Monday, January 6, 2020

Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen

Atheist coming-of-age story
Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen is one of a group of writers associated with what’s known as the Modern Breakthrough in Scandinavian literature, in which several writers in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden broke away from the prevailing romanticism in European literature and forged a movement towards naturalism. French author Emile Zola is generally considered the founder of naturalism, but while he was formulating his naturalist school in Paris, Danish literary critic Georg Brandes was simultaneously spearheading a similar movement in Scandinavia. One of Brandes’s recruits was Jacobsen, whose novel Niels Lyhne was published in 1880.

While romantic literature emphasizes individualism and spirituality, naturalist literature emphasizes a more scientific view of the world in which human beings are inescapably formed, governed, and directed by natural forces. One such natural force is heredity, as Jacobsen illustrates in Niels Lyhne. The novel begins with the courtship and marriage of Niels’s parents. His mother lives a sheltered, insular, small-town life. Through a love for poetry, she finds some escape from her mundane existence and develops into an inveterate dreamer. She is attracted to Niels’s father, who comes from a wealthier and more cosmopolitan family, because he has traveled to foreign lands and gained an appreciation for arts and culture. After their marriage, however, the romance of Mr. Lyhne wears off as he becomes just another practical business man. Mrs. Lyhne than shifts her lofty dreams to her son and instills in Niels the romantic visions she can no longer share with her husband. Under her influence, Niels decides to become a poet. As he grows older, however, he finds his life drifting further and further from the idealistic dreams of his youth as his manhood is shaped by a series of events that transform those dreams into lost illusions.

Naturalism often goes hand in hand with atheism, and Jacobsen was a confirmed atheist. One of the reasons I chose to read this book is because Niels Lyhne has a reputation as a pioneering work of freethought literature. Even the introduction to the English edition of 1921, by translator Hanna Astrup Larsen, calls attention to this particular aspect of the book. While there is an atheist message to this novel, however, Jacobsen sure does make you wait for it. Other than one brief conversation about midway through the text, only the final 10 percent of the novel deals explicitly with atheism and religion. It is worth waiting for, however, as this is one of the most frank and forthright depictions of nonbelief in the literature of its time. Even so, the bulk of the novel primarily concerns itself with the various love affairs one usually finds in a coming-of-age novel. Even though Jacobsen was a professional scientist—a botanist influenced by Darwin—Niels’s adherence to atheism is based more on an emotional rejection of God over the loss of loved ones rather than on any rational philosophical basis. The book’s final chapters evoke the brutally frank detachment and deterministic fatalism one finds in the writings of Zola and his disciples. The rest of the novel, however, feels more tied to the emotionalism of the Romantic era, though in a protomodern style evocative of the early novels of Hermann Hesse or Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

Given Jacobsen’s strong Darwinian inclinations, Niels Lyhne was not quite the freethought manifesto I was hoping for. It is still advanced for its time, however, and a worthwhile read for those who enjoy Scandinavian literature.
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