Almost nothing 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.
A 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 adore 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.’