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A world which has sunk into the sea

It became apparent to me that the change in how Kirsten Thorup’s work is read must be a consequence of wider changes in the collective value system – changes that at an international level resulted from the events of September 11, and at a national level were sparked by the new 2001 parliamentary majority in the Danish parliament, which politicians Søren Krarup and Jesper Langballe (with scarcely concealed pride) designated as a ‘complete change of political system change’. These are the words of KVINFO director Elizabeth Møller Jensen after rereading the works of renowned Danish author Kirsten Thorup. Her essay is presented here to coincide with the publication of Kirsten Thorup’s new and critically acclaimed novel Tilfældets gud [The God of Coincidence ]

In a 1987 interview with the Danish newspaper Information regarding the publication of the novel Den Yderste Grænse [The Final Frontier], Kirsten Thorup stated that the leap “from the 1950s to now is so incredibly huge. It is as if we had been living in a world which has sunk into the sea.”

However, when 20 years later I reread her Jonna series in the run up to the 2007 Danish book fair, BogForum, (at which I was to interview Kirsten Thorup) it became clear to me that this time I read her work it was the bygone 70s that were brought back to life in front of my eyes. I had otherwise been convinced that I had an intimate relationship to the four novels: Lille Jonna [Little Jonna], 1977; Den lange sommer [The Long Summer], 1979; Himmel og helvede [Heaven and Hell], 1982; and Den yderste grænse [The Final Frontier], 1987. I had worked with all of these novels when working with the publication of Nordisk Kvindelitteratur [Nordic Women’s Literature] 1993-1998.

The first collective publication of these four novels, and the interview for which I was preparing myself in 2007, coincided with Kirsten Thorup’s 40 year anniversary since debuting as an author with her poetry collection Indeni – Udenfor [Inside- Outside] in 1967.

Kirsten Thorup’s reference to the long-gone 1950s provided an explanation for why the figure of Jonna had all but disappeared as a character in the novel series’ third volume, Himmel og Helvede [Heaven and Hell], which deals with the youth rebellion’s heyday of 1968 to 1970 in Copenhagen.

The original plan had been to follow the provincial girl Jonna, who was born during World War II and raised in provincial 1950s Denmark, and to describe her youth in the 1970s “up until the point she becomes an adult, as one cohesive chronicle” (Information, 1 May 1987).

Yet, as is common knowledge today, Kirsten Thorup surprised her many readers by allowing Jonna, who was the main character in the two first novels, to disappear as the first-person narrator behind the fantastic changes that in Himmel og helvede are realised by others than Jonna herself. The closest we come to a narrator in Himmel og helvede is the brother John’s somewhat reserved characterisation on the final page of the novel. She is not exactly his type. “She thinks and talks exactly like a man”, “it doesn’t feel like we are with a woman”, “she is too macilent and cutting, and she has never really been able to make things work with men”, sounds the salient departing salute with which Kirsten Thorup sends Jonna off from the novel. Only later on, in Den yderste grænse [The Final Frontier], does Jonna return as an adult and enter into the story again.

This distinctive absence of a narrator gave rise to much reflection at the time the novel came out. Kirsten Thorup’s own explanation for why Jonna’s teenage years and early adulthood could not be freely told from the beginning was that she too “had mad such a giant leap, particularly within herself”. As a result, she could not describe how Jonna “had, in one ongoing and coherent story, journeyed from that childhood to where she was as an adult today” (Information, 1 May 1987).

I myself reached the conclusion that the withdrawal of Jonna’s narrative presence reflected the changes in the times before and after 1968, and it also pointed to the change in women’s lives before and after the women’s movement. It struck me that with the Jonna series what Kirsten Thorup did was to describe a woman’s journey of development. At the beginning of this journey, the element of the ‘I’ is steadfastly present in the childhood longing for change and upward social mobility, but disappears in the homelessness of the teenage years only to re-emerge years after the youth revolts in the adult reality of provincial Denmark.

The construction remains so disturbingly interesting to me that, to this day today, I find myself still awaiting the first fully unfurled women’s Bildungsroman. But perhaps the time and opportunity for such a work have been and gone, and perhaps the Jonna series will remain the closest we come to a women’s Bildungsroman in Danish literature.

No matter how far along the rout of women’s self-development we are today, Kirsten Thorup’s stories of Jonna do however reflect an even greater, shared history of Denmark. Her first two novels portray a world of yesteryear – a pre-welfare state past, a women’s story from when father was the breadwinner and mother took care of the rest. At that time, few could envisage that a later women’s movement, supported by the economic boom of the 1960s, would forever change both the family and society. And few could have imagined that it would bring about such an extent of change that we would feel as is we “have more in common with those who will be living 200 years from now, than those who lived only 50 years ago”, as worded in Den yderste grænse. The feeling of living through as much change in one lifetime as has taken people hundreds of years to achieve throughout history.

While rereading her novels, I realised that even though Kirsten Thorup replays the youth rebellion (both the good and the bad of it) in Himmel og helvede, this is not the reason why the period suddenly manifests itself so clearly. Nor is it solely the fact that time has lapsed that evokes an opposite déjà-vu: that is to say a feeling that the 1970s have now suddenly sunk into the sea as compared to when I last read the work in the 1990s.

On the contrary, it became apparent to me that the change in how Kirsten Thorup’s work is read must be a consequence of wider changes in the collective value system – changes that at an international level resulted from the events of September 11, and at a national level were sparked by the new 2001 parliamentary majority in the Danish parliament, which politicians Søren Krarup and Jesper Langballe (with scarcely concealed pride) designated as a ‘complete change of political system’.

