Niels Lyhne’s father has died, and his mother is ill. Mother and son travel for her health. Here, I thought, Jens Peter Jacobsen will surely include some details. Please watch Jacobsen laugh at me:
In dreams and in poetry it had always somehow been on the other side of the lake; the mist of distance, full of presentiment, had veiled the turbulent throng of details and gathered the shapes in broad outlines into a completed whole, and the silence of distance had spread its festive mood over it, and it had been so easy to grasp in its beauty… (92-3)
Well, there is a lake, since the trip eventually ends in Switzerland (and not just anywhere, but at the setting of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse). You might wonder – I certainly did – what the antecedent of “it” might be. I believe that “it” is defined in a preceding paragraph as “the glory she had so sadly longed for,” but I cannot be sure.
So on the one hand there is the mode that veils the details in mists, but then there is the other side of Niels Lyhne:
… the blended smell of ordinary tobacco and earthen floors, of spices and rancid dried fish and wet homespun… a simple, bright garland stencil beneath the molding; there was a plaster rose in the middle of the ceiling, and the doors were ridged and had shiny brass handles in the shape of dolphins… blue agapanthus, blue pyramid bells, finely leaved myrtle, fiery-red verbena, and geraniums, colorful as butterflies... mirrors with flowers in white and bronze painted in the glass – rushes and lotuses floating on the smooth lake... (124-5)
The ellipses are mine, since this is from a two-page paragraph. I have omitted all of the furniture, some of it inlaid with mythological scenes. I had read that Jacobsen had influenced Thomas Mann, and here we see Niels Lyhne turn into Buddenbrooks – this is even the description of the house of a grain merchant! A young Mann must have gotten a good jolt when he found Jacobsen inventorying Mann’s own family home.
I don’t know what to do with the broad outlines, but I know what to do with those flowers. If I turn back to the trip with the mother, the vagueness about “it” is soon followed by a long, elaborate furnishing of Switzerland. White snowdrops, “the veined goblets of crocus blossoms,” yellow primroses, blue violets, “velvet-soft moss,” and cherry blossoms “which butterflies speckled with red and blue” (all of this from page 94). I haven’t named a third of the flowers. In the furnished room, there is the mirror painted with bronze flowers to resemble a lake; in Switzerland the lake is “red as a copper mirror” (95). The lake as a mirror is not so original, but combined with the later image something else is going on. The rebirth of love in the grain merchant’s house is linked back to the death, surrounded by flowers, of Niels’s mother.
Niels does not marry Fennimore but later meets her again and begins an affair. Could that later scene also be packed with flowers once I know what I am looking for?
She didn’t speak either; she lay there in silence with a heavy smile on her lips, pale as a flower. (159)
Now that the work has been done, Jacobsen does not even need real flowers to build links, although there are plenty of those, too, and also two kinds of moss, the ground moss “which almost looked like firs or palms or ostrich feathers” and the tree moss that looked “the way you might imagine the grain fields of the elves would look” (162). Just to make sure, Fennimore even reminds us of that furniture: “Do you remember the furniture at home?... How I love that furniture…” (157). Jacobsen is as directly as he possibly can instructing his reader to page back and reread the description of the furniture.
All of this – the structure, the colors, the metaphors – is first-rate writing. That moss is exquisite. What a strange, frustrating novel!