A world will come over you, the happiness, abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn — it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments, and joys.
By the time Rilke wrote these words, Jens Peter Jacobsen had been dead nearly 20 years, but he was at the peak of a meteoric, posthumous fame: “the Jacobsen fashion,” it was called. Yet, when asked about fin-de-siècle Scandinavian literature today, a serious Western reader might mention Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Knut Hamsun, or (if they really know their stuff) Herman Bang; Jacobsen’s name is unlikely to come up. The towering proto-modernist, who numbered Joyce, Kafka, Freud, and Mann among his admirers, has thus far managed to elude what had once seemed an assured canonization. It is surely one of literary history’s most puzzling reversals of fortune.
Morten Høi Jensen’s A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen is the first critical biography of the novelist to be written in English. Jacobsen was born and raised in Thisted, a small town on the Jutland coast whose bucolic splendor was to shape both his interest in the natural sciences as well as the aesthetically rich, occasionally florid prose for which he became famous. As an adolescent, he explored the quarries and coastal plains with an ecologist’s rigor, “a tall, athletic boy with blonde hair, digging in the dirt, inspecting plants, and collecting specimens for the pamphlet he would write when he was just fourteen, ‘Silstrup’s Strangest Plants.’” (He would eventually go on to win a prestigious medal in college for his exhaustive study of Desmidiaceae algae.) But whereas previous biographers have rhapsodized over the supposed purity and innocence of Jacobsen’s youth — “a great, immensely colorful childhood in which he found everything his soul needed to dress itself in imagined guises,” wrote Rilke — Jensen undermines such sentiment with a line from Jacobsen’s last letter to freethinker and political firebrand Edvard Brandes, a friend and patron throughout his later life: “Idyll! There are no idylls.”
Idyll or no idyll, Thisted was a world Jacobsen would grow increasingly estranged from in the years to come. He matriculated to the University of Copenhagen in 1867, where the cultural velocity of cosmopolitan life would prove disorienting and intoxicating to the provincial youth. “I’ve experienced more in the nine months I’ve lived over here than I have in my entire life,” he wrote to his bemused parents. This period in Jacobsen’s development is often referred to by scholars as kriseårene, or the crisis years, though as Jensen notes this may be a tad grandiose “given that nothing outwardly dramatic or unusual happened.” The restless interval is perhaps better understood as “a sentimental education,” as Jensen has it, one that was to leave the young writer grappling with the very terms of modernity.
He lived in Copenhagen’s Latin Quarter, taking a room within a cheerless boardinghouse whose spartan furnishings belied the lushness of its intellectual environs. His roommates included the Finnish sculptor Johannes Takanen, a medical student named Emanuel Fraenkel, and the theologian Poul Kierkegaard, nephew of the great philosopher Søren. They called themselves the “circle of geniuses” and, the arrogance of youth notwithstanding, it was a worthy title for such an extraordinary concentration of talent. As Jensen writes, “Within a few years, the Danish translators of Feuerbach, Taine, and Darwin would all be sitting within shouting range of each other.” (Jacobsen himself would be the first to translate On the Origin of Species into Danish in 1872, with The Descent of Man arriving a few years later.)
Like George Eliot and Karl Marx before him, Jacobsen’s final disillusionment with the religion of his youth would be consummated by an encounter with Ludwig Feuerbach. The German philosopher’s seminal critique of Christian belief, which posited that God was merely the spectral analogue of all too human desires, provided ballast to the increasingly freethinking Jacobsen. “Christianity, as it exists in the Bible, seems to me too contrary to nature, too contradictory, for me to quietly accept it,” an 1867 diary entry reads. “I view it as a mythology no different from the Greek and the Norse.” If Jacobsen’s atheism would animate his literary work over the next two decades, it has also proven to be something of a red herring for critics. Jensen, never less than a sensitive reader of his subject, thankfully resists the prevailing critical reflex to locate a Darwinian worldview in each of Jacobsen’s works. Rather, for Jensen, Jacobsen’s decision to dedicate his life to literature in the early 1870s set in motion one of the great poetics of disorientation in modern letters, an extraordinary record of the “estrangement of the self from life.”
