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In the Shadow of Loss

Written by: Elisabeth Møller Jensen |

A new generation of women authors occupied the centre of the Danish literary institution in the 1960s. With Kirsten Thorup (born 1942), Inger Christensen (1935-2009), Dorrit Willumsen (born 1940), Ulla Ryum (born 1937), Jytte Borberg (1917-2007), and Cecil Bødker (born 1927), gender no longer kept the majority of women writers on the periphery of the literary mainstream. On the contrary, gender appears to have radicalised the essential aspects of modernism, making women modernists part of a literary avant-garde. Gender affiliation increases the feeling of alienation and division which they share with their male literary counterparts.

Erichsen, Helle-Vibeke (b. 1940): Musen. In: Helle-Vibeke Erichsen: Tableau!, Privattryk 1980

With her debut collection, Indeni – udenfor (1967; Within – Without), Kirsten Thorup succeeded in placing herself from the outset at the centre of the literary arena. Here and in her subsequent collections, Love from Trieste (1969), I dag er det Daisy (1971; Today it is Daisy) as well as the collection of short stories I dagens anledning (1968; On this Occasion), she explored the positions of alienation, powerlessness, and objectification in a markedly personal voice. However, it was not until her remarkable novel Baby (1973) that it became clear that Kirsten Thorup had something more to say. Baby is set in a working-class district of Copenhagen in a world of misfits and deviants, people who have never grown up. The chaotic life unfolds even at the level of language – a life which the characters are subjects to rather than active participants in. The novel revolves around loving couples, but with no apparent evolution for the characters or for the story in which they appear. And yet there is a kind of order to the chaos, because behind the chatty and unconcerned narrator lies a hidden narrator who effects a critical distance to the story being told. It is a protest against rootlessness, powerlessness, loneliness, chronic childishness, narcissism, and extreme gender confusion which appear as part of a sweeping loss of identity.

“I did not feel that I had a language, a convention, or a tradition I could use from the beginning. This was characteristic of all of us who started writing at the birth of the women’s movement – we had a feeling of not being part of the rest of the world, a feeling of not belonging, of being in an unidentifiable place. For us, the portrayal of the state of alienation came to embody attempts to find images and words for experiences that had hardly been described before,” said Kirsten Thorup in an interview in Modsprogets proces (1982; The Process of Counter-Language by Erik Skyum-Nielsen).

Interpreter of Contemporary Society

Kirsten Thorup’s Baby was actually a stylised and compact prelude to a comprehensive body of contemporary literature that has made her one of the most widely read authors in Denmark. With Lille Jonna (1977; Little Jonna), Den lange sommer (1979; The Long Summer), Himmel og helvede (1982; Heaven and Hell), and Den yderste grænse (1987; The Outer Limit) Kirsten Thorup presents us with an unmerciful and paradoxically loving portrait of the apocalyptic images that constitute contemporary culture. In Elskede ukendte (1994; Beloved Unknown), she subjects her main characters to cultural criticism, giving loss and recklessness free rein in the inner and outer apocalypse towards which the Jonna series slowly but surely progresses.

In Baby, the story of Karla is juxtaposed with stories about prostitution, failed relationships, and the impulsive murder by two schoolgirls of a random motorist. Everything is described in the same tone in a kind of stream-of-consciousness:

“… and one month later Karla moved in with her two children aged three and seven and she sat in the living room with an electric heater by her feet and she still had not put up any curtains or hung any pictures and in the window sill was a cactus which only needed to be watered once every three months and extension cords lay on the floor and on the table there was a box of breakfast cereal and three Donald Duck comic books and Isa, who was 3 years old, had a cold and coughed constantly and Karla had not gone to work. She drank coffee and listened to the radio and Isa would not stay in bed and she held the child on her lap and Isa’s coughing had kept Karla awake most of the night …”

Lille Jonna and Den lange sommer

The provincial girl Jonna was born during World War II, and through tales of her life from 1952 to 1985, Kirsten Thorup maps the history of the welfare society in which the lives of large parts of the population, especially women, underwent radical and disruptive change. Through Jonna’s personal journey of growth, we gain a better understanding of the major societal changes which the Danish people lived through in the span of a single generation. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, Jonna’s longing brings us to the evil price that is paid for the upheaval that has resulted in contemporary society.

