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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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear