|Gotta love that heroic mustache!
It's my spin title!
As my mom commented when she saw it, this is the most famous book you never heard of. It's a major classic of the late 19th century--for literary middle-Europeans interested in Romanticism and Naturalism. Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke considered it to be among the greatest of novels. Henrik Ibsen and Stefan Zweig cited Jacobsen as an influence. Both Zweig and James Joyce even wanted to learn Danish so they could read this novel in the original! But J. P. Jacobsen remained obscure in the English-speaking literary world, and Niels Lyhne was not translated into English until 1919, forty years after it was published in 1880.
Note that if you want to read this title, you should get the 1990 translation by Tiina Nunnally, now available in Penguin, not the 1919 translation.
This is the story of Niels' psychological development from a child to a man. As a child he lives in the country, and he has experiences that stamp him deeply and eventually convince him of atheism. He has friendships with other boys that mold him, and being of an artistic temperament, he eventually goes to the city, to study and produce some great work that he and his mother both know he is capable of. But instead, Niels seems to lose direction. He drifts into a romantic relationship, then travels for a while, and never really develops a clear goal or aim in life. Through the years (which I'm not going to tell you about, read the book), he drifts. It's sad.
Throughout Niels' life, he goes through traumatic experiences that convince his friends and lovers to give up the atheistic philosophy that he promulgates, but Niels himself clings to it to the end, which is portrayed as heroic conviction. (Indeed, I think it might be the only heroic thing about Niels' character
.) His life is marked with a series of tragedies, but he never changes his mind; I'm not sure that is actually all that good an idea, but it's the determined loyalty to a chosen philosophy in the face of all opposition that is shown as heroic.
Jacobsen was a Naturalist writer, the first in the Danish language, but he retained many traces of Romanticism, particularly in his poetry. You can see it in Niels Lyhne too; scenes are beautifully, meticulously rendered in poetic prose. There is not a whole lot of action. This is all about Niels' inner life. I said when it came up on my spin that I had a feeling Niels Lyhne was something like The Sorrows of Young Werther, and I was not entirely mistaken. This is an heir of Werther, I think, but a hundred years later.
Once upon a time I read Niels Lyhne in Danish (so there, James Joyce), and I still have my copy. I would quite like to give it a try again.
I should note that the pronunciation of Lyhne may befuddle you. The y is a tight 'u' sound, like the German ü. Pronounce it like lune as you would if you said Au Clair de la Lune, but place your tongue higher up toward the roof of your mouth to tighten it up a little bit. Danish is notorious for being mainly vowels--consonants are often silent or de-emphasized. I looked up a pronunciation guide and was tickled to see it say that: As one of the three major Scandinavian languages, Danish is closely related to Swedish and Norwegian but merits special treatment due to a few important differences in pronunciation. It shares with these languages an almost pathological lack of direct correspondence between letters and sounds, so do the best you can. If it's any comfort, English is probably even harder to pronounce, for those who don't speak it.