Customer Reviews: Niels Lyhne (Penguin Classics)
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on February 2, 1999
This is not a reprint, but a new translation by acclaimed translator and author Tiina Nunnally of arguably the finest novel ever to come out of Scandinavia. It had a huge influence on European writers, especially in Germany, where teenage boys would carry around a Danish dictionary in the vain hope of reading Jacobsen in the original, according to Stefan Zweig, and where the novel has been translated at least 6 times. Read it and see where Thomas Mann got his ideas for "Tonio Kröger." Jacobsen, who was a botanist as well as the translator of Darwin into Danish, fills the novel with flowers and plants, and he knows whereof he speaks. Dive headlong into this examination of creativity vs. lethargy, atheism vs. faith, and the seemingly infinite ability of the hero to misunderstand women!
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on November 3, 2007
It's a major drawback for publishers that Amazon's system links the reviews and promotional material for all versions of a book indiscriminately, so that an old, flawed, bowdlerized, and misleading translation such as this one from 1919 by Hanna Astrup Larsen is allowed to profit from the comments made for the new translation by Tiina Nunnally published by Fjord Press in 1990. With Fjord's demise this definitive and superior translation is now available from Penguin Classics -- buy it instead!
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It is unfortunate and distressing that comments on the Penguin Classic edition have made the purchase of this gem a veritable nightmare. Having read the disparaged bowdlerized version of Hanna Astrup Larsen (Scandinavian Classic first printing 1919) and Tiina Nunnally's rendition (Penguin, 2005) I must address the issue and put to rest what has become an absurd debate that is faulty and irresponsible. I should also note that Tiina Nunnally's translation received the PEN Center USA West Translation Award for her labors, and her version retains the candor, lyricism, enthusiasm and melancholy cadence that is often described as proper to Jacobsen's style. I think it appropriate also to note that the Penguin Classic edition is free of any abridgement and that it is published unadulterated by omissions.
The book was deemed controversial for the professed atheism of the protagonist. Indeed Niels refutes the opportunity to renege his atheism at the hour of his death when given the opportunity, and all the more receives the blessing of his friend Hjerrild who claims that if he were God he would rather "Bless the one who would not change his mind at the end". However this is a crucial theme of the book - the loss of a metaphysical authority to make sense of things. The primary focus remains the fearless search for reason and meaning, sensations and love in a world that seems intent on defeating any such quest and demeaning the valor of the heart. The love scenes are of such profound beauty that they delight and excite, inspire and enliven. A constant focus being the idealism of love and the dreaded pragmatic vicissitudes that vulgarize it and, by the book's end, the redemption that may yet come of it. The narrative takes us from the day-dreams of youth to the hope for greatness, and to finally the realization that life is to be endured for what it is. A stark realism pervades the last pages, where hope is lost and truth declaimed as inadequate to satisfy the longings of the brave. It is a novel whose poetry is stifled by the vulgar apprehensions of everyday life. It is a novel that dreams the big dreams and fears the nightmare only to eventually consign itself to the inevitable brutal truth that makes for a "difficult death." It is with reason and accuracy that much as been made of Rilke's, Hesse's, and Thomas Mann's debt to the book; indeed "The Notebooks of Brigge", "Tonio Kruger", and "Damien" thread a common theme and live a similar fate, but there are some passages in Niels Lynhe that are simply brilliant aesthetically, and anyone who forgoes reading Jacobsen's novel should feel deprived of one of literature's best books ever written.
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VINE VOICEon January 28, 2009
When I was reading this book I had a variety of reactions. First, I was struck by the quality of the thinking and the prose. Second, I was seriously seriously annoyed by the endless Romantic Angst in the book. I really really wanted Niels Lyhne to go out, get a job, and stop whining. That second point inflected my entire reading of the book.

As I closed it, I thought: "I should have read this when I was 18."

And I still kind of think that. The point of view is more immediately relevant to someone just in the throes of figuring out The Meaning of Life.

But now, as I go through my notes and passages from the book, I believe that I did Jacobsen (and the novel) a real disservice. There's something more complicated going on here than the typical Sorrows of Young Werther Sturm und Drang.

