Niels Lyhneby Jens Peter Jacobsen, Tiina Nunnally (Translator), Eric Johannesson (Introduction)
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
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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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.
Translated by TIINA NUNNALLY
Introduction by ERIC O. JOHANNESSON
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.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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 things, things with many sure boundaries and countless intersections and profiles: that is how I feel their art and their influence. . . .
And indeed, Rilke’s own novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), with its strong northern European atmosphere, is obviously inspired by the reading of Niels Lyhne.
Another great German writer, the novelist Thomas Mann, in his youth was an admirer of Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne; this is most obviously reflected in his equally elegant, elegiac, and ironic early masterpiece, the short novel Tonio Kröger (1903).
In the United States, finally, Jacobsen’s novels have clearly failed to arouse an interest similar to the generous reception afforded the works of Knut Hamsun, Sigrid Undset, or Isak Dinesen. Like Flaubert and Mann, the novelists with whom he has most in common, Jacobsen is a superb stylist, and it is difficult to do justice to his supple and sensuous prose in translation. The difficulties inherent in rendering Niels Lyhne into English are also clearly evident in the 1919 translation. It is my hope that this translation by Tiina Nunnally, with its much greater fidelity to the original Danish text, will at last bring this profound and moving novel to the attention of a larger audience.
Eric O. Johannesson
University of California
She had the black shining eyes of the Blid family, with fine, straight eyebrows; she had their strongly contoured nose, their powerful jaw and full lips. She had also inherited the odd, painfully sensual creases at the corners of her mouth and the restless movements of her head, but her cheeks were pale and her hair was soft as silk, curving gently and smoothly to the shape of her head.
The Blids were not like that; their colors were rose and bronze. Their hair was rough and curly, heavy as a mane; and they had full, deep, supple voices, strangely suited to the family traditions of their fathers’ raucous hunting expeditions, solemn morning prayers, and thousands of love affairs.
But her voice was flat and toneless.
I am describing her as she was at seventeen; a couple of years later, after she was married, her voice had more fullness, the color of her cheeks was fresher, and her eyes had become duller and yet somehow bigger and blacker.
At seventeen she was quite different from her siblings, and her relationship with her parents was not a close one either. The Blids were a practical family who took life as it came; they did their work, took their rest, and never dreamed of demanding any more or any other pleasures than the harvest feast and three or four Christmas parties. They were not religiously inclined, but it would have been as difficult for them to think of neglecting to pay their taxes as not to give God his due, so they said their evening prayers, went to church on holy days, sang their hymns on Christmas Eve, and received communion twice a year. They were not inquisitive either, and as for their sense of aesthetics, they were by no means insensitive to little sentimental songs. When summer arrived and the grass was thick and lush in the meadows and the grain was maturing in the wide fields, they would often remark to each other that it was a beautiful time to be traveling through the countryside. But they did not have particularly poetic temperaments; beauty did not intoxicate them, and they had no vague longings or daydreams.
But it was different with Bartholine; she had no interest in the events of the stables or the fields, no interest in dairy work or housekeeping—none at all.
She loved poetry.
She lived in poetry, she dreamed in poetry, and she believed in it more than almost anything else.
Her parents and siblings, neighbors and acquaintances never said a word that was worth listening to, for their thoughts never soared higher than the earth or the task they had at hand, just as their glance never sought higher than the situations and events right before their eyes.
But poems, on the other hand! For her they were full of new ideas and profound wisdom about life out in the world, where sorrow is black and joy is red, and they glittered with images, foaming and beaded with rhythms and rhyme. They were all about young girls, and the young girls were noble and beautiful—they themselves did not realize how beautiful. Their love and their hearts were greater than all the riches in the world, and men worshipped them, held them up high, up in the sunlight of happiness, honored and adored them, happy to share their thoughts and plans, their victories and fame with them, and even said that it was these joyous girls who had inspired all their plans and won all their victories.
And why shouldn’t she be that kind of girl? They’re so . . . and they’re so . . . and they don’t even know it. What do I know about how I am? And the poets expressly said that this was life and that life was not sewing and hemming, helping around the house, and paying stupid visits.
But after all, there was really nothing hidden in this but a somewhat morbid urge to realize herself, the longing to find herself which is so often awakened in a young girl of above-average intelligence. But the worst part was that in her circle of acquaintances there was not a single superior individual to be found who could have given her a kind of direction for her intelligence. There was not even a single kindred spirit, and thus she came to regard herself as something extraordinary, unique, like a kind of tropical plant which had shot up beneath inclement skies and which now could only manage to unfurl its leaves pathetically; while in warmer air, beneath a more powerful sun, it would have been able to shoot out proud stalks with a wonderfully rich and shining abundance of flowers. That, she felt, was her true nature—that was what the proper surroundings would make her into, and she dreamed thousands of dreams about those sun-bright places and was consumed with yearning for her true, rich self, and forgot what it is so easy to forget: that even the fairest dreams, even the deepest longings do not add a single inch to the stature of the human spirit.
