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Lost & Found: Jesse Nathan

Jesse Nathan sings to us of American fast food and Scandinavian longing in this Lost & Found on J. P. Jacobsen’s Mogens and Other Stories.

My life intersected with J. P. Jacobsen’s in a McDonald’s parking lot.  I hate many things about Ronald McDonald but his famous potatoes have had me in their MSG-soaked thrall since childhood.  Which is why I found myself off to the side of the drive-through, waiting on an order of large fries one late July.  Naturally, I pulled out a book and flipped it open.

Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is not what I’m writing about here.  But it was what I was consuming outside McDonald’s.  In it, Rilke doles out advice like this: “Of all my books just a few are indispensable to me, and two even are always among my things, wherever I am: the Bible, and the books of the great Danish writer, Jens Peter Jacobsen.”  I read on, intensely curious (the Bible and —who?).  Read Jacobsen, continues Rilke, and “a world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world.” One letter later, I was sold, ready to track down the books of this Jacobsen—specifically a collection called Mogens and Other Stories.  And just as I committed myself to finding it there came a knock at my window.  A man with a white paper bag stood outside.  “Sorry ’bout the wait, sir.”  I blinked as he handed over my precious fries.

Two weeks later, it was Mogens I was devouring.

I must have made an odd sight to that McDonald’s attendant, hunched over the steering wheel as I was, furiously underlining. Quivering, maybe.  Perhaps I even resembled a Jacobsen character: “Quite obviously he had just been reading a book,” writes the author in Mogens, “one could tell that from the expression in his eyes, from his hair, from the abstracted way in which he managed his hands.” Jacobsen, a man familiar with a diverse array of books and knowledge sets himself, would know:  he was a scientist first (biology, botany) and a fiction writer only later in his short life.  Born in Jutland in 1847 and educated in the 1860s at the University of Copenhagen, Jacobsen took top honors for his dissertation on seaweeds.  A few years later, he’d translated Darwin into Danish.  In 1872 he got tuberculosis and, bedridden, started writing for a living.  His strikingly small oeuvre—he published one novel and just seven stories—influenced, among others, Rilke, Lawrence, Freud, Hesse, Ibsen, and Schoenberg.  Working my way through Mogens, it wasn’t hard to see why.

The novella-length title story opens quietly as a door with well-oiled hinges: “Summer it was; in the middle of the day; in a corner of the enclosure.  Immediately in front of it stood an old oaktree.”  From here Jacobsen leads us into the lives of the dreamy-minded Mogens and his love, carefree Camilla, whom he meets in a rainstorm.  All seems well.  Then, just after they marry, Camilla perishes in a fire. Mogens, trapped nearby beneath a fallen beam, watches her banish into flames before being rescued himself.  The sight leaves him hysterical.  He slides into depression, renounces all love in an effort to stave off the pain of loss, and falls into a nomadic, vice-filled life. After abruptly dumping his latest fling one morning, Mogens says coldly:  “It means that I am tired of your beauty, that I know your voice and your gestures by heart, and that neither your whims nor your stupidity nor your craftiness can any longer entertain me.  Can you tell me then why I should stay?”

Mogens eventually falls for another, Thora, who draws out his better self.  He hears her voice first from afar, singing a refrain that could be his:  “In longing, in longing, I live.”  It’s this wanting, Jacobsen seems to believe, that drives a human mad—no matter how pure desire’s fluttering at first seems.  Even as Mogens and Thora wed, Jacobsen writes, “Passion spoiled everything, and it was very ugly and unhuman…He had been subjugated, weighed down, tormented, by this ugly and powerful force; it had lain in his eyes and ears, it had poisoned all his thoughts.”  Throughout the collection, Jacobsen drives to the heart of passion’s blinding sway over reason and, ultimately, its costs.  For the author, it’s this fever—fueled by distances and desires—that repels and melds us to one another again and again.

And Jacobsen probes passion outside the context of romantic love too.  In his allegorical, pre-Camus “The Plague at Bergamo,” the author conjures a death-infested landscape of fear and desperation.  The dying Bergamians vent a crazy-eyed lust for salvation; they want “to be His, not in gentle piety, not in the inactivity of silent prayer, but madly.”  Jacobsen’s riskiest venture—the skeletal plot and hyberbolic characters make the piece feel less like a short story and more like a dramatic skit—follows, called “There Should Have Been Roses,” an ethereal conversation between two swooning pages.  The collection finishes with what’s arguably the easiest, most formally conservative piece, “Mrs. Fonss,” in which a widow’s newfound passion for a long-lost lover forces a wedge between her and her children.  She dies leaving her estranged children a final letter:  “I knew very well that it was your great love, that caused your great anger; had you loved me less, you would have let me go more easily.”

Like Mrs. Fonss, Jacobsen had the temerity to perish early: he died of tuberculosis at thirty-seven.  And as with Keats or Basquiat, one wonders what still greater works would have come had be been around longer.  But the zestful, keenly observed vision, the vision that drew in Rilke, thrives still.  Rilke too wrote about passion and how it plays us.  So when the poet suggests Jacobsen to his letter-writing admirer, he’s saying what Chuck Palahniuk says of Amy Hempel’s short stories:  “If you don’t love this, we have nothing in common.”  Adds Rilke, somewhat more gently, of Mogens:  “Live a while” in these stories, “learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them.”

Jesse Nathan‘s poetry, fiction, criticism, and essays have appeared in Adbusters, Geez, the Believer, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.

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