I've now, in retrospect, come to see Niels Lynhe as a kind of rewriting of the Book of Job. Only, in the case of our protagonist, it is his atheism which is tested by life. It's an interesting idea, but also a confusing one-- the whole notion of being tested implies agency of some kind (and Lyhne certainly does seem to lead a complicated and cursed life) which throws the whole question of his atheism into a different light. Even the remarks of his friend as he lay dying seem to me to bring into doubt where Jacobsen sat in this debate. The idea that God rewards steadfastness rather than a particular point of view? I feel humbled by my own arrogance that I had reading the book, as I consider now that there is something quite subtle being questioned-- a very delicate point that I'm not sure that I understand even now.

So here's the value for me in doing these reviews and taking notes-- if I'd just left my experience of the book once I put it down, I believe that I would have missed part of the value in the reading experience. I'd recommend it in the end.

(I have no complaints about either the Penguin Classics edition or the Nunnally translation. The introduction wasn't particularly informative, but at least it wasn't tiresome either.)
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on January 31, 2010
I bought the 2009 edition, which unbeknownst to me was scanned, copied and printed by computers without humans checking the text. It is a shamefully error-filled book. Typos abound and entire paragraphs are frequently cut off. This book is in the public domain and can be read for free online, so a substandard printing is inexcusable, to say nothing of a printing with no standards at all.

Here's a sentence from the first paragraph of the text:

"It tells of his ekrly dreams and ideals, his efforts to know and to achieve, his revolt against the dreaniswathed dogmas in which people take refuge fromjTarsh. reality"
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The Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen's 1880 novel, "Niels Lyhne" is one of the best novels that most American readers are unlikely to know. I knew of the book for some time but read it only recently. One of my favorite writers, the British Victorian novelist George Gissing greatly admired "Niels Lyhne"; Gissing's own too- little read novel "Born in Exile" owes "Niels Lyhne" a substantial debt. More recently, I had been thinking about tendencies to deprecate the Enlightenment and the secularism which forms a critical part of it. Reaction to Enlightenment forms a central theme of "Niels Lyhne". I also happened upon the famous "Letters to a Young Poet" written by Rainer Maria Rilke, who lavished high praise on Jacobsen's novel. Rilke wrote to his correspondent, a would-be poet named Franz Kappus:

"If I were to say from whom I have learned about the nature of creative work, about its depth and everlastingness, I could give only two names: Jacobsen, that great, great, writer, and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor".

Later in his "Letters", Rilke wrote to Kappus elaborating upon Jacobsen's novel:

"Now Niels Lyhne will open up before you, a book of such splendors and depths; the more often one reads it, the more it seems to include everything, from the mildest fragrances of life to the full, rich taste of its heaviest fruits. There is nothing there that has not been understood, apprehended, experienced and recognized in the tremulous echo of memory; no experience has been too insignificant, and the smallest incident unfolds as a kind of destiny, and destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which each thread is guided by an infinitely delicate hand, placed beside the next and held and supported by a hundred others."

I read "Niels Lyhne" at last. The book warrants the high esteem in which Rilke, Gissing, and other readers have held it.

"Niles Lyhne" is a difficult, passionately written book which centers upon religious faith and its loss, sexuality, and the conflict between romanticism and realism. The book follows the life of its hero, Niels Lyhne, from his birth to his prosperous but mismatched parents to his death in early middle age from a battle wound in the army. "Nilels Lyhne" is a death-haunted work indeed as many of its characters, including the protagonist, meet an untimely end. Jacobsen wrote the novel knowing he was mortally ill with only a short time to live. The book also is for people who know what it is to be alone.

Young Niels Lyhne is dreamy, romantic and introspective. At the age of 12 Lyhne's aunt, 25, with whom he had become infatuated, dies on her sickbed before him, in spite of the boy's fervent prayers for her recovery. From that point forward, Lyhne becomes a confirmed atheist who for the rest of his life both rejects religion and engages in a search for meaning through art and through romantic love.

