While mostly forgotten today, Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen was widely admired by his 19th-century contemporaries and went on to inspire the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce. In his seminal Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke rhapsodized to a student he was in correspondence with about Jacobsen and “the happiness, abundance, the comprehensible immensity of a world” he found in his writing.
Off the page, though, Jacobsen lived a very small, circumscribed life. By all accounts a happy child, he grew withdrawn in his 20s and purportedly never had a romantic partner. While still in his youth, he contracted tuberculosis, which slowly killed him over the course of the next 11 years. He died in his apartment in his parents’ house, having produced much less in the way of writing than his peers, though he composed many garrulous letters to his friends. By the end of his life, he had published two novels, Marie Grubbe and Niels Lyhne—the latter considered his masterpiece—a book of short stories titled Mogens and Other Stories, and a volume of poetry. He is not often remembered today outside of Denmark, a tragic fate for such a gifted and promising writer.
Writer and critic Morten Høi Jensen, whom Adelle Waldman has called “one of our most sensitive and serious young literary thinkers,” was born and raised in Copenhagen and came to the United States for college in 2007. He says he became fascinated by Jacobsen in part because of the lack of existing literature on him in English, but also because of his own profound interest in atheism. Jacobsen was at the vanguard of a then-shocking literary sea change in Europe that found young writers questioning, and sometimes even rejecting, the religiosity of 19th-century society and literature. Take, for instance, the following passage from Niels Lyhne:
But if God had turned away from him, then he could also turn away from God. If God had no ears, then Niels would have no voice; if God had no mercy, then Niels would have no adoration, and he defied God and turned Him out of his heart … He took sides, as completely as he could, against God, but like a vassal who takes up arms against his rightful master, because he still believed and could not banish his faith.
Last fall, Jensen released a major biography of Jacobsen, A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen, in which he gives a sympathetic—almost tender—account of Jacobsen’s life and work. We learn about Jacobsen’s passionate interest in the natural sciences (he studied science as a youth, and a lot of his writing contains lush descriptions of native flora and fauna), his complicated and nuanced attitude toward his own atheism (which Jensen astutely characterizes as misotheism instead), and his painful descent toward an early death at the age of 38.
Jensen’s research seems especially vital because of how little biographical material exists on Jacobsen to begin with. I spoke with Jensen by phone last August, and he elaborated on Jacobsen’s life and legacy, his place in the canon of European literature, and what drew him to his subject in the first place.
Gee Henry (GH): How did you get an American publisher to commission a biography of a writer who’s basically unknown in America these days?
Morten Høi Jensen (MHH): Well, I was fortunate in that I was greatly supported by James Wood, the literary critic I admire most. He encouraged me to write the book and even contributed a foreword, because he has an interest in Jacobsen’s work. And I think that sheer curiosity might have been a factor. Once the publisher saw the influence that Jacobsen had had on entire generations of European writers, even some American writers, I think their curiosity and their interest was definitely piqued.
GH: Yes, and mine was too. I didn’t know anything about Jacobsen before reading your book, but I felt like his life was the quintessential depiction of a writer’s worst fear. He was a gregarious child, and then became kind of a closed-in person as a young adult, and then achieved a lot of fame for his first novel—so much so that he was easily recognizable in the street if he went out in Denmark or even in Germany later.
But he died in a very lonely way, and now his writing seems to have been lost. His contemporaries were people like Nietzsche and Rilke, so it’s not just the matter of time having passed. It’s just that for some reason he’s been forgotten, which I think is sort of like the nightmare scenario for any author—to not be remembered.
MHH: In Jacobsen’s case it was especially cruel, because even in his own time he was kind of removed from his own success, because it came at the same moment that he got very, very sick. And he had to spend the rest of his life removed in some sense from himself, but also from the literary community in Copenhagen. So in a way he was standing between life and death looking on all that he could have enjoyed had he actually been able physically to be there.
He spent a lot of that time just lying in bed, with his death-rattling coughing fits, waiting for the day when he would, as he knew, die. He never knew the overwhelming influence that his writing would have on some of the writers that you just mentioned—Rilke and Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Freud and so forth—because by then he was long dead.
GH: There was a powerful theme in his life of religion and the rejection of it. Not the disbelief in a god but just the rejection of God. Can you tell us a little bit about his early family life and what part religion played in that?
MHH: For most Danish families back then, religion played a strong role, especially in a place as remote as Thisted. It appears that his mother was fairly pious, his father a bit more pragmatic, but even then religion would have played a strong role in their lives. From Jacobsen’s early letters you could see that he, too, was a believer in the way you would expect him to be. Then as a young man he comes to Copenhagen and begins to involve himself with the study of natural sciences, zoology, biology.
