wall that separates ‘ordinary’ people from media elite like him. If Nick Robinson had bothered to ask about me rather than regaling his audience with a tale about a  ‘freak’ (my term and emphasis) the likes of which, as he says himself, he has rarely seen before or since, he would have found out that in my Brass Tacks days I was just as well known as the expert linguist I am as for my previous life in the Danish merchant navy, and also that I won the European Journalist of the Year award in 2007.

For Nick Robinson I was just a chance to conjure a sloppy and inaccurate picture in order, ironically and tellingly, to highlight the fact that there are just not enough of us rough types around in the media; though he does caution against the idea of employment quotas for our type.

The overall subjects of Nick Robinson’s lecture were impartiality and how the Fourth Estate can make the media more diverse and relevant to the masses in this age of media fragmentation.

Nick Robinson is clearly blind to where the real problem lies; blind also, in this instance at least, to the need for the kind of care and accuracy he urges in his Steve Hewlett lecture.



@Paul Larkin – Monday 2 October 2017, Donegal, Ireland


Update to the above article.

Nick Robinson has been gracious enough to apologise to me via twitter for mistakes he ascribes to a hazy memory.:

“Paul, My apologies for the hazy memory & for failing to find you. I did ask around former colleagues but clearly should have tried harder”

It’s never easy to apologise and admit mistakes, so we must applaud Nick for that and I have expressed my gratitude to him. The problems regarding class bias in the media however will, I fear, remain with us until the social profile type of journalists is changed way beyond its present recognition.


Month’s Mind for my late Captain Svend Poulsen – the importance of ‘mind’

Kaptajn Svend Poulsen – 11th of April 1929 – 8th July 2017

The tradition of ‘Month’s Mind’ – a special commemorative day for a deceased loved one that is held around a month after his or her death – is in all faiths and traditions, regardless of how that is arranged and expressed. The Month’s Mind tradition is still very strong in Ireland and, of course, the Celtic use of the word ‘mind’ as a verb is to ‘remember’. Do you mind that day when he was here?  If I mind correctly, it was last autumn when the tree fell, and so on. Memory is the basis of all culture.

The word ‘mind’ is essentially Germanic in origin and, interestingly, in Old Norse we find that ‘mind’ as minna and then the related mynd can be both a remembrance and also an image. Modern Icelandic ‘hug-mynd’ meanwhile is a thought or perception. We mind and we image and we imagine, and this, my Months Mind for my dear, recently deceased sea captain Svend Poulsen, is an important way of helping me bring my thoughts memories and images about him together. To help me create. To help me ‘mind’. It also tells me once again that no matter how much, justifiable, anger we feel at religious institutions and their collapse into imperious moralism and too often evil abuse, we mustn’t throw away the traditions they have carried for centuries in our cultures.  Our rituals and myths are there to help us to remember not to forget. Memory is the basis of all culture.

‘MS Skaga Sif’ in Spain with timber from Russia – the author bending over her gunwale under the watchful eye of a boatswain in the foreground who’s stowing a pilot ladder.

Most of you will already have noticed that it’s more than a month since my Captain died but I wrote much of this essay just after his cremation service in Salford and then work, in the form of a book deadline, has delayed me until now. Captain Poulsen will forgive me for allowing work to take precedence; for he always stressed the value and dignity of work. He was at heart a worker. Despite his exalted position as a Ship’s Captain, he was really just an extraordinary ordinary man who chose to live amongst the people. That was the way we met. His wife lived in Salford and that’s where he chose to live. Salford of all places. Grimy, already post-industrial, Thatcher ravaged Salford. The allegedly feral Salford. My home town. He could have chosen anywhere in the world to live and most sea captains do. By a beach, usually, on their retirement. A living death scenario for my Captain.

The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic – a novel

I’ve written a novel that’s based on my time at sea. It is, or more accurately ‘became’, fiction, but Svend Poulsen features more or less as himself. The key story is a young man’s voyage of self and cultural discovery and is obviously partly based on my own life, but by far the majority of events in the book are fiction. There is strong truth in good fiction. It is an incredible process when the characters you mind as you write a book suddenly begin doing things you weren’t expecting, or show sides you didn’t know about, but they are nonetheless true – for that character and for that life in that book. Creating true metaphysical lives is an astonishing human gift.

The book doesn’t romanticise. Life at sea can be harsh, as is shown. Inevitable tensions arise when people must live cheek by jowl with each other for long periods of time. And you can’t just walk off a boat in the middle of the ocean. But deep cultural symbols and memories emerge. The Danish crew’s love of good food. The seriousness also with which most Danes takes democracy. I mind (create) conversations my shipmates were having – about poverty in England and the reasons for it. The way they left things aside for that boy. Suddenly found things they didn’t need. Work gear the boy didn’t have. Even the right wing or cussed ones had constant flashes of Grace. Liked the boy also because he loved to work.

