My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This 1880 Danish novel was once immensely influential: it and its author were cited or praised by Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and Rainer Maria Rilke. That is reason enough to read it for those interested in literary history, but it is also a superb psychological portrait of a failed artist, written in a style marked by startling imagery and precise emotional analysis (as conveyed in Tiina Nunnally’s 1990 translation published by Penguin Classics).
There are a number of historical -isms under which we could categorize Niels Lyhne. In its ruthless portrayal of middle-class life as actually lived behind the mask of bourgeois respectability, it resembles the disillusioning realism of mid-to-late 19th-century writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, and Ibsen. In its emphasis on the frail body and biological processes leading toward death, coupled with its concluding atheist rhetoric, it is a work of naturalism akin to that of Hardy, Zola, or Crane. In its plotless evocation of often morbid psychological states and in its focus on the artist as martyr to an uncomprehending society, it is a quintessential proto-modenist psychological novel like those of Dostoevsky, Huysmans, or Hamsun.
Such attempts at narrow categorization, though, would miss the larger issue: Jacobsen’s novel reflects and hastens the collapse, across a whole range of domains from geology to psychology, of prior forms of order and faith. Jacobsen, who translated Darwin into Danish and who died young (in 1885) after a long struggle with tuberculosis, tells the story of a character who tries to live, to love, and to make art when all the ideals that empowered prior generations, from Christianity in religion to Romanticism in literature, have been discredited by the ongoing revelation that a human being is only another animal.
Niels Lyhne, in keeping with a Darwinian concern for genealogy, begins with the eponymous hero’s parentage: a passionately idealistic mother and a far more prosaic businessman-farmer of a father. These two parents pull young Niels in two different directions, neither of which will be able to appease his simultaneous need to understand and to transcend reality. The author, unlike the hero, gets to have it both ways, though: he gratifies his idealism by narrating his characters’ perceptions of natural beauty and aesthetic or erotic rapture, even as, in so doing, he also provides a precise scientific description of the psyche:
Of course this was not as clear and definite in [Niels’s] childish consciousness as words can express it, but it was all there, unfinished, unborn, in a vague and intangible fetal form. It was like the strange vegetation of the lake bottom, seen through milky ice. Break up the ice or pull what is dimly alive out into the light of words, and the same thing happens—what can now be seen and grasped is, in its clarity, no longer the obscurity that it was.
The novel follows Niels from his childhood to the premature end of his life; it is organized around his major relationships, mainly with a series of idealized women along with male friends who act as de-idealizing counterweights and, sometimes, erotic rivals.
While Jacobsen’s prose often consists of the abstract notation of psychological states, he is also a writer of memorably vivid and sensory erotic scenes that convey the overwhelming sensuality of even seemingly trivial moments, as here with Niels encounters his older cousin, Edele, who comes to stay with the family shortly before her untimely death from tuberculosis, the first of many such early deaths in the story:
“Give me that over there,” she said, pointing to a red bottle lying on a crumpled handkerchief by her feet.
Niels went over to it; he was beet-red, and as he bent over those matte-white, gently curving legs and those long, narrow feet that had something of a hand’s intelligence in their finely cradled contours, he felt quite faint; when, at the same moment, the tip of one foot curled downward with a sudden movement, he was just about to collapse.
Edele’s death brings Niels to his first rebellion against God, the cruel deity who took such a young and beautiful life:
He thought with the mind of the conquered, felt with the heart of the defeated, and he understood that if what wins is good, what surrenders is not necessarily bad; and so he took sides, said that his side was better, felt that it was greater, and called the victorious force tyrannical and violent.
His next major relationship is to his an older boy named Erik, another cousin, with whom he enjoys idyllic boyhood escapades that provide a later model of intelligent, realistic play rather than just dreaming fantasy. This relationship, precisely because it is devoid of the erotic as such, proves more satisfying, even if it does not end more happily, than Niels’s relationships with women:
Of all the emotional relationships in life, is there any more delicate, more noble, and more intense than a boy’s deep and yet so totally bashful love for another boy?
When the seemingly un-artistic Erik goes to Copenhagen to pursue sculpture, Niels follows and falls in with the urban demimonde, reflecting on the pleasures and sorrows of bohemia. There he has an abortive love affair with an older and more experienced widow, Fru Boye. Though described as child-like (all Niels’s love interests are both child-like and resemble his mother in their passionate iconoclasm—obviously a case for Jacobsen’s contemporary Freud), Fru Boye speaks eloquently against the lingering Romanticism of Niels’s artist friends. She upholds instead the earthly complexity of Shakespeare:
“[G]ood God, why can’t we be natural? Oh, I know full well that courage is what’s missing. Neither artists nor poets have the courage to to acknowledge human beings for what they are—but Shakespeare did.”
Sounding like one of Ibsen’s feminist heroines, Fru Boye is also the first to tell Niels that his idealization of women, in which we might have thought Jacobsen’s lyrical prose to be complicit, is oppressive and destructive:
“[T]hat adoration, in its fanaticism, is basically tyrannical. We are forced to fit into the man’s ideal. Like Cinderella, chop off a heel and snip off a toe! Whatever in us does not match up with his ideal image has to be banished, if not by subjugation then by indifference, by systematic neglect… I call that violence against our nature.”
After Niels’s affair with Fru Boye ends with her own withdrawal to the financial and social safety of bourgeois domesticity, Niels loses his beloved mother, whose impassioned pursuit of the ideal started it all. Fittingly, she dies amid the novel’s most visionary and redemptive writing, with an intermittent vision of nature as unity:
…for that was the time when yellow-lit evening mists hid the Jura Mountains, and the lake, red as a copper mirror with golden flames scalloped by the sun-red glow, seemed to merge with the radiance of the heavens into one vast, brilliant sea of infinity, then once in a great while it was as if her longing were silenced and her soul had found the land that it sought.
Then Niels and Erik both fall in love with the same woman, a seemingly guileless teenager named Fennimore. Her choice of Erik, her regret for that choice, and her consequent disastrous relationship with Niels brings the novel to its violent emotional climax, and with this climax we realize that every relationship in this narrative will end with either the death of a disappointed rebel or the chastened return of a disappointed rebel to the fold of normative society. Or both at once, as the novel’s conclusion proves: Niels at last seemingly finds happiness with another young woman. They marry, have a child, and together espouse atheism and humanism (“There is no God and the human being is His prophet,” Niels had earlier affirmed), so much so that it shocks their neighbors. Yet at the now-familiar approach of inexorable premature death, can doubt win out over faith? The answer varies by dying character, but Niels himself ends a lonely hero of integrity confronting death in fidelity to the anti-ideal that there is no God, no transcendence, no salvation.
That summation and those excerpts should indicate why the novel proved so influential. It is a very distinguished entrant in a line of novels running from Melville’s Pierre and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Mann’s Magic Mountain, novels in which the budding hero of the bildungsroman and the nascent artist of the künstlerroman fail to develop into good citizens or great artists, crushed as they are by a cruel society and an uncaring cosmos. Niels Lyhne had its greatest impact on American literature through its influence on the half-Danish Nella Larsen, whose great novella of the Harlem Renaissance, Quicksand, extends this doleful narrative pattern by applying it to a black woman rather than to a white man, showing that the existential dilemma may be the same, but that it manifests itself differently due to social circumstance and identity.
But we should not be as careless as the Twitterati sometimes are when, in unwitting imitation of the white supremacists they claim to fight, they fling around the word “white” so much that they efface variations and hierarchies within the non-unity that was and is Europe. What made Scandinavian, Russian, and Irish literature so potent and influential in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (like Latin American literature in the late 20th century) was precisely its coming from Europe’s periphery, from marginal or dominated nations able to look with a critical eye on both the provincial traditions they were struggling to transcend and the metropolitan modernity that often felt forced from above. Niels Lyhne participates in this modernist revolt from the European fringe, so it is no wonder the novel would inspire artists on the fringes of other polities or collectives.
Niels Lyhne is also admittedly flawed. As Jacobsen’s narrative method is mainly descriptive rather than dramatic, it often lacks tension, and its characters’ complexity tends to be abstractly asserted rather than vividly depicted. Georg Lukács, in his Theory of the Novel, faulted the book on these grounds. Lukács blames the hero’s alienation from society for the novel’s inability to portray reality in the round:
The precondition and the price of this immoderate elevation of the subject is, however, the abandonment of any claim to participate in the shaping of the outside world. […] Jacobsen’s novel of disillusionment, which expresses in wonderful lyrical images the author’s melancholy over a world ‘in which there’s so much that is senselessly exquisite’, breaks down and disintegrates completely; and the author’s attempt to find a desperate positiveness in Niels Lyhne’s heroic atheism, his courageous acceptance of his necessary loneliness, strikes us as an aid brought in from outside the actual work. This hero’s life which was meant to become a work of literature and instead is only a poor fragment, is actually transformed into a pile of débris by the form-giving process; the cruelty of disillusionment devalues the lyricism of the moods, but it cannot endow the characters and events with substance or with the gravity of existence. The novel remains a beautiful yet unreal mixture of voluptuousness and bitterness, sorrow and scorn, but not a unity; a series of images and aspects, but not a life totality.
Lukács’s judgment is not wrong exactly, but, with his characteristic Hegelian censure of the anti-social, he also misses the point, as he so often does when discussing naturalism and modernism. Niels Lyhne may not give us social reality in three dimensions, but it gives us what can be more rewarding to the individual reader: invaluable and eloquent testimony to the feelings of despair, loneliness, and nihilism that our disillusioning world so often provokes in us.