At one point he becomes acquainted with the work of Charles Darwin and writes about it, translates it. I think this happens when he himself was beginning to feel this fairly run-of-the-mill existential doubt and adolescent rebellion, and he becomes involved with a lot of like-minded young writers and agitators who were also, if not quite atheists, then certainly en route to becoming atheists. By the time he emerges as a novelist, he is already this very full-blooded atheist and translator and popularizer of the works of Darwin. But I think Jacobsen wrestles very much with these questions throughout his short life, and that probably had something to do with the fact that death was so present in his life as a result of his tuberculosis.
You’re right, it’s not just a matter of not believing in God; it’s a rejection of God. It’s a rejection of everything, in a way, that Christianity stands for. His work often spills into—especially his second novel, Niels Lyhne—a kind of misotheism, which is a term that the literary scholar Bernard Schweizer uses, and which essentially translates into a kind of God-hatred. Jacobsen captures the strange relationship that an atheist necessarily has with God. As an atheist, you believe that God does not exist, but it’s still a kind of belief, albeit a negative one.
GH: You write that because he was born into a religious family, he had a sort of inherited piety, which is something that I think a lot of people can relate to. I was brought up Episcopalian, and I went to church every Sunday. And then as an adult, I sort of stopped going to church, but I never really stopped believing in God until I got to Los Angeles and I walked around the Skid Row neighborhood here. So I sort of learned to not believe in God.
Metaphysical questions about the meaning of life, the horrors of death, and all these questions, they linger even if God has been removed.
MHH: Right, and I think there is absolutely that element with Jacobsen as well. I mean, in some ways it’s not a very remarkable story—it’s the story of a loss of faith. It’s also something that’s fairly recognizable in the late 19th century. It’s something that we encounter in works by Edmund Gosse and Thomas Hardy, and later on in Nietzsche. In the late 19th century, you have this very positivistic kind of atheism that tends to be very rational-minded, and in a way that kind of atheism very much resembles the so-called new atheism of today—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et cetera. But Jacobsen was a novelist, and I think that his notion of atheism was very novelistic, because he was interested in contradictions.
In Niels Lyhne, his second novel, he very, very hauntingly and evocatively portrays the many nuances and contradictions of atheism. As a young man, the main character, Niels Lyhne, is seen as a very Dawkins-esque, militant kind of atheist, whereas at the end of the book he has become disillusioned with his own atheism. He realizes, as Jacobsen also did, that atheism isn’t necessarily a liberation, that removing God doesn’t mean that the problems that God is there to address disappear. Those issues are still very much there—metaphysical questions about the meaning of life, the horrors of death, and all these questions, they linger even if God has been removed.
GH: What do you think changed Jacobsen from such a friendly boy into such a shy, almost unknowable man?
MHH: That’s the great mystery of his life. What he goes through in his adolescence, when he’s living in Copenhagen and studying, taking his university entrance exams, and enrolling in university to study natural sciences and zoology—there’s a real dearth of information about this part of his life. There’s been a lot of work by past scholars, some of whom believe he underwent some kind of profound erotic crisis, although there is just no real evidence.
What we do know is that he was making friends with some fairly radical writers and critics. He was getting to know the work of Charles Darwin. He was doing a lot of extremely interesting reading. He read the works of Shakespeare; he read the French literary theorist Hippolyte Taine; he read the German biblical criticism of Feuerbach and Strauss; and then he read Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, he read Edgar Allan Poe, Swinburne. I think that through the kind of reading he was doing we can see his existential angst and his atheism take shape.
GH: Yeah, and reading Poe can make anyone shy and unknowable.
GH: Jacobsen never really had a girlfriend, and I think you note some scholars’ belief that he might have been gay.
GH: Can you talk a little bit about what you believe was going on with his sexuality?
MHH: This relates back to what we were talking about before about his adolescence, because some scholars have been a little overeager to figure out his sexuality. One particular scholar has read all of Jacobsen’s work in the light of his belief that Jacobsen was sadomasochistic, which I think requires a pretty serious leap of faith. Then there are German scholars who outed Jacobsen or considered him a latent homosexual. I think in the case of those German scholars, it says more about them and the time in which they were writing than it does necessarily about Jacobsen. It’s hard to conclude from reading two novels that an author is homosexual or sadomasochistic, and the trouble with Jacobsen is that there’s just no real evidence in his biography.
