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9780940242654: Niels Lyhne (FJORD MODERN CLASSICS)
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Niels Lyhne is an aspiring poet, torn between romanticism and realism, faith and reason. Through his relationships with six women—including his young widowed aunt, a seductive free spirit, and his passionate cousin who marries his friend—his search for purpose becomes a yielding to disillusionment. One of Danish literature's greatest novels, with nods to Kierkegaard and a protagonist some critics have compared to Hamlet, Jacobsen's masterpiece has at its center a young man who faces the anguish of the human condition but cannot find comfort in the Christian faith. Tiina Nunnally's award-winning translation offers readers a chance to experience anew a writer deeply revered by Rilke, Ibsen, Mann, and Hesse.


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About the Author:

Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847 - 1885) was a Danish novelist, poet and scientist, in Denmark often just written as "J. P. Jacobsen" (pronounced "I. P. Jacobsen"). He began the naturalist movement in Danish literature. According to JOHAN DE MYLIUS of the Danish Royal Library, Jens Peter Jacobsen was a "poet associated with the so-called 'modern breakthrough' in Danish literature in the 1870s. . . . Jacobsen's immediate importance was his status as the 'writer of his generation.' --Wikipedia

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JENS PETER JACOBSEN was born on April 7, 1847, in the port town of Thisted, located on the Limfjord of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula. His two great passions in life were science and literature. Even as a child he was an ardent botanist, and he later studied science at the University of Copenhagen. He translated into Danish the two monumental works of Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and he was the first to write articles explaining these radical new ideas to the general public in Denmark. At the same time, he wrote poetry and short stories, making his literary debut with the novella Mogens in 1872. Two years later his scientific career came to an end when he was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis. He then turned all his energies to literature, completing several more short stories and the novel Marie Grubbe (1876). His second and final novel, Niels Lyhne (1880), is considered a masterpiece. Leaving his beloved Copenhagen behind, Jacobsen died of his illness on April 30, 1885, in his hometown of Thisted.

TIINA NUNNALLY is the award-winning translator of numerous works of Scandinavian literature. Her Niels Lyhne won the PEN Center USA West Translation Award. Her other translations include all three volumes of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter for Penguin Classics (PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize for the third volume, The Cross); Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales; Undset’s Jenny; Per Olov Enquist’s The Royal Physician’s Visit (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize); Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Lewis Galantière Prize given by the American Translators Association); and Tove Ditlevsen’s Early Spring (American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize). Also the author of three novels, Maija, Runemaker, and Fate of Ravens, Nunnally holds an M.A. in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

ERIC O. JOHANNESSON is emeritus professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.


Niels Lyhne

Translated by TIINA NUNNALLY
Introduction by ERIC O. JOHANNESSON

Translator’s Acknowledgments

In 1975 I read Niels Lyhne for the first time in a class taught by Professor Niels Ingwersen at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. For years afterward, vivid memories of entire scenes from the novel stayed in my mind, along with a great admiration for Jens Peter Jacobsen’s beautifully lyrical prose. A decade later, the previous English translation, which did not adequately represent Jacobsen’s voluptuous style or passionate tone, was out of print. And by then this great novel had largely fallen into obscurity among readers of English, in spite of the influence the book had exerted on major European writers such as Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and Henrik Ibsen.

In 1987 I decided to start work on a completely new English translation that would be more faithful in tone and style to the original. I was hoping to resurrect this long-neglected classic and bring it the attention it deserves among English-speaking readers. At the time, I had no idea what a difficult challenge this novel would present for a translator, or that it would take me nearly three years to complete the task.

I am indebted to the scholar Jørn Vosmar for his extensive notes to the definitive Danish edition of Niels Lyhne, on which this translation is based. I would also like to thank Inge and Klaus Rifbjerg for their invaluable assistance in untangling and explaining some of the more puzzling literary intricacies of Jacobsen’s Danish. Gratitude is also due to Rainer Maria Rilke—the author whose fervent enthusiasm for Niels Lyhne has sent many readers in search of an English edition.

My translation was first published by Fjord Press in 1990, under the careful stewardship of Steven T. Murray. Once again I would like to thank him for his editing and linguistic skill, as well as his flair for finding just the right word when my translator’s mind occasionally failed me.

