To some of Denmark’s elites, the flourishing of Modernism felt like a plague, as dangerous as the World War that had just ravaged Europe. One can only assume what they thought of Tom Kristensen’s 1930 novel Havoc, newly reissued by NYRB Classics in Carl Malmberg’s English translation. Set mostly in the literary circles of 1920s Copenhagen, the book abounds in descriptions of diseases. Alcoholism threatens to obliterate the book’s main character unless venereal disease claims him first, and the metaphorical diseases of nihilism and masochism seem to afflict all of postwar Denmark.
Havoc might appear to confirm the Danish establishment’s worst suspicions about the up-and-coming generation of artists and writers. And yet, as with William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (another epic of addiction), the characters’ depravity reads as liberating, an attack on anyone too timid to follow suit. There are points in Havoc when Kristensen seems to embrace his dysmorphia and throw it back in his elder critics’ faces, exhibiting a stubborn pride that has helped the novel age into a classic of the counterculture and even the establishment in Scandinavia.
From the start, readers had trouble distinguishing between Ole Jastrau, the doomed protagonist of Havoc, and his creator. When we first meet Jastrau, he’s trying to balance an insatiable lust for whiskey with a plum job at a leading Copenhagen daily—a struggle that Kristensen, who spent his prime years struggling with alcoholism and served for three decades as the literary editor of the influential newspaper Politiken, knew only too well. Born in 1893 to working-class parents, Kristensen published a novel and two collections of poems by his early twenties; on the strength of these works he began reviewing for the prominent magazine Tilskueren. Like plenty of poets-turned-critics, he seems to have been haunted by the fear that he was wasting time on other people’s books when he should have been writing his own—whiskey was often a way of soothing the tension.
Along with the writer Johannes Jensen and the painter Jens Søndergaard, Kristensen is regarded as a leading light of Danish Expressionism, a movement easier to recognize than to define. A rough list of its hallmarks would have to include sexual desire; its cousin, sexual angst; the foregrounding of emotion and extreme subjectivity; “dream logic” used as a narrative device; and a vivid, artificial color palette (Havoc is suffused with sickly pinks and green). Despite Dr. Salomonsen’s efforts, in the years following World War I Denmark proved to be an excellent home for Expressionism. The 1918 Armistice had renewed the demand for written words, some of them highly experimental, and there was a healthy market of rich patrons with radical tastes.
Yet for all its vitality, Danish Expressionism, never as internationally popular as its German counterpart, produced few great novels. It’s not hard to see why: lurid intensity is easier to sustain for a few stanzas or square feet of canvas than for five hundred pages. In his most famous book, however, Kristensen found a narrative that fit his style and produced the distorted subjectivity that fuels Expressionist literature. The dizzying, fragmented lines of his 1920s poetry become, in Havoc, the boozy rants of an alcoholic, their sudden swerves and elisions a verbal approximation of blacking out.
Though it was completed half a century ago, Carl Malmberg’s translation holds up remarkably well. He favors blunt phrases and frictive, non-Latinate words that heighten each sentence’s tempo, as if mimicking the form of Jastrau’s late-night celebrations. Outside of Hunter Thompson’s queasier pages, Havoc’s descriptions of hedonism gone rotten have probably never been equaled:
From the restaurant came the notes of the violin and piano, from the bar the music of the phonograph, and from the kitchen the clatter of plates and utensils. The concrete pavement and the walls of the buildings augmented the volume of sounds, which in a bewildering series of discords swept up through the airshaft and out into the spring evening against the starry heavens as if through a French horn.
Now he no longer observed the women through a curtain. Still, he could not—simply could not—refrain from watching their legs, from indulging in fleeting fantasies, from stopping and turning to look. It was as if he was suffering from a disease he could not hide.
An ulcer covered over in powder. He could see it in his mind’s eye, like a colorplate in a medical book.
As a reviewer for Politiken, Kristensen had helped introduce Denmark to Freud, and in Havoc he delights in setting the gaudy surfaces of things against the dark, subliminal forces beneath. Some critics have interpreted Jastrau’s binges as a battle between the death and sex drives, though this is probably too simplistic; most often, Kristensen treats psychoanalysis as the jumping-off point for the characters’ musings on modern life. Take the argument between Jastrau and wannabe revolutionary Stefan Steffensen, in which words themselves transform into libidinal playthings:
“A person has to create a whole new language for himself!”
“And that’s just what one does, of course,” Jastrau protested.
“So?” Steffensen said, making a face. “Do you writers do that? No. You take it over just as it is—all messed up by our elders—that’s what you do. Language is a slut. People should never have taken up with her. No, they should never have learned to talk. That’s what’s ruined our lives.”
