Monday, 29 September 2014

Poetry Revisited: Indian Summer by Katharine Tynan

Indian Summer 

(From Experiences: 1908)

This is the sign!
The flooding splendour, golden and hyaline
This sun a golden sea on hill and plain, --
That God forgets not, that He walks with men.
His smile is on the mountain and the pool
And all the fairy lakes are beautiful.
This is the word!
That makes a thing of flame the water-bird.
This mercy of His fulfilled in the magical
Clear glow of skies from dawn to evenfall,
Telling His Hand is over us, that we
Are not delivered to the insatiable sea.
This is the pledge!
The promise writ in gold to the water’s edge:
His bows in Heaven and the great floods are over,
Oh, broken hearts, lift up! The Immortal Lover
Embraces, comforts with the enlivening sun,
The sun He bids stand still till the day is won.

Katharine Tynan

Friday, 26 September 2014

Book Review: I'm Off by Jean Echenoz
Art business is tough. Tastes change at the same pace as fashion and buyers always ask for something new at a good price, something that will increase its value with time and that will give the owner the aura of a true connoisseur. Who wants to earn a fortune selling art thus needs to be either some kind of a clairvoyant or a genius in sales or a trendsetter of renown. The lady-killing protagonist of I'm Off by Jean Echenoz, which I'm reviewing for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge, is the owner of a small art gallery in Paris who doesn’t spare costs nor pains to secure priceless objects for his clients almost from North Pole when his assistant baits him with the profits. Then the whole lot is stolen and it seems the end of all dreams, even of the protagonist’s life, but things are never so bad as they look at first.

Jean Echenoz was born in Orange, Southern France, in December 1947. He studied sociology and civil engineering at different French universities. He made his literary debut with Le méridien de Greenwich (The Greenwich Meridian) in 1979 which was followed by the prize-winning novel Cherokee (1983). Many works of this prolific French author have been translated into English, most notable among them Chopin’s Move (Lac: 1989), I’m Off (Je m’en vais: 1999; also translated as I’m Gone), Ravel (2006), Running (Courir: 2008), Lightning (Des éclairs: 2010), and the World War I novel 1914 (14: 2012). Jean Echenoz lives in Paris, France.

With the title words I'm Off the Parisian gallery owner Félix Ferrer leaves his wife Suzanne on Sunday, 3 January. He is a womaniser in his mid-fifties and longing for a change, but he is despite all surprised that Suzanne doesn’t even bother to make a scene. For a couple of months he lives with his young lover Laurence, until she throws him out. Then Ferrer moves into a luxurious apartment in the rue d’Amsterdam where his assistant Delahaye shows up one night with his friend Victoire (who settles down there for a while). Business in the gallery has been slack already for a while and Delahaye seizes the opportunity to talk to Ferrer about a small commercial ship called Nechilik that got stuck in the Arctic ice in 1957 and was recently rediscovered. Among the frozen cargo is Inuit art which happens to be sought for by collectors and seems such a good bargain to Ferrer that he decides to travel to northwesternmost Canada to secure it for his gallery. Before the adventure can begin, Delahaye is victim of a fatal accident. At least that’s what Ferrer and the rest of the world is made believe, while in reality he has taken on the name Baumgartner and waits for the moment to score the prepared big coup. On a day in June Ferrer boards a plane to Montreal and continues the strenuous travel to the remote coast of the District of Mackenzie (Nunavut Territory since 1999) first on an icebreaker and then on dogsled. Even in the isolation of the Arctic he finds women to seduce, the nurse-librarian of the icebreaker and an Inuit girl. The artefacts from the Nechilik meet all his expectations and he takes them back with him to his gallery in Paris. Before he has a chance to even insure his treasure, it is stolen by the junkie thief Le Flétan who was hired by Delahaye, now Baumgartner. For Ferrer the loss is a disaster, since he put almost all his money and hopes into the acquisition. He calls at every bank to get a loan, but his errands are in vain and eventually it is too much for his already weak heart. His life, however, goes on after a multiple heart bypass and it still has some surprises as well as charming women in store for him.