Photo from the television series Krigsdøtre. August 30, 1981. Photographer: Dorrit Schmidt. DR TV Arkiv

Jonna inherited her longing and social dissatisfaction from her parents, both of whom dreamt of a new and better life. “I could only see one path ahead of me and that was up,” she says about herself. As the first in her family, she attends upper secondary school, but her sojourn in the educational system comes to a sudden halt when the maladjusted girl drops out in protest in her first year. From then on, all she knows is that she does not want to repeat her parents’ life, and so she seeks contact with people and environments from which she attempts to wrest the secret of life. Through Jonna’s searching empathy for other people, Kirsten Thorup manages in Lille Jonna and Den lange sommer to paint a living and expansive portrait of 1950s provincial Denmark. We hear about a family’s social fall from life on a farm to a life of homelessness in the school gymnasium. We hear about daily life in the bicycle shop where the parents have the opportunity to make a living under better economic conditions in the 1950s. We hear about unskilled women labourers working in an asparagus factory, about employees and patients at a mental hospital, and about life in the circus where Jonna’s brother works for a couple of seasons.

Through Jonna’s open and directionless longing for change, the novels describe the average person, living an anonymous and strong life of repetition and necessity, but with the painful knowledge that life could offer more than just pure existence. Together, they confirm the truth the baker at the mental hospital asks Jonna to pass on, “that any one person is greater than the life they live”.

As a child and teenager, Jonna dreams that she had been switched with another baby:

“It was a feeling that started in middle school and grew stronger in grammar school. I am ashamed of them. Of their insecurity about me as a student. Of how Carl Frederik was afraid to box me on the ear. Of how I could make them feel embarrassed and grieved with one disdainful look. Of how they let me stomp out and slam the door when I could not stand them. It was especially strong at dinner. Suddenly it would be too much to have to sit there listening to them talk about the weather – a habit that remained from their many years on the farm – and watching them eat. It would drive me crazy.”

(Den lange sommer; 1979)

Heaven and Hell

“There will come a time that is greater than this,” prophesies the mad baker in 1955. And he is right. Himmel og helvede is Jonna’s report from the glory days of the youth revolt in Copenhagen in 1968-70, and if the series is read from the beginning, the novel can be read just as 1968 could have been experienced – with a sense that anything was possible, that the world was euphoric, that boundaries were only there to be torn down, that dreams could come true. This atmosphere is echoed by the dental assistant, Miss Andersen, who states early in the book: “My life is broken down but that just means there is room for change”. Or when Jasmin, the oppressed wife of the avaricious kiosk owner and slum landlord, proclaims that “Time is crying out for justice, can’t you feel it? Time is on our side. The world is in movement”.

Himmel og helvede can be read in one long cloud of happiness as a fairy tale where the good are triumphant. Such as when the apparently eternal spinster and shrivelled-up dental assistant Miss Andersen becomes a brothel madam with lots of money, romance, and social interaction. Or when Jasmin suddenly one day leaves Bols, and her lifelong and intense marriage quickly shrinks into “a brief interval, a schizophrenic interlude in a foreign country”. Half witch and half saint, Jasmin walks right out of the marriage like some quintessential radical feminist to settle down as a fortune teller on the rural island of Lolland. Like a phoenix, she rises up from degradation after a lifelong struggle to satisfy her husband. Despite the improbability of the story, the reader is more than willing to believe it and becomes so caught up in it that the dark sides of the novel are passed over entirely.

However, horror is also palpable in Kirsten Thorup’s description of a throwback from the drug culture, the manic, paranoid despot, Fred, who on a remote farm in Wales becomes involved in a frightening battle of wills with Maria, an artist and a mirror character for Jonna. Fred’s Übermensch philosophy unfolds as a parable of the Temptation of Christ, wherein Satan promises Jesus the world if he would become his subject and serve him.

However, Fred’s hell is again forgotten and the reader is happy that Maria has the strength to leave him as she left her beloved Jonni when she found out he was gay. And by the end of the novel, the reader wishes her all the best in her new life in the form of a happy marriage of convenience with John, Jonna’s brother, who had been searching for Maria from the beginning of the novel. To him, she represents his only love, while to her, he represents the possibility of uniting an artistic career as a violinist with the dream of life with a husband and children.

However, the second time around, after reading Den yderste grænse, Himmel og helvede also becomes a darker novel. When read in consecutive order, the novel appears as a testimony to the possibility of change, but when read out of order in the light of Den yderste grænse, the vision of hell stands out and the reader wonders whether the section about Fred and Maria is a destructive symbol of the age and the culture, which is not visible until afterwards, when it is all over and the reader has stood at the outer limit.

