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Review of Niels Lyhne-Jens Peter Jacobsen

Nothing worked in Niels’ life. Not for Lyhne, his father, whose wife made him feel ‘like a fish smothered in hot air’, or his mother, Bartholine, who continued to live in his confused world of dreams and fantasy while their marital ship sank.

Not even the birth of Niels could unite his parents. As he grew older, Niels found his relationship with his mother distressing. She rejected her baffling fables of characters whose fates she completely controlled, for a world that really existed. He preferred the simpler and more practical life of his father.

Then there was Niels’s crush on Edele Lyhne, the 26-year-old blonde woman with “a violently curved back line.” It was this woman whom the 12-year-old Niels secretly loved and adored, and his young heart raced with excitement every time he saw her.

Once again, another revered and divine figure from Niels’s life left him. Edele became seriously ill and died, despite Niels’s fervent appeals to God not to “take her away from us, because you know how much we love her, you must not, you must not.” With Adele’s death, Niels’ faith also died. He saw his death as the violence of God directed against him. He had always believed in the omnipotent God and trusted that all his prayers would be heard.

But with Adele’s death, he believed that faith had failed him and that prayer was not a bulwark for pain. He had knelt at God’s feet and walked away with his hopes crushed. It was God, in his young mind, who was indifferent and always goaded suffering towards humanity.

On the day Edele was buried, she stamped on the ground in anger every time the Lord’s name was mentioned. For the nurse it was a grudge against Him for the rest of her life. Faith became no different for him than his mother’s fairy tales. He felt feverish joy as he realized that by loving God less, he could now love himself more.

Even her friendship with the idealistic Eric, with whom she had fallen in love since childhood, did not escape failure and shame. Eric, in later years, was married to Fennimore, and longed for his friend’s company while their marriage failed. That of Niels, whose own life was haunted by failure, pain and self-pity, was not a relief for the couple’s problems: He was in love with both.

He embarked on a passionate relationship with Fennimore behind his friend’s back. And the desperate Fennimore, whose marital life was like “a bottomless pit of suffering,” pleased him for a time. The deception became a way of life for the two lovers, with ‘stolen slaps under the covers and kisses at the entrances and behind the doors’. But cunning and cunning did not save this relationship from failure. Fennimore later, as she angrily dismissed Niels, felt tainted by the matter.

She rejected his love as a sin and a violation of an inner moral justice. With this rejection, Niels’ boundless self-confidence and sense of honor were shaken. He, perhaps still a captive of his mother’s fantasy world, was in awe of Fennimore’s cold and raw anger. He believed that he was rescuing a female soul from suffering and leading her to happiness.

The theme of faith and faith is certainly central to the story, with the patriarchal God, in the eyes of Niels, the villain and the terrorist. He sees him as a mean God without ears and without mercy: one who created mankind only to ‘incite death towards her’. For Niels there is no learning from failure or growth from adversity, but rather a relentless rage toward a ruthless divine. This is Peter Jacobsen’s ‘Divine Tragedy’, and in it there is only Purgatory.

Niels Lyhne, central figure in the story. he has taken up arms against God. due to a childhood tragedy. There is no hope, inspiration, abundance, or joy in your existence. Human life is for him a predictable journey towards “darkness, towards hell and the damnation of the soul.” And for this he blames God.

Unsurprisingly, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. After wandering for years in his emotional wilderness, Niels meets and falls in love with Gerda, a very young girl. His young wife, ‘who leaned on him with complete confidence’, returned his love and for a few years they lived happily together. A child was born from their union.

Then suddenly one morning Gerda fell ill. And just as he did with Edele Lynhe, Niels sat by her bed and watched her slide slowly toward her grave.

As if Gerda’s death weren’t enough, Niels returned from the field one day to find her little boy in critical condition. No doctor could be found to care for her dying son. In despair and anger, Niels raises his clenched fist menacingly skyward, then falls to his knees praying in vain to a God he despised.

With the death of his young wife and son, Niels once again drowns in melancholy. Then the war began and Niels enlisted to be useful again. Then one day he was shot in the chest, a cruel final end to a miserable life. One wonders if going to war was out of a sense of honor or a deliberate act of suicide.

I wondered of Niels Lyhne, while reading the book: ‘How do I describe you? That he is an atheist is not in doubt. Was he also an unrepentant sadist? It makes no distinction between married and single, boys and girls or boys and adults. Was he the latest nihilist whose infidelity causes a catastrophe not only to those he loves, but also to himself?

It’s hard not to love the character of Niels. He loves and despairs with great intensity. It is also impossible not to feel sorry for him. Even women, who fall in love with him, seem to do so out of pity. It is as if they can see the suffering victim who is desperately searching for a meaning in life. It is as if they can discern the anguish of his devastated soul, one that had abandoned the faith for skepticism and completely surrendered to pessimism.

Niels Lyhne is Jacobsen’s self-portrait, with the writer in his literary prime. Unfortunately, its greatest characters, a varied constellation of them, manifest mainly tragedy. The only life and beauty in history is mainly in the language and its wonderful and elaborate description of the riches of nature. It is as if Jacobsen elevated the earth above the sky, with the angels exiled and supplanted by the bounty and beauty of nature.

Niels Lyhne is a supreme achievement. While some may not be happy with its central theme, it is undoubtedly a rich work, written with singular elegance and dealing with a variety of complex subjects, forcing us to constantly observe and examine the world we inhabit.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, in his Letters to a Young Poet praises Jacobsen’s books: “ But I can tell you that also later one goes through these books again and again with the same amazement and that they do not lose any of the wonderful power and do not renounce none of the fabulousness with which they overwhelm one on a first reading.