The novel I'm Off is told from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator who doesn’t hesitate to insert his own (sometimes laconic) comments on described events and actions in the plot whenever he considers it necessary or useful. It’s obvious that the main two story lines – Ferrer’s expedition beyond the Arctic Circle to secure the Inuit artefacts and everything concerning their following theft – combine the popular genres of adventure and crime with a character study of the protagonist, a womaniser going through a midlife crisis. Jean Echenoz spiced his novel with a good dash of irony, though, making fun of the established rules of fiction writing which keep being observed above all by authors who (try to) create genre bestsellers in great numbers in as little time and with as little effort as possible. A considerable number of flashbacks and flash-forwards livens up the plot which all in all feels plausible and without loose ends. Despite being caricatured to a certain degree, all characters in the book appear and act like types that can be found in any neighbourhood. With Jean Echenoz the choice of their names sometimes is a pun too, but in general they aren’t translated because otherwise the junkie thief of this novel would be called the Halibut instead of Le Flétan. In style the work of Jean Echenoz is said to evoke Raymond Queneau and Laurence Sterne. Since I haven’t read anything by either of them, I can’t tell it it’s true, though. The author’s language is modern, unpretentious and characterised by the ample use of wordplay as well as unique images which add a great deal to the pleasure of the read. I had no difficulty at all to read the original French version although some of the puns obvious to a French reader may have been lost on me.

All things considered, I'm Off by Jean Echenoz has been an entertaining and interesting cross-genre read. I liked the author’s sense of humour that shows in subtle irony rather than gross jokes and I will surely read others of his (usually) short novels. The first one will be the novella titled One Year (Un an) from 1987 that is included in the English edition that I chose for this review.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Poetry Revisited: My Fairy by Lewis Carroll

My Fairy

(1846; first published 1932)

I have a fairy by my side
Which says I must not sleep,
When once in pain I loudly cried
It said “You must not weep”
If, full of mirth, I smile and grin,
It says “You must not laugh”
When once I wished to drink some gin
It said “You must not quaff”.

When once a meal I wished to taste
It said “You must not bite”
When to the wars I went in haste
It said “You must not fight”.

“What may I do?” at length I cried,
Tired of the painful task.
The fairy quietly replied,
And said “You must not ask”.

Moral: “You mustn’t.”

Lewis Carroll

Friday, 19 September 2014

Book Review: Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf remains of a life? Which traces does a person leave behind when s/he is gone? Of course, there are things, but more importantly there are memories. Memories of occasions, of words and the voice in which they were said, of habits and gestures, of a typical odour or taste, of emotions linked with her or him… thus of bits and pieces that each taken for itself are of little importance. Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf, which I decided to review for my personal reading challenge The Great War in Literature, patches together a couple of insignificant scenes to paint the portrait of a young man getting to know life and just preparing to settle down when a beastly war swallows him up.

Virginia Woolf was born as Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, England/U.K., in January 1882. Her father was Sir Leslie Stephen, a renowned biographer, critic and mountaineer who taught his daughters at home and who influenced Virginia’s writing. After the deaths of her mother (1895) and her father (1904) she suffered nervous breakdowns, the first of many that were caused by what would probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder today and the aftermaths of sexual abuse by her half-brother as a child. Virginia made her debut as an author in 1900 publishing personal reminiscences and essays, but she also ventured into fiction writing soon. In 1908 she began working on her first novel Melymbrosia which was published as The Voyage Out in 1915, three years after she had got married to Leonard Woolf. The couple founded Hogarth Press in 1917 and Virginia’s second novel, Night and Day (1919), appeared under its imprint. The novels Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941) followed along with several short-story collections and non-fiction work like the famous book-length essay A Room of One's Own (1929) or the biographies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog Flush (1933) and of Roger Fry (1940). During another mental crisis Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex, England/U.K., in March 1941.

