Jens Peter Jacobsen - This highly influential late-19th century Danish novel portrays the melancholy life of an idealistic young poet.

Niels Lyhne

Jens Peter Jacobsen, Niels Lyhne, Trans. by Tiina Nunnally, Penguin Classics, 2006.
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Niels Lyhne is an aspiring poet, torn between romanticism and realism, faith and reason. Through his relationships with six women—including his young widowed aunt, a seductive free spirit, and his passionate cousin who marries his friend—his search for purpose becomes a yielding to disillusionment. One of Danish literature's greatest novels, with nods to Kierkegaard and a protagonist some critics have compared to Hamlet, Jacobsen's masterpiece has at its center a young man who faces the anguish of the human condition but cannot find comfort in the Christian faith. Tiina Nunnally's award-winning translation offers readers a chance to experience anew a writer deeply revered by Rilke, Ibsen, Mann, and Hesse.

Niels Lyhne is a life-story, particular to its time (it was first published in 1880) and place (Denmark). It is short, but not really hurried, and though it skips ahead in places, focussing only on specific times in Niels' life, it provides an ample, vivid picture of the boy and then the man he becomes.
       The novel does not begin with Niels, it begins with his mother, and while the opening words emphasise continuity and her being part of a long family line -- "She had the black shining eyes of the Blid family" -- Jacobsen also makes clear that she is not entirely a part of it:
     At seventeen she was quite different from her siblings, and her relationship with her parents was not a close one either.
       Apartness is a major theme in the novel: Niels, too, will only rarely belong, rarely have others who he can share his life with. Again and again he will find: "now he was alone, and he felt it as a loss, but also, a little later, as a relief."
       Niels' mother, though born into a practical family, loses herself in a world of imagination:
     She lived in poetry, she dreamed in poetry, and she believed in it more than almost anything else.
       Not surprisingly, she falls for the first guy who offers her a glimpse and sense of something beyond the plain life she's familiar with, "young Lyhne from Lønborggard". Unfortunately, while Lyhne is willing to play along with all these flights of fancy she expects as he courts her he eventually finds it exhausting -- "he couldn't stand all that poetry, he longed to plant his feet on the solid ground of daily life" -- and early in their marriage already they drift apart, finding that they are not, after all, kindred spirits. Their son, Niels, does bring them together to some extent, but certainly their marriage is no longer one with much passion left in it.
       Niels isn't completely torn between his parents' very different approaches to life; both have their appeal to him, and he will become both an artistic soul and a practical man. If anything, he's ultimately not sufficiently committed to any specific pursuit to find fulfillment. (Of course, even the artistic one in the family, distant cousin Erik who comes to live with the Lyhnes after his father's death and becomes Niels' closest childhood friend, winds up, after a promising beginning to his career, more or less squandering his talents, suggesting Jacobsen has his doubts about finding fulfillment in artistic creation, too.)
       Lyhne's sister, twenty-six at the time, comes to live with the family in Lønborggard because her health is suffering from the constant whir of social activity in Copenhagen. Here, again, is a character who finds herself out of place and out of her element (and, like a fish out of water, it proves to be more than she can ultimately bear). As throughout, Jacobsen pinpoints everything in a few sentences:
     There was no one here with whom she could talk, for they didn't grasp the nuances of her words, the very life of the words; they presumably understood them, since they were Danish words, but with the dull approximation with which you understand a foreign language that you're not used to hearing spoken.
       Her death is a particular shock to young Niels, and it is a shock to his faith. God let him down and Niels can't handle that, so: "he defied God and turned Him out of his heart."
       Niels Lyhne is a book of solitariness, and certainly part of Niels' own solitariness arises out of the fact that he becomes god-less. It will haunt him to the very end, and at deathbed after deathbed including, finally, his own. This aspect of the novel, of wrestling with the supposed emptiness that comes from living without a god, was certainly more significant to readers of the novel when it first appeared, but even now it resonates throughout the novel -- coming down with all its weight as the story comes to its conclusion.
       Practically everybody in Niels Lyhne dies. Two lost loves merely shut Niels out of their lives (one, predictably enough, overwhelmed by guilt after the death of her husband), but pretty much everyone else who is close to Niels sooner or later dies. Repeatedly, he's left alone, first after the death of his parents, then after the loss, one way or another, of the women he loves.
       If many of the characters seem doomed to being alone (or at least out of place), so too love seems to be a near-impossibility, built, at best, like that of Niels' parents, on temporary delusion (that can not last). From the tutor who is in love with Edele, Niels' doomed aunt, to Niels' own long affair with the woman referred to only as Mrs.Boye, to Erik and Niels' love of the woman Erik marries, as well as Niels own marriage there are no happy, romantic ends here. Niels is partly to blame for his situations, as when he tells Mrs.Boye:
     "Let's not dream," said Niels then with a sigh and let go of the chair in resignation.
       Mrs.Boye doesn't see it quite the same way:
     "Oh, yes," she said, almost pleadingly and looked at him innocently with big eyes drowning in sorrow
     Slowly she stood up.
     "No, no dreams," said Niels nervously, and put his arms around her waist.

