Thursday February 18th, 2010

Leave Them Kids Alone



Stolen Spring by Hans Scherfig
Translated by Frank Hugus, 1983, 195 pp., Currently out of print

The Missing Bureaucrat by Hans Scherfig
Translated by Frank Hugus, 1988, 207 pp., Currently out of print

In January 2006, the Danish Ministry of Culture unveiled the Canon of Danish Art and Culture. Representing seven different modes of artistic production—from architecture and ‘design and craft’ to literature and film—the canon aimed to showcase 12 “indispensable” works in each category: “…works of art that cannot be disregarded if we want to define what is characteristic and distinctive about Danish culture.” Readers even subconsciously familiar with Danish letters will recognize several of the literary selections, like “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, Either-Or by Søren Kierkegaard, and Winter’s Tales by Karen Blixen. Even those authors less familiar to Americans are Danish luminaries, including a Nobel Prize winner, an experimental poet, and several prominent figures of the so-called “Modern Breakthrough” period. So while it’s hard to criticize the authors chosen for this ambitious undertaking, the project’s creators did admit that their choices will “obviously be constantly challenged and discussed.”  
One author overlooked for inclusion was Hans Scherfig, a diversely talented and politically outspoken novelist best known for works of satirical social commentary. His barbed humor and perceived misanthropy got him labeled an “angry rationalist with a scathing wit.” His irony and unpretentious prose make his novels easily accessible in translation, darkly funny and pleasurable reads. Two of Scherfig’s most iconic works—Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat—were translated into English and published by Fjord Press in the late 1980s. Fjord Press is now defunct, and both titles have gone out of print, but affordable used copies are readily available online.

Scherfig was a polymath whose first love was painting. He also dabbled in poetry, travel writing, journalism, and political activism. He was born in the white-collar Copenhagen neighborhood of Østerbro in 1905 and was educated in the Metropolitanskole, a prestigious private high school for boys. Despite this “suspect middle-class background,” Scherfig became an ardent Communist in his adulthood—a political alliance that caused him numerous hardships, particularly during Germany’s occupation of Denmark during World War II. In 1941, Scherfig and other well-known Danish Communists were arrested and jailed. Although he was released after only a few months, he was kept under police surveillance for the rest of the occupation and was “officially prohibited from writing.” (He still continued to write and publish under multiple pseudonyms and even smuggled the manuscript for his novel The Idealists—also available in English—out of the country. It was published in Sweden in 1944.)

Scherfig’s plots were frequently drawn from real life, and Stolen Spring offers the most easily recognized parallel to his own experience. His years at the Metropolitanskole were formative, but not positive in the least, and left him believing that “the school’s task is to foster the particular characteristics that are desirable in a society which uses the unrestrained struggle of wild animals in nature as a model of human freedom.”
Stolen Spring begins, as several of his novels do, with a suspicious and unusual death for which there are no apparent motives. An elderly man dies suddenly after eating a malt drop. We come to learn he is C. Blomme, a teacher of Latin at “the gray school” (a thinly veiled allusion to the Metropolitanskole). An autopsy later reveals he was poisoned with strychnine. But no traces are found in any of his other malt drops, nor can the police find evidence of it in the shop where the candy was sold or in the deceased’s home. We’re told that his family and work colleagues are “sorry he was dead.” Moreover, “He had no debts. He had no secret mistresses. He cultivated no expensive vices. He had no frustrated ambitions.” Who would want to kill this harmless man?

The narrative jumps ahead 25 years to the class reunion of a group of Blomme’s former students. “Among the nineteen gentlemen there were people who could offer expert opinions on the head teacher’s death,” the deadpan narrator intones. “There were doctors who were knowledgeable about poisons. There were jurists who were knowledgeable about criminals. And there was a psychoanalyst who was knowledgeable about the peculiarities of the human psyche. And the murderer was also present.”
Having set the stage for a pulpy detective novel, Scherfig quickly changes tack and Blomme’s unsolved murder is, for the majority of the novel, a muted concern. As Niels Ingwersen, a scholar of Scandinavian literature, has noted, the resolution of a crime in a Scherfig novel is of very little overall importance: “No dapper detective is present . . . and when the criminal is revealed, if that occurs, there is no grand hope offered for a better future.” Instead of following the current-day murder investigation, Stolen Spring flashes back again to the school days of Blomme’s former pupils, immersing the reader in their world and revealing their many possible motives for offing their teacher.
Daily life at the school consists of a dispiriting cycle of brow-beatings and petty torments that the students suffer at the hands of their peers and their teachers. Blomme mocks his pupils, creating embarrassing nicknames for them and humiliating them on a daily basis. But the Latin master is only one awful part of an average day. There’s also the teacher who screams and hits students as they falteringly recite their French exercises, and the natural science instructor who fails his most talented student because the boy can identify plants and animals that he, the teacher, cannot. Then there are the older boys who have suffered so much at the hands of their elder classmates that they viciously harass the younger students under the watchful but disinterested gaze of the faculty. Those rare teachers whose intentions are noble become the brunt of the students’ torture for no other reason than that they are easy marks. Most poignantly, there are the teachers who are themselves former Gray School students. Having once harbored dreams of becoming famous writers and thinkers, they were encouraged to take up a “useful” profession instead.

One can be forgiven for wondering how the resulting story manages to be remotely funny. Scherfig, it should be noted, didn’t think that Stolen Spring was amusing at all, referring to it as a “tragic book . . . an account of the stunting of human beings.” Yet there is an undercurrent of wry humor. Consider this passage describing the students’ brief respite from the normal school schedule right before the Christmas holiday:

The gym teacher, Mr. Ejby, has his own special Christmas fun. He draws a large circle on the gym floor with chalk. Then all the boys have to go into the circle and try to throw each other out…It’s a superb free-for-all, and Mr. Ejby roars with laughter and encourages the combatants. “Hit him for goddam Chrissake! Push, dammit!” So they hit and push and tug and shove. Blood and tears flow when Hurrycane takes one on the snoot. “You damn sissy!” Mr. Ejby shouts. “Can’t you even take part in a little punching game? Hell’s bells, we’re celebrating the start of Christmas peace on earth.”

It’s a cruel scenario, but Scherfig’s tone also conveys a kind of survivor’s humor, shared by those who have made it through a common disheartening ordeal. Scherfig also details the brief moments of joy and mischief that sustain his young protagonists, such as their creation of a secret society called The Black Hand, whose entrance password is “Death to Blomme!” and whose mission is to “… combat mankind. First and foremost teachers and park attendants.”  

Where Stolen Spring lays bare the conditions faced by children in the educational system, The Missing Bureaucrat dramatizes the long-term consequences of such training. Having completed their elite educations, the hapless graduates find themselves without any practical skills—no common sense or self-sufficiency, no confidence in their own judgment. Such is the sad state of Teodor Amsted, the bureaucrat of the novel’s title. “It isn’t so easy to arrange your life when other people have always done it for you,” the narrator explains.

When you’ve gone to school for twelve years where there were teachers who told you what to do and what to learn and what to know and what to think. . . . And when the last exam is over, you move into an office—perhaps in a ministry where what you’re supposed to do and say and write is also decided for you. It isn’t easy to be independent when other people have made all the decisions for you for 46 years.

The Missing Bureaucrat was written and published in 1938, two years prior to Stolen Spring but its action takes place after the events of the first novel, when two of the Gray School’s graduates—Amsted and former classmate Mikael Mogensen (an unemployed bohemian dilettante) both disappear at the same time. Amsted, it seems, has inexplicably committed suicide by igniting sticks of dynamite that were stuck in his hat, his pockets, and even his mouth. Mogensen vanishes on the same day, and it takes some time for the police to find a connection between the bizarre fates of the two men.
Scherfig’s style in both novels is similarly sarcastic, but The Missing Bureaucrat divides its attention among several targets, and reads less like a manifesto than Stolen Spring. Its joyfully convoluted plot develops through a series of caustic, astute character portraits. There’s Mrs. Amsted, who makes a speedy and tearful production of converting her wardrobe into appropriate mourning garb. There’s Sylvia Drusse, an author who introduces the widow to a group of spiritualists who claim to be able to communicate with her dead husband. There is the bland and minutiae-obsessed Section Chief of Amsted’s former office, who spends entire days composing memos on the ministry’s protocol for closing windows. These secondary characters—not to mention those in the book’s later passages in the country—create a ludicrously disconnected and selfish patchwork of humanity. Scherfig is not a subtle architect: Bureaucrat’s ultimate plot twist approaches with inevitability. But it’s this inevitability that gives the novel its empathetic punch. The labyrinthine system in which its characters exist only allows them one possible (and hopeless) resolution.  

In his 1933 novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor (translation: A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks), Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose coined the term janteloven (“Jante Law”) which quickly became something of a supposed truism of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is generally used to describe a society’s collective distrust of individuality and personal achievement. It consists of ten basic rules, including “Don’t think that you are special” and “Don’t think that you are good at anything.” Both Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat offer an acute diagnosis of a society that suppresses what is unique and remarkable about its citizens in the name of upholding a common mediocrity. They stand as masterful works of satire—funnier variations on Kafka’s social dread. But while Scherfig may paint a cynical picture of Danish society, it’s easy to infer that his biting criticism is grounded in the notion that an improved world may be possible. To quote Ingwersen again, “…his exposure of fools and folly was meant to bring his readers to their senses.”

Larissa Kyzer works at New York University and is a second-year master’s student in the Palmer School of Library and Information Science. She is a contributing book reviewer for The L Magazine, Three Percent, and Reviewing the Evidence, and is learning Danish in her spare time.