The opening scene of Jacob's Room is set on a beach in Cornwall during a summer holiday in the 1890s. At the time Jacob Flanders is a boy giving his widowed mother a hard time like his elder brother Archer, while his younger brother John is only a baby. Jacob passes an ordinary childhood in the small northern town of Scarborough in Yorkshire and in 1906, at the age of eighteen, he moves on to Cambridge to begin his studies at Trinity College. Although he is clumsy, insolent and inexperienced, he soon adapts to student life and makes friends. With them he indulges in the usual activities: they go to mass in King’s College Chapel, they attend the Sunday luncheon parties of their don, they get absorbed in discussions of all kinds, they row boats on the river, they read and they study. Upon the invitation of his friend Timmy Durrant he makes a trip on a yacht during summer holidays. After a few days on sea and a little quarrel, they stop by the Durrant’s summer house in Harrogate and Jacob is a success with the party despite being perceived as somewhat awkward by his surroundings, but distinguished-looking. Timmy’s sister Clara is particularly impressed by the young man’s unworldliness and also Jacob admires her as a woman with a flawless mind and a candid nature. However, after graduation Jacob goes to London to prepare for the Bar and plunges into bustling life in the streets of the metropolis. For a while he has a love affair with a young woman called Florinda and later Fanny Elmer, who poses for a painter friend of Jacob, unsuccessfully tries to impress him by reading Tom Jones by Henry Fielding because she has a crush on him. Then in the spring of 1914 Jacob travels to Italy and Greece because he adores Ancient Roman and Greek culture. He passes peaceful and impressive days with Sandra Wentworth Williams and her husband Evan, not suspecting what lies ahead.

In Jacob's Room the author traces the life of the male protagonist in a remarkably indirect way using a series of disconnected scenes that revolve around him although he isn’t always present. His character is mostly depicted as others perceive it, notably the important women in his life like his mother, his lover and friends, and takes shape only as the novel progresses. The narrative technique chosen by the author for this purpose is stream-of-consciousness which includes many passages with a powerful and poetic imagery. Although the structure of the novel is strictly chronological, the timeline is fragmented. There isn’t much of a plot leading the reader by the hand through Jacob’s life, either. Written in a more conventional style, the novel would certainly feel rather dull and boring because all things considered its story is uneventful and commonplace. But luckily Virginia Woolf made an experimental character study of it, one that is much neglected by readers because it is less accessible than other works by the same author, above all Mrs. Delloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and her impressionistic masterpiece The Waves. This makes it a difficult read that requires quite some attention and a taste for jumping from one scene into the next almost without transition. The author’s language, however, is modern and unpretentious, thus pure delight.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Jacob's Room by Viriginia Woolf although I must admit that it isn’t my favourite among her works. The picture of Jacob that the pieces of the puzzle show in the end is a bit too incomplete to my taste, but the novel is certainly worth the time it requires to read it. Thus I recommend it.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Poetry Revisited: Secrets by Lola Ridge


(from Sun-Up and Other Poems: 1920)

infesting my half-sleep…
did you enter my wound from another wound
brushing mine in a crowd…
or did I snare you on my sharper edges
as a bird flying through cobwebbed trees at sun-up
carries off spiders on its wings?

running over my soul without sound,
only when dawn comes tip-toeing
ushered by a suave wind,
and dreams disintegrate
like breath shapes in frosty air,
I shall overhear you, bare-foot,
scatting off into the darkness…
I shall know you, secrets
by the litter you have left
and by your bloody foot-prints.

Lola Ridge

Friday, 12 September 2014

Book Review: The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata
There are loud books that are talked about everywhere and every time, while there are quiet ones just as good or even better that remain in the shelves because they hardly attract attention. Even the works of writers who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature are often neglected or forgotten. I don’t know if my choice for today’s review belongs to those hidden gems of literature, but The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel laureate of 1968, surely isn’t on a recent bestselling list. The story revolves around a young woman from Kyoto who leads the ordinary life of the daughter of a dry goods wholesaler in the 1960s. She floats through the year with the cycle of nature and of centuries old festivals welcoming on her way an unknown of twin sister and a young man as her companions.

Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成) was born in Osaka, Japan, in June 1899. He lost his close family very young and moved to Tokyo in 1917 to attend university where he soon took to writing fiction. In 1921 he published his first short story in the university’s literary magazine which he had revived. After graduation he worked as a newspaper reporter for many years, but never gave up fiction. The short story The Dancing Girl of Izu (伊豆の踊子: 1926) established his fame as a gifted writer in 1926. His most famous and probably most popular novel up to this day is Snow Country (雪国), first published in instalments over a period of twelve years (1935-1947). Other important works from his pen are Thousand Cranes (千羽鶴: 1949-1952), The Sound of the Mountain (山の音: 1949-1954), The Master of Go (名人: 1951-1954), The House of the Sleeping Beauties (眠れる美女: 1961), The Old Capital (古都: 1962), and Beauty and Sadness (美しさと哀しみと: 1964). In 1968 Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yasunari Kawabata died in Zushi, Kanagawa, Japan, in April 1972. It remains uncertain whether he killed himself or if it was an accident.

