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Great Dane

Niels Lyhne

by Jens Peter Jacobsen, translated by Tiina Nunnally, afterword by Eric O. Johannesson
Fjord Press, 217 pp., $19.95


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.1

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.”2 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 else.3

Born on April 7, 1847, in Thisted, Jutland, the eldest of five children in a merchant-class family with no cultural horizons, Jacobsen entered the University of Copenhagen in 1868 as a biology student. The imaginative writer in him, as well as the biologist, is already evident in his first published work, an article, “Darwin’s Theory” (1871), which appeared in a new periodical, Nyt dansk Maanedsskrift:

What he had to say was that all life on earth was like a gigantic garment weaving itself, where the trend and color of each thread presuppose those of another, and as time passed the texture became richer and lovelier.

Jacobsen’s social as well as biological Darwinism provoked discussion and dissension in Copenhagen. His replies, in which, Jensen tells us, he dealt with his opponents “in a sober and elegant fashion,” demonstrated an impressive command of the subject. On the strength of his article, Jacobsen was invited to translate The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man into Danish, a task he completed in 1874. Between 1870 and 1873 he published a series of popularizing pieces on the new biology, and his dissertation, a study of algae in Denmark written in French, Aperçus systematique et critique sur les Desmidiacées du Danemark, was awarded a prestigious gold medal in 1873.

Meanwhile, Jacobsen pursued his literary interests, writing poems—a selection of them, Hervert Sperring, was rejected by every publisher to whom he sent it—and founding a literary society, Agathon. When he showed his poems to Georg Brandes, the leader of a new literary movement dedicated to radicalism in politics and Realism in literature, this otherwise discerning critic was also dismissive, though some of them are now among the classics of Danish poetry. Later, the Brandes brothers, Edvard and Georg, became Jacobsen’s good friends.4

One of Jacobsen’s early letters lists his reading before he was twenty: in English, Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson; in German, all of Goethe, Schiller, Wieland, Heine, and the Nibelungenlied; in French, Sainte-Beuve and Taine; in Danish, Kierkegaard, Andersen, and the Bible; in Old Norse, Eddic and Skaldic, the Scandinavian mythologies; and, in whatever language, the Kalevala. Paul Kierkegaard, Soren’s nephew and, as a disciple of Feuerbach, in revolt against him, was a close friend whose influence on Jacobsen’s obsessive agnosticism seems evident.

Flaubert was a later discovery. As a daydreamer in conflict with reality, Marie Grubbe is a sister of Emma Bovary, the feckless, failed-lover Niels Lyhne a brother of Frédéric Moreau. But the voice of the author-narrator is a principal component in Jacobsen’s fiction, unlike Flaubert’s. It is probably Joyce, in characterizing George Moore as “struggling in the backwash of that tide which has advanced from Flaubert through Jakobsen [sic] to d’Annunzio,” who was the first to recognize the link to Flaubert.^5

During a vacation in Florence, while working on his Darwin translations, Jacobsen suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage. Back home, advanced, incurable tuberculosis was diagnosed, and he was given no more than two years to live; indeed, a medical report rejecting him from military service suggests that the disease had been detected four years earlier. Yet he continued to write for six years, and lived, too feeble to work, five years beyond that.

In spite of the pain and inanition of illness, Jacobsen’s world is neither confining nor moribund. From the beginning, however, it was pervaded by a preoccupation with death and disillusion with religion. In his first story, “Strangers,” unpublished in his lifetime, a man and a woman, social misfits, stigmatized by their lowly births, meet at a country fair where their apparel and manner of dancing, so different from that of the others, are ridiculed. They marry and live, virtually ostracized, in the moorland, away from the peasant village to which they go from time to time to earn a pittance, she by dancing at various gatherings, he by accompanying her on the clarinet.

Their lives are marked by tragedy and deprivation. When their only child dies, his mother blames God for the infant’s sufferings. When she dies from a disease herself, her husband plays the music that they both loved over her corpse, and when discovered doing so by outraged villagers is driven away. Both the theme of the story, the conflict of individual lives with convention, and the ironic narrative style are characteristic of Jacobsen’s later work.

