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On Klaus Rifbjerg’s Terminal Innocence: rediscovering Danish literature’s answer to Catcher in the Rye

Its stylistic combination of rawness and verbal invention explains to a great degree the huge impact Terminal Innocence had on its first public.

Terminal Innocence
Klaus Rifbjerg. Translated by Paul Larkin
Norvik Press, 262pp, £11.95

“You couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Somehow, not being in love with him was impossible. Though you would never show that or actually make it real. You just needed him there and couldn’t do without him.” This is how, from the first, Janus Tolne, the narrator of Terminal Innocence, looks on his classmate Tore Riemer. Tore is bright, excelling at work and out-of-school activities alike, the natural leader of every group yet also inventively subversive.

None of this quite accounts, however, for his heady eminence in Janus’s picture of existence. Janus thinks of him simply as “Tore the Man”, as though he were the ­pattern for the adulthood looming ever closer to them, a desideratum for the future as well as a ceaselessly entertaining companion for the present.

When, after a school dance, Tore falls in love with Helle Junkersen and the two become a publicly acknowledged couple, Janus’s admiration only intensifies. “We formed our own solar system with Helle and Tore as the sun and me as the circling satellite.” The simile is shot through with self-deceptions on the part of all three. This solar system is inherently unsustainable.

This is the situation central to Terminal Innocence, which, ever since its appearance in 1958, has occupied an unassailable place in the Danish psyche. In her informative and percipient preface, C Claire Thomson mentions the success in Denmark of the 1953 translation of J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. A narration full of youthful argot and a speaker with frank and uninhibited reactions to people and institutions are equally outstanding features of Klaus Rifbjerg’s novel – indeed, he went on, in 2004, to make his own translation of Salinger’s novel. But Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) is surely another source of inspiration: Tore comes to interest us above all because of his meaning for Janus, just as Meaulnes moves us through his impact on his admiring friend.

Yet Terminal Innocence has important features that elevate it above even these perennials. First, Janus is placed firmly in familial and societal contexts, as are Tore and Helle, both significantly from single-mother households outside the bourgeois norm of the time. Second, the characters are not abstracted from contemporary history. The earlier years of Janus’s and Tore’s friendship unfold during the German occupation of Denmark, conveyed through short, vivid and telling cameos. The characters’ subsequent development mirrors Denmark’s almost unbelievable recovery into a society of freedom and opportunity, a welcome change – manifested in an intimately rendered Copenhagen – that nevertheless brings peculiarly difficult challenges to burgeoning identities.

These challenges (so unlike the essentially inward angst of Holden Caulfield, who takes his New York City curiously for granted) determine the course of this Danish masterpiece, impelling its shattering climax and the disquieting epilogue that follows. Fear, the urge to destruction, our need to compensate ourselves in testing times with ideals incapable of realisation: these are not confined to wartime conditions; they are merely heightened by them. Nothing wreaks greater harm than fostered self-ignorance and little in the book is more powerful – or troublingly convincing – than Janus’s discovery, in the midst of his idyllic enjoyment of Tore’s and Helle’s mutual happiness, of his own sexual appetites, gratified in less-than-idyllic circumstances. He finds his greediness and indifference to others, even as he looks back, hard to accept. We have entered very different territory from Alain-Fournier or Salinger: starker, more demanding.

Its stylistic combination of rawness and verbal invention explains to a great degree the huge impact Terminal Innocence had on its first public. I strongly recommend readers to turn to the translator Paul Larkin’s fascinating afterword before embarking on the novel. Obviously to render Rifbjerg’s prose in the English of the 1940s or 1950s was undesirable, calling too much attention away from the Danish personnel by arousing specific British period associations. Instead, Larkin, who has a deep and wide familiarity with the Danish language, has decided on an eclectic mix of slang: hip American, Irishisms, 21st-century English.

The dialogue is superbly done, not least in its antiphonies, even if the idiolect of the discursive passages (“trogheads”, “swampies”) sometimes seems too close to that of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. But adapt yourself to this. Larkin at his best sounds the authentic note of heartbreak, as in Tore’s valedictory line: “You wanted me to carry not just my own hopes, but yours and everybody else’s. But that’s just too much!”

Paul Binding’s most recent book is “Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness” (Yale University Press)

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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