Twenty-year-old Chieko lives in The Old Capital of Japan, thus in Kyoto. She has been brought up as the legitimate daughter of the Sadas, Takichiro and Shige, but she knows that they found her as a baby sleeping on a bench under a blossoming cherry tree and yet feels no desire to inquire into her true origins. Chieko has a good life helping her parents and enjoys the pleasures that Kyoto offers with its countless large or small festivals celebrated around the year in the different shrines and temples. In the novel’s opening scene the young woman contemplates the violets blooming in two hollows of the old maple tree in the small garden. She is very fond of the beauty of nature, especially of cherry trees in blossom and of the straight red cedars of Nakagawa District. With her friend Masako she visits the log village Katayama one day and from far they catch a glimpse of a working girl who looks like Chieko, but they don’t give it any importance. During the Gion Festival a few weeks later Chieko goes to the shrine at Otabisho and suddenly finds herself face to face with the girl from Kitayama absorbed in the “seven-turn worship”. They are as like as two peas. The girl’s name is Naeko and as fate would have it she was born a twin, but raised as an only child not knowing what has become of her sister. Although Chieko has no other proof than their striking resemblance, she is at once convinced that she is Naeko’s lost twin sister and ready to introduce her into the Sada family. Naeko, however, is a very humble girl and feels that she shouldn’t cause unnecessary confusion in her sister’s settled life. Naeko has just left the shrine to return home, when the weaver Sosuke Hideo mistakes her for Chieko whom he secretly hopes to make his wife. The shy country girl doesn’t set things right, nor does Chieko who watches them from a distance like the Mizuki brothers Shin’ichi and Ryusuke. Shin’ichi is a school friend of Chieko and like a brother to her, while she hasn’t had much to do with his elder brother Ryusuke yet, but that is about to change little by little.

In The Old Capital life and attitude of the protagonist are tenderly revealed through a series of unspectacular episodes taking place during a period of about one year, starting in spring and ending in winter. The story flows with the cycle of nature and of important festivals that are being celebrated in Kyoto more or less like in the old times – when the city still was the capital of Japan. Yasunari Kawabata doesn’t omit or hide, though, the changes and above all the westernisation that society underwent after World War II until the early 1960s when he wrote the novel. Chieko may wear kimono and obi most of the time, but first of all she is a young Japanese woman with modern habits. Hers is a quiet, even contemplative story without much action although it offers some interesting turns on which another, especially a more recently trained author might have based a dramatic as well as conflict charged plot to ensure the novel’s commercial success. As suits the story’s atmosphere, its style is very simple and flows over with powerful images of a scenery reflecting the protagonist’s frame of mind while at the same time leaving a lot of room for interpretation or imagination respectively. The novel also feels unfinished because it leaves open more than one plot line and makes the reader wonder what may become of the characters. All in all it reminds very much of a short Japanese poem called haiku that (provided that it’s composed according to the strict rules) is necessarily incomplete and ambiguous. This impression corresponds with the author’s idea of fiction writing as an art in the Zen tradition.

Reading The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata has been a very enjoyable experience for me, so much so that I’ve already added other works by this Nobel laureate to my reading list – something that I don’t usually do. If you’re like me interested in Japan and her culture, you’ll find the novel quite attracting and also for those who don’t just seek entertainment or thrill when they choose a book it’s a wonderful read. I recommend it warmly.

If you're curious to know what I have to say about another work by the same author, please click here to read my book notice of The Master of Go on my other (seldom updated) book blog Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion.

* * * * *

This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.

For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!

Monday, 8 September 2014

Poetry Revisited: Die drei Zigeuener – The Three Gipsies by Nikolaus Lenau

Die drei Zigeuner


Drei Zigeuner fand ich einmal
liegen an einer Weide,
als mein Fuhrwerk mit müder Qual
schlich durch sandige Heide.

