Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Niels Lyhne

At first glance Niels Lyhne, the nineteenth century Danish novel by Jens Peter Jacobsen, feels like a Scandinavian version of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Actually the book's blurb has a quote from the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig who calls "the Werther of our generation". The book's fan club has a very impressive membership actually. Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Henrik Ibsen all have some very nice things to say about it. The most moved of the lot is perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke who repeatedly mentions Jacobsen and his books including Niels Lyhne in his Letters to Young Poet.

Of all my books there are only a few that are indispensable to me. Two of them are constantly at my fingertips wherever I may be. They are here with me now: the Bible and the books of the great Danish writer, Jens Peter Jacobsen. ... If I were obliged to tell you who taught me to experience something of the essence of creativity, the depth of it and its enduring quality, there are only two names that I can name: that of Jacobsen, the very greatest of writers and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor. No one among all artists living today compares with them.

Actually it was in was in Rilke's book that I had first heard of Niels Lyhne. I had then forgotten about it until I found it mentioned again on the complete review blog. I don't want to make any remarks about Rilke but I felt his "Letters" were a bit simplistic and sentimental and his idea of "Poet" with a capital "P" a bit wearisome. I had the same feeling when I started this book but soon it won me over. The story is very loosely constructed. It is written as a conventional Bildungsroman, as a series of episodes in the life of Niels Lyhne charting the progressive growth of his disbelief and disillusionment with everything. Most of these episodes are about his relationship with women, all of them ending in failures and sadness. What makes it really worth reading are the parenthetical asides and also long monologues spoken by various characters on a variety of topics, romanticism, atheism, nature of creativity, life of an artist with its constant waiting for a moment of inspiration full of doubts and self-torture and most important of all, what it really means to live a life of the spirit in this world.

I will copy a few extracts from the book some other time. There are a lot of readily quotable passages in the book. A longer review here. I like the cover of the penguin edition very much. The featured painting is by Edvard Munch. It is called Melancholy.


antonia said...

it's been too long since i read it so i cant remember much of it, but i do remember i liked it. it was read by everyone at that time in early 20th century. Marie Grubbe by him is also nice. glad to see the book mentioned here, so unexpected.

Alok said...

Rilke mentions Marie Grubbe in his book too. I will see if I can find it anywhere. There are english translations but they are probably out of print.