In the English-speaking world, the Danish writer Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) is not a name to conjure with, in spite of his Nobel Prize. In Denmark, however, he seems still to have a high reputation. In 1999, newspaper readers voted The Fall of the King the best Danish novel of the twentieth century; I’m not in a position to agree or disagree with that estimation, though I can certainly see why the book impresses its admirers. Nonetheless, it would not reflect well on the country’s modern literature if this really is the best it can offer, because for all its qualities, it’s an uneven novel whose flaws keep it from attaining greatness. That said, Jensen’s writing is often strong enough to make me eager to read more of his work.
The plot is fairly complex and not easy to summarise, so instead of making the attempt, I’ll try to give an idea of the characters and the context in which they act. The narrative is divided into three parts: the first takes place at the end of the fifteenth century, the second between 1520 and 1523, while the third begins in the 1530s and ends in the 1540s. We first meet the central character, Mikkel Thøgersen, as a not very diligent student, mocked in the streets and given the nickname ‘Stork’ due to his odd appearance: tall, thin, red-haired and ungainly. Neurotic, bitter, lonely, occasionally given to impulsive and sometimes violently reckless acts, he is a far from sympathetic protagonist. Other important characters include the capricious young soldier Axel; the tormented nobleman Otte Iversen; a grotesque doctor and astrologer named Zacharias; the powerful bishop Jens Andersen; and Christian II, Denmark’s king. The middle section includes an account of one the pivotal events in Scandinavian history: the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520, which saw the execution of scores of Swedish nobles and clergymen as Christian sought unsuccessfully to maintain the Kalmar Union of Denmark, Sweden and Norway under his leadership (a couple of striking details: the severed heads on the ground looking like the heads of swimmers treading water, the spreading blood taking on the appearance of an ever-changing runic character). The consequences of this act reverberate throughout the rest of the book.
Jensen weaves together his fiction and his history in a largely compelling manner, although there are a few places where he does not avoid one of the great pitfalls of historical fiction – the need for exposition weighing down the story. Sometimes, he attempts to mask it, as with the convenient device of having Mikkel return to Denmark at the beginning of the third section after a long period abroad, so that he can be filled in about what’s been happening during his absence. At other times, he all but gives up trying to conceal it (‘History tells briefly… ’ ). Jensen’s historical consciousness is, however, sharp. The absurdity of war, of the ambitions of its leaders, is likened to farcical theatre – hardly a novel observation, but I like the haughty dismissiveness of the author’s tone (‘Yes, they played out impressive scenarios in the old days. Notice the comic antithesis in the plot… ’). He is good, too, on the way that history is written by the victors, often in such a way as to make the deaths of the powerful count for far more than the deaths of ordinary people. Peasants rise up against the nobles, but are brutally suppressed and die in their droves. A manor house is torched, its master murdered; one of the attackers ends up a serf working for a new lord at the same manor, now rebuilt. The peasants’ sufferings are brushed aside, forgotten, while those of the nobility are not. Again, it’s common enough as an idea; what matters is the sardonic pithiness with which it is expressed:
If King Christian had killed all the noblemen in Stockholm instead of only a few score, then there wouldn’t have been so many to give vent to their irascibility later. The story of the bloodbath has been passed down through the centuries, but Johan Ranzau pulverized two thousand men at Aalborg and few have bemoaned that event.
I don’t know about Jensen’s Danish word choice, but ‘irascibility’ works splendidly here (hats off to translator Alan G. Bower). The word derives from the Latin ‘ira’, which became, according to Catholic catechism, the deadly sin of wrath, but its English derivative has, in modern usage, shed much of that weightiness to become a synonym of such words as ‘cantankerousness’ and ‘irritability’. For the nobles, to slaughter so many peasants is merely to give vent, as if in a fit of pique, to their bad temper. At one battle, two thousand men are ‘pulverized’ – literally, reduced to dust – yet it is only the killing of aristocrats and churchmen that has lived on in history, that has been ‘bemoaned’ (another telling word choice, with its suggestion of peevish, whiny complaint). Jensen frequently employs a tone of mordant cynicism. A soldier’s nihilistic war song (there are several songs in this book) has the following chorus:
So lop off an arm and stick out an eye,
Don’t think of the end and who’s going to die;
Run ’em through and hack off their head–
When the sun goes down we’ll all be dead.
The song includes an admonishment to ‘remember what the raven sings’, and the caw of that bird resounds through The Fall of the King. Here’s another great example of Jensen’s acerbity. Four mercenaries come into some money through underhanded means and meet with diverse fates:
Just as soon as he had received his portion, the first one bought an ox cart to carry it in. He drove off leisurely and was murdered the same night in a village outside Amsterdam.
