A Literary Year – January – Tom Kristensen’s Havoc

After last year’s winter, which featured non-stop snow-falls from January to April (I am not kidding. It snowed on Palm Sunday last year), I thought I’d never be happy to see a snowflake again, but like Anna I was really getting concerned about the extremely mild temperatures we’ve been having; the blooming cherry trees and the March-like rain that’s been pouring down and soaking our Summer-shoe-clad feet this winter. Global warming indeed, and it scares me. However, a couple of days ago the first snow finally fell, the temperatures dropped to below zero, and we’ve been having a bit of winter. And thus I can finally get down to writing my entry for “Literary Year”/”Musical Year” – I simply haven’t been in the mood for it till now. (Or, well, actually I just haven’t gotten around to it until now. But I’ll blame the weather, because that sounds better). 

My literary choice for January is Tom Kristensen’s Havoc. This is the same novel that Anna spilled coffee all over, then lost to the force that is the biological process of moulding, and I keep forgetting to ask Anna if she ever got her new copy from that antiquarian bookstore, and whether she’s read it yet. Did you read it yet, Anna? In any case, as Anna pointed out, it seems strangely appropriate that this book of all books should eat itself up, because the main-theme of this very recommendable novel is in fact self destruction. Main character Ole Jastrau, a Copenhagen literature critic circa 1930, recognizing what he finds to be the meaningless of his existence, indulges in a reckless journey into Copenhagen night, an odyssey of disintegration of his own self, accompanied by a strange gallery of urban suspicious characters, and a whole lot of alcohol.  

I’ve been wondering why this of all novels would come to my mind when I considered which literary piece to illustrate the month of January on this blog, because unlike my choice for December, Havoc doesn’t deal with a particular month of the year, or a tendency towards depictions of snowy January landscapes or anything like that. But it does have that certain gloom and that aforementioned champagne-after taste of broken new year’s resolution that I tend to associate with January. More than that, it’s got a rambling flow that resembles stream of consciousness and a cynically accurate approach towards the potentially all-consuming power of decay.

 

The passage that I would like to quote here is from a significant scene in which Jastrau has gotten drunk and made a spectacle of himself at a dinner party and is taken home in a taxi by his embarrassed wife Johanne. Agitated and already well on his way in his downward spiral, Jastrau decides to make a final, fatal break with his own sanity and the world that could have saved him… I am quoting from the English translation of the novel by Carl Malmberg:

 Johanne drew her wrap closely about her so hat it no longer touched him. There was a space between them, but he could detect her body growing rigid. He did not look at her.But then it came.

Why did you turn those photographs around at home?’ she asked harshly.

And in his mind he saw himself as he had been there in the apartment – how, unable to rest because of dissipation and the whiskey in his system, he had paced back and forth through the rooms and suddenly felt himself tormented by the two faces, the photographs of his mother and his son, how he had had a feeling that they could see right through him, and then he had turned the pictures around.

So Johanne had noticed it.

And there she sat in the corner of the cab, pale as a corpse and unassailable. He sensed his powerlessness, and it made him desperate. Something had to happen. But he could not speak.

Suddenly he bent forward, rapped on the window in back of the driver, and signalled frantically for him to stop.‘What do you want? Have you gone completely crazy?’ Johanne cried out in bewilderment.

The taxi slowed and then came to a stop. Jastrau already had the door open so that the breeze came whistling in. And then, with one lea, he was out on the edge of the sidewalk.At a loss to know what was going on, the driver turned on the likght inside the cab.

(…)

Jastrau’s lips were trembling. He wished that his rash act could be undone. He wanted to get back into the cab. But that triumphant silence must be conquered. He had to win this battle, and he would. A stupid conquest. What did the cab drver think? And ten he reached into his pocket, grabbed his keys, tossed them into the cab. Out with his wallet too, and into the cab with it. Inexplicable. A silent, violent scene. And Johanne sat there in the feeble light staring straight ahead like a person who was dying.Without a word, Jastrau turned his back on her and began walking out Vesterbrogade. The glow from the ar lights, the broad, glistening, car track, the shadowy figures on the street corners, white legs flashing, women, and up aboive the roofs the blue-black night sky and some stars; he sensed the street as an extension of his soul, as a confirmation that something conclusive had occurred as an extraordinary, incomprehensibly calming influence. Behind him, he head the taxi start and get under way. It must be it, because there was not another car on the street at the moment. He would not turn around, but must simply keep walking. Then the taxi could catch up with him, draw up alongside the curb, and stop. And then they could talk to each other. The taxi had to come.

But the sound of the engine bacme fainter and fainter, and finally he had to turn around an look.

What he saw was the rear end of the cab. The taillight like ared cat’s eye in the distance. It turned a corner down near Vesterbro’s square and disappeared.

Disappeared.”

/marie

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January 26, 2007. A Literary Year, Literature, The course of the year.

4 Comments

  1. Thomas E. Kennedy replied:

    Bravo! A powerful book, well worth reading. I’ve not seen the translation but read it about ten years ago in Danish (titled HÆRVÆRK, which actually means “vandalism” but I think HAVOC is a fine choice for the English title). It baffles me that this fine novel is not better known in English, and I can only conclude that it is due to lack of promotion. It was also a very fine film from the ’70s, with Jastrau played by Ole Ernst in what might have been his finest role and with an outstanding supporting cast. I’ve heard the book criticized for its pessimism, but a good novel is not a prescription for behavior — it is a statement on existence, and HAVOC is a very powerful statement on existence which is still valid.

  2. Grim Otto Berg-Hansen replied:

    Hi!
    I love this book, but have searched the book stores and internet for an English copy to no awail. I’m especially looking for the great and disturbing poem by the character Steffensen (?). Do you know where I can get the text of the English version of this poem?

  3. confidentialattachees replied:

    @ Thomas E. Kennedy: I couldn’t agree more – a very important book, to be sure, and it really is a shame that isn’t better known outside of Denmark.

    @ I just tried amazon.co.uk and got five results (used & new), so it should be available there. Good luck!

  4. Nadia Selmann Kristensen replied:

    Im speechless . . . B U tifull <3

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