Ahead of his Time
Niels Lyhne Jens Peter Jacobsen
Translation Hanna Astrup Larsen
“Niels Lyhne,” Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fliess in 1895, “has moved me more profoundly than any other reading of the last ten years; the last chapters I recognize as classic.”
Jacobsen’s book is a fine work of literature in every respect; yes, I dare say it is among the most exceptional that our time has produced.
Niels Lyhne is an aspiring poet, torn between romanticism and realism, faith and reason. Through his relationships with six women - including his young widowed aunt, a seductive free spirit, and his passionate cousin who marries his friend - his search for purpose becomes a yielding to disillusionment.
One of Danish literature’s greatest novels, with nods to Kierkegaard and a protagonist some critics have compared to Hamlet, Jacobsen’s masterpiece has at its center a young man who faces the anguish of the human condition but cannot find comfort in the Christian faith.
Niels Lyhne 1880 is Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Decadent masterpiece that captured the attention of a generation. Stefan Zweig spoke of it as ‘the Werther of our generation’, and it evoked the enthusiasm of Ibsen, Thomas Mann, Freud and Rilke. It became a cult book during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, and beyond. The Australian-born Henry Handel Richardson 1870–1946 was the first to translate Jacobsen’s novel into English, and, under the title of Siren Voices, hers was the version read by James Joyce and T.E. Lawrence, among others. It was her first book-length publication, the novel that showed her how she herself might become a writer.