Himmel og helvede brings together and concludes the novel’s giant, variegated pattern at Kongens Nytorv square in the heart of Copenhagen in September 1971, when the most prominent financial minds of Western capitalism attend a gala performance at the Royal Theatre while officers on motorcycles run protesters down on the pavement outside. It is rumoured that the police are testing a secret NATO plan in the most violent clash between the governing powers and protesters in Denmark since World War II. The World Bank is holding a conference to be attended by the American Secretary of State. But the student activist Asger, who has been involved for months in the planning of the demonstrations, suffers political and moral scruples at the last minute, and instead of participating accuses himself of being too impatient and having no backbone, of floating in a void of ideas and visions without a body, of wanting to expose the capitalist system through confrontation with the powers that be, and of knowing too little about the working class for whom he is willing to start a revolution. The immense, self-destructive, and unrealistic overconfidence, which was clearly seen in the act of terrorism, was also present in the youth revolt and its political repercussions, as in the World Bank conflict. Because even Western European terrorism was a child of 1968, and, as Jonna asks herself in Den yderste grænse, what happens if you begin to recognise yourself, or part of yourself, in the German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, “the good girl who had turned herself into the dark side of the ruling power, its shadow. And who had become foreign to everything that was human?”

“The leap from the 50s to today is so amazingly huge. It’s as though we lived in a world that has sunk into the ocean,” Kirsten Thorup said in connection with publication of Den yderste grænse. Kirsten Thorup sought to establish a connection across the past to the vanished Atlantis of this childhood, primarily with the Jonna series which has made her one of the most widely read authors in Denmark. A ‘modern-day [Martin Andersen] Nexø’ and ‘a female Hans Christian Andersen’ are terms which have both been used to describe Kirsten Thorup’s work.

Den yderste grænse

In Himmel og helvede, the breakthrough of change in the characters’ lives creates the patterns in the novel. In Den yderste grænse, on the other hand, it is the doomsday images that permeate and connect the lives of the characters. Thus, the student activist Asger now works as a computer operator, developing an economic world order, a giant experiment to find a theoretical basis for warding off the end of the world. When he stops believing that one man can change the world and realises that he has once again been living in an illusion, he commits suicide after deleting all the customer records in the company’s computer system. In so doing, he takes part of his world with him as he falls, while at the same time failing Jonna to whom he promised “the marriage of the century” in which they were to live together a life of socialistic love.

Christensen, Kirsten (b. 1943): Drawing. In: Kirsten Christensen: Min mor og mig. Langt livsforløb med kommode, Informations Forlag, 1978

When the ambitious teacher discovers one morning a daily life of utter chaos in a home where the mother has been on a drinking binge, she feels “trapped in a distortion, a harbinger of Armageddon”. She is in a state of crisis after her lover has abandoned her, and the sight of the frightened, neglected children in the devastated flat sends her to the psychiatric ward. For Esther, the children’s mother, the world has also fallen apart in drink. She decides to burn down the dressmaker’s workshop she runs. Her sister, the peace activist Doris, sees the images of the Apocalypse, “fire and flames and lightning tearing up the sky”, in Esther’s plan, but she is unable to stop her. This, however, is something that the ex-terrorist Bruno, a bar-owner and Esther’s secret admirer, is able to do. “Just because you are standing on the edge of a precipice doesn’t mean that you have to jump,” he tells her, and in a loving, surprise movement, he wrests the matches from her. And so, finally, “Esther the great had met her match. She had found love”.

The fairy tale message is that only love can save the earth from destruction, but even love cannot win in the realistic love stories. John and Maria live through a traumatic divorce, and Asger, whom Jonna is waiting for, manages to fall passionately in love with the massage girl Susie, before committing suicide. Even the fact that the gay man, Jonni, loves women but desires men does not make him an outsider in Kirsten Thorup’s universe. On the contrary, he becomes a symbol of the general despair because desire and love are not aimed at the same person. And Jonna herself, who is waiting for her marriage to Asger while keeping up an erotic relationship with the owner of the fast-food restaurant, Kris, wishes that “he and Asger could melt into one person, one man. And that I, too, could melt together into one person”.

In Himmel og helvede, Jonna the first-person narrator disappears behind the fairy tale changes which are realised by everyone else but her. The closest we get to her is through the brother’s rather reserved characterisation on the last page. She is not really his type: “She thinks and talks just like a man […] you do not feel like you are with a woman […] she is too thin and waspish and she has apparently never been able to figure out what to do with men,” says John. Jonna does not take the stage again as an adult until Den yderste grænse.

In two key chapters, the reader is brought up to date on Jonna’s life. It is not until Asger that she finally gives up the dream of living a different, more brilliant life.

