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12 June 2012updated 02 Sep 2021 4:56pm

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.

By Paul Binding

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.

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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.

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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)