Then one fine day a suitor came to her.
It was young Lyhne from Lønborggaard, the last male in a family lineage that for three entire generations had been among the most intelligent in the province. In their old age, as mayors, district revenue officers, or royal commissioners (frequently granted the title of Councilor), they served king and country actively and with honor. In their younger days, during sensibly planned and thoroughly executed study trips to France and Germany, they had enriched their easily susceptible minds with the knowledge, aesthetic pleasures, and impressions of life that those foreign lands offered in such rich measure. And when they returned home, these years of exile were not pushed aside among old memories, as the memory of a party is pushed aside: the last candle blown out and the last note faded away. No, life at home was built up around these years, and the interests that had been awakened were not allowed to deteriorate in any way, but were nourished and developed with all the means at their disposal; and exquisite copperplate engravings, valuable bronzes, volumes of German poetry, French legal negotiations, and French philosophy were everyday items and common topics in the Lyhne household.
As far as their temperament was concerned, they moved with an old-fashioned ease and graceful charm which often formed an odd contrast to the crude pomposity and clumsy stateliness of their peers. Their speech was broadly rounded, with meticulous diction, but somewhat affectedly rhetorical—that was undeniable—yet it was well-suited to these large, broad figures with the high, domed foreheads, the receding hairline, the luxuriant curly hair, the light blue, calmly smiling eyes, and the finely formed, slightly crooked noses; but their jaws were too heavy and their mouths too wide, and their lips were also much too full.
Just as these outward traits were less pronounced in the young Lyhne, the mind seemed to have grown weary in him too, and the intellectual tasks or serious artistic pleasures he had encountered had far from awakened any kind of zeal or desire in him; rather, he had tackled them with a dutiful tenacity, which had been neither lightened by any joy in feeling his powers come alive, nor rewarded with any proud self-confidence when it turned out they were effective. Satisfaction that the work was done—this was all the reward he had.
He had inherited his farm, Lønborggaard, from a recently deceased uncle, so he had returned from the traditional trip abroad and was going to manage the operation of the farm himself. Since the Blids owned the nearest neighboring estate and his uncle had had a close relationship with the family, he paid them a visit, saw Bartholine, and fell in love with her.
That she fell in love with him almost goes without saying.
Finally here was someone from out in the world, someone who had lived in the great, distant cities where the forests of spires and towers were silhouetted against the clear, sunny sky, where the air vibrated with the clanging of bells, the roar of organs, and the fleet tones of mandolins, while radiant processions in gold and many colors wound festively through the wide streets; where marble buildings gleamed and the variegated coats of arms of proud families perched in pairs over the wide portals as banners waved and veils fluttered up on the balconies with their ornamental stone foliage. Someone who had wandered in those realms from which victorious armies had marched forth along the roads, where mighty battles had crowned the names of the villages and fields with an immortal glow, where the smoke from the gypsies’ campfire rose languidly over the treetops in the woods while red ruins up on the vineyard-wreathed heights looked down on the smiling valley where the mill-wheel roared, and clattering herds returned home over broad, arched bridges.
He told her about all these things, but not the way the poets did—far more realistically and with such familiarity, just as her family talked about the towns in their diocese and the neighboring parishes. He also talked about painters and poets, and there were names he praised to the heavens that she had never heard mentioned before. He showed her their pictures and read their poems with her in the garden up on the hill where they could look out over the smooth waters of the fjord and the brown undulations of the heath. Love made him poetic, and there was beauty all around; the clouds turned into the clouds that sailed through the poems, and the trees of the garden assumed the foliage that sighed with such melancholy in the ballads.
Bartholine was happy, for her love caused the entire day to dissolve into a series of poetic situations. Thus, it was poetry when she walked along the road to meet him, their meeting was poetry, and their parting was too; it was poetry when she stood up on the hill in the glow of the setting sun and waved to him a last farewell and then, feeling wistfully happy, went up to her lonely room to think about him undisturbed; and when she prayed for him in her evening prayers, that was poetry too.
She no longer had those vague desires and yearnings; her new life with its shifting moods was enough for her, and her thoughts and perceptions had become clearer now that she had someone to whom she could turn without reserve, without fear of being misunderstood.
She had changed in another way too: happiness had made her kinder toward her parents and siblings, and she discovered that they actually were more sensible and had more feeling than she had presumed.
And then they were married.
The first year was very much like their engagement, but after they had lived together for a while, Lyhne could no longer hide from himself that he had grown weary of constantly giving his love new expression, of constantly having his wings spread for flight, clothed in the plumage of poetry, through all the heavens of emotion and all the depths of thought. He longed to sit still on his branch in peace and quiet, dozing, and hide his head beneath the warm feathers of his wing. He did not think of love as an eternally vigilant, blazing flame, which with its powerful, flickering glow shone into all the peaceful folds of life and in some fantastic way made everything seem bigger and stranger than it was. For him love was more like the calm, smoldering ember that gives off an even heat from its soft bed of ashes and in the muted twilight tenderly forgets what is distant and makes what is near seem twice as close and twice as intimate.
He was tired, exhausted; he couldn’t stand all that poetry, he longed to plant his feet on the solid ground of daily life—just as a fish suffocating in the hot air must long for the clear, fresh cold of the wave. It had to end, it had to end of its own accord. Bartholine was no longer innocent about life and books; she was just as familiar with them as he was. He had given her everything he had, and now he was supposed to keep on giving. It was impossible, he had no more—his only consolation was that Bartholine was with child.
For a long time Bartholine had noticed with sorrow that her view of Lyhne had been gradually changing and that he no longer stood on the dizzying heights where she had placed him during their engagement. She did not yet doubt that he was what she called a “poetic temperament,” but she had grown frightened, because prose had begun to stick out its horse’s hoof now and then. With even greater zeal she strove for poetry and tried to recapture the old feeling by overwhelming him with even greater emotional riches, even more enthusiasms; but she found so little response that she almost thought that she herself was sentimental and affected. For a time she still tried to sweep the resistant Lyhne along with her; she refused to believe what she suspected. But when the fruitlessness of her exertions finally began to awaken doubt in her about whether her own spirit and heart really encompassed as great a wealth as she had believed, she suddenly released him, became cool, silent, and reserved, and sought solitude in order to grieve in peace for her lost illusions. For she now saw that she had been bitterly disappointed and that deep within, Lyhne was actually no different from her old acquaintances, and that what had betrayed her was the quite ordinary fact that for a brief moment his love had surrounded him with an ephemeral aura of spirituality and loftiness—something that often happens with inferior temperaments.
Lyhne was both distressed and anxious about this change in their relationship, and he tried to remedy it with unsuccessful attempts at the old, romantic flight; but this only served to show Bartholine even more clearly how great her delusion had been.
That is the way things stood between the couple when Bartholine brought her first child into the world. It was a boy, and they named him Niels.
In a certain way the child brought the parents together again, for they always met beside his little cradle in mutual hope, mutual joy, and mutual fear. They both liked to think about the boy and talked about him often, and each was so grateful to the other for the child and for their joy and love for him.
But there was a great gap between them.
Lyhne was absorbed in his farming and parish affairs, though without appearing to be a leader or even a reformer in any way. But he participated conscientiously in the established order, looking on as an interested spectator, and agreeing to the sober-minded improvements that his old foreman or the elders of the parish suggested after careful consideration, very careful consideration.
It never occurred to him to make use of the knowledge that he had acquired in earlier days; he had too little faith in what he called theory and too much respect for the empirical maxims made venerable through time-honored custom, which the others called the truly practical. In general, there was nothing about him to indicate that he had not lived his whole life here and in this fashion. But there was one small thing: the fact that he would often sit still on a gate or a boundary stone for half an hour or more and, in a strange vegetative trance, stare out over the lush green rye or the golden, top-heavy oats. He had that from somewhere else—it was a remnant of the old Lyhne, the young Lyhne.
In her world, Bartholine did not adjust in that way—immediately, all at once, without fumbling or making a fuss. No, through the verse of a hundred poets she first complained, with all the broad generality of the day, about the thousands of barriers, bonds, and chains of human life. At times her lament was clothed in the mighty rage that slings its froth of words at the thrones of emperors and the prisons of tyrants; at other times it was the calm, sympathetic sorrow that sees the rich light of beauty turn away from a blind and servile generation, subdued and broken by the vapid preoccupations of the day; and sometimes the form of her complaint was the quiet sighing for the free flight of the bird or for the cloud that sails so easily into the distance.
But she had grown tired of complaining, and the annoying powerlessness of her complaint goaded her into doubt and bitterness. Just as certain believers strike down their saint and tread him underfoot when he refuses to demonstrate his power, she now derided her adored poetry and asked herself with a sneer whether she really thought that the Roc was going to show up at any moment down in the cucumber patch, or whether Aladdin’s cave was going to open up under the floor of the dairy cellar, and with childish cynicism she amused herself by making the world overly prosaic, calling the moon a green cheese and the roses potpourri, all with the feeling that she was avenging herself, but also with a half anxious, half titillating feeling that it was blasphemy.
