Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen

“Aber die Stimme sprach vergebens, denn ein nüchtern gelebtes Leben ohne das süße Laster der Träume war kein Leben – das Leben hatte ja nur den Wert, den die Träume ihm gaben.” (Jacobsen, Jens Peters. Niels Lyhne. Reclam, 1984, p. 12).

What Jens Peter Jacobsen referred to as the “sweet vice of dreams” in his novel, Niels Lyhne, I have grown to know all too well. I believe that certain books remain tucked away on a shelf for years and emerge at exactly the right time. I began a project of reading the books that inspired great writers. After finishing Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, I learned that both he and Hermann Hesse had been inspired by Jacobsen’s 1880 Danish work.

The book centers around certain life events of the young man, Niels Lyhne. Throughout his life he endures revelations that portray a gripping literary tension between romanticism and realism. The challenges that surround his confrontations with both emotion and logic come to full fruition in topics such as happiness, religion and love. The characters reveal and speak to an ache in the heart of romantics and idealists who struggle to reconcile their place in a world of ever looming disillusionment.

At 218 pages long and written in an exquisite 19th century stylistic elegance, this book will speak to those of you caught in a world torn between ideals and reality. Those who feel they never quite belong will find solace in the insight and acknowledgement of the “sweet vice” we were born to carry.

Elusive Certainty

Do you hear the sadness that lingers even in the most lighthearted of voices? A desperate longing that never ceases to evade my grasp is seemingly my most faithful companion. A blissful moment slips away, the record ends; even intoxication reaches a dreary limit. Glimpses of brilliance leave me ever wanting; I feel unable to drink even a simple cup of coffee without anticipating the coming void. How do I fill it? How do I dwell in every crevice of each cherished moment? As while counting the coins in the bottom of my bag for a parking ticket, I’m overcome by mundane dread. Scarcity and continuity intertwine.

The finest get lost in overtime and lack of time. Their brilliance fades every time we meet and I can’t seem to conjure up what had so ignited my passion. Stories wear thin without bodies to wear them. Their voices speak to the sadness I carry. There is a vague, sweet acknowledgement of the desperation we bury in a desk drawer or douse in wine. We let it slip away in front of the television. Petty disputes let us forget how great love once loomed.

The infinite lives, from which we must choose but one, haunt our holidays and health struggles. I find an empty journal, like the empty canvas, terrifying. What is it I must do that I haven’t? What is it I’m to feel or create? How do I fill the void of my own existence? How can I love enough? How can I assemble something essential, spread it as far as the mind can reach and yet preserve its immediate brilliance? Where do I stash the despair of my squandered attempts?

It’s not the losses. It’s knowing how to start over with the burden of so much lost time, the beloved enemy.

Opening the heart to a kind of elusive certainty seems so frightening and yet remains the one and only task.

What do we do with our grandeur?