The Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–1885) is little known in America, except among musical people, and largely through Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (1900–1911), a German-language setting of Jacobsen’s Gurresange ballad. Some concert audiences have also heard Jacobsen’s shorter poems in songs by his compatriot Carl Nielsen and by Frederick Delius, whose last opera, Fennimore and Gerda, was an adaptation of the two main episodes of Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne.
In contrast, Jacobsen’s high European reputation is essentially literary. “Niels Lyhne,” Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fliess in 1895, “has moved me more profoundly than any other reading of the last ten years; the last chapters I recognize as classic.” A professor of Scandinavian literature, Niels Lyhne (sic) Jensen, Jacobsen’s most acute and comprehensive critic in English, comes close to explaining Jacobsen’s attraction for Freud: “[Most] likely it is the deep tragic disillusionment of the novel that appealed to a man who did not regard happiness as inherent in the plan of creation while accepting that existence was hard to bear both for mankind and the individual.” Freud also may have been struck by the Oedipal relations between mother and son in Jacobsen’s story Fru Fönss. When the woman of the title tells her teen-age son of her intention to remarry he replies angrily:
Have you any idea of the things you make me think of? My mother loved by a strange man, my mother desired in the arms of another and holding him as hers. Nice thought for a son.
Ibsen, who had known Jacobsen in Rome, had a high opinion of Niels Lyhne, and echoes of it are heard in Ghosts and Rosmersholm. Strindberg based Miss Julie on Jacobsen’s novel Marie Grubbe and attempted to dramatize it. Hofmannsthal, Musil, Thomas Mann, and, above all, Joyce were admirers. Stefan Zweig described Jacobsen as “the poet of poets for a whole generation in Germany” and Niels Lyhne as its Werther, while Herman Hesse thought of Jacobsen as the “completely modern writer.” But it is Rilke who best expresses the deeper reasons for Jacobsen’s fascination:
There is nothing [in Niels Lyhne] that does not seem to have been understood, grasped, experienced, and fully known in the tremulous after-ring of memory…the least incident unfolds like a destiny, and fate itself is like a wonderful wide web in which each thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand.
The excellent new translation of Niels Lyhne, which makes available in English for the first time since 1919 Jacobsen’s greatest fiction, is accompanied by the publisher’s note that Jacobsen “produced only a small body of work in his short lifetime.” What seems more remarkable is that, chronically ill with tuberculosis from the age of twenty-two, and dead at thirty-seven, he should have produced so much. Indeed, the six-volume Danish collected edition contains writings that would have assured him a niche in the history of science if he had published nothing …