Review: Havoc by Tom Kristensen

Havoc [1930/68] – ★★★★1/2

Franz Kafka wrote: “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” If we take this definition of a book then Kristensen’s Havoc comes out on top. Havoc is now considered a classic of Danish literature and, accordingly to one author, “one of the best novels to ever come out of Scandinavia”. The main character here is Ole Jastrau, a thirty-something literary critic living with his wife and small child in Copenhagen, Denmark, a city that is going through some kind of a political upheaval. Disillusioned with his work and desperately searching for meaning in his day-to-day existence, Jastrau starts to slowly succumb to the rhetoric of his eccentric friends (Catholics, communists and poets) and also to the only thing that starts to make sense in his life – alcohol. Jastrau sees his apartment being taken over by others, his addiction to the popular Bar des Artistes growing daily and his faithfulness to the core moral principles of life crumbling before his eyes. Will there be a limit to Jastrau’s “fall” and humiliation? Can there be hope amidst all the boundless despair? With his razor-sharp prose, Kristensen paints a vivid picture of an ordinary man on a swift ride to hell.

The book is set in bleak and murky Copenhagen, probably of the late 1920s. A perfectly ordinary family man Ole Jastrau is seemingly devoted to his wife and child and works for one “hypocritical” newspaper Dagbladet. In his position of a literary critic he leads a hectic lifestyle as, apart from his family duties, he needs to meet strict deadlines and read a hundred or so books every few months. One day, though, a knock on his door and the entrance of two figures of Copenhagen’s underbelly – communist Sanders and poet Steffensen, first give Jastrau a pause and then settle him comfortably into a slow train-wreck. Their destination? Havoc, i.e. “going to the dogs”. Very soon, the main character is torn between his respectable life (family) and the temptations of a seedier lifestyle (friends), often caught in the crossfire between the two. In some sense, Kristensen’s Havoc foreshadows Richard Yates’s middle-class disillusionment with life and lives of quiet desperation in Revolutionary Road [1961] (“the empty hopelessness and the hopeless emptiness” of existence), as well as the male angst against rules of a post-industrial society in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club [1996].  

Poet Steffensen in particular becomes Jastrau’s dark and mysterious alter ego, his “evil spirit”, who both repels and intrigues Jastrau and gives him an idea that the meaning of life can be found in high concepts, poetry and at the bottom of a glass. Jastrau is converted into a man preoccupied with the matters of “the soul”: “A big man! As if that were what he wanted. What did that have to do with the infinitude of the soul, the real meaning of things, a man’s true self?” [Kristensen/Malmberg, Gyldendal 1930/68: 320]. At another point, Jastrau proclaims: “I turn out to be a simple, ordinary man who has made a slight attempt to plumb the depths of the soul and find the meaning of absolute freedom” [Kristensen/Malmberg, Gyldendal 1930/68: 460]. Jastrau’s work colleagues are no better, and religious Vuldum and conservative Kryger also drag Jastrau in different directors, trying to show him “the way”. Here, Tom Kristensen is interested in these questions – Are we just the sum of others? Do other people’s personalities and our intimate relations with them really play such a big role in shaping who we are? What is the limit of other people’s “bad” influence on us? Can we escape the inevitable?

The Drunkards Progress: From the First Glass to the Grave, Nathaniel Currier, 1846. 

Havoc is an unflinching account of alcoholism. The author shows the destructive power of a drink over Jastrau’s personal and professional lives, which, incidentally, also made me think of such films about alcoholism as Leaving Las Vegas [1995], When a Man Loves a Woman [1994] and Flight [2012]. It is curious to observe how shyly alcohol first “creeps in” in the story, for example when Jastrau’s brother-in-law is bragging about his wine-cellar or when Jastrau’s colleague is spotted with a beer in the middle of the day, but then is slowly taking full control of the story’s talks, scenes and characters. Jastrau is on a roller-coaster ride, going through extreme “highs” and extreme “lows”. While being “comforted” by a drink, he also inevitably tastes shame, guilt and humiliation, all part and parcel of his new alcoholic lifestyle: “…now that he hugged the bottle close against his chest, he felt a warm sense of reassurance. It was as if he suddenly found himself at home…” [Kristensen/Malmberg, Gyldendal 1930/68: 25]. “When he was drunk he did not feel unproductive. Intoxication was the stuff of which poems were made…”[Gyldendal 1930/68: 277]. However, Jastrau also recognises that he suffers from “a sickness of the soul” [1930/68: 223] and starts living in a hallucinatory, almost imaginary world: “The present, actuality, reality was so inconstant” [1930/68: 233]; “Disorder and chaos. Persistently they forced themselves into his consciousness, and persistently he had to combat them, hold them down” [1930/68: 218]. Jastrau soon comes to grips with the ultimate punishment for wanting an hour of oblivion.

While the Danish society will be merciless with those who try “to step over certain lines”, it also seems that Denmark is a country that is far from being indifferent to diversions involving a drink and Havoc’s characters more than agree: “Is it any wonder that people get drunk in a town like this?…”Or perhaps the city is this way because we’re all stewed half the time. The History of Denmark is one big binge. Our fatherland has a red nose” [Kristensen/Malmberg, Gyldendal 1930/68: 155]. Thomas Vinterberg’s Academy Award-winning film Another Round [2020] has recently testified to the country’s unusual relationship with alcohol and its notorious drinking culture.

Translated from the Danish by Carl Malmberg, Havoc is a dark existential novel about a man balancing on the edge of abyss. It may be an overlong novel, but it is still an entrancing portrayal of a man in crisis, a man “fallen from grace”.


11 thoughts on “Review: Havoc by Tom Kristensen

  1. How sad that ‘one of the best novels to come out of Scandinavia’ is about alcoholism.

    I had alcoholics in the family, and I don’t know what made their lives so much bleaker than anyone else’s so they chose to drink. And it was a royal pain in the donkey to live with the consequences. Fortunately, they’re gone now – but they made everyone else’s lives – their wives and children and other family members – hell. No, thanks.

    I still remember too much. All the excuses, the never-permanent reconciliations, all the little behaviors that the rest of us kids were told to ignore if we even dared ask a question. I was always so glad it wasn’t MY dad.

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    1. Yes, it is a bit sad. The novel is about “the crushing of the human heart” to use Richard Yates’s wording. Denmark may be following its own historical trend of existentialism and bleakness there. The most famous Danish person is the father of existentialism Søren Kierkegaard and the only other Danish author I read was Olga Ravn and her bleak sci-fi The Employees. Actually I don’t know one “happy” famous film to come out of Denmark. Everyone knows that its most famous film director Lars von Trier is the man behind THE most disturbing and depressing films ever to grace the screens in our human history. And only to think that Denmark is often ranked as the world’s happiest country to live in…

      Also, I don’t know if it is just my experience with Scandinavian literature overall, but I have been finding books that come from that European region far from being a joyful affair. Norway? Ibsen and just as depressing Knut Hamsun. As for Swedish fiction, that would be also be Söderberg’s existential classic Doctor Glas and crime thrillers of Henning Mankell (A Man Called Ove was also kind of sad). Perhaps I do feel too comfortable in this existentialist genre of books, but there are also (fortunately or unfortunately) many books to choose from…

      I sympathise. Alcoholism in a family is very painful and very destructive. Many concentrate on alcoholics themselves, but the impact and the consequences on those close to these people are often just as traumatic and unbearable (if not much more in some cases).

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      1. I hated A Man called Ove. Suicide is not pretty. Similar reasons. It glamorized a problem instead of solving it. I didn’t read the book – accidentally got sucked into watching the movie. I should have stopped after the first scenes.

        Real life is plenty bleak – I prefer at least a decent chance of a halfway better resolution in my ‘entertainment.’

        And, as a person who has been ill and marginalized by it for decades, I am appalled by the trend toward having people like me tidy themselves away for the benefit of those left behind. Trust me, those left behind do not benefit – they are often devastated and don’t get over it.

        End rant.

        At least the Scandinavian countries don’t have as much inequality and poverty – though they don’t have the best weather :)!

        Governments can’t legislate happiness, but they can work to remove some of the causes of UNhappiness that come from – government!

        And we have plenty of crime fiction coming from Europe.

        My own fiction goes through struggle – that’s the human condition – but it comes down firmly on at least the side of hope.

        I apologize for highjacking your thread – it has come in a time when governments are officially telling us that the vulnerable and the old are a reasonable price to pay for living with the coronavirus – it used to be they propagandized taking money away all your life ‘so you can live comfortably in retirement.’ We – those being considered useless and dispensable – are a little raw.

        As a writer, I speak up. Write up?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Haha, I am not sure that all literature from Scandinavia is depressing, but there may be a tendency. At least for the novels which gain literary acclaim (and get translated). I do think we are fairly happy though and compared to UK, a lot of things work so much better. Anyway… As it happens, Tom Christensen is mandatory reading for the poor school kids in Denmark (at least it was, when I went to school). I still remember the quote “Skoen som en soenderskudt banegaard” (beautiful as a bombarded railway station???) which my teacher had a fondness for. I haven’t read anything from the author since school, but I may try Haervaerk again some day…

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts and sorry for the late reply – your message somehow ended up in my spam folder. I think you are very right about depressing novels ended up lauded over “happy” ones and if Havoc is anything to go by, I cannot really imagine something that sad and heart-wrenching being read in school. His poems do not seem to be a joyful affair either, but I do want to read his poem The Execution, though I cannot find it anywhere at the moment.

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