The back cover of the paperback translation of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne (1880) has testimonials from Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, and Henrik Ibsen. Jacobsen is Danish, while four of those five fellows are German and Austrian. Jacobsen’s novel is itself quite Germanic, another descendant of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. The path of influence or transmission or simply translating and publishing, maybe that is all I mean, went from Scandinavian to German and back. Thus books that are obscure in English are well known in German. What percentage of the English-language readers of Niels Lyhne have come to it because Rilke, in the Letters to a Young Poet, writes about it so enthusiastically? Very close to one hundred, is my guess.
Lord, what nonsense Rilke writes. “[T]he more often you read it, the more everything seems to be contained within it, from life’s most imperceptible fragrances to the intense, full taste of its heaviest fruits.” Who can argue otherwise?
Niels Lyhne has just recently been described accurately by litlove when she invokes two of the blurbers:
Hesse, like Rilke, is one of those writers who seems to write about the things I am properly interested in. He writes about how to live, when you do not feel like you fit with the ‘normal’ run of humanity, when you are miserable in ways others say you should not be, or when you simply want to live a good life and do not know how that can be achieved. His characters are always searching for a cure for living, and the answers they come up with – art, love, transcendent wisdom, acceptance with humour – feel like they might just work.
Jacobsen’s novel is one of those, right in that tradition. Unfortunately for me, these are exactly the things I am not so interested in, because I do not really trust fiction to do them well, so I continually felt like I was reading the novel badly. There is, after all, really only one cure for living, and by the end of the novel the title character is healed (by a Prussian bullet).
And then finally he died the death – the difficult death. (205)
This is from the 1990 Tiina Nunnally translation. Whatever whining I might do about the novel, I always appreciated Nunnally’s struggle with it.
The novel is an episodic parents-to-deathbed story about a sensitive Danish Romantic who flounders about with his vocation (can he be a poet?) and with women. Sometimes the novel is comic, sometimes not so much; sometimes ironic, all too often sincere; sometimes sharply written, sometimes disastrously gooey.
He had never known the intensity and vastness of this kind of feeling before [Niels is having an affair with a married woman], and there were moments when he felt himself a titan, much more than a human being; he sensed such an inexhaustibility within him, such a wingspan of tenderness swelled from his heart, so wide was his vision, so enormously mild were his judgments. (166)
The whole page is like that. “They were currents in the great ocean of love, single reflections of its full light, splinters of love, just as meteors that race through the air are splinters of a planet, because that’s what love was” etc. and so on. Then two pages later begins one of the sharpest, most precise scenes in the book. It has been a while since I read a book with such wild swings in rhetorical mode, and in quality.
But perhaps the result is more aesthetically coherent than I realize. I will write about the book for another day or two, mostly the good parts, I hope.