“I cannot continue to have dream after dream until I die,” she tells Kris. She has lived her entire life in the diffuse, ambitious dream of her childhood and youth of “one step up the social ladder,” but at the age of forty-two, she realises that her life has actually been dominated by a fear of falling to the bottom. After Asger’s suicide, Jonna sheds her last illusion. At the end of the novel, she has been an unskilled worker in a department store for five years and is considering becoming the shop steward. She is still in a relationship with the fast-food restaurant owner. He is there, the work is there. And that is good enough.

Den yderste grænse is thus one long revision of the vision in Himmel og helvede that anything is possible and that limits are there only to be overcome. The dream that was collectively and socially tested during the youth revolt is now definitively revised. After Den yderste grænse, you begin to wonder about the symbolism of the names in the Jonna series. Jonna, Jonni, Johannes are all different versions of the same name, John, and this naturally leads to the idea that Kirsten Thorup wrote the Apocalypse from John’s Book of Revelation into her interpretation of the last half of the twentieth century. This interpretation makes the Jonna series Kirsten Thorup’s critical cultural analysis of a social progress that, in good and evil, faces its own destruction.

“The feeling that you are living in an empty void, locked up in lead. The feeling that you are in a distorted mirror. The feeling that time and space interlock …” These are the words Ulrike Meinhof, the most prominent member of the Red Army Faction, used to describe being imprisoned in solitary confinement in the so-called ‘Dead Wing’ of Stammheim prison in Germany, where she committed suicide in 1976. The quote is used in the novel Himmel og helvede, where Kirsten Thorup has Jonna compare Stammheim with the last half of the twentieth century – “in the same way a Medieval prison was a symbol of the Middle Ages”.

A formative path

Den yderste grænse ends “at the beginning”, which is also the name of the last chapter. Together with the rest of the family, Jonna is a guest at her mother Betty’s eighty-fifth birthday party on the Danish island of Funen. In the final image of the novel, Jonna is home:

“She (the mother) had forgotten us. She and Carl Frederik (the father) were the only ones left in the world. They disappeared out the little, low door and transformed into heavy, strong oxen in a field in the middle of nowhere, far out of our reach. In the dusk after the long day under the hot sun. And even though the sun kings succumb and are replaced with new rulers like marionettes, they will always be there, in the field close to the grass among the immortals”.

With the Jonna series, Kirsten Thorup uses one woman’s life to illuminate and reflect an even bigger, common story. However, the novels can also be read as a female Bildungsroman. The female ‘I’ is present in childhood, but disappears in youth, only to emerge again in the adult trials and tribulations of real life. Jonna is at home in her longing for change in 1950s provincial Denmark, but she is homeless in the Copenhagen of 1968 and in her own adult ‘herstory’. Finally, she is at home again in the provincial town, in the surrender of her dreams and in the recognition of death as inevitable.

“Poor children had three primary myths: Paradise, striking it rich, and the miracle”, and the three myths were burnt into the flesh of René, who is described as a pariah, an outcast. On the last page of Elskede ukendte, René promises himself “that he will live as though every day were the last, as though time were divine, to be held as sacred”.

Beloved Unknown

Whereas the Jonna series is a history of Denmark spanning thirty years and a female Bildungsroman, Elskede ukendte is a contemporary portrait of Denmark in the year 1992. Whereas the Apocalypse is a subtext in Den yderste grænse’s images of destruction and Judgement Day fantasies, the Revelation of John about the End of Days is a clear and omnipresent reference in Elskede ukendte, which describes a death culture so strong that it possesses and takes over the personality completely. Elskede ukendte is the dark side of the Jonna series in undiluted apotheosis. The potentials for resistance that determine the survival of hope in the Jonna series are essentially absent in Elskede ukendte, even though the two main characters, Karl and René, manage to survive their own separate religious madnesses at the end of the novel. Both find their way back to daily life, and that is the real fairy tale outcome of an unsettled battle of wills between two megalomaniacs, where one, a Pentecostal missionary, sets out to save the other, who believes he is Jesus. While the end still has connections to, in particular, Himmel og helvede’s episodic magical realism, Kirsten Thorup has in Elskede ukendte otherwise stepped fully into a dystopian, realistic description of contemporary life.

“He wanted to embrace the silent trees and feel the hard, unbending tree trunks against him, to become man-and-tree. But the trees seemed unapproachable and reserved and refused to let him into their brotherhood. He was caught up by a giddying sense of foreignness, of being a stranger on a strange planet.” So René is described at the beginning of Elskede ukendte, which brings together existential and social loneliness. René felt like an “outsider, like pensioners and the unemployed who lived in their own time warp without limits”.

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd