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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Tom Kristensen

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Havoc

Title: Havoc
Author: Tom Kristensen
Genre: Novel
Written: 1930 (Eng. 1968)
Length: 508 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: Havoc - US
Havoc - UK
Havoc - Canada
Roman einer Verwüstung - Deutschland
  • Danish title: Hærværk
  • Translated by Carl Malberg
  • The 2018 NYRB re-issue includes an Introduction by Morten Høi Jensen
  • Havoc was made into a film in 1977, directed by Ole Roos

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Our Assessment:

B+ : drawn out but well-done account of slow personal dissolution

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Die Zeit D 2/4/1993 Gregor Dotzauer

  From the Reviews:
  • "Heute ist dieser Roman einer Verwüstung ein totes Monstrum, das ein skandinavistischer Grabräuber mit Hilfe des Dansk Litteraturinformationscenter in die neunziger Jahre verschleppt hat. Nicht ein Hauch großer Trinkerprosa liegt über dem Koloß, und daß Joyce für einige erzähltechnische Tricks Pate gestanden hat, ist eine Beleidigung des Dubliner Meisters. Gnade uns vor diesem Schinken, und Gnade uns vor den Rezensenten, die ihn in langen literaturhistorischen Abhandlungen retten wollen: Das ist nichts als halbakademische Leichenfledderei." - Gregor Dotzauer, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Havoc begins on the eve of election day in Denmark in 1924, the Social Democrats poised for victory the next day. Protagonist Ole Jastrau, chief literary critic for the newspaper Dagbladet, is lounging around at home, not really able to get down to any work. He lives in a large apartment with wife Johanne and three-year-old son Oluf, and his life would seem to have all the trappings of basic bourgeois comfort -- family, a decent job -- but from the first it's clear that Jastrau is feeling unsettled. Though only in his mid-thirties, he's tipping into a full-blown -- and soon alcohol enhanced -- mid-life crisis.
       A not particularly welcome intrusion comes in the form of two men who appear at his door: "Communist whippersnapper" Sanders and poet Stefan Steffensen. The two need to lay low for a night, wanted by the police but already promised amnesty if the Social Democrats emerge victorious in the election the next day. Jastrau grudgingly lets them stay; his wife is not pleased.
       Laid-back (Steffensen) and helpful (Sanders) though they are, the visitors exacerbate the already high simmering domestic tension. For now, they are only a brief irritant -- Johanne takes the boy and spends the night with her parents -- but Jastrau is on thin ice as far as his marriage goes, and any additional strain doesn't help. And these two continue to be sores contributing to his woes; eventually, Sanders will be the one rendering the final blow that breaks the marriage, while Steffensen keeps cropping up and eventually settles in as Jastrau's roommate after Johanne has abandoned her husband. And then there's the odd coïncidence that Steffensen is in fact a Stefani -- the son of H.C.Stefani, whose awful book Jastrau is meant to review right at the time Steffensen first shows up; the father-son issues between the Stefanis then continue to figure as one the curious secondary threads running through the novel.
       Havoc is divided into four roughly equal parts. The first gives a sense of the critic's day to day life. He's a bit unmoored and uncertain, puttering about, not sure about his job or family but still securely tied to both. There are tensions -- including with his brother-in-law, who visits -- but nothing too out of the ordinary. And there's excess -- and hints of a long-standing issue:

     And so it had happened again. Why ? He could not recognize himself. Why did he drink ? No, he was not a drunkard. He had only slipped for a couple of days.
       The second part jumps to a year later; Jastrau's situation seems to still be the same, but in fact the rifts are visible. It doesn't take much for his marriage to collapse (with Johanne and Oluf swept rather quickly, easily, and completely from the scene -- they essentially disappear from the story), and work proves ever more dissatisfying. Jastrau senses he's being pushed out of his job, and he finds fewer satisfactions in it, left hanging as he is:
But after New Year's, the situation had again become as hopeless as ever -- articles that lay for months without getting printed, hung on the spike, as the expression was, ideas that crumbled away, arrangements that came to nothing.
       Jastrau's is at loose ends -- and it gets to him. He simply finds -- or can see -- no hold, neither in family nor job, and his one effort to reach out to the Church, seeking the promise of salvation there, quickly devolves into a horrific comic misadventure. The one easy out is alcohol -- which he plunges into with abandon, despite his best intentions. Yet he always remains awkwardly self-aware, as if watching hs own self-destruction from a disbelieving remove:
What was this he was doing ? With a feeling of dismay he sensed a deep abyss opening before him.
       Jastrau moves in circles where offers of drink -- and alcoholic excess -- are common, and he's drawn to it like a moth to the flame. He easily finds the company of mutual enablers. It doesn't seem to be any particular pleasure (or purpose) he finds in the bottom of a glass either: he tends towards the blackout, with many of his outings ending with him waking up somewhere, unaware of what happened. If alcohol is an outlet for him, it is an empty one.
       Jastrau recognizes what is happening to him -- "I'm slipping away from respectability" -- but has little willpower -- or reason -- to fight it. He understands: "It had come about as a result of his confusion", but his confusion remains.
       Havoc is striking for how little Jastrau sees as definitive; only rarely does he sum up a situation or his condition; instead, he usually questions himself:
Was he becoming alienated from everything ? What is it that happens to a person ?
       Early on, Jastrau admitted: "I'm really only interested in myself", and Havoc is a study of this man so focused on himself and yet capable of little more than half-measures; he tends towards the self-destructive (yet even going about that awkwardly, rather than full bore). He needs ties -- like his wife or job (or drinking buddies ...) -- yet awkwardly cuts himself loose from them. He recognizes his need for some company -- the reason he allows Steffensen and the servant girl the young poet drags along with him to move in with him after Johanne has left because: "otherwise the rooms would be empty, and in the barren apartment lay the threat of insanity" -- but his misadventures, including seeking out (or being sought out by) female company grow increasingly squalid. He is overwhelmed by life and can't conceive of a way to help himself -- and struggles with the offers of help -- some of which are very generous -- he receives.
       Havoc isn't the usual tale of alcoholic excess. Jastrau's collapse is a slow deflation; alcohol contributes to it, but is only part of his process and problem. Kristensen allows this personal saga to unfold quite slowly: Havoc is a drawn-out tale of decline which doesn't so much revel in the situations Jastrau gets himself into as wallow in the antihero's burgeoning failure.
       Behind Jastrau's stumbling progress (which is almost all regress), Havoc is also a carefully constructed novel. A document is waved around early on and mentioned several times, pointing already, like the appearance of a Chekhovian gun, to the inevitable ultimate conflagration, while the irritating, indifferent Steffensen is a clever counterpart to Jastrau -- down to a final horrific act Jastrau worries he has been driven to, and then the unexpected transformation (betrayal ?) the Stefani-son manages.
       Perhaps a bit plodding, Havoc is nevertheless an intriguing character study, a fascinating depiction of a man who finds it so difficult to grab and hold onto anything, and stumbles along alone, lacking the kind of ambition one has come to expect from almost any central figure in fiction. (Typically, book critic Jastrau owns a copy of Ulysses -- the book is mentioned several times -- but hasn't read it yet.)
       Arguably slow-paced -- it can seem so in this rushed age (though amusingly that one, nearly a century ago, is described as similarly rushed, with people already having too short an attention span ...) -- Havoc is nevertheless substantial (and often quite amusing), a worthwhile long read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 June 2018

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Havoc: Reviews: Havoc - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Danish author Tom Kristensen lived 1893 to 1974.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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