First a diversion. While researching for our Stories from the City website, we perused the shelves of a university library and bookshops to make sure the European cities we write about had enough written about them in English.
When it came to the Scandinavian cities if serial killers, snowy mean streets and enviable sweaters were our and our readers’ bag, it would have been fine. But where were the novels that revealed the less sensational, more quotidien sides to these cities?
Alas, apart from the mighty Karl Ove Knausgard’s self-revealing autobiographies, there was nothing. It was as if we couldn’t bear too much Scandinavian reality.
Tom Kristensen’s Havoc admittedly is hardly a feast of hygge but it comes with a Knausgard quote – ‘one of the best novels to ever come out of Scandinavia’ – to tempt us.
First published in 1930 and now newly available from innovative new publisher Nordisk Books, Havoc is the story of Copenhagen’s Dagblast journalist Ole Jastrau and his alcoholic descent into hell as his demons and the political zeitgeist of the time drag him down with the speed of lead booted Furies. As the lines from Steffanson quoted at the end remind us:
‘I have longed for shipwrecks,
For havoc and sudden death.‘
The writing is tense and rugged, sometimes unrelentingly so.The inevitability of Justrau’s fall reminded me of Patrick Hamilton’s anti-heroes, with the same demi-monde twilight world, although Hamilton doesn’t really do politics, his world needed to be denuded of any hope. Maybe a little Celine too in its journey to the bottom line although without the latter’s saving grace of knife-edge humour. Even a Social Democratic victory doesn’t seem to make any difference: Justrau’s life is destined to be a hard one.
Its Copenhagen though is hardly the hygge candlelit world of the Little Mermaid and Nordic foraging restaurants:
‘Standing beneath this wide-open expanse they both instinctively drew a deep breath of cool evening air, seasoned with gasoline and perfume and the fetid odour of many people, to which was added the acrid aroma of metal and coal smoke from the subterranean railway – a slightly intoxicating draught of poisonous liqueurs that the big city had to offer in spring.’
The city reveals itself subtly and intriguingly throughout the novel; there is a beautifully written episode set in the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, half-way to a Lady in Shanghai moment in its Hall of Mirrors.
Havoc is a refreshing change from Nordic Noir – not a Sophie sweater in sight – as it shows us a city facing the real turmoils of its time and the man who becomes its sad and tragic victim. Drowning not waving and the Kattegat is cold at the best of times.
Havoc by Tom Kristensen, translated by Carl Malmberg, is published by Nordisk Books, £12.00