Finally, I would like to thank senior editor Caroline White at Viking Penguin for deciding to add this astonishing Danish novel to the long list of great world classics published so admirably by Penguin over the past sixty years.

Tiina Nunnally                    

Albuquerque, New Mexico

August 2005                       


Among the creators of the modern novel Jens Peter Jacobsen is unique. Jacobsen was a scientist, a student of botany, and a translator of the works of Charles Darwin. His more famous contemporary (and sincere admirer) August Strindberg was also at one time bent on a scientific career, but with his special penchant for the bizarre he really preferred alchemy to chemistry. Jacobsen’s interest in science was genuine, however, although he was also a poet, and therein lie the seeds of a conflict that was to be vividly dramatized in Niels Lyhne, the remarkable second and last novel of his all-too-brief life.

Jens Peter Jacobsen was born in 1847 in the commercial port of Thisted on the shores of Limfjord near the west coast of Denmark. His father, a shipping magnate, was one of the leading citizens of the town. The young Jacobsen developed into a precocious dreamer, writing poetry at the age of nine and botanizing in the countryside. When he entered the University of Copenhagen in 1867 he was torn between his interest in science and his love of poetry. He quickly adopted a thoroughly naturalistic and atheistic worldview, in the process rejecting the Christian faith as a myth, a comforting illusion, in conflict with the laws of nature (not surprisingly losing his girlfriend as a consequence). Although he also immersed himself in contemporary literature, in the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ivan Turgenev, among others, the focus of his studies was on science, and his plan was to get an advanced degree in natural history. When Jacobsen finally abandoned science and turned exclusively to writing, it was actually by default, as it were, illness having broken his strength to continue.

One result of Jacobsen’s studies in science was a prizewinning essay on algae. More important, however, was his discovery of the writings of Charles Darwin. Jacobsen—unlike his contemporaries Zola and Strindberg, for instance, who were to use the theory of evolution to concoct a rather dismal and despairing naturalistic philosophy stressing “the survival of the fittest” in a war to the death—used Darwinian ideas, along with others, to build a positive faith in nature’s own laws, a religion of nature supplanting the Christian belief in a special creation. Darwin’s works were of course already known in Denmark among experts, but Jacobsen helped bring them to the attention of a larger public. Between 1871 and 1874 he undertook the arduous and formidable task of translating On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) into Danish. In addition he published a number of substantial articles summarizing Darwin’s theories.

In the meantime his efforts to have his poetry published met with no success. So instead he turned to fiction, initially with the brilliant novella Mogens, which appeared in the leading journal of the time, and then with the much more ambitious novel Marie Grubbe in 1876. Although the latter is a historical novel set in the seventeenth century, it presents essentially the same naturalistic view of life as Mogens. Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), with its stress on the importance of self-knowledge, it was praised by the most influential critics of the day in Denmark, the brothers Georg and Edvard Brandes. Like Niels Lyhne it is a Scandinavian classic widely read and appreciated. Although this is not generally known, Marie Grubbe also served as an inspiration for Strindberg’s most famous modern drama, Miss Julie (1888). In part, at least, equally sadomasochistic, Jacobsen’s novel shocked some contemporary readers, mainly on account of its objective and matter-of-fact portrayal of a lady of the aristocracy who in the end surrenders all her romantic illusions about love (initially fostered by her reading of romances) and finds happiness in the arms of a crude farmhand who beats her, happiness obviously being envisioned as a life lived in conformity with the laws of a person’s natural inclinations and desires.

Unfortunately, before his success with Marie Grubbe, destiny dealt the young writer a deadly blow. On a journey to Italy in 1873 Jacobsen was taken ill in Venice and then suffered a hemorrhage in Florence. Forced to return to Denmark, he was confronted with the bitter truth of the professional diagnosis: advanced tuberculosis without much hope of a cure. Incredibly Jacobsen managed to stay alive until 1885, but the continuous battle for survival necessarily colors everything he was to create—including Niels Lyhne, his second and last novel. The positive faith and promise embedded in his early fiction is gradually replaced by a darker vision reflecting the ever-present threat of death.

