Niels Lyhne is a novel that fits many moods but rather defies generic classification. If you’re in the mood for something artistic and don’t mind being pretentious about it, you can say that you’re reading it on Rilke’s recommendation. Its author, Jens Peter Jacobsen, was a favorite of the poet. Rilke speaks more often about Jacobsen’s novellas in his letters, but sadly, they proved quite difficult to find in an English translation, so I settled for second best. (The translator, Tiina Nunnally, deserves special applause here. Translators are always underappreciated.) If you’ve read much either about Rilke or written by him, it will be fairly apparent why he lauds such exuberant praise on the novel. Originally written in Danish in 1880, the prose style is incredibly descriptive; some might say needlessly so. Jacobsen has a metaphor for everything and is exquisitely articulate. If you’re not into an elaborate writing style, my advice is to skip this one. But, if springtime on campus has gotten you in the mood for something a little more flowery, look no further! I always find that while spring is externally beautiful, it is infinitely more chaotic and complex internally than the cherry blossoms would suggest. Niels Lyhne captures this sentiment perfectly. Jacobsen is able to convey the beauty of something but also the underlying disappointment and sadness that is present but rarely discussed when absorbing oneself in nature. It is an easy novel to pass off as simply decorative, but underneath a (heavily) stylistic exterior, it explores deeper philosophical and romantic elements. Jacobsen has been likened to the Danish Flaubert, although significantly less renowned. Like Flaubert, he covertly tackles issues of faith and religion, so that you only later realize that he has imparted anything other than the story at all. Niels Lyhne is the kind of novel where the more you think about it the deeper it becomes but it is nonetheless valuable and enjoyable purely as an aesthetic experience.
Most of Jacobsen’s descriptions are nature-centric. Aptly seasonal, there are a few pages entirely devoted to the beauty of the Spring. Again like Flaubert, Jacobsen has incredible command of detail. He not only knows but uses the precise name of every flower, every bird, every type of wood—those little details that are so infuriating for any foreign reader, but add immeasurably to the overall effect. The novel is neither preachy nor parabolic, which again makes for a nice break. Reading required no excess energy, no drainage of my mental resources. Despite the detachment, the novel is also completely believable; I would even say more so. Rather than being forced to engage and feel for the characters because of not-always-willing emotional attachments, there are more spaces in which to find oneself in the text. The poetic aspects of the prose, particularly the elaborate metaphors, amplify this effect.
The overarching theme of the novel is a discussion of atheism, in that it is present from beginning to end, but it is also one of the least obvious. This is by no means a novel that is trying to start an argument. It is more of a structured meander through the events of the life of the eponymous protagonist, with a particular emphasis placed on his relationships with women. While I would by no means call this a feminist text, Jacobsen does directly confront the issue of idealized perceptions of women in society and poetry, insinuating that the discrepancy between Niels’ projections and reality are what cause him the greatest unluck. The novel also holds its characters accountable, something which is slightly surprising for a novel written in such a romantic style. The story is told how it is; the only thing idealized is the prose style. The characters are distinct and believable; they develop visibly in both temperament and ideology. However, Jacobsen has a curious take on the Realism so popular in his area and time – because of his style of writing, the reader is always aware that what they are reading is an interpretation of a life. They are thus effectively one-step removed from the story. I was a passive observer, kind of like watching a nature documentary with an almost-ridiculous narration. I was interested in the story, but, unlike so much mainstream fiction, not required to make an emotional investment.
In sum, if you are on the hunt for a good springtime read that ranges towards the poetic, doesn’t have an agenda, captures the feeling of the season but without being either too peppy or too depressing, and doesn’t require an excessive investment of effort or time, look no further! Happy Reading!