I mean, we have virtually no diary entries; we have no contemporary accounts of any kind of sexual activity. It seems he was very physically inhibited. Of course, that may well have been proof that he had homosexual urges or other kinds of sexual urges, but it’s just impossible to say anything conclusive. He had a friendship with a girl from the town he came from that at one point may have blossomed into a kind of romance, but probably more of an epistolary romance than a physical one. And my theory is that he probably never really engaged in any kind of meaningful romantic relationship or sexual relationship. He also simply could have been asexual. There’re all kinds of possibilities, but unfortunately there’s just no evidence that leads us anywhere conclusive.
But I would think that one of the reasons that a lot of scholars are interested in that question is because Jacobsen writes quite evocatively not about sex itself, but about erotic tension. There’s a very eroticized atmosphere in some of his work. Certainly in Marie Grubbe, his first novel, he evokes the title character’s desires and erotic longings very strongly, especially for a sexually inhibited young man.
GH: And there were some leading feminists at the time who held that that character—the Marie Grubbe character—was the woman of the present and the woman of the future, so to speak. Do you think he was purposefully trying to write a female character that was a feminist archetype?
MHH: I think I’d say no. I mean, he was interested in the psychology of Marie Grubbe, because Marie Grubbe was a real-life noblewoman who had this very well-known fall from grace that had been written about many times before Jacobsen. I think what interested Jacobsen was, again, the contradiction in her faith—the fact that she was a noblewoman who ended up poor and living with an abusive husband. I think Jacobsen took pleasure in this idea of her strong will and her deciding to live by her desires and her desires only, despite what was expected of her by society. He was interested in the counterintuitiveness of her faith and the contradictions of her psychology. It is a very moving and complex portrait of a woman, and by that fact alone I think you could certainly call it a feminist work.
Jacobsen, a very good scientist, was able to set aside that aspect of himself and to look at the natural world with the eyes of an artist.
GH: Going back to that young woman he befriended as a teenager and with whom he had an epistolary relationship. She was often committed to mental institutions, and eventually, you write, she was committed for three or four decades continuously until her death. And then you write later on about how, as he’s studying in college, a lot of his friends were having nervous breakdowns pretty regularly. God, how depressing that must have been for him! How depressing it must have been to be living in a time where people had nervous breakdowns as a rule, and then for him to be diagnosed with tuberculosis and have to watch himself slowly die for over a decade. It’s just hard for me to imagine that kind of life.
MHH: I mean, the conditions of life back then were much more brutal than they are today, and death was much more of a presence. It was much more proximate. Jacobsen had a younger sister who died of scarlet fever at the age of four. And his mother also gave birth to a stillborn child at one point, and then Jacobsen’s brother was married and lost his wife shortly after. Then there’s the more oppressive structure of society back then, which Jacobsen’s generation kind of took up arms against.
GH: I know that Jacobsen was really fascinated by botany. Can you talk a little bit about how that fascination altered or showed up in his writing? Because his writing is incredibly evocative of nature and color.
MHH: Jacobsen was unusual even in his own time for his very, very strange and unprecedented prose style. Even just a cursory glance at his writing will yield this impression—the colors, the flowers, the contours of nature, all these minute details. And clearly, he was endlessly fascinated by the natural world. What is amazing to me is that he was a scientist, a very good one, and so when he looked at a flower, say, he would know it, could break it down scientifically on a cellular level.
Yet he had this remarkable artistic ability to redescribe that flower, not in scientific language, but in artistic language. To me, that’s one of the reasons he’s such a great artist. He is able to look at something about which he knows everything and describe it or to see it as something other than what it is. He never becomes scientific or literal in his descriptions of the natural world. He’s able to set aside that aspect of himself and to look at the natural world with the eyes of an artist, and I think for a young man at that age to be able to do that is nothing short of remarkable.
GH: I have one last question. There’s not a lot to choose from when you’re deciding what to read of Jacobsen’s work, but do you have any suggestions for a reader who might want to pick up a book by him?
MHH: His second novel, Niels Lyhne, is his masterpiece and is one of the absolutely indispensable novels of modern European literature. And it’s fortunately available in a remarkable translation by a contemporary translator called Tiina Nunnally and published by Penguin Classics. That’s absolutely what I would go for—it’s a really astonishing novel. His first novel, Marie Grubbe, has recently been published in a new translation by a small press in England called Dedalus Books, and that’s the first really good English translation ever, actually. And then his collection of stories, Mogens and Other Stories, also translated by Tiina Nunnally. Those are out of print, published in the early nineties by Fjord Press, but you can easily find them on any online bookseller. All of his prose, his fiction, has very, very good English translations.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.