Kristensen creates a whole new language of addiction and intoxication, from which writers are still cribbing nearly a hundred years later. And yet, in a different sense, he takes language just as it is. Compared to Ulysses—another boozy Modernist milestone, which Jastrau describes as “impossible to wade through”—Havoc is a surprisingly straightforward read. Whenever Kristensen dips a toe into the stream of consciousness, the other foot remains firmly planted in third-person objectivity, making it fairly obvious where Jastrau is and what he’s up to, even when the pages practically reek of whiskey. The novel vividly conveys the experience of being drunk because the prose is stone cold sober.
This points to one of the oddest things about Expressionism: aesthetically it emphasizes individual subjectivity, but it also assumes that subjectivity can be communicated, even made universal. Whether you regard this as a contradiction or just an intriguing paradox, it’s surely one reason for Havoc’s enduring appeal. In Kristensen’s hands, utter abjection, a fate few ever have to suffer, somehow becomes accessible and even fascinating. Seen one way, the book offers us a kind of armchair masochism; the chance to attend our own funerals without any of the requisite suffering, like overgrown Tom Sawyers. And yet, Kristensen clearly aspires to impart something loftier than the feeling of self-destruction for its own sake. You might call this something the sublime, the transcendent, the epiphanic—concepts which most recent novels refuse to believe in, let alone evoke. Or you could borrow Jastrau’s preferred term: infinity.
A fair amount of Havoc has aged embarrassingly. The novel rarely misses an opportunity to conflate blackness, jazz, and sin (one of Malmberg’s few missteps is his use of words such as “Negro” and “Mongoloid” that were already outdated in 1968), and the female characters do little except signpost the stages of Jastrau’s journey to rock bottom. Ironically, what Kristensen’s earliest readers interpreted as shocking frankness about sexuality can seem ignorant today, in a way that more restrained books from the era do not. A similar complaint could be made about the book’s frequent “silence of God” motifs: what once appeared radical and challenging is now widely regarded as square, even a touch heavy-handed. But perhaps this complaint says more about the shortcomings of contemporary tastes than about Kristensen’s prose.
One struggles to think of a serious contemporary author who could have written the famous scene from Havoc in which Jastrau and Steffensen try and fail to enter a church late at night:
Oh, those stone piers! They hindered their movements, made it impossible to leap back and forth. They had to twist and turn, hop up and down. And pound they must, since the doors would not yield. With nothing but their fists, when what they should have had was a battering ram. Pitiful—as useless as children’s hands against a wall of rock. And no echo of their commotion from inside the church. No one in there could hear the noise. All was a dead silence. Their vain attempt at conversion, their impotent assault on infinity met with the same dark silence.
With its overt symbols of alienation and its skillful juxtaposition of clamor and quiet, the passage reads like an excerpt from an Ingmar Bergman screenplay. In fact, it’s instructive to compare the two Scandinavians: Kristensen and Bergman are both regarded as Existentialists of a sort, even though they’re drawn to Christian imagery; both have been heroes to the fringe as well as the mainstream; both are prone to somber, metaphorical set pieces that cry out for interpretation.
Most tellingly, however, Bergman and Kristensen are allergic to irony, and consequently, they’re willing to risk embarrassment in their searches for moral and spiritual enlightenment. They practice a kind of art that’s becoming increasingly unfashionable in the twenty-first century; midway through Havoc, Kristensen offers what may be a manifesto for this art:
He no longer wanted a steady job as a producer of opinions. Infinity—was that not what he was seeking? He wanted to be an infinite person, one who was initiated into the mysteries.
Laugh at this, or interpret it ironically, at your own peril. Kristensen never condescends to his characters; Jastrau’s quest to “go to the dogs” can be horrifying, but because Kristensen takes seriously his desire to experience infinity, readers do too. This is why it would be utterly wrong to consider Havoc a nihilistic work. The havoc in Havoc is always a means to an end; a way of escaping bourgeois life and replacing it with a more invigorating way of being, one that may touch on the divine.
It’s not easy to write a paean to infinity without a hint of a sneer, and there are times when Kristensen’s commitment to chasing the infinite provokes the same reaction. But to dismiss the mystical parts of Havoc as “dated” or unintentionally funny would be to miss the bigger point. Mysticism is never of its time and place. It’s always a little ridiculous. Sometimes it even requires ridicule to flourish, in the same way that a wandering knight requires a dragon to become a full-fledged hero. Whether or not you ultimately agree with their view of the world, there is something unmistakably courageous about figures like Bergman and Kristensen who court embarrassment with their art, dramatizing the search for transcendence before an audience that increasingly doubts transcendence exists.
Doubts, but still wants to believe—how else to explain the generations of people, from twentysomething anarchists to aged professors, whose lives have been altered by Havoc? As different as these readers have been, they’ve all been drawn to the possibility that enlightenment can be achieved by abandoning the “normal” life whose ingredients include marriage, money, job security, friends, education. This possibility might seem naïve, self-indulgent, or just absurd: Havoc has borne all these insults, and others, and survived unscathed. Kristensen not only accepted but welcomed his detractors’ mockery, and in an era when a lot of fiction aspires to avoid criticism at all costs, that might be his novel’s timeliest virtue.