Most of the book describes Lyhne's relationships with a series of women. Most of the relationships end unhappily as the object of Lhyne's affections marry someone else or otherwise fall out of his life. Lhyne tends to idealize women and put them on a pedestal. Most of the women are independent,strong-willed, and emancipated, in the term of that day, and try to impress on the young man that they are but flesh and blood, as he is.

Besides his romantic interests, Lyhne is both a thinker and a budding poet. He is greatly imaginative and talented but to his great regret allows his gift to dissipate as the novel proceeds. The novel is replete with long discussions about art, poetry, society and social change and, most of all, religion and the search for meaning in a world without God.

"Niels Lhyne" is a wildly emotional book with long, ranting and passionate discussions of the beauty of nature and of flowers, of ideals, the need for love, the search for faith and more. The intensity of Jacobsen's writing drives the story in tones ranging from banter and satire to high seriousness. Long passages of romantic, highly stylized writing are juxtaposed with short sentences and with sections of the most prosaic realism. A talented biologist who translated Darwin into Danish as well as a poet, Jacobsen in this novel explores the tensions between a hard-headedly realistic approach to life and romanticism or faith. With all the passion of the writing, "Niels Lyhne" recognizes ambiguity. It is thoughtful.

Many 20th Century novelists have developed the themes of religion and secularism, sexuality and gender egalitarianism, and realism and romanticism that Jacobsen explored in "Niels Lyhne". Jacobsen's book remains a highly individual, idiosyncratic work with its own perspective and understanding. Readers who admire writers such as Gissing, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse (all of whom knew Jacobsen's novel) as well as writers such as Camus and John Updike, among many others, will enjoy this bracing, somewhat off-the-beaten-path novel, "Niels Lyhne".

Robin Friedman
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on November 18, 2013
The life of Niels Lyhne (an idealistic, romantic, sentimental soul for whom learning is as beautiful as life itself) is full of lost physical and thwarted intellectual loves. Amid a hypocritical bourgeoisie (e.g., the consul Claudi and his slew of illegitimate children), he praises the joys of atheism.

The atheist
Niels Lyhne lost his faith when his sister died. This faith was not able to provoke a miracle, for no god answered his call to save her. From now on, Niels regarded a belief in a Providential God who punishes or rewards only after life, as nothing else than a flight from the realities of everyday life.
By becoming an atheist, he felt himself completely free and hoped the same for all mankind: do you understand the nobility of humanity when it will be free without God, when people can live their own life and die without fear of hell or hope of heaven?

The hypocritical bourgeoisie and the real rebel
But his friend Dr. Hjerrild warns him seriously: it is dangerous to proclaim oneself an atheist in a country where the power is in the hands of Christianity; nobody can seriously believe that the reigning powers will accept a loosening of their grip on the whole population.
Into the bargain, one should not expect that a new idea will be challenged for what it really is, but only for what the currently prevailing opinion thinks of it.
For a rebel (an atheist), it will be deeply discouraging to belong to an oppressed minority. Everywhere hypocrites are waiting for the moment to make you suffer by distorting your words and by interpreting your convictions maliciously. An atheist will be ignored or despised.

The test
The ultimate test for Niels Lyhne's atheism will be his answer on his deathbed to the crucial question of his friend, Dr. Hjerrild: Lyhne, a single word. Seriously, do you want a pastor?

This amazing novel tackles issues which are all still highly relevant today: political/social power through religion, freedom of speech, and the courage of, or the betrayal by the clerks (Julien Benda).
This book is a must read for all women and men of good will.
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on February 25, 2016
"It was not a disheveled, meaningless rush of emotions and moods; love was like nature, eternally changing and eternally giving birth, and no mood died away, no feelings withered except to give life to the seedling they bore within, to something even more perfect... And the days fell new and glistening from heaven itself now, not dragging by as a matter of course, one after the other like the worn out pictures in a stereoscope: every one of them was a revelation, for on each day he found himself greater and stronger and more distinguished."

-Neils Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen, translated by Tiina Nunnally

I was lent this book long ago by a friend and have just gotten to it. It is always a delight to find some really enjoyable work of literature I have not yet read, and there is always a part of me that wants to save a book I know will be lovely for when I have run out of things to read. I did not intentionally save this book for this part of my life, and yet it came at an opportune time. It is a good book for your late twenties, as Catcher in the Rye is a good book for your late teens, although unlike Catcher in the Rye, I do not think Neils Lyhne would be annoying if read later.