Hielt der eine für sich allein
in den Händen die Fiedel,
spielte, umglüht vom Abendschein,
sich ein feuriges Liedel.

Hielt der zweite die Pfeif' im Mund,
blickte nach seinem Rauche,
froh, als ob er vom Erdenrund
nichts zum Glücke mehr brauche.

Und der dritte behaglich schlief,
und sein Cimbal am Baum hing,
über die Seiten der Windhauch lief,
über seine Herz ein Traum ging.

An den Kleidern trugen die Drei
Löcher und bunte Flicken,
aber sie boten trotzig frei
Spott den Erdengeschicken.

Dreifach haben sie mir gezeigt,
wenn das Leben uns nachtet,
wie man's verraucht, verschläft, vergeigt
und es dreimal verachtet.

Nach den Zigeunern lange noch schaun
mußt' ich im im Weiterfahren,
nach den Gesichtern dunkelbraun,
den schwarzlockigen Haaren.

Nikolaus Lenau

The Three Gipsies


Three gipsy men I saw one day
Stretched out on the grass together,
As wearily o'er the sandy way
My wagon brushed the heather.

The first of the three was fiddling there
In the glow of evening pallid,
Playing a wild and passionate air,
The tune of some gipsy ballad.

From the second's pipe the smoke-wreaths curled,
He watched them melt at his leisure.
So full of content, it seemed the world
Had naught to add to his pleasure.

And what of the third?--He was fast asleep,
His harp to a bough confided;
The breezes across the strings did sweep,
A dream o'er his heart-strings glided.

The garb of all was worn and frayed,
With tatters grotesquely mended;
But flouting the world, and undismayed,
The three with fate contended.

They showed me how, by three-fold scoff,
When cares of life perplex us,
To smoke, or sleep, or fiddle them off,
And scorn the ills that vex us.

I passed them, but my gaze for long
Dwelt on the trio surly--
Their dark bronze features sharp and strong,
Their loose hair black and curly.

Unknown translator at

Friday, 5 September 2014

Book Review: Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende research on family history can be quite fascinating, especially when well-kept secrets are finally revealed or unexpectedly come to light. Consequently, it’s no wonder that genealogy is such a popular hobby these days! But however much information we gather about our ancestors, the picture that we get will never show them in their true colours. Instead it will inevitably be yellowed, probably even blurred and faded... just like the picture that we have of ourselves. The protagonist of Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende comes to the conclusion when she puts together the life stories of three generations that led to her existence and that made her the vague person who she is.  

Isabel Allende, in full Isabel Allende Llona, was born in Lima, Peru, in August 1942 into a family of Chilean diplomats and politicians. In the 1960s she worked for the United Nations, married and had children. Being the cousin of Salvador Allende, the President of Chile until the coup d’état of 1973, she fled to Venezuela following death threats. There she got into journalism and began writing fiction. The writer’s debut novel was The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus) which was refused by several Latin-American publishers and became an immediate success when a Spanish publisher brought it out in 1982. Others of her notable works, which often have a strong autobiographical touch, are Eva Luna (1987), Paula (1994), Portrait in Sepia (Retrato en sepia: 2000), City of the Beasts (La ciudad de las bestias: 2002), Inés of My Soul (Inés del alma mía: 2006), and Maya's Notebook (El Cuaderno de Maya: 2011). Her latest published novel is the murder mystery Ripper (El juego de Ripper: 2014). In 1989 Isabel Allende settled down in San Rafael, California, USA, with her second husband where she still lives. 

It’s thirty-year-old Aurora del Valle who puts together a Portrait in Sepia of herself with the poorly defined and incomplete pieces of information about parents and grandparents. Aurora is born in San Francisco’s Chinatown on a Tuesday morning in the autumn of 1880. Her mother is Lynn Sommers, the young, beautiful and rather dull daughter of English-Chilean Eliza Sommers and her Chinese husband Tao Chien, the community’s most renowned zhong-yi and much respected for his medical expertise by Chinese colleagues as well as western doctors. However, he isn’t able to save his daughter who dies a few hours after giving birth. Aurora’s natural father is Matías Rodrígues de Santa Cruz, the eldest son of wealthy Paulina del Valle and Feliciano Rodrígues de Santa Cruz, but he seduced Lynn following a bet with his friends and didn’t think of marrying her as she was convinced that he would because her mind was full of the cheap romances that her grandaunt Rose Sommers wrote. In his stead cousin Severo del Valle from Valparaíso in Chile, who stays with his aunt Paulina while being trained to be a lawyer, fell in love with Lynn and in the end he succeeded in persuading her to marry him to give the child his honourable name. When Lynn dies, Severo is desperate. He decides to seek death joining the Chilean army engaged in a war with Peru and Bolivia at the time and leaves Aurora with her maternal grandparents. The paternal grandmother, Paulina del Valle, who refused to take any responsibility for the illegitimate child of her son, takes it into her head to raise her granddaughter as soon as she learns that Lynn is dead, but Severo del Valle as the girl’s father before the law has left detailed instructions and neither Eliza Sommers, nor Tao Chien are willing to give Aurora up.
Five years pass and one day Eliza Sommers shows up at the residence of Paulina del Valle with Aurora to leave her there because her husband was killed and she needs to take care of his funeral in Hong Kong. Paulina del Valle, who has been widowed for a couple of months too, is delighted to get her will at last and to raise the girl. She decides to sell her house in San Francisco and to return to her native Chile after a tour of Europe to distract the fearsome girl who is haunted by nightmares. Before leaving, Paulina’s loyal major-domo of many years, Frederick Williams, proposes to her and she accepts the marriage of convenience with the man who will pass as a British noble from then on. In 1886 they arrive in Santiago where Severo del Valle has meanwhile recovered from the loss of a leg, married his incredibly fertile cousin Nívea and settled down as a lawyer. Aurora stays with her grandmother and growing up witnesses the turmoil of recurring revolutions and civil wars in Chile.

Already the first sentence of Portrait in Sepia reveals that the protagonist herself sets out to tell the story of her life and of her origins as far as she managed to find them out. Isabel Allende skilfully embedded the crude facts of personal history into picturesque and lively images. At the same time the author dwelled in several clichés like just for instance teenage girls who blindly run after their loved ones leaving behind their families, even countries without a second thought and a much idolized young beauty who is empty-headed and seduced by a spoilt young man from a respected family. Such stereotypes use to annoy me because repeating them means keeping them alive, even when they are believed to be long outdated. Fortunately, Isabel Allende made the main female characters, notably Paulina del Valle, Severo del Valle’s wife Nívea and the protagonist herself, strong, intelligent and active women. All in all the novel is a slow-paced first-person narrative which unfolds for the greatest part chronologically and which is always interweaved with the true historical background. Not being a historian, nor otherwise well acquainted with the history of California and Chile from 1862 through 1910, I dare not to judge whether everything is based on thorough research, but at least I didn’t stumble across any obvious inconsistencies. The language of Isabel Allende is rich in colourful images and yet unpretentious. It’s also sufficiently simple for me to be able to enjoy reading the Spanish original.

I admit that Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende probably isn’t the most intriguing and worthwhile work of this enormously popular Chilean author, but I still took great pleasure in the read. Moreover, it gave me an idea of the turbulent history of Chile which is quite a lot considering that I knew virtually nothing about it. And it goes without saying that I recommend the book to you.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Author's Portrait: Jens Peter Jacobsen

As regards literature, Northern Europe has been fertile ground ever since the old Norse sagas were written down, notably the Icelandic Edda. The fact that fifteen authors from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature between 1901 and 2013 tells of a vivid narrative tradition. In fact, the names of Scandinavians can be found on bestseller lists regularly, but of course there are important classical writers from the region, too. Every bibliophile will at least have heard of Knut Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen, Selma Lagerlöf, August Strindberg, and Sigrid Undset – to name just a few –, but how about Jens Peter Jacobsen, a late contemporary and fellow-countryman of Hans Christian Andersen?

Jens Peter Jacobsen was born into the family of a wealthy merchant in Thisted at the western end of the Limfjord in Jutland, Denmark, on 7 April 1847. He was the oldest of five children and early showed exceptional talent as well as passion both for science and literature, a double penchant which is visible in all his work. As a sixteen-year-old he moved to Copenhagen to finish secondary school and stayed there to study botany at university. He was a gifted scientist and in 1873, although he had never taken any exams, he presented his outstanding dissertation on freshwater algae which was rewarded with the prestigious Golden Medal of the University of Copenhagen. 

As a student Jens Peter Jacobsen became immediately fascinated by the still recent discoveries of Charles Darwin and, over a period of about five years, translated into Danish for the first time two of his key works, namely On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. He also wrote scientific articles for a radical Danish journal to promote and establish Darwin’s ideas in the north of Europe where they were hardly known until then. In addition his engagement in the Theory of Evolution helped the young man to get over disappointment in love and a deep religious crisis and it led him to adopt the atheistic, ie naturalistic view of the world which is reflected in his literary work. 

It was with a short story titled Mogens that Jens Peter Jacobsen made his debut as a writer in 1872. Since already in this first published literary work man is shown as an animal that can’t but follow its nature, it was considered highly revolutionary at the time. The story, however, is admired above all for its strong impressionistic language. In the early 1870s the author also set out to write Marie Grubbe. A Lady of the Seventeenth Century (Fru Marie Grubbe), a historical novel based on a Danish noblewoman who gave up her station to become the wife of a ferryman and be happy, but due to his scientific and translation work along with failing health it wasn’t finished before 1876. 

Already in 1873, during a travel around Italy, Jens Peter Jacobsen was severely struck with tuberculosis which cast a shadow on the rest of his life preventing him from pursuing his plans for the future. As from the mid-1870s he gave up for good science and fully devoted himself to literature. He returned to Thisted to live with his family and travelled to the South, especially Italy and France, repeatedly for reasons of health. He wrote his second novel titled Niels Lyhne, a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman about a young man who loses his faith and becomes an atheist, and published it in 1880. By then his health had deteriorated already considerably. 

After 1880 Jens Peter Jacobsen’s poor health no longer allowed him to write much. He finished a few tales like A Shot in the Fog (Et Skud i Taagen: 1875), Two Worlds (To Verdener: 1879) or The Plague in Bergamo (Pesten i Bergamo), There Should Have Been Roses (Fra Skitsebogen) and Mrs. Fonss (Fru Fønss) which he brought out in a collection, together with his first published work, under the title Mogens and Other Stories (Mogens og andre Noveller) in 1882. These stories, like all other literary works of the author, are characterised by an extremely precise and introspective style which uses to be labelled as naturalistic. Because their plots are made up of a string of picturesque scenes which remind of great impressionistic paintings his writing is also referred to as impressionistic. 

On 30 April 1885 Jens Peter Jacobsen died from consumption, as tuberculosis was often called then because it visibly ate up the body, in his family’s home in Thisted. Some of his late works, notably his poems were published posthumously and widely read not just in Denmark, but also abroad, above all in Germany. 

The influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen on other writers has been enormous, especially in Scandinavia and Germany. Rainer Maria Rilke is known to have been particularly passionate about his work because he mentioned him in his letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, which were later published as Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter: 1929). Of course, he had the advantage of speaking Danish. Also Thomas Mann was well acquainted with the innovative work of the Danish author. In his novella Tonio Kröger from 1903 the parallels to Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne are particularly obvious. Thus it is justified to call the Dane an important precursor of German symbolism. 

Since Jens Peter Jacobsen has been dead for almost 130 years, all his writings are in the public domain. English translations of his novels Marie Grubbe from 1917 and Niels Lyhne from 1919 as well as the collection Mogens and Other Stories from 1921 can be downloaded as free e-books from

Monday, 1 September 2014

Poetry Revisited: The Dream by Aphra Behn

The Dream

(From Poems upon Several Occasions: 1684)

All trembling in my arms Aminta lay,
Defending of the bliss I strove to take;
Raising my rapture by her kind delay,
Her force so charming was and weak.
The soft resistance did betray the grant,
While I pressed on the heaven of my desires;
Her rising breasts with nimbler motions pant;
Her dying eyes assume new fires.
Now to the height of languishment she grows,
And still her looks new charms put on;
Now the last mystery of Love she knows,
We sigh, and kiss: I waked, and all was done.

`Twas but a dream, yet by my heart I knew,
Which still was panting, part of it was true:
Oh how I strove the rest to have believed;
Ashamed and angry to be undeceived!

                                                     Aphra Behn