Jacobsen’s first published fiction and his only long short story, Mogens (1872), was received in Copenhagen as the work of an original and appealing talent. A youth of about twenty, of independent means, Mogens lives alone as a forest warden in a remote, sparsely populated part of Zeeland, twelve miles from a town. In the woods one day, he is surprised by a young girl, Camilla, who comes upon him unexpectedly. She flees and hides in a thicket, but he catches a glimpse of her. A little later, when she accompanies her father, councilor of the district, on a visit to the warden, the two young people recognize each other. Mogens takes his guests rowing on a neighboring lake, and the councilor invites him to visit them in turn. That night, preparing for bed and thinking about Mogens’s talk, Camilla undresses “with affected slowness,” while Mogens asks himself “how a human being could be so wonderfully beautiful.”

As he approaches the councilor’s house on his visit, Mogens glimpses a red shawl as it disappears “behind the balcony windows…and the back of a still moving empty rocking-chair.” Embarrassed at having been caught out watching for him, Camilla appears in a “glaring blue shawl,” and greets him with “a faint welcome.” But Mogens’s visits become more and more frequent, and the pair become easier in each other’s company. Eventually they decide to marry.

There is an abrupt change of mood at this point, which disturbs us even though we realize that the euphoria and sweetness of the early part of the novella can only be ephemeral. The councilor is called away, and Camilla goes to stay in their house in town. One night a fire breaks out in a nearby factory and quickly spreads to the councilor’s house. Mogens, staying not far away and at the moment laughing over a passage in a novel by Smollett, runs to the scene, breaks in, and tries to save Camilla, but is in time only to see her burn to death. He goes wild with grief, and is found days later lying in the forest.

After a long recovery from “brain fever,” he begins to lead a dissolute life with a succession of loose women, one of whom he abandons brutally. “Everything was full of injustice and lies, the entire earth was a huge rotting lie,” and “love was the hollowest of all things.” He then meets Thora, after overhearing her sing during his nightly strolls past her house, and falls in love with her. They marry, but fearing a return of the person he was during his violent period, that “what had been surely still was there,” he does not, perhaps cannot, immediately consummate the marriage. And when at last he does, Jacobsen’s happy ending, his only one, seems as sentimental as a movie fadeout. Having been told almost nothing about Thora, we replace her with a vision of the deceased Camilla:

They went out together into the freshness of the morning. The sunlight was jubilant above the earth, the dew sparkled, flowers that had awakened early gleamed, a lark sang high up beneath the sky, swallows flew swiftly through the air. He and she walked across the green field toward the hill with the ripening rye; they followed the footpath which led over there. She went ahead very slowly and looked back over her shoulder toward him, and they talked and laughed. The further they descended the hill, the more the grain intervened. Soon they could no longer be seen.

The fairy tale opening, with its account of the innocent love of Mogens and Camilla, its descriptions of landscapes and the feelings expressed for the moods of nature, is the most successful part of the novella, and one passage, in which Jacobsen disassociates colors and forms as attributes of objects, has become celebrated, despite the early critic who said that the author’s pen “has the impossible ambition to be a brush”:

  1. 1

    See John Bergsagel’s “J.P. Jacobsen and Music” (in English), one of twelve studies collected in book form and published by the J.P. Jacobsen Society in Copenhagen on the centenary of the writer’s death.

  2. 2

    Niels Lyhne Jensen, Jens Peter Jacobsen (Twayne, 1980).

  3. 3

    J.P. Jacobsen, Samlede Vaerker, edited by Frederik Nielsen (Gyldendale, Copenhagen, 1972–1974). A three-volume edition, published by Lademan, appeared in Copenhagen in 1984.

  4. 4

    Letters from J.P. Jacobsen, foreword by Edvard Brandes. Republished in Copenhagen by Gyldendale in 1968.

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