Of course, I’ve written the novel after studying Old Norse, Scandinavian and other languages for many years. I learned Danish almost as a child does. So came the knowledge that the Scandinavians have this precious thing called serious discourse in their culture. That they are highly individual and have a deep sense of personal right. That a person also has a right to be awkward. That there must be space for Loki as well as Thor. The phrase Holmgang – a single combat duel over a legal dispute that is fought out on an islet or ‘holm’ – has gone into English. With ‘Holmgang’ in your culture, you need to know your law and be ready to be yourself to your very essence. And they help this boy find his true self back in Ireland from whence his ancestors had to flee. Truths that had been hidden from him, as is the immigrant way with their children.

I only sailed twice under Captain Poulsen but they were long trips. Once on ‘MS Inger Kansas’ from England to Portugal, the Canary Islands and then Africa, with an extended stay in Nigeria. A remarkable journey into the creeks of the Niger delta. And then a second tour under his command on ‘MS Skaga Sif’. On Skaga Sif we went from Sweden to White Sea ports around Archangel in Russia and then down to Morocco; on then into the Mediterranean and its captivating harbours. It’s far from it I was reared, but my Captain saw good things in me and knew I was able. He wanted me to continue my life at sea; was even willing to pay for me to go to the naval officer college in Denmark. But he and his crew had lifted me from the mire of a grim childhood and the only journey I could make was that of self-discovery, which is a journey into art. I know he was disappointed, but he freed the yearning salmon as freedom lovers do.

Svend Poulsen was always just himself. Happy in himself. Happy in his own self sufficiency as Kierkegaard put it. Happy in the knowledge he had not only been a quietly brilliant ship’s master, but had also helped other people. Happy amongst the people. He’s in Valhalla now and waits to steer the Gods in their longship. Away from Ragnarök on that fateful day. He was brave and forthright. A great mariner. Gladly faced into storms with a glint in his eye. An impish grin, even. He was both Thor and Loki. The essence of a Dane.

Farvel så længe, Kaptajn. Vi ses nok igen, engang.



@Paul Larkin , An Charraig, Gaoth Dobhair

Mí Meán Fómhair 2017

The infallible full-beam empathy test

Why Astonishment Rocks?

Well, in my interesting life experience I’ve found that professional types, usually middle or upper class, or ‘aspiring’ people, have a tendency to be cynical about people and life. Their sense of wonder and awe at life – and also their basic empathy? – is somehow blunted. This is not for a moment to denigrate professionals such as media commentators, psychotherapists or academics  as human beings. I’m talking about social tendencies here not the sacred dignity of any person. And everyone of us is capable of change.

More on empathy very shortly.

In this new blogsite, I intend to look at astonishment and wonder and lots of other related questions in some hopefully interesting detail.

I grew up in a Salford slum and very few of the people I know or care about, or am interested in, lack a facility for astonishment and wonder, no matter how hard their life has been. Being always quite bright and inquisitive, I’ve long puzzled how so called ordinary people could retain at least an element of wide eyed innocence and delight at the world, yet professionals and experts often look at that same world with a baleful, suspicious or weary eye. It should be the other way round, surely?

A number of brilliant thinkers and artists have pondered this problem of cynicism, or the related idea of a general scepticism at life. Chief among them is the North American philosopher Stanley Cavell who influences me greatly. Writers like Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje also explore this theme in great depth – the general pervasiveness of scepticism and a lack of wonder and then those brave enough to believe in miracles and great feats of determination, or will, or dreams. They also give telling depictions of those who lack any empathy, or are cynical and mean, damaged in some way.

The brilliant North American novelist Marilynne Robinson has written persuasively on how sceptical experts now control social discourse:

“A central tenet of the modern world view is  that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires … [but] … certain well qualified others do know them.”

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson

Ms Robinson, it seems to me, hits the professional nail on the head with this quote. We are told we don’t know our own minds anymore, but ‘experts’ do.

The problem is that perhaps apart from the late (very sadly lamented) John Berger, few of the good guys, the astonishers let’s call them, actually speak to ordinary people in an ordinary way and this is where I  can help. That at any rate is the basic aspiration of AstonishmentRocks.

In many of these short blogs I will try and tell a tale or record a short note about a particular issue.  So let’s start with empathy.

Empathy – our innate, untaught, ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

The infallible full-beam empathy test

If you drive a car at night, particularly in country areas, like where I live in Ireland, but also in most places, you will get this point immediately. Because every single one of you has dipped your headlights if they were on full beam and a car has approached from the other direction. The driver coming the other way has almost certainly done the same.

Why have you done this? You don’t know the opposite driver and he/she doesn’t know you. And  it’s not to avoid an accident, because this dipping or dimming procedure usually starts from a long way off.

It is simply a common courtesy and gesture. It doesn’t make us all saints in lots of other regards but it’s a sign of universal empathy nonetheless. A small miracle. The kind of little wonder we’ve stopped recognising.



@Paul Larkin, Carraic, Gaoth Dobhair, Mí an Mheithimh