“It was not a disheveled, meaningless rush of emotions and moods; love was like nature, eternally changing and eternally giving birth, and no mood died away, no feelings withered except to give life to the seedling they bore within, to something even more perfect… And the days fell new and glistening from heaven itself now, not dragging by as a matter of course, one after the other like the worn out pictures in a stereoscope: every one of them was a revelation, for on each day he found himself greater and stronger and more distinguished.”
–Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen, translated by Tiina Nunnally
I was lent this book long ago by a friend and have just gotten to it. It is always a delight to find some really enjoyable work of literature I have not yet read, and there is always a part of me that wants to save a book I know will be lovely for when I have run out of things to read. I did not intentionally save this book for this part of my life, and yet it came at an opportune time. It is a good book for your late twenties, as Catcher in the Rye is a good book for your late teens, although unlike Catcher in the Rye, I do not think Niels Lyhne would be annoying if read later.
In writing about Niels Lyhne, I find myself intimidated at the company I join; the recommendation quips on the back of the book are from an impressive list of authors. Rilke calls it “indispensable,” Freud says it made a “profound impression,” and Herman Hesse waxes poetic about Jacobsen waxing poetic. Jacobsen, who wrote Niels Lyhne in the late 1800’s, is widely read in his home country of Denmark, and is not unknown in Germany, but in the English speaking world he has been largely ignored, unjustly so. Stylistically Niels Lyhne reminded me of Madame Bovary, which I read last summer. Both are representative of a movement critics call “naturalism” or “realism” in literature, and were an aesthetic rebound from “romantic” works like gothic novels and medieval adventure stories. Both books spend a lot of time chronicling the inner lives of emotionally sensitive main characters, who find that what they’ve been led to expect from life by the fairy tales and popular novels of their childhood is not exactly accurate.
Niels Lyhne is a less cynical work overall than Madame Bovary, and one does not come away with the impression that the author was slightly disgusted by his characters. Indeed, even the supporting characters, some of whom are meant to be ridiculous, are described with what I can only call love by their author. Jacobsen was a botanist by profession, and was the first to translate the works of Darwin into Danish. His affection for the natural world, and our natural selves within it, his belief in the necessity and beauty of experience, is almost romantic of itself, and so he writes with more optimism and gentleness than his literary contemporaries.
On the plot, I will say this: it is predominately a coming-of-age-story. Niels, the title character, is a product of a union between a practical man from a romantic family and a romantic woman from a practical family. Identifying with both outlooks, he struggles to manifest a practicable worldview, adjusting his ideas constantly to incorporate new experiences, most of whom are women. Great care is taken with their characters, and even those he most idealizes are interesting, highly individual, and flawed. The beginning is taken a bit too slowly, and the ending is rushed, but the middle of the book finds a balance between action and description that pulls you forward with its own strange suspense.
This book is short, serious, utterly sincere, and lovely, full of small vivid details as it strains for tangible imagery to describe the landscape of the soul. The prevalence of introspection gives the reading experience a dreamy quality. Like all true literature, it needs to be read slowly. I found myself wishing I could read it in Danish, in the rain.
If you have been looking for a book with fjords in it, this one has quite a few.