Niels Lyhne, undoubtedly Jacobsen’s supreme achievement, was begun shortly after Marie Grubbe was completed, but the writing was a slow and painful process because of his failing health. He traveled abroad a good deal, especially to Italy, but to little avail, and he missed his friends and Copenhagen, a city he dearly loved. Some years he only managed to write a few pages. That he finally was able to complete the novel (in 1880) is a testament to his remarkable courage and great devotion to his art. Equally remarkable is the fact that the impeccable style and tone of the novel is preserved throughout, the brief but highly charged sentences on the last page echoing in the mind with the same power as on the opening page. With Niels Lyhne finally completed, Jacobsen thus managed against all odds to take his place among those few Scandinavian writers (Herman Bang and Jonas Lie, to name the most distinguished) bent on perfecting the novel as a serious art form capable of providing total aesthetic satisfaction and challenging the supremacy of lyric poetry and drama.

Although the problem of belief is central in the novel, Niels Lyhne is a rich and complex work touching on a variety of human concerns: art, sex, and manners, to name a few. A brief history of its reception over the past century provides ample evidence of its wealth of meaning and significance.

Not surprisingly the novel had a great and immediate impact, reflecting as it clearly did the vital concerns of a generation of sensitive spirits who shared the hero’s feelings of living in an age of transition, born either twenty years too soon or twenty years too late, torn between the old values and the new, between romanticism and realism, between faith and reason. Succeeding generations were to read the novel in a different light. Thus the writers of the turn of the twentieth century saw in Niels Lyhne a decadent aesthete, a Hamlet figure caught in a dream world, incapable of action like the characters in a Chekhov drama. In the 1940s and ’50s, a generation thoroughly disenchanted by the events of World War II and its aftermath, a generation that had been reading Camus and Sartre, looked upon Niels Lyhne as an existentialist hero confronting the anguish of the human condition without the comforting illusions of the Christian faith. The young Algerian novelist and philosopher Albert Camus (who incidentally also suffered from tuberculosis and experienced a similar intimacy with the thought of his own death) was not familiar with the works of Jacobsen as far as I know, but had he been, he would undoubtedly have recognized in Niels Lyhne the ideal of the hero he sought to sketch in his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942, the man trying to live religiously by the concept of the absurd. Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre’s insistence on his own brand of existentialism as a new form of humanism was clearly anticipated in Niels Lyhne, especially in Niels’s manifesto “There is no God and the human being is His prophet,” along with Dr. Hjerrild’s warning that atheism will make much greater demands on human beings than Christianity does.

And what about the readers of today? The likelihood is that they would focus on the erotic rather than the atheistic aspects of Niels Lyhne, that is, on the women in Lyhne’s life, characters like Fru Boye and Fennimore and their efforts to teach him about women’s refusal to be reduced to the objects of men’s fantasies and dreams, about their demands to be treated as equals, as human beings, obviously another vital aspect of the humanistic gospel embedded in the novel.

So much for the reception in Scandinavia. Abroad, Niels Lyhne is of course less well known, suffering the customary fate of so many other remarkable Nordic works of literature. Not surprisingly, the French do regard Jacobsen as another (but lesser!) Flaubert, not failing to detect the remarkable similarities between Niels Lyhne and Frédéric Moreau, the ineffectual and unheroic hero of Sentimental Education (1869), who also had his difficulties with women. But on the whole, Jacobsen’s name is not widely known in French literary circles.

In the German-speaking countries, on the other hand, his works have fared much better. Jacobsen became an important mentor to the great Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose powerful works convey a similar and very striking combination of aestheticism and humanism. To Rilke, Jacobsen obviously ranked with Kierkegaard and Ibsen in importance along with his other great mentor, the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The following excerpt from a letter to the Swedish feminist author Ellen Key, dated April 2, 1904, tells us much about Rilke’s feelings about Jacobsen and his works:

I first read Jacobsen in 1896–97 in Munich. I was very immature then and read sensing rather than observing, first Niels Lyhne, later Marie Grubbe. Since then these books, to which were added in 1898 the “six short stories” and the letters, have been influential in all my developments; and even today my experience with them is that, wherever I may be standing, always, every time I want to go on, I find the next, the next higher, the approaching stage of my growth sketched out and already created in them. In these books much of what the best people are seeking even today is already found, derived from one life, at least. Jacobsen and Rodin, to me they are the two inexhaustible ones, the masters. Those who can do what I would sometime like to be able to do. Both have that penetrating, devoted observation of nature, both have the power to transform what they have seen into reality enhanced a thousandfold. Both have made thi...

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