In writing about Neils Lyhne, I find myself intimidated at the company I join; the recommendation quips on the back of the book are from an impressive list of authors. Rilke calls it "indispensable," Freud says it made a "profound impression," and Herman Hesse waxes poetic about Jacobsen waxing poetic. Jacobsen, who wrote Neils Lyhne in the late 1800's, is widely read in his home country of Denmark, and is not unknown in Germany, but in the English speaking world he has been largely ignored, unjustly so. Stylistically Neils Lyhne reminded me of Madame Bovary, which I read last summer. Both are representative of a movement critics call "naturalism" or "realism" in literature, and were an aesthetic rebound from "romantic" works like gothic novels and medieval adventure stories. Both books spend a lot of time chronicling the inner lives of emotionally sensitive main characters, who find that what they've been led to expect from life by the fairy tales and popular novels of their childhood is not exactly accurate.

Neils Lyhne is a less cynical work overall than Madame Bovary, and one does not come away with the impression that the author was slightly disgusted by his characters. Indeed, even the supporting characters, some of whom are meant to be ridiculous, are described with what I can only call love by their author. Jacobsen was a botanist by profession, and was the first to translate the works of Darwin into Danish. His affection for the natural world, and our natural selves within it, his belief in the necessity and beauty of experience, is almost romantic of itself, and so he writes with more optimism and gentleness than his literary contemporaries.

On the plot, I will say this: it is predominately a coming-of-age-story. Neils, the title character, is a product of a union between a practical man from a romantic family and a romantic woman from a practical family. Identifying with both outlooks, he struggles to manifest a practicable worldview, adjusting his ideas constantly to incorporate new experiences, most of whom are women. Great care is taken with their characters, and even those he most idealizes are interesting, highly individual, and flawed. The beginning is taken a bit too slowly, and the ending is rushed, but the middle of the book finds a balance between action and description that pulls you forward with its own strange suspense.

This book is short, serious, utterly sincere, and lovely, full of small vivid details as it strains for tangible imagery to describe the landscape of the soul. The prevalence of introspection gives the reading experience a dreamy quality. Like all true literature, it needs to be read slowly. I found myself wishing I could read it in Danish, in the rain.

