Rainer Maria Rilke

Niels Lyhne

by Jens Peter Jacobsen (trans. Tiina Nunnelly; Penguin, 2006)

is one of those forgotten masterpieces that, when he finds it, a reader cannot believe he or the rest of humanity has gotten along without. I found Jacobsen through Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters, not knowing that the nineteenth-century Danish writer had also found admirers in Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, August Strindberg, T.E. Lawrence—the list goes on. This small novel influenced a whole generation of European thinkers and writers to an extraordinary extent. And rightfully so. Here is a book in which, as Rilke says, “there is nothing that does not seem to have been understood, held, lived, and known in memory’s wavering echo.”

Niels Lyhne is also a book about belief, about a poetic soul feeling its way through an ordinary life. The eponymous protagonist falls deeply in love, only to disagree with his lifelong love on the subject of faith. He struggles with these questions, right up to the point of death, when his friend tells him, “Opinions are only to live by—in life they can do some good, but what does it matter whether you die with one opinion or another?” Yet, to Niels it does matter, and he dies what Jacobsen calls “the difficult death.”

One apprehends in this book the seeds of the great works of the early twentieth century: Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and all of Hesse’s earlier works to name only a few. In a way, these books seem less original, more reflections of Jacobsen’s effort, after reading it. Of course, these later novels may be greater and more developed in some ways.  But after reading this lost classic, it becomes clear that they could not have existed without the brilliant, haunting Niels Lyhne.

is an English professor at the University of Bridgeport.