It is unfortunate and distressing that comments on the Penguin Classic edition have made the purchase of this gem a veritable nightmare. Having read the disparaged bowdlerized version of Hanna Astrup Larsen (Scandinavian Classic first printing 1919) and Tiina Nunnally's rendition (Penguin, 2005) I must address the issue and put to rest what has become an absurd debate that is faulty and irresponsible. I should also note that Tiina Nunnally's translation received the PEN Center USA West Translation Award for her labors, and her version retains the candor, lyricism, enthusiasm and melancholy cadence that is often described as proper to Jacobsen's style. I think it appropriate also to note that the Penguin Classic edition is free of any abridgement and that it is published unadulterated by omissions.
The book was deemed controversial for the professed atheism of the protagonist. Indeed Niels refutes the opportunity to renege his atheism at the hour of his death when given the opportunity, and all the more receives the blessing of his friend Hjerrild who claims that if he were God he would rather "Bless the one who would not change his mind at the end". However this is a crucial theme of the book - the loss of a metaphysical authority to make sense of things. The primary focus remains the fearless search for reason and meaning, sensations and love in a world that seems intent on defeating any such quest and demeaning the valor of the heart. The love scenes are of such profound beauty that they delight and excite, inspire and enliven. A constant focus being the idealism of love and the dreaded pragmatic vicissitudes that vulgarize it and, by the book's end, the redemption that may yet come of it. The narrative takes us from the day-dreams of youth to the hope for greatness, and to finally the realization that life is to be endured for what it is. A stark realism pervades the last pages, where hope is lost and truth declaimed as inadequate to satisfy the longings of the brave. It is a novel whose poetry is stifled by the vulgar apprehensions of everyday life. It is a novel that dreams the big dreams and fears the nightmare only to eventually consign itself to the inevitable brutal truth that makes for a "difficult death." It is with reason and accuracy that much as been made of Rilke's, Hesse's, and Thomas Mann's debt to the book; indeed "The Notebooks of Brigge", "Tonio Kruger", and "Damien" thread a common theme and live a similar fate, but there are some passages in Niels Lynhe that are simply brilliant aesthetically, and anyone who forgoes reading Jacobsen's novel should feel deprived of one of literature's best books ever written.