        His parents came to represent two poles -- a life that wanted to devote itself to pure imagination, and a much more practical one -- and Niels is constantly torn as to how to act and, specifically, what to do with his life. He's seen too much to give in simply to his dreams, but too often:
He didn't know what to do with himself and his abilities. He did have talent, but he just couldn't use it; he went around feeling like a painter without hands. How he envied others, great and small, who, no matter where they reached in life, always found something to hold on to ! Because he could not find anything to hold on to. It seemed to him that all he could do was sing the old romantic songs over again, and everything that he had accomplished had been nothing more than this.
       (While not explicitly referred to here, the sense of emptiness that comes from his god-less ways is clearly yet another facet of this lack he feels.)
       Niels should perhaps have been prepared -- or perhaps it was this that ruined it for him --: as a child he overheard his aunt turn away his tutor, and her harsh words certainly have been defining in his life:
I am not offended by your love, Mr.Bigum, but I condemn it. You have done what so many others do. People close their eyes to real life, they don't want to hear the 'no' it shouts at their wishes, they want to forget the deep chasm it shows them between their longing and what they long for. They want to realize their dreams. But life doesn't take dreams into account, there is not a single obstacle that can be dreamed away from reality, and so in the end they lie there wailing at the chasm, which has not changed but is the same as it has always been.
       Ah, but those dreams tempt so !
       More than almost any book of those times, Niels Lyhne smashes Romanticism and Realism together -- and lets the pieces fall where they might. Niels is no lost-in-the-clouds Romantic hero, but neither can he fully embrace a simpler life, too formed by Romantic ideals and expectations. History allows him an out -- death as at least one type of tragic hero -- but it's far from the neat tragedy of poetry and (most) books.
       Niels Lyhne is a novel from a different time, but it's stood up well. Jacobsen shows both remarkable restraint -- he takes barely two hundred pages to relate this life-story -- and a penetrating touch, repeatedly getting to the crux without forcing the issues. It's good writing (as the quotes above should demonstrate), and it's good story-telling too, and it's a novel that lingers long after it has been read.
       Worthwhile. -

Jens Peter Jacobsen, Mogens and Other Stories, Trans. by Anna Grabow, Aeterna, 2011.
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Mogens and Other Stories is a collection of six tales by one of Denmark's most highly-regarded authors. The themes are steeped in Jacobsen's naturalistic psychology, which broke new ground in 19th-century Danish literature by suggesting that people are products of their biological drives and instincts. "Mogens" is a tale of love, loss, and recovery; "A Shot in the Fog" looks at the consequences of revenge; "A Plague in Bergamo" examines what we cling to when society collapses. The stories are beautifully wrought, capturing the natural world and human life in an almost poetical style. One of the hidden gems of European literature, Mogens and Other Stories will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.

Fjord first introduced English-speaking readers to the 19th-century Danish botanist-turned-poet in 1990 with a new translation of his classic novel Niels Lyhne. This sparkling new translation of six short stories is driven by lyrical descriptions of nature and strong third-person narratives. The sensibilities of Jacobsen's characters mirror the late 19th-century soul and the somewhat anachronistic stories are linked by a common thread of guilt, revenge and its consequences. Tragic circumstances surround love lost and found in the novella-length title tale; unrequited love turns a melancholic young man to revenge in "A Shot in the Fog"; and a murky river restores a stricken woman to health at a cost in "Two Worlds." The least successful narrative, "There Should Have Been Roses," nonetheless surprises because of its gender-bending conceit: a Roman villa sets the stage for two actresses playing male courtiers discussing women. Italy is also the setting for Jacobsen's tale of social order and its break down in "A Plague in Bergamo"; while Provence hosts the poignant "Fru Fonss," about a widow who meets her forbidden first love while traveling with her self-absorbed children. Readers should look forward to reading more of this splendid writer. - Publishers Weekly

Trained in science (he was Darwin's Danish translator), Denmark's great literary realist Jacobsen (1847-85) wrote two novels and the shorter works here newly translated before succumbing to tuberculosis. These stories have the translucence and perfection of Flaubert. Jacobsen manages to perfectly conjure the Danish countryside's beauty and the tenor of nineteenth-century Danish life while retaining his hold on older, darker strata of the imagination that contain the supernatural and the more violent passions. In the novella, "Mogens," the protagonist finds the love of his life in the forest during a rainstorm, loses her in a fire, nearly goes mad from grief, then, finally recovered, finds and marries someone else. This apparently mundane story is presented in prose so luminous and beautifully detailed as to resemble poetry. "A Shot in the Fog" examines the aftermath of jealousy in the person of the mediocre Henning, who, after his beloved marries another, passes off his murder of her husband as a hunting accident only to have his doom eventually catch up with him: he dies convinced he is pursued by demons. The entire collection consists of work of the highest order, wonderfully translated. John Shreffler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. - Booklist

Jens Peter Jacobsen, Marie Grubbe, Trans. by Hanna Astrup Larsen. Aegypan, 2007.           

According to JOHAN DE MYLIUS of the Danish Royal Library, Jens Peter Jacobsen was a "poet associated with the so-called 'modern breakthrough' in Danish literature in the 1870s. . . . Jacobsen's immediate importance was his status as the 'writer of his generation.' Jacobsen's breakthrough came already in 1876 with the historical and psychological novel "Fru Marie Grubbe,"" entitled "Marie Grubbe" in English, "which for the first time in Danish literature presented a profound portrayal of a woman as a creature of instinct and desire and as a being searching for her own identity. The book's defiant individualism asserting human values as opposed to society's judgment was also a sign of modernity."