Jacobsen’s first novel, Marie Grubbe: Seventeenth Century Interiors, based loosely on the scandalous life of a 17th-century Danish noblewoman of the same name, was published in 1876 to great acclaim. In his enthusiastic foreword to A Difficult Death, James Wood refers to Marie Grubbe as “one of those books that simultaneously founds and dissolves a genre,” a historical novel moonlighting as the first work of modern Danish realism. Comprised of “a series of carefully constructed scenes or episodes that sometimes exist almost independently of each other” — indeed, it was much admired by another literary miniaturist, Christopher Isherwood — Marie Grubbe offers a compelling portrait of the modern self, fragmented, iterative, various. Each new failed lover or degradation necessitates a transformation in the eponymous heroine, a fluidity of character that seems to present, as Jensen suggests, “a challenge to the novelistic representation of coherence.” This interest in the inconstancy of character would become central to the work of both Knut Hamsun and August Strindberg, the latter of whom was so enamored of Marie Grubbe that he attempted to adapt it for the stage.
Having contracted tuberculosis at the age of 26 on his first trip abroad, Jacobsen would live out his final decade keenly aware of death’s inexorable approach. The disease ravaged his body, necessitating years of what Thomas Mann memorably referred to as “horizontal living.” When the young Herman Bang met Jacobsen for the first time, the appearance of his literary hero gave him something of a shock. “I hadn’t expected him to look like that — not that sick,” he later recalled. “His tall figure was almost doubled over. I, who had seen so much lurking disease, did not expect him to be so marked by death.”
Jacobsen’s apprehension of his own mortality would manifest itself in perhaps his greatest work, the novel Niels Lyhne (originally titled The Atheist), which Jensen calls “the most death-haunted novel in European literature.” In its bizarre alloy of detached detail and dreamy, horrific awe, it is a novel “in which the strands of both realism and modernism are greedily imbricated.” Niels, the titular protagonist, loses his faith at the age of 12 following the death of a beloved aunt. Over the course of the novel he runs a harrowing existential gauntlet, accruing a series of other terrible losses: his friend, his wife, even his young child. At his son’s deathbed, Niels breaks down and prays to the God he has rejected; when the boy dies, Niels is left with his failure of spirit and the understanding, as Kierkegaard wrote, of “the agonizing self-contradiction of not being able to do without a confidant and not being able to have one.” It is an uncannily full and nuanced account of atheism, “not simply as an idea,” Jensen says, “but as a living, fluctuating belief.” The paralysis Niels feels at the novel’s end is the apostate’s natural condition, one Jacobsen knew intimately: that of an unwilling conversant with a deposed divinity.
Jacobsen wrote little in his final years, despite near-constant hatching of plans for new stories and novels. He would finally succumb to his illness in his parents’ Thisted home on an April afternoon in 1885, having perused a catalog of French paintings and quaffed a small glass of port. He was just 38 years old. The oeuvre he left behind was small — a handful of poems, a few short stories, two novels — but remarkably influential. Indeed, the fame that had eluded him in life arrived in a great posthumous flaring, a kind of vogue among a new generation of mystic aesthetes. The early 20th-century cult of decadence found in Jacobsen a saturnine idol, one who might reveal the secret of what it meant to be truly modern. Positivism and naturalism had been eclipsed by a preoccupation with “the irrational, the psychological, the mysterious and unconscious life of the soul.” Jacobsen was recast as a prophet of resignation who withdrew from life so that he might see through its deceptive veneer. From a distance, it seems a rather tawdry revision of a great artist.
Jensen’s elegantly realized biography disposes of such faddish cultism, returning the authentic Jacobsen to a new generation of English readers. Here is the incongruous artist — elegist and celebrant, Darwinian naturalist and romantic poet, invalid and ambitious creator — sounding the incongruous self. “[D]eath is the eternal peace,” he would write to his brother after the death of his wife, “the great silence.” Although Jacobsen has been gone these many decades, one hopes that his silence proves only temporary.
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.