Authors: Jorgen-Frantz Jacobsen
Dedalus would like to thank The Danish Arts Council’s Committee for Literature and Arts Council England, London for their assistance in producing this book.
Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen (1900–1938) spent his early childhood in his native Faroe Islands, then proceeded to high school and university in Denmark. He worked as a journalist for the newspaper
, but in 1922 fell prey to the tuberculosis that led to his early death.
He worked to the very end, and while
was his only novel, it was preceded by a work entitled
The Faroes, Nature and People
, which has the dual quality of being informative and a work of considerable beauty. Although written in Danish, his work is intensely Faroese.
W. Glyn Jones read Modern Languages at Pembroke College Cambridge, with Danish as his principal language, before doing his doctoral thesis at Cambridge. He taught at various universities in England and Scandinavia before becoming Professor of Scandinavian Studies at Newcastle and then at the University of East Anglia. He also spent two years as Professor of Scandinavian Literature in the Faeroese Academy. On his retirement from teaching he was created a Knight of the Royal Danish Order of the Dannebrog.
He has written widely on Danish, Faeroese and Finland- Swedish literature including studies of Johannes Jorgensen, Tove Jansson and William Heinesen.
He is the the author of
Denmark: A Modern History
and coauthor with his wife, Kirsten Gade, of
Blue Guide to Denmark
W. Glyn Jones’ many translations from Danish include
by Villy Sorensen and for Dedalus:
The Black Cauldron, The Lost Musicians
The Good Hope
by William Heinesen,
by Herman Bang and
My Fairy-Tale Life
by Hans Christian Andersen.
He is currently translating William Heinesen’s last novel
The Tower at the Edge of the World.
When Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen died in March 1938 at the early age of 37, he left behind the manuscript for this book. Jacobsen had previously been known to the Danish public as the author of two books on the Faroe Islands in addition to a large number of articles in the newspaper
on Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian and other Scandinavian subjects, and through these articles he achieved a reputation as a gifted and original journalist with a distinctive style, a man who tackled his material with authority and complete honesty, but writing in an artistically fascinating,
Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen was born in 1900, the son of a grocer in Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. He was of an outgoing and positive nature and was gifted in many fields, and people rightly had great expectations of him. He would undoubtedly have been able to make an important contribution both as a scholar (historian) and as a politician if stubborn ill health had not prevented him from developing to the full extent of his ability. This illness, tuberculosis, already made its appearance when he was only twenty-one years old, living as a student in Regensen, the hall of residence in Copenhagen, and it made its mark on the rest of his later life. For long periods he was condemned to being bedridden and passive, into the active life that suited his temperament. He took part in politics, became acquainted with a great number of people and conditions, undertook studies and journeys, fell in love – and all the time devoting himself to the writing that had been a compulsion for him ever since childhood. He undertook demanding tasks and exposed himself time after time to overexertion, which again led to relapses and once more tied him to his bed. “The organ is strong enough,” he would say, “but the church can’t stand it.” And as he approached maturity the church became ever weaker, though the organ remained just as indomitable.
Jacobsen also occupied himself with literary activities from his earliest youth. He wrote some poems, some short stories and plays, and he left hundreds of poetical letters and reports often in the form of elegant descriptions of nature and travel accounts or in the form of memoirs.
He started on the novel
in 1934. His illness had by then taken a complicated and dangerous course. Most of the book was written while he lay ill in bed, often under conditions that least of all could be expected to predispose a man to productive work. But it was not in Jacobsen’s nature to break down. He was absolutely invincible, and he met every adversity in a manner that could only be described with one word: heroic. No one ever heard Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen complain at the really quite unusually harsh fate that was his. On the other hand, he often expressed his gratitude to life, with which, as he put it, he had always been on good terms and the gifts of which he did not intend to subject to suspicion. “Simply all these Faroese mountains and valleys: Kirkjubøreyn, Reyðafallstind, Sjeyndir – and all that music: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel or Carl Nielsen! Yes, and then Kingo, Bellman and La Rochefoucauld!” as he exclaims but his courage and his spirit were never subdued. As soon as a temporary relief gave him back his freedom, he threw himself in one of his letters.
Four months before his death he wrote to a friend: “Don’t you be bothered about my Mozartian view of life… my strength lies in my not striving for happiness and well-being but for better or for worse being in love with my own fate.” During a catastrophic bout of his illness which, as he well knew, would necessitate a difficult and dangerous operation, he wrote these stoic and ironic words: “This is a trial, but if you want the good, you must accept the bad as well. If I die, you will be able to write on my grave: Here lies one who had many human experiences and was always harmoniously happy. He finally even managed to experience a touch of the molestations of old age.”
