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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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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.