I realised that over the last decade a completely new way of thinking has spread. It is a change in our collective value system, which has not merely altered the political landscape, but has also changed the choice of words and terms we use in our endeavours to connect with each other in a collective public dialogue. The common language to which we are all referred to use when trying to engage on another across the different political conceptions of what is up and down, what is right and wrong, has changed radically.

I realised that the political power shift has engrained itself so deeply into the collective mindset that a major literary work, such as Kirsten Thorup’s Jonna series, almost achieves heritage status – a memory times passed.

I realised that the common values that Kirsten Thorup’s Denmark’s history is based upon have now suffered the same fate as 1950s Danish provincial life. During my reread, it was no longer the 1950s that my reading eyes as saw as a lost Atlantis, but rather the 1970s.

Lille Jonna [Little Jonna] and Den lange sommer [The Long Summer], tell the story of the young girl Jonna’s childhood which was formed by the family’s social demise from a life living off the land to a life in temporary accommodation for the homeless in the local school’s sports hall. The works also describe life in the cycle shop that Jonna’s parents manage to acquire during the improving economic conditions of the 1950s.

We read about the mother, Betty, who cleans for the doctor, about how Jonna falls in love with the upper-class boy, about her work among the unskilled women workers in the asparagus factory, and about the experiences of the staff and patients at a state-run hospital. As a child and young girl, Jonna shares her parents’ yearning for the unknown and their social dissatisfaction, both of whom dream of something different and something better. “I could only ever see one way forward, and that was upwards”, is how she describes her life among normal people who live with the knowledge that life could be more than making ends meet and merely existing. And the characters in Kirsten Thorup’s novels bear witness to that view of human nature which the mad baker in the state hospital asks Jonna to pass on; namely, that “each human being is greater than the life that he or she lives”.

In the Jonna series, it is the story of an unequal Denmark that drives the story forward. It is Kirsten Thorup’s understanding of gender and class that determines both individual destinies and the political struggle for power, of which the 1968 rebellion is an expression. It is these huge social differences between class and gender that Kirsten Thorup brings into play. As a result, a reread of the Jonna series reminds me that our common national identity – our sense of ‘us’- which has dominated the value system debate and formed the cultural debate since 2001, is a construction with no historical substance or, at best, an expression of meaningless wishful thinking.

The common perception since 2001 has been the notion of a Denmark characterised by an all-uniting ‘social cohesion’, which the old parties of the Danish parliament harmoniously eulogize as the key political mantra. But on rereading the Jonna series, I am reminded that the immigrants’ role as ‘them’ (in contrast to ‘us’) and ‘the others’ – those outside the common identity and national unity – is not a new role. What is new, however, is that the ‘them’ is now a group of people from outside the country. This new ‘them’ has taken over the role of those standing outside, those left by the wayside, those not willing to be integrated, and, who by their presence alone, challenge the norm of the Danish majority.

“I can not keep on letting the one dream replace the other and die”, as Jonna says in Den Yderste Grænse. Her whole life, she has lived with the dream of “moving one rung up the ladder of society”, and it is only as a 42-year-old that she realises that her life in fact has been dominated more by her anxiety of plummeting to the bottom.

Whereas today it is the immigrants who are the ‘them’ in the ‘them-and-us’ scenario, in Kirsten Thorup’s portrayal of Denmark in 1952 it is Jonna’s homeless family in the Danish provinces who are the ‘them’.

In Den lange sommer, Jonna and her brother John seek out the life lived in the travelling circus and among the patients in the state hospital. Throughout, Kirsten Thorup’s viewpoint is borne by those standing outside and all those left by the wayside. It is here that we find identification and reflection. It is the ‘them’ seen from within that come across as the completely normal, average people. And Kirsten Thorup’s Denmark’s history renounces the notion of a national social cohesion long before the most recent wave of immigration. The Turkish men, who in the 1960s took work at B&W and other large Danish companies, bestowed the working class of the time with a new ethical dimension. And, during my reread, it became glaringly obvious to me that Kirsten Thorup’s view of the Danes and Denmark reflects an image of a 1970s’ mindset which has sunk into the sea.

Excurse on social cohesion
Following a perturbing, year-long development in which the Humanities have lost both ground and status, Danish culture, the Danish language and Danish literature have, as perhaps never before, taken centre stage in the social and political debate about the nation’s survival in a global age.

I believe that it was the former Danish education minister, Bertel Haarder, who, in the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende, 20 September 2003, was the first to label “foreigners” as people who exist in a “subculture” outside “the Danish tribe”. A powerful image which immediately afterwards sparked much critical debate, but which has nevertheless continued to grow in size and momentum since the day this wording first found its way into the public sphere.

“`Thank-you’ is just a word”, tells a Danish saying, yet the word thank-you retains the almost magical power of allowing us to get what we want. Personally, I am in no doubt that Bertel Haarder’s strongly evocative wording was a strong contributory factor in the political decision in 2004 to create the Danish literature canon (a listing of literary works intended to represent Danish culture) and is responsible for the wider population’s demand that there should be a 2005 Cultural Canon (Kulturkanon 2005). And any lingering doubts about the connection between this Kulturkanon and Bertel Haarder’s picture of the sub-cultural foreigners outside “the Danish tribe” was removed by former culture minister Brian Mikkelsen when, in his defence of Kulturkanon at the Conservative Party’s congress in 2005, stated that “a medieval Muslim culture” would never become “as valid here in Denmark as the Danish culture, which has grown up from the ancient earth that lies within the four corners of the nation.”

The Kulturkanon committee justified the creation of the cultural literature canon by saying that “it is meant as an introduction to Danish cultural heritage – not as a list of what is