As will be clear, Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen was not prone to either the pretentious or the mystical. On the other hand, his view of life was characterised by
, a humour of a certain honest and pithy kind, often containing a touch of wormwood in the manner of harsh criticism and self-irony and always linked to the respect for life and its immediate realities, which he rated more highly than any sort of unconstrained and dishonest metaphysical ramblings.
The material for the novel
is taken from a Faroese legend, “Beinta and Peder Arrheboe”, which builds on a foundation of historical events. The beautiful, but evil parson’s wife, Beinta, who has been married several times and is the cause of her husbands’ misfortune and death, is traditionally seen as a virtually demonic female figure, a vampire who is evil for the sake of being evil. The
who is the subject of Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen’s novel is also in her way a jinx and a vampire, but she is portrayed in such a way that we understand her, come to be fond of her and finally to feel sorry for her. She is neither demonic nor mystical, but in all her paradoxical womanliness, all too human. The same applies to the book as a whole. It takes place at the time of Frederik the Fifth (1723–66), though this is no archaic portrayal, but, one might say, a modern one, and Jacobsen builds throughout on his own experiences, not on reading and literary studies. It is a book about life and youth, a portrait characterised by archness and charm, by humour and poetry, but also containing a touch of irony and an undercurrent of melancholy. It was written by a man who was still young and resilient in spirit, but whose body was already broken and aged – a man who in spite of all his troubles and painful experiences never grew bitter because, “for better or for worse” he was genuinely in love with life in the form in which he had found it.
The lights in the Royal Store buildings in Havn were almost blown out by the wind each time there came a gust. Occasionally, it could be as quiet as the grave. Then the heavy timberwork would start to groan, and the gale again caught the brown tarred wooden houses in its stranglehold. There was a pitiful wailing in every corner; the warehouse shutters tore and struggled in their iron cramps; the turf roofs danced in turmoil like wild flames, and the surf cast itself heavily on the stony promontory of Tinganes and enveloped all Tórshavn in a shower of salt and rain.
In the storehouse, Ole the stocking buyer and Rebekka’s Poul were busy sorting jerseys. They sat in the small circle of light provided by a lamp. Otherwise, the warehouses lay in darkness. But several folk were assembled in the shop.
They had received news. A boat that had been out fishing to the east of Nolsoy had seen a ship. They thought it was the
, which was expected from Copenhagen with goods for the Store. But she could not get into the harbour in this weather. The fishing boat had made the shore at the last moment before the storm broke.
The men stood around, idly discussing this ship. They were Tórshavn men –
men, as they were known – at one and the same time soldiers at the Redoubt, porters in the Royal Store and fishermen far out at sea when the weather was suitable and the commander would allow them to go. They were leaning over the counter. The tallow candle shone in their flaccid faces and their sullen, red-ringed eyes. They were spitting and yawning in a generally miserable manner. The news was turned over like a plug of chewing tobacco. Gabriel, the storekeeper, was standing at his desk behind the counter. He occasionally looked up from his accounts and made a small contribution to the conversation.
Were there two or three masts on this ship? Oh, two masts. Yes, it would probably be the
Katrine the Cellar fought her way into the Store. The gale was right on her heels like some evil spirit. Then the door slammed to. She timidly wished everyone a good evening, cowed by all the commotion she had caused. The men spat at a slightly greater distance and acknowledged in this way that they had noticed her. They were not particularly grand – neither Springus, Niels the Punt, Samuel the Hoist nor the Beach Flea. But they did not approve of female interference in a strictly factual discussion on seafaring. Katrine also fully understood this. For a long time she stood there meekly and was only Katrine the Cellar. Or rather: for the time being she hardly existed. But her eyes were watchful and determined. She had her little war to wage. So when Gabriel at some stage, almost by chance, caught sight of her, she was there straight away: “God bless you, Gabriel, will you let me have a jug of syrup this evening.”
She cautiously pushed the jug forward on the counter.
“What the hell are you doing out here again now? Haven’t you been out here once before today buying both flour and oats?
“God bless you! Just so the children can have something to drink this evening.”
“Oh, go to blazes,” shouted Gabriel furiously. “Why the devil can’t you buy everything at the same time?”
“We couldn’t take more on account this morning, you know. But now Marcus has had such a good day’s fishing.”
“Do you think I haven’t anything else to do but stir the syrup barrel every time Marcus catches a tiddler?”
Clearly showing his irritation, he went over to the barrel, bent his fat back and filled the mug with the thick syrup. Katrine watched him excitedly. It was taking such a long time. If only he didn’t change his mind half way! Gabriel groaned and swore gently. Finally, he straightened his back and flung the mug across the counter: “There!”