If you have been looking for a book with fjords in it, this one has quite a few.
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on August 4, 2014
Nothing at all worked in Niels’ life. Not for Lyhne, his father, whose wife made him feel ‘like a fish suffocating in hot air’, or his mother, Bartholine, who continued to live in her befuddled world of dreams and fantasy while her marital ship sunk.
Not even the birth of Niels could bring his parents together. As he grew up, Niels found his relationship with his mother agonising. He rejected her bewildering fables of characters whose fate she completely controlled, for a world that really existed. He preferred the more simple and practical life of his father.
Then there was Niels’ infatuation with Edele Lyhne-the 26 year old blonde woman with ‘a violently curved line of her back’. It was this woman that the 12-year old Niels secretly loved and worshiped, leaving his young heart racing with excitement each time he saw her.
Once again another venerated and divine figure of Niels’ life deserted him. Edele took seriously ill, and died, despite Niels’ earnest appeals to God not ‘to take her from us, because you know how much we love her, you mustn’t, you mustn’t.’ With Adele’s death, Niels’ faith also died. He saw her death as God’s violence directed at 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 no a bulwark to sorrow. He had gone on his knees at the feet of God, and had walked away with his hopes crushed. It was God, in his young mind, who was uncaring and forever goaded suffering towards humanity.
On the day Edele was buried he kicked the ground in anger every time the Lord’s name was mentioned. He was to the nurse a grudge against Him for the rest of his life. Faith became to him no different to his mother’s fairy tales. He felt feverish joy in the realisation that in loving God less, he could now love himself more.
Even his friendship with the idealistic Eric, with whom he had fallen in love from boyhood, didn’t escape failure and shame. Eric, in later years, was married to Fennimore, and he yearned for his friend’s company as his marriage floundered. Niels’ whose own life was stalked by failure, pain and self-pity was no salve to the couple’s problems-he was in love with both of them.
He embarked on a passionate relationship with Fennimore behind his friend’s back. And the despairing Fennimore, whose marital life was like ‘a bottomless pit of suffering’, for a while obliged him. Deception became a way of life for the two lovers, with ‘handclaps stolen under blankets, and kisses in the entryways and behind doors.’ But guile and cunning didn’t spare this relationship from failure. Fennimore later, as she angrily casts Niels’ away, felt herself stained by the affair.
She rejected their love as a sin, and a violation of an inner moral justice. With this rejection Niels’ boundless self-belief and sense of honour was shaken. He, perhaps still captive to his mother’s world of fantasy, was astonished by Fennimore’s icy and raw anger, He believed that he was rescuing a female soul from suffering and raising it to happiness.
The issue of faith and belief is undoubtedly central in the story, with the patriarchal God, in Niels’ eyes, the villain and the terrorist. He sees Him as a mean-spirited God with no ears and no mercy: one who created humanity only to ‘goad death towards it’. For Niels there is no learning from failure, or growth from adversity-but unrelenting fury towards a merciless divine. This is Peter Jacobsen’s ‘Divine Tragedy’, and in it there is only Purgatory.
Niels Lyhne, a central figure in the story. has taken up arms against God. because of a childhood tragedy. There is no hope, no inspiration, no abundance and no joy in his existence. Human life is to him a predictable journey towards ‘darkness, towards hell and the damnation of the soul’. And for this he blames God.
Predictably, the story does not have a happy ending. After wandering for years in his emotional desert, Niels meets and falls in love with Gerda-a very young girl. His young wife, ‘who leaned on him with complete trust,’ returned his love, and for a few years they lived happily together. A child was born out of their union.
Then, suddenly one morning Gerda fell ill. And as he did with Edele Lynhe, Niels sat at her bedside and slowly watched her slide into her grave.
As if Gerda’s death was not enough, Niels, one day, on returning from the fields found his little boy critically ill. No doctor could be found to tend to his dying son. In desperation and anger Niels’ raised his clenched fist threateningly toward heaven, and then falls on his knees vainly praying to a God that he despised.
With the deaths of his young wife and son, once again Niels drowns in melancholy. Then the war started, and Niels enlisted-to make himself useful again. Then one day he was shot in the chest-a final and cruel end to a wretched life. One wonders whether going to war was out of a sense of honour, or a deliberate act of suicide.
I asked myself of Niels Lyhne, as I read the book: ‘How do I describe thee? That he is an atheist is not in question. Was he also an unrepentant sadist? He makes no distinction between the married and the unmarried, boys and girls or children and adults. Was he the ultimate nihilist whose faithlessness inflicts catastrophe not only to those he loves, but also to himself?
It is difficult 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 the women, who fall for him, seem to do so out of pity. It is as if they can see the suffering victim that is desperately seeking meaning to life. It is as if they can discern the anguish of his devastated soul-one that had forsaken faith for scepticism, and surrendered wholly to pessimism
Niels Lyhne is Jacobsen’s self-portrait, with the writer at his literary best. Sadly his grandest characters, a varied constellation of them, manifest mainly tragedy. The only life and beauty in the story is mainly in the language, and in its marvellous and elaborate depiction of the riches of nature. It is as if Jacobsen raises earth above heaven-with the angels exiled and supplanted with 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 issues, compelling us to constantly observe and examine the world we inhabit.
Rilke, Rainer Maria , in his Letters to a Young Poet praises Jacobsen books-‘But I can tell you that later too one goes through these books again and again with the same astonishment and that they lose none of the wonderful power and surrender none of the fabulousness with which they overwhelm one at a first reading.’
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on July 2, 2014
This is a sensitively told tale of a young man, following him through stages of life to adulthood. I understand why Rilke was enthusiastic about the work. The author describes emotions, actions, and objects with a sensitivity that is subtle and refined, seeing far more than ordinary people do.
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