Morten Høi Jensen, A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen

Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter JacobsenA Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen by Morten Høi Jensen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to pick up this appealingly brief recent biography of Jacobsen after reading the 19th-century Danish author’s masterpiece, Niels Lyhne (1880). While Jacobsen is not well-known in the English-speaking world today—I came to him through Nella Larsen, though I must have been overlooking references to him in Joyce, Rilke, and Lukács for years—Jensen demonstrates his extensive influence, particularly on German-language literature, around the turn of the century. Jacobsen was lauded by figures as diverse as Rilke, Kafka, Freud, Mann, Joyce, Adorno, and Zora Neale Hurston. Stefan Zweig called Niels Lyhne “the Werther of our generation,” with its timely depiction of a young man’s life lived without the comfort or promise of the divine.

But with superb critical acuity, Morten Høi Jensen shows that the story of Jacobsen’s intellectual context and posthumous reception is more complex than his simply giving voice to atheism in the decades after Darwin. This biography is as much about the short-lived Jacobsen’s milieu in a modernizing Scandinavia as it is about the sadly circumscribed and uneventful life of the tubercular author.

Jensen takes us to a Copenhagen roiled in the 1860s and ’70s by an insurgent freethinking and liberal mentality. The trained botanist Jacobsen participated in this cultural transformation with his translations of Darwin, but Jensen also emphasizes the influence of other figures, most notably the commanding Georg Brandes, an atheist, liberal, and feminist who would become probably the most important European literary critic of his time.

While I came away from Jensen’s book wanting to read Brandes, Jacobsen also benefits from the contrast with such a persona. Surrounded by agitators like Brandes, Jacobsen comes in Jensen’s telling to seem an appealingly thoughtful, quiet figure, tough-minded but kind, long-suffering but non-complaining, lonely but generous, a man who demurred, and not only due to illness, from confrontation and conflict, from polemics and culture wars.

Jacobsen’s troubled diffidence, his accurate understanding that atheism raises problems rather than solving them, allowed his writing to be ahead of its time. The perceptiveness granted the writer by a retreat from social controversy is an urgently needed lesson in our time, when every poet and novelist is expected to indulge in phony and predictable political grandstanding every day on Twitter.

Nothing could have been further from [Jacobsen’s] nature than to mount the barricades on behalf of an abstract political cause—or any other cause, for that matter. Years later he would write to Edvard Brandes: “I am too aesthetic in a good and bad sense to be able to join in such direct procurator-speech-types of works, in which problems are supposedly debated but are actually just postulated as solved”—an almost direct rejoinder to Georg Brandes’s exhortation that contemporary literature ought to take social and political problems up for debate.

In Niels Lynhe, atheism demotes the human being from the center of creation. This clearly entails the end of utopian humanism, which the melioristic liberals and leftists of Jacobsen’s time did not understand; they failed to grasp that ideals like egalitarianism and progress silently presume monotheism’s assurance of human exceptionalism and equality before God.

Brandes, who started out translating Mill and ended up translating Nietzsche, exemplifies the growing awareness of what godlessness may cost, but the price of living without God is embodied narratively, rather than via abstract argument, in Jacobsen’s proto-modernist prose, with its sometimes challenging commitment to the sensations and perceptions of the chaotic inner life. This recognition of subjectivity—and of death’s inevitability and finality—may provide a surer basis for a humane society than fantasies of a world transformed by an activist mankind that has stepped into the now-vacant place of God.

Aside from these big ideas, Jensen is also good on more local and more literary matters. His portrait of Jacobsen’s small hometown, Thisted, and the confined life the author was forced to live there with kindly parents who did not quite comprehend him, is beautifully novelistic in its own right. And Jensen also demonstrates an impressive command—more than matching James Wood’s, who wrote this book’s introduction—of the main currents and movements in 19th-century European literature. Jensen lucidly explains the literary paradoxes raised by Jacobsen’s posthumous canonization, for instance: how is it that a Danish author mainly influenced by French and English literature came to have such an impact in Germany? Jensen places Jacobsen expertly among his peers: Flaubert, Turgenev, Zola, Rilke, Mann, Joyce.

I recommend A Difficult Death, then, both as a perceptive, well-researched, and clearly-written introduction to a time and place in European literature that has fallen out of familiarity in the Anglophone world and as an exemplary life for our time, a time when we could use more Jacobsens and fewer Brandeses.