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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Niels Lyhne

Jens Peter Jacobsen

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To purchase Niels Lyhne

Title: Niels Lyhne
Author: Jens Peter Jacobsen
Genre: Novel
Written: 1880 (Eng. 1990)
Length: 212 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: Niels Lyhne - US
Niels Lyhne - UK
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  • Danish title: Niels Lyhne
  • Translated by Tiina Nunnally
  • With an Afterword by Eric O. Johannesson
  • Previously translated by Hanna Astrup Larsen (1919)

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Our Assessment:

A- : finely-crafted life-story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 13/5/1996 .
The NY Rev.of Books . 22/10/1992 Robert Craft

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)undervoll geschrieben, mit einer so einfühlsam sachten Distance, als sei jener Niels auch noch der Autor seiner selbst. (...) Wir sind natürlich ganz andre geworden inzwischen, aber Seelen hatten sie damals weiß Gott, und was für welche !" - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Niels Lyhne is a life-story, particular to its time (it was first published in 1880) and place (Denmark). It is short, but not really hurried, and though it skips ahead in places, focussing only on specific times in Niels' life, it provides an ample, vivid picture of the boy and then the man he becomes.
       The novel does not begin with Niels, it begins with his mother, and while the opening words emphasise continuity and her being part of a long family line -- "She had the black shining eyes of the Blid family" -- Jacobsen also makes clear that she is not entirely a part of it:

     At seventeen she was quite different from her siblings, and her relationship with her parents was not a close one either.
       Apartness is a major theme in the novel: Niels, too, will only rarely belong, rarely have others who he can share his life with. Again and again he will find: "now he was alone, and he felt it as a loss, but also, a little later, as a relief."
       Niels' mother, though born into a practical family, loses herself in a world of imagination:
     She lived in poetry, she dreamed in poetry, and she believed in it more than almost anything else.
       Not surprisingly, she falls for the first guy who offers her a glimpse and sense of something beyond the plain life she's familiar with, "young Lyhne from Lønborggard". Unfortunately, while Lyhne is willing to play along with all these flights of fancy she expects as he courts her he eventually finds it exhausting -- "he couldn't stand all that poetry, he longed to plant his feet on the solid ground of daily life" -- and early in their marriage already they drift apart, finding that they are not, after all, kindred spirits. Their son, Niels, does bring them together to some extent, but certainly their marriage is no longer one with much passion left in it.
       Niels isn't completely torn between his parents' very different approaches to life; both have their appeal to him, and he will become both an artistic soul and a practical man. If anything, he's ultimately not sufficiently committed to any specific pursuit to find fulfillment. (Of course, even the artistic one in the family, distant cousin Erik who comes to live with the Lyhnes after his father's death and becomes Niels' closest childhood friend, winds up, after a promising beginning to his career, more or less squandering his talents, suggesting Jacobsen has his doubts about finding fulfillment in artistic creation, too.)
       Lyhne's sister, twenty-six at the time, comes to live with the family in Lønborggard because her health is suffering from the constant whir of social activity in Copenhagen. Here, again, is a character who finds herself out of place and out of her element (and, like a fish out of water, it proves to be more than she can ultimately bear). As throughout, Jacobsen pinpoints everything in a few sentences:
     There was no one here with whom she could talk, for they didn't grasp the nuances of her words, the very life of the words; they presumably understood them, since they were Danish words, but with the dull approximation with which you understand a foreign language that you're not used to hearing spoken.
       Her death is a particular shock to young Niels, and it is a shock to his faith. God let him down and Niels can't handle that, so: "he defied God and turned Him out of his heart."
       Niels Lyhne is a book of solitariness, and certainly part of Niels' own solitariness arises out of the fact that he becomes god-less. It will haunt him to the very end, and at deathbed after deathbed including, finally, his own. This aspect of the novel, of wrestling with the supposed emptiness that comes from living without a god, was certainly more significant to readers of the novel when it first appeared, but even now it resonates throughout the novel -- coming down with all its weight as the story comes to its conclusion.
       Practically everybody in Niels Lyhne dies. Two lost loves merely shut Niels out of their lives (one, predictably enough, overwhelmed by guilt after the death of her husband), but pretty much everyone else who is close to Niels sooner or later dies. Repeatedly, he's left alone, first after the death of his parents, then after the loss, one way or another, of the women he loves.
       If many of the characters seem doomed to being alone (or at least out of place), so too love seems to be a near-impossibility, built, at best, like that of Niels' parents, on temporary delusion (that can not last). From the tutor who is in love with Edele, Niels' doomed aunt, to Niels' own long affair with the woman referred to only as Mrs.Boye, to Erik and Niels' love of the woman Erik marries, as well as Niels own marriage there are no happy, romantic ends here. Niels is partly to blame for his situations, as when he tells Mrs.Boye:
     "Let's not dream," said Niels then with a sigh and let go of the chair in resignation.
       Mrs.Boye doesn't see it quite the same way:
     "Oh, yes," she said, almost pleadingly and looked at him innocently with big eyes drowning in sorrow
     Slowly she stood up.
     "No, no dreams," said Niels nervously, and put his arms around her waist.
        His parents came to represent two poles -- a life that wanted to devote itself to pure imagination, and a much more practical one -- and Niels is constantly torn as to how to act and, specifically, what to do with his life. He's seen too much to give in simply to his dreams, but too often:
He didn't know what to do with himself and his abilities. He did have talent, but he just couldn't use it; he went around feeling like a painter without hands. How he envied others, great and small, who, no matter where they reached in life, always found something to hold on to ! Because he could not find anything to hold on to. It seemed to him that all he could do was sing the old romantic songs over again, and everything that he had accomplished had been nothing more than this.
       (While not explicitly referred to here, the sense of emptiness that comes from his god-less ways is clearly yet another facet of this lack he feels.)
       Niels should perhaps have been prepared -- or perhaps it was this that ruined it for him --: as a child he overheard his aunt turn away his tutor, and her harsh words certainly have been defining in his life:
I am not offended by your love, Mr.Bigum, but I condemn it. You have done what so many others do. People close their eyes to real life, they don't want to hear the 'no' it shouts at their wishes, they want to forget the deep chasm it shows them between their longing and what they long for. They want to realize their dreams. But life doesn't take dreams into account, there is not a single obstacle that can be dreamed away from reality, and so in the end they lie there wailing at the chasm, which has not changed but is the same as it has always been.
       Ah, but those dreams tempt so !
       More than almost any book of those times, Niels Lyhne smashes Romanticism and Realism together -- and lets the pieces fall where they might. Niels is no lost-in-the-clouds Romantic hero, but neither can he fully embrace a simpler life, too formed by Romantic ideals and expectations. History allows him an out -- death as at least one type of tragic hero -- but it's far from the neat tragedy of poetry and (most) books.
       Niels Lyhne is a novel from a different time, but it's stood up well. Jacobsen shows both remarkable restraint -- he takes barely two hundred pages to relate this life-story -- and a penetrating touch, repeatedly getting to the crux without forcing the issues. It's good writing (as the quotes above should demonstrate), and it's good story-telling too, and it's a novel that lingers long after it has been read.

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Niels Lyhne:
  • Penguin publicity page
  • Niels Lyhne - full text, in Hanna Astrup Larsen's translation (1919)
Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen lived 1847 to 1885.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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