Happiness generally makes people good, and Niels strove earnestly in every way to shape their lives so nobly, beautifully and usefully that there would never be a pause in the development of their souls toward the human ideal in which they both believed. (194)
My struggle with Niels Lyhne was with passages like this, the ones that directly challenged my usual, and useful, ironic mode of reading. In the same paragraph Niels looks at his old poems, and finds that “he would regularly get tears in his eyes over his own poems.” It seems cruel, yet necessary, to laugh at this, especially since a horrible tragedy strikes Niels two sentences later.
Jacobsen never gives us any of Niels’s poems. I have a theory that the especially gooey passages, the ones with the great wingspans of tenderness and oceans of love, are meant to be extractions from Niels’s awful, awful poems.
The structure of the book sees Niels encounter a woman, one chapter, one woman. Crushes, love affairs, his mother. Although the bulk of the book belongs to Niels, in every case there is a point where the perspective shifts to the woman, and in almost every case the woman’s perspective is in some way ironic. Early in the novel, for example, Niels spends too much time yearning after a widow. She becomes engaged, Niels (finally) makes a pass at her, perhaps with her encouragement, but the result is a fight and tears.
The widow is genuinely upset, but as she cries she watches herself cry in a mirror. (Are there flowers? Yes, “the variegated flowers of the sofa cushions”). She begins to imagine other endings to the fight. She begins to enjoy herself. “She was rather fond of scenes” (107). Poor, foolish Niels.
The women in Niels Lyhne are types, but at least with some variety. The great flaw in the novel is that Niels Lyhne is so flat. He is something of a Romantic Everyman and as such is never allowed to be too interesting. I have not yet mentioned his atheism, a major theme of the novel, but it does not help much with the personality. It is more of a position to argue. What is the opposite of a Bildungsroman? Niels never really develops much, part of the cost of the short novel’s birth-to-death scope and constant summarizing.
The best scene in the book is part of the long chapter that fills twenty percent of the novel, the account of an affair between Niels and Fennimore, who is married to Niels’s best friend. Again, the best part of the best scene is given to the woman. During a bleak winter night, Fennimore, alone, learns some terrible news. For six pages, she wanders around her house, miserable. “In black swarms, from every direction, the dark thoughts came flying like ravens, lured by the corpse of her happiness, and pecked at, beak after beak, while the warmth of life still lingered in it” (173). A new set of images are developed, as if this is a novella within the novel. The furniture turns sinister and Gothic. The portraits of the family that owns the house become:
all those strangers who had been witness to her fall and guilt, somnolent old men, prudish-mouthed matrons, and the eternal gnome child that they had everywhere, the girl with the big round eyes and the protruding, high-domed forehead. (174)
The “footstool with the black poodle on it,” a blatant reference to Goethe’s Faust, is also strange, but not as strange as the eternal gnome child.
Niels and Fennimore meet, fight, and separate. In this case each character’s “ending” is ironic, but the irony is the usual novelistic stuff, where the characters do not understand each other or even themselves, where they act for reasons other than what they believe. This, at least, I know how to read.