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Review of Niels Lyhne-Jens Peter Jacobsen
Nothing was working in Niels’ life. Not for Lyhne, his father, whose wife made him feel ‘like a fish suffocating in hot air’, or his mother, Bartholine, who continued to live in her confused world of dreams and fantasy as her marriage ship sank.
Even the birth of Niels could not bring his parents together. As he grew up, Niels found his relationship with his mother to be painful. He discarded her confusing fairy tales of characters whose destinies she completely controlled, for a world that really existed. He preferred the simpler and more practical life of his father.
Then there was Niels’ infatuation with Edele Lyhne – a 26-year-old blond woman with a “violently curved backline”. It was this woman that 12-year-old Niels secretly loved and adored, leaving his young heart pounding with excitement every time he saw her.
Once again, another revered and divine figure in Niels’ life left him. Edele fell seriously ill and died, despite Niels’ sincere appeals to God ‘not to take her from us, because you know how much we love her, you can’t, you can’t.’ With Adele’s death, Niels’ faith also died. He saw her death as God’s violence directed at him. He always believed in the almighty God and believed that all his prayers would be answered.
But with Adele’s death, he believed that his faith had failed him and that prayer was no bulwark against grief. He knelt at the feet of God and left with broken hopes. It was God, in his young mind, who was uncaring and forever encouraging suffering towards humanity.
On the day Edele was buried, he kicked the ground in anger every time the Lord’s name was mentioned. He held a grudge against Him to the nurse for the rest of his life. For him, faith was no different from his mother’s fairy tales. He felt a feverish joy in the knowledge that, if he loved God less, he could now love himself more.
Even his friendship with the idealist Erika, whom he fell in love with since childhood, did not escape failure and shame. Eric was married to Fennimore in later years and longed for his friend’s company as his marriage failed. Nielsov, whose own life was haunted by failure, pain and self-pity, were no salvation for the couple’s problems – he was in love with both.
He began a passionate relationship with Fennimore behind his friend’s back. And the desperate Fennimore, whose married life was like a ‘bottomless pit of suffering’, briefly obliged him. Deception has become a way of life for the two lovers, with ‘clap stolen under the blankets and kisses at the entrances and behind the doors’. But cunning and cunning did not save this relationship from failure. Later, as she angrily dismissed Niels, Fennimore felt she had been tainted by the affair.
She rejected their love as a sin and a violation of inner moral justice. With this rejection, Niels’ boundless self-confidence and sense of honor were shaken. He, perhaps still a prisoner of his mother’s fantasy world, was struck by Fennimore’s cold and raw anger, believing that he was rescuing a woman’s soul from suffering and elevating it to happiness.
The question of faith and belief is undoubtedly central to the story, with the patriarchal God, in Niels’ eyes, the villain and the terrorist. He sees him as an evil God without ears and without mercy: the one who created humanity only to ‘drive death’. For Niels, there is no learning from failure or growth from adversity – but an unrelenting rage against a merciless deity. This is Peter Jacobsen’s ‘Divine Tragedy’, and it only features Purgatory.
Niels Lyhne, the central figure in the story. took up arms against God. because of a childhood tragedy. There is no hope, no inspiration, no abundance and no joy in his existence. For him, human life is a predictable journey towards ‘darkness, towards hell and damnation of the soul’. And he blames God for that.
As expected, the story does not have a happy ending. After years of wandering in his emotional desert, Niels meets and falls in love with Gerda – a very young girl. The young wife, ‘who relied on him with complete trust’, returned his love and they lived happily together for several years. A child was born from their union.
Then suddenly one morning Gerda fell ill. And as he had done with Edele Lynhe, Niels sat by her bedside and watched her slide slowly into the grave.
As if Gerda’s death was not enough, one day Niels, upon returning from the fields, found his boy seriously ill. No doctor was found to care for his dying son. In despair and rage, Niels raised a clenched fist to the sky menacingly, then fell to his knees in vain prayer to the God he despised.
With the death of his young wife and son, Niels drowns in melancholy again. Then the war started and Niels signed up – to be useful again. Then one day he was shot in the chest – a final and cruel end to a miserable life. One wonders if going to war was out of a sense of honor or a deliberate act of suicide.
I asked Niels Lyhne while reading the book: ‘How can I describe you? That he is an atheist is not in question. Was he also an unrepentant sadist? He does not differentiate between married and single, boys and girls or children and adults. Was he the ultimate nihilist whose unfaithfulness wreaks havoc not only on those he loves but on himself?
It’s hard not to like Niels’ character. He loves, and despairs, with great intensity. It’s also impossible not to feel sorry for him. Even the women who fall in love with him seem to do so out of pity. It’s as if they can see a suffering victim desperately searching for the meaning of life. It’s as if I can discern the anguish of his broken soul – one that has abandoned faith for skepticism and surrendered completely to pessimism.
Niels Lyhne is Jakobsen’s self-portrait, and the writer is at his literary best. Unfortunately, his greatest characters, their diverse constellation, manifest mostly tragedy. The only life and beauty in the story is mainly in the language, and in its marvelous and elaborate depiction of the richness of nature. It’s as if Jacobsen elevates the earth above the sky – with the angels banished and replaced by the abundance and beauty of nature.
Niels Lyhne is a supreme achievement. Although some may not be satisfied with its central theme, it is undoubtedly a rich work, written with particular elegance and dealing with a range of complex issues, forcing us to constantly observe and question the world in which we live.
Rilke, Rainer Maria, in his Letters to a Young Poet praises Jacobsen’s books – ‘But I can tell you that even later one goes through these books again and again with the same amazement and that they lose none of their wonderful power and surrender none of their fantastic with which they are overwhelmed at the first reading.’
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