The attempt at liberation implied by all this was not successful. She sank back into her dreams, the dreams from her girlhood, but the difference now was that no hope shone through them. And there was the fact that she had learned they were only dreams—distant, illusory visions in the air—which no longing on earth would have the power to pull down to her world; so whenever she surrendered to them now, it was with restlessness and in spite of a reproachful voice within, which told her she was like a drinker who knows that his passion is destructive and that each new intoxication is energy taken away from his weakness and added to the power of his passion. But the voice spoke in vain, for a life lived soberly, without the light burden of dreams, was not a life worth living—life, after all, had only the value that dreams gave to it.
So different were the father and mother of little Niels—the two friendly powers who, without knowing it, were fighting a battle for his young soul from the moment that a glimmer of intelligence appeared for them to seize hold of. And the older the child became, the fiercer was the battle, because of the richer choice of weapons.
Imagination was the gift through which the mother sought to influence her son, and he had an abundance of imagination, but even as a little boy he demonstrated that for him there was a significant difference between the fantasy world created by his mother’s words and the world that really existed. More than a dozen times, when his mother told him fairy tales and described how agonizing was the hero’s plight, Niels could find no escape from all that agony, had no idea how to end it—all that misery, walling him in tighter and tighter inside an impenetrable ring, and the hero too. Many a time Niels would press his cheek against his mother’s, and with tears in his eyes and quivering lips whisper, “It’s not really true, is it?” And when he had received the consoling response he was hoping for, he would breathe a deep sigh of relief and listen to the rest of the story comfortably reassured.
But his mother did not really appreciate this desertion.
When he grew too old for fairy tales and she was also tired of thinking them up, she told him, with slight embellishments, about all the wartime and peacetime heroes whose lives were suited to demonstrating the power that resides in the human soul, if only he seeks the One, the Great One, and does not let himself be frightened into faintheartedness by the shortsighted doubt of the day, or let himself be lured down into the soft inertia of peace. The stories were told in that tone, and since there were not enough suitable heroes in history, she chose a fantasy hero whose deeds and fate she could control completely—a hero after her own heart, spirit of her spirit, yes, flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood too. A couple of years after Niels was born she had brought a stillborn male child into the world, and he was the one she chose. Everything he could have become and could have accomplished was now paraded before his brother with intentional vacillation—Promethean longings, Messianic courage, and Herculean strength—in naive travesty and uncontrollable distortion, a world of cheap fantasies that had no more flesh of reality to them than that poor little baby skeleton moldering and rotting up in Lønborg cemetery.
Niels did not miss the moral of these stories; he understood completely that it was contemptible to be like ordinary people. He was also prepared to accept the harsh destiny of the heroes, and in his imagination he suffered willingly the scathing battles, the stiff adversity, the martyrdoms of ingratitude, and the victories without peace, but it was still an incomparable relief to him that it was all so far in the future—that all of it would not happen to him until he was grown up.
Like dream-visions of the night, dream-sounds can haunt the broad daylight and, in hazy forms, mists of sound can call on the mind, which seems to listen for a fleeting moment, wondering whether it was really called—this is how notions about the dream-borne future whispered softly over the childhood days of Niels Lyhne and reminded him gently but without respite that there was a limit set for this happy time and that one day it would be no more.
His awareness of this gave birth to an urge to enjoy his childhood to the fullest, draw it in through all his senses, not waste a drop, not a single drop, and so there was an intensity to his play that bordered on passion, under the pressure of the restless feeling that time was running away from him without his having salvaged from its rich waves everything that it brought, wave upon wave. So he would throw himself to the ground and sob with despair when he was bored because something or other was lacking: playmates, ingenuity, or warm weather; and that was also why he was so reluctant to go to bed, because sleep was the lack of activity, the complete lack of feeling. But it was not always like that.
Sometimes he would wear himself out and his imagination would lose all its colors. Then he would feel thoroughly unhappy, too little and too wretched for those ambitious dreams—yes, he felt that he was a worthless liar who had arrogantly pretended to love Greatness and to understand it, while in reality he could only empathize with the Small, while he loved the ordinary and had all the basest longings and desires alive inside him. Yes, it even seemed to him that he had the vermin’s class hatred of the sublime, and that he would willingly take part in stoning those heroes who were of better blood than he was, and knew that they were.
Meet the Author
Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–1885) made his literary debut with the novella Mogens in 1872. Diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis two years later, he completed several more short stories and two novels.
Tiina Nunnally is an award-winning translator of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. Her translation of Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross by Sigrid Undset won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize in 2001, and her translation of Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow won the American Translator's Association's Lewis Galantière Prize. The Swedish Academy honored Nunnally in 2009 with a special award for her contributions to "the introduction of Swedish culture abroad." In 2013, Nunnally was appointed Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit. Nunnally is married to Steven T. Murray.
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