The second hurried back to his homeland on the Rhine, and there he buried all the money somewhere. He died alone and in great wretchedness, without having touched a penny.
The third gambled himself into beggary in Turin eight years later.
And for the fourth it also ended badly. He died of riches, revelry, and rapacity, in his ninety-seventh year.
As I was reading this for the first time, I was ready to groan at what I took to be the heavy-handedness of the bad ends meted out to the first three rascals, but the rug was pulled from under me by the fate of the fourth. Very nicely done.
Jensen does a lot of things very nicely, but I ought to say a few things about what he doesn’t do so well, and I had better start with an extremely off-putting scene near the beginning, which, for many readers, may be objectionable enough to form an insurmountable obstacle to their enjoying the book. It tells of the young Otte Iversen’s attempted rape of Susanna, a Jewish girl, in her garden. There are several things wrong here, the first of which is the way Jensen depicts Susanna as a frightened animal who quivers in fear, springs away and hides behind trees. Otte, meanwhile, is the bold hunter determined to catch his prey – but he doesn’t see himself as an aggressor, and it’s not clear that Jensen does, either. The motivations for his act are given as homesickness, anguish over his love for a peasant girl, and a sexual desire (or, as the author would have it, a ‘flame within him [that] was not to be quenched’) that takes ‘delight’ in pursuing and forcibly caressing her, so that he can feel ‘that his passion lent justice to his deed’. We view the scene through Otte’s eyes; it is his feelings, his mental state, that Jensen dwells upon, not Susanna’s, who is given no interior life beyond animal fear, and then, incredibly, acquiescence shading into desire (‘slender and pliant and full of fervent submission’). In a rather nauseating image, when Otte kisses her, ‘her mouth blossom[s] ‘like a rose with many waxing petals’. When Otte goes soft (that is to say, when his ‘courage [leaves] him’), it is she who leads him away to have sex, for by now she has fallen for his ‘timorous suffering’, his ‘silence’, and the ‘strange despair’ that fills his eyes. Awful stuff, really. When I was reading it, I thought back to the great Czech film Marketa Lazarová, set in the Middle Ages; it also features a woman who falls for her rapist. The difference is that, in that movie, the woman’s love is made psychologically convincing by the careful delineation of her circumstances, by making it clear that, from a desperately limited range of options, the one she chooses may well be the least terrible. Jensen doesn’t bother with any of that because he’s simply not interested in his female characters. He includes quite a few of them, but each one is a blank, each one defined solely by her relation to a male character.
Jensen’s dubious sexual politics inform some of his worst writing, which comes as Axel reflects on his lover, Lucie. Lucie is given a whole chapter in her name, but she emerges from it with no more presence than any of the other women in the book. The portrait given is of a mercilessly appraised sexual object, all but incapable of thought:
Lucie was quite unable to laugh. She could only produce a mirthless grimace, like a dumb animal baring its teeth, just as an amiable sign of warning. Only on occasion would she show pleasure, and then her smile was like a September day in Denmark, when carefree birds swoop in great flocks under the brilliant sky, while the withered flowers stand quietly in their greater wisdom. Ah, Lucie–she was not yet twenty, but her breasts were already less than firm, and untender as fallen fruit.
It might be countered that, as these are Axel’s thoughts, we shouldn’t take them for the author’s; Jensen may be holding up Axel’s attitude for scrutiny. The trouble is that it’s only the men’s thoughts that Jensen gives us. Also, in this case, he explores Axel’s libidinous mindset at such wearying length that it’s difficult to sustain any claim of irony. After musing on Lucie’s attributes, Axel dozes off, and we are subjected to an absurd and absurdly long sexual fantasy in which Axel dreams that he is on board Columbus’s ship, which is carrying thousands of women from all over the world, each of them reduced to their ‘captivating’ physical traits.
This brings me to another problem with the book: the number of dreams and visions it contains (most of them Mikkel’s). In theory, including them ought to be a good idea, as it’s in keeping with the period in which the story is set. People then set greater store by dreams than we tend to do today, and the religious fervor of the age could be conducive to visionary experiences. In practice, however, Jensen botches it by making several (though not all) of these dreams and visions so long and tedious that my heart soon began to sink whenever I came across one of them. There’s also an excruciating passage in which the ghost of a murdered man pays a visit to his still-living lover. Of course, the woman tearfully begs the ghost to take her with him, and, of course, he refuses, and, of course, the whole scene is quite wretched, reaching its nadir when the ghost says that his ‘coffin is full of roses in the dusk of heaven’. Such are the depths to which this writer is capable of sinking.
