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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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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit