Lucky Us: Lykke Per Now Available in English

Original artwork inspired by Lykke Per, courtesy “Tourist Near Paradise.”

Way back in October, it was brought to my attention that Danish Nobel Laureate Henrik Pontoppidan had been somewhat (facetiously) maligned in a New Yorker piece about the relative (un)importance of the Nobel Prize. As I mentioned then, Pontoppidan’s short stories “The Royal Guest” and “The Polar Bear” were largely responsible for my further investigations of Danish literature. Or rather, it was a combination of the limited availability of those short stories, as well as the almost complete unavailability of Pontoppidan’s novel, Lykke Per.

It’s seemed to me a very sad state of things that the most famous novel by a Nobel Laureate had fallen out of English translation, which is why I was delighted to find out that a new translation of Lykke Per was published in English in June 2010. The new translation was undertaken by Naomi Lebowitz,  a much lauded professor in Washington University, St. Louis’ Comparative Literature Department.

The book will set you back about $70 on Amazon, which you may not be entirely inclined to invest this soon after the holidays. Luckily, however, you can get a taste of the novel via an abridged lay translation that was done by fellow Danish language and literature enthusiast “Ventristwo” on his blog “Tourist Near Paradise.” Ventristwo generally blogs about life on the island of St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. (It may surprise you to know that the U.S. Virgin Islands were colonized by the Danes in the late 1600s and were previously known as the Danish West Indies.) “An even-handedness comes through the work and a spirit of irrepressible youth, luck and determination fashion an honorable peace for all despite rigid adult certainties bent on suppression,” Ventristwo says of the book.

Ventristwo includes a number of long passages from throughout the novel on his site, so definitely check it out. It seems that great minds are thinking alike to finally bring us Lykke Per in English again. Lucky us!

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In Defense of Henrik Pontoppidan (and Other, Lesser-Known Laureates)

Thanks to Pete for pointing out Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece about this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a humorous piece, and though perhaps it doesn’t tread new ground with regards to its criticism of the Nobel Prize (and how much we as a literary community still value it, despite our kvetching about the award winners each year), Gopnik does get in some nice quips. (My personal favorite being “The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie.”)

All the same, I’d like to take the opportunity to defend one of the lesser-known Nobel Laureates who are laughingly brushed off in the article: Henrik Pontoppidan. Says Gopnik,

Last week also revealed that, however much we may discount the Nobel Prize, we still prize it. No matter how many times the worthy losers console themselves with their fellows—who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?—we’d all still take the meatball if the Swedes would only offer it. You would have thought that the second-rate nature of some prize-winners would have produced a general degradation of the prize. If you give the Oscar to the likes of “Ordinary People” and “Chariots of Fire” often enough, won’t your prize be worth a bit less? Just the opposite: the more often an established prize goes to a dubious candidate the more valued it becomes.

Pontoppidan was an influential member of the so-called “Modern Breakthrough” movement in Scandinavia in the late 19th Century and won the Nobel–in an odd combo award with fellow Dane Karl Gjellerup–in 1917, for, as the Nobel committee rather anticlimactically put it, “his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark.” His novel Lykke Per (Lucky Peter) is quite famous, although it–along with Pontoppidan’s other novels–has since fallen shamefully out of English translation.

I ran across one of Pontoppidan’s short stories, “The Royal Guest” in an anthology called The Royal Guest, and Other Classic Danish Narrative. It’s a wonderful story and after finishing it I instantly set about finding more of Pontoppidan’s work in English. There’s little to be found, unfortunately, although the University of Wisconsin did translate two more of his stories as part of their “Wisconsin Introduction to Scandinavia” (WITS) series. My personal favorite is “The Polar Bear,” which is just a lovely, lovely modernist story about a bohemian Danish pastor who is sent to minister in Greenland.

It was really on the strength of just these two short stories that I decided to try to learn Danish. I wanted to be able to read all of Pontoppidan’s (and other Great Danes’) work, and, if possible, make it available to others to read in English as well.  And so I’m going to take this opportunity to re-post the (very) informal review I wrote in 2008 on “The Polar Bear.” It (the story) is well worth your while, and is very cheaply available ($5 a piece) with all the other titles in the WITS series on the University of Wisconsin Scandinavian Studies website. Skål!

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“The Polar Bear”
By Henrik Pontoppidan, Translated by James Massengale

I obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California’s Southern Library Facility, you really made my day. Or maybe even my year.