What, then, is to be said for Jensen? I’ve already mentioned his wit, and, fortunately, there’s more. He can be a marvellous nature writer. The book is structured according to the seasons, its three sections corresponding to spring, summer and winter (what happened to autumn?). His evocations of weather are superb. Here, for example, are two men and their horses caught up in the rain:
The rain clouds moved in from the west, opening to reveal a pale sun that gave no warmth, then closing again. Crows clamoured out on the wet fields. The wind whipped the leafless hedges. And far ahead a cloud set its foot on the earth and moved toward the two riders, who then rode into a swirling murk of merciless rain. The road was awash in the lashing rain and the horses galloped in a vapor, with the steam torn from their hide like storm-driven smoke from a heath-fire.
A cloud setting its foot on the earth: such a simple idea, but it works brilliantly. Excellent, too, is the simile at the end, which enhances an already excellent detail (that of the steam coming off the horses’ hides). A first-rate job from the translator here; ‘swirling murk of merciless rain’ and ‘[the] road was awash in the lashing rain’ are especially good.
Outstanding passages in this book include: Mikkel’s memory of witnessing a knacker at work on a horse (‘All of the luxuriant, garish colors of the East–the gold of the sands of Egypt, the turquoise of the skies over the Tigris and Euphrates–all the rampant colors of India and the Orient blossomed there in the snow under the knacker’s filthy knife’); Axel’s memory of the battle-death of one of King Christian’s enemies (‘Far out from the frozen wastelands came sounds like weak cries for help, and their slight, tinkling echoes: Oh, Sten Sture!’); a strange supernatural episode near the end that almost tips into the horror genre; a character’s fragmented deathbed reminiscences of childhood (‘[He] thought of the times he had sneezed several times in a row. He remembered a toad he had seen in the rain and evening murk, crawling through the nettles on its stomach like a spy. He remembered a frayed spot on the sleeve of a coat he had once had.’); King Christian repeatedly crossing and re-crossing the strait between Jutland and Funen as he vacillates between abdicating and fighting to retain his crown, his mind entering various states of hope, despair, megalomania, delusion, self-pity, bitterness, resignation, hunger for invasion and conquest (the scene is based on a probably apocryphal story taken from history). Perhaps most memorable and effective of all is an interlude in which Axel stays at an isolated cabin deep in the forest during a harsh winter, his companions being a pagan woodsman and his daughter. Hunger drives them to kill and eat Axel’s horse; the description of its slaughter and consumption contain some Jensen’s finest writing:
There was clear, quiet weather all day, with heavy frost. Most of the day they went in and out, eating and butchering. It was as if the fragrance of the boiled and roasted meat refreshed the memory of the newly opened, odoriferous carcass, and of the intestines when they were still functioning. The reek of the butchered horse filled the hut, and the vapors billowed up over the roof. The snow in the eaves over the door melted, then froze again to reddish-brown icicles.
He began to wallow in the food. He sang and feinted at the sun and the moon in ecstasies. He had been eating almost since morning and he was covered with juice and grease to his eyebrows. He lay far out over the table now, with his leather-sleeved arms embracing the abundance. He chewed and stuffed suet back into his mouth at the corners. He purred and sang. Magdalene went back and forth, also taking a tidbit in her small teeth from time to time.
Jensen, then, is certainly capable of producing rich and savorous prose. He excels at sharp little details (a drunken bishop’s face becomes flushed like the aurora borealis; a man burns his finger on lead that has melted from the roof a razed manor house). His picture of 16th century life is convincing. However, it must be said that, even at its best, the novel scarcely amounts to more than a series of magnificent set pieces (but what set pieces!). There’s what you might call an authorial vision – the futility of human endeavor in the face of history and death (all efforts left resembling ‘a landscape after a flood, when the desolate earth is covered by heaps of rubble and black trees with their roots bared, and with salt and slime as far as the eye can reach’), and, more parochially, the weakness and irresolution Jensen finds in the Danish character – but the erratic material does not always serve it particularly well. I rather suspect that, as a writer, his talents may have better suited to shorter forms. His Nobel Prize was principally awarded on the basis of The Long Journey, a six-volume cycle of novels portraying the evolution of human society from prehistory up until the voyages of Columbus; from what I gather, it’s not much read in Denmark these days, partly owing to some pseudo-scientific racial theorizing. More promisingly, he also wrote many poems, stories and essays, as well as intriguing heterogeneous short prose pieces he called ‘myths’. I would dearly love to explore this body of work, but virtually none of it seems to be available in English.