This was such a lovely short story, filled with the type of elegant, visual prose that writing instructors the world over are pointing to when they admonish their students to “Show!” and “Not Tell!” But even so, the dialog and the fluidity of the story are never bogged down in lengthy, over-flowered passages. Observe our first introduction to the novel’s protagonist:

Imagine for yourself, dear Reader, a large, flaming red face, with a snow-white, tousled beard hanging down from it; and hiding, here and there is the rough chinhairs, more old remnants of green cabbage slop, breadcrumbs or tan-colored snuff tobacco than one might find completely appetizing…It should also be pointed out that Pastor Muller was exactly six feet one and a half inches tall, that he had lost a finger on his left hand, and that he presented himself to the world, summer and winter, in the same marvelous costume, consisting of a moth-eaten dogskin cap with a visor, a pair of gray checkered trousers stuck into a pair of massive boots that stank sourly of whale oil, and a short, shiny old hunting jacket, a so-called “rump-cooler,” that was buttoned tightly over his huge, giant-like body…

The Polar Bear is a novella about Thorkild Muller, a reclusive, undereducated, and outcast Danish pastor who is reassigned to a parish in Greenland. Muller quickly finds a sense of belonging and fulfillment living with the Inuit, and becomes integrated into their nomadic society. In his old age, however, Muller returns to Denmark and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a confrontation with the Danish church.

It’s wonderful, which is actually extremely tragic, in that most of you won’t have access to a copy to read and those of you who do out there in Southern California don’t seem to take advantage of it. (The borrower slip in the back of the book shows that this was only rented from the library once in April 2005. So, shout out to my library buddy in California–you have excellent taste.)

As translator James Massengale notes in his Afterword,

There has been a real need, in our modern Scandinavian literature classes, for an exuberant story with no battle of the sexes, no lengthy account of awful diseases, no “depressing realism.” The Polar Bear was chosen partially as an answer to the common student reaction of the type: “do the Scandinavians always get depressed or divorce, or commit suicide in their stories?” The answer, as far as this novella goes, is certainly no; but that does not mean our story is simplistic, or that it lacks depth or “debate.” The choice also has the advantage of bring to students’ attention the name of an outstanding but less-known Danish author, Henrik Pontoppidan, who, despite winning a shared Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, has not remained within our American-Scandinavian teaching “cannon.” He needs to be reinstated, along with a number of other Scandinavian writers of both sexes who have been brushed aside by the great Ibsen/Strindberg steamroller and the restrictive policies of some of the larger publishing houses.

Lost to Translation: Agnar Mykle

Anyone interested in Norwegian literature, obscenity trials, eccentric authors, and Great Books You’ve Never Read (and who isn’t, really), should check out a new article called “Obscene Act: The Tragic Fall of Norway’s Agnar Mykle,” by Lewis Manalo. Manalo is an author, critic, and the book buyer at Idlewild Books (a great, independent bookstore in Manhattan that specializes in travel and world literature).

The article on Mykle is part of Publishing Perspectives‘ series “The Best Authors You (May) Have Never Heard Of,” and deals most directly with Mykle’s oft-abridged, now out-of-print, but apparently phenomenal novel The Song of the Red Ruby. Published in the 50s, The Song of the Red Ruby was considered pornographic by some because “considerable portions of the book are dominated by extreme descriptions of sexual acts such as manipulation and licking of the sexual organs and acts of coitus in various positions and situations with the emphasis on details and individual peculiarities in the genital organs of the females concerned and their reactions.”

Mykle was eventually acquitted of the obscenity charges, but his personal life and career never recovered. I had never heard of Mykle outside of some references that are made to him in Jan Kjaerstad’s Wergeland Trilogy, but I think I’m going to have to do some searching for Red Ruby (in its uncensored form) now. It sounds like it will be be more than worth the trouble to track it down.

Bibliotheraphy for Youth Services: A Novel Round Up

I recently took a summer class on Bibliotherapy for Youth Services. If you’re not familiar with bibliotherapy (I wasn’t), it’s basically a way of using written material to address the concerns, fears, troubling situations, or life changes that an individual–in this case, a child–is going through. (There’s a pretty good Wikipedia article on it, here.)

Anyway, I read a great deal of picture books and children’s novels for this class, and thought I would post my reflections on the novels here. The reading list was interesting–a number of titles which were certainly good, but many which were either outdated or out of print. That got me wondering if the class’ reading list just needed to be updated, or if, perhaps,  bibliotherapy is not as common in today’s children’s literature. If anyone has thoughts on this–particularly any children’s librarians–I’d be interested to hear them.

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(Books listed in order they were read.)

A Taste of Blackberries
By: Doris Buchanan Smith
Illustrated: Mike Wimmer
Harper Trophy, 1988

Doris Buchanan Smith’s A Taste of Blackberries starts with an idyllic childhood moment: two young friends rambling through a blackberry patch, checking to see if the fruit is ripe. The lazy summer day continues with races and some

mischievous apple thieving, and Jaime, the (unnamed) narrator’s friend, always vying for attention. Jaime is fun, but he’s also melodramatic and a bit of a show off, and his antics are sometimes too much for the narrator to take.

Everything changes when Jaime stirs up a bees nest that afternoon. Many of the neighborhood children get stung, including Jaime, who makes a big show of thrashing around on the ground and yelling. Or at least, everyone thinks it’s a big show, until they find out that Jaime was allergic to bee stings. And the one or two stings he received were actually enough to kill him.

Conveying the senselessness of a child’s death to young readers is difficult enough, but what makes A Taste of Blackberries even more tragic is the guilt that the narrator feels for ignoring his friend’s cries of pain. Smith handles both aspects of this troubling situation with grace and empathy, allowing the narrator to explore a whole range of emotions and mourn in his own way (he feels like he can’t eat until after Jaime’s funeral).

Equally important, Smith illustrates that caring adults are present everywhere in the narrator’s life. Not only his parents, but his neighbors, and even Jaime’s mother are there for him as he navigates this difficult time, ready to listen or even just sit quietly with him as he begins to heal. This is an important point for children to take away from such a story–that the adults in their lives are ready and able to be there for them during difficult and painful times.


Jessi’s Secret Language (The Babysitter’s Club)
Ann M. Martin
Apple Paperbacks, 1988

Jessi, one of the newest (and youngest) members of the Baby-sitter’s Club, gets a weekly job babysitting for a new family in town, the Braddocks. the Braddocks have two children–Haley and Matt. Matt is deaf, so Jessi begins to learn sign language to communicate with him.

Being one of the only black people in their town, Jessi understands how it feels to be different and isolated from the people around her. She begins to realize, however, that Matt’s deafness not only isolates him from children his age, but also Haley, who feels responsible for her brother, but sometimes wishes he could be “normal” like other kids. She has the idea to not only introduce the Braddock children to other kids their ages, but also teach the neighborhood children Matt’s “Secret Language.” Soon, all the babysitters are learning ‘Ameslan’ and teaching it to their charges.

Having always enjoyed this series when I was a kid, I was pleased to see how well it held up when I reread this title. Martin does a great job of instilling a sense of empathy in the story, and also drawing parallels between experiences that might not seem immediately similar to children who are reading the story. By this I mean not only the fact that Jessi relates to how Matt and Helen feel as outsiders in their community, but also the similarity she draws between dancing (“telling a story with your body”) and sign language. I think this encourages young readers to not only put themselves in the position of people who they don’t think (at first) that they can relate to, but also start to see that something that might not seem normal–like sign language–is actually very similar to something that is very familiar, like dancing.

The Alfred Summer
By Jan Slepian
Puffin Books, 1980

Four Brighton Beach teens–Lester, Alfred, Myron, and Claire–are all outcasts in some way. Lester has cerebral palsy and although he is smart, and witty, and insightful, all the people around him see is his physical disability. Alfred is learning disabled, a fact which leads many people to disregard his kind spirit and label him as a “retard” or “slow.” Myron is clumsy and overweight and spends his days being teased and pushed around by his mother and sisters, expected to fill the shoes of his deceased father, even though he’s only a teenager. And Claire is a champion runner on her track team, but she dresses like a boy, which many of her neighbors and peers find very disconcerting.

These four become unlikely friends, joining together to help Myron build a boat–The Getaway–which they hope will help them escape from their problems. What they find in the process is that with their new-found friendships, is that they no longer want to escape. Rather, spending time together, they discover the capacity to challenge not only the perceptions of people around them, but also the perceptions they have of themselves.

In Lester, Slepian has created a dynamic and unique voice–a smart, sarcastic, and cynical teen who has become resentful after years of being patronized by his parents, ignored by his peers, and unable to do the things he so wants to do. Although his experiences and feelings are very specific to those of an individual with cerebral palsy, many of his problems (an overbearing mother, a distant father) are common with teens and incredibly sympathetic. None of Slepian’s characters are pitiable, but rather, she shows them each to have their own strengths and gifts, failings and fears. As Lester’s father says in a rare show of attentiveness, “Sure people can be rotten. But at the same time people can be good. A little of both, son, a little of both…Just like me, Lester. And like your mother…and you,” (98).

This is a story which emphasizes the importance of taking charge of oneself, of learning how to cope with circumstances that are out of one’s control and making the best of them. This is not to say that The Alfred Summer is unrealistically optimistic or cheery. It’s actually anything but. Slepian acknowledges that these kids will face difficulties and prejudice and that sometimes, unpredictable, awful things happen to very good people. But her characters find strength within themselves to deal with the challenges that face them–they tap into Claire’s “Azzif Theory” and start to become the people that they want to be. It’s a great lesson for any child who feels alienated or without control in his/her own life.

Lester’s Turn
Jan Slepian

In Lester’s Turn, Jan Slepian returns to Brighton Beach, “the old neighborhood,” where The Alfred Summer took place. Although only a few years have passed, there have been many changes since we last saw Lester, Alfred, Myron, and Claire. For one, Myron and Claire have moved away. Even more difficult, however, is that Alfred’s mother has died. Alfred’s epilepsy has worsened and his father spends a lot of time away from home on business. So Alfred has to live in a special hospital, where, to Lester’s eyes, he’s wasting away.

Lonely without the friends he had finally made and struggling with the idea that he’ll be graduating from high school soon, Lester decides that he is going to quit school and take Alfred away from the hospital. He envisions his new life–working a full time job and caring for Alfie, just the two of them together. His plan becomes big news for Claire (who he still sees), and his new acquaintances–a mother and son who live upstairs from Claire in her new home, and Tillie Rose, a neighborhood teenager who works in Alfie’s hospital. But after a special weekend outing with Alfred, something terrible happens, and Lester must face his own insecurities and start planning for his own future.

Although darker in themes (and plot line) than The Alfred Summer, Lester’s Turn maintains the frank honesty and perceptive empathy of its predecessor. Lester’s fear of facing his own future and making plans for his life after graduation will be familiar to older teens who are struggling to make their own choices. Alfred’s death, though difficult, also emphasizes the importance of making the most of one’s life, no matter the circumstances, and considering the impact that anyone can have on other’s lives.

Lisa, Bright and Dark
John Neufeld
Signet, 1970

Lisa Shilling is an attractive, smart, and friendly girl from a comfortably middle class family in a small town in New York. She’s dating the most popular boy in her highschool, has lots of friends, and seems to have everything. But midway through her junior year of highschool, Lisa begins to notice that something is wrong.

She’s hearing voices, feeling isolated, has unpredictable mood swings and lashes out at her friends. She develops a cruel sense of humor, disappears from places unexpectedly, and even occasionally takes on an English accent and persona. And though her peers and close friends realize that something is wrong with Lisa, the adults in her life either pretend that nothing unusual is happening or refuse to take action. So three of Lisa’s friends take it upon themselves to buoy her up as best they can until they can convince an adult that Lisa isn’t acting out or faking it–she really does need professional help.

Lisa, Bright and Dark posits itself not only about a teen’s battle with mental illness, but also a sort of parable about the callousness and lack of responsibility that adults often take when dealing with young people. This is emphasized not only through Lisa’s neglectful parents, but also the counselor and teachers at her high school, who see that something is terribly wrong with one of their students, but are afraid of incurring the anger of her parents–of “interfering” with the way they raise their children. While certainly adults are often guilty of turning a blind eye to the problems and issues that their kids are going through–refusing to believe that their teens could be having sex, experimenting with drugs, etc.–I wonder if this book reflects attitudes that are still socially acceptable. It’s my feeling that if teachers, clergy members, and friends all noticed that a teen they knew was having mental health problems, a myriad of counselors and resources would be provided for her, even if the parents didn’t fully cooperate. It seems to me that it is now much more socially acceptable–and even socially mandated–to get involved when a teen shows signs of mental distress.

The fact that the book is narrated by one of Lisa’s less good friends, Betsy, works very well. Not only does Betsy’s bubbly voice balance out the harshness of Lisa’s story (peppered as it is with tangents about Paul Newman’s dreamy eyes, movie factoids, and high school social commentary), but it also provides a realistic window onto Lisa’s situation. It allows the reader to observe someone who is slowly descending into mental illness from an external point of view. This is probably a more empathetic position for most teens, but also makes the reader think about their own responsibilities to their friends and peers and the ways in which she might seek out help for a friend in a similar situation.

Light a Single Candle
By Beverly Butler
PocketBook, 1970 (original, 1962)

Cathy is a tomboyish, independent, and athletic teenager, who wants more than anything to become an artist. On her fourteenth birthday, Cathy–who has always had extremely poor eyesight–finds out that she will go blind before her next birthday. Although the transition to blindness is extremely difficult for Cathy, what makes it even more hard are the reactions she receives from those around her. No one will treat her like normal. After training with a guide dog named Trudy, however, Cathy finds that she can regain her independence and even return to a public high school.

A sweet story, which doesn’t romanticize blindness, but also doesn’t treat it as a condition to be pitied. A story which any teen who is struggling to learn (or earn) independence might benefit from.

Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You
Barthe DeClements
Puffin Books, 1985

Helen Nichols has a reputation for being one of the best pitchers, and worst readers, in the sixth grade. She’s also known as one of the biggest  troublemakers in school. At the start of the year, she’s assigned to the classroom of Mrs.Lobb–“Blob” to those who know her–a teacher with very little tolerance and a lot of rules. Although Helen works for hours after school every day with her mother on her homework, she can’t fake her way through reading assignments and tests all year, and soon she’s in danger of failing the sixth grade. With the sympathetic guidance of some understanding adults (her father, uncle, and new teacher, Mr. Marshall), Helen makes the difficult decision to start taking special ed classes in reading–even if it means getting made fun of by her classmates.

Although many of the references in the book are more than a little out of date–the students talk about playing Van Halen albums and use Pee Chee notebooks–DeClements does an excellent job of creating a relatable pre-teen world. Her sixth graders talk like sixth graders, and act like sixth graders, without ever lapsing into the sort of self consciously good behavior that makes it obvious that they were written by an adult. This is important, not only because it makes the characters believable, but because it is an honest portrayal of the sort of power struggles that kids at this age have with the adults around them. They’re not sure if they want to be treated like children or teenagers, and take a great deal of pride in pulling things over on adults (particularly their parents) when they can. Helen frequently does things at her friend’s house that she knows her mother wouldn’t allow–drive in her friend’s brother’s fiberglass car, go to a horror movie unchaperoned–and this seemed so wonderfully realistic to me.

DeClements also deals with Helen’s bad behavior and reading difficulties with the same sort of empathy and realism. It’s not difficult to see why she acts out so much, but the connection between her bad behavior and her disability is never belabored. Also, just because Helen decides to take special education classes doesn’t mean that she suddenly loses all of her self-deprecating negativity. “Face it, Helen,” she says in the next to last chapter. “You’re dumb in reading.”

Another facet of DeClement’s realism is that the adults in the novel have their problems and short-comings, too. Mrs. Lobb is certainly a beleagured teacher, but she’s also unable to find a way to connect with Helen and be a productive figure in her life. Helen’s mother also means well with her refusal to let Helen take special education classes, but her actions are mostly motivated by her pride, and Helen’s father even admits this to her. Adults aren’t perfect either, and I think that demonstrating that shows a lot of respect for young readers.

The other standout aspect of this book is that it really underscores the importance of taking responsibility for oneself and one’s actions. Helen not only decides of her own accord to pay back the school for her spray-painting vandalism, but also asks herself to be considered for special ed classes. Later in the book, she assures her mother that at twelve, she’s old enough–and responsible enough–to stay at home without supervision after school. Learning to be responsible helps Helen begin to feel better about herself as a person, and I think this is an applicable message for any young reader.

Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat

I recently reviewed two novels–Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat–by Danish author Hans Scherfig. Both of the novels were translated and published by sadly now defunct Fjord Press in 1983 and 1988, respectively, but have unfortunately gone out of print. (I do strongly recommend picking up used copies of both, on the cheap, on Amazon, though.)

My article was published under the title “Leave Them Kids Alone,” as part of the Backlist section on the website The Second Pass. You can read it on that website–which is wonderful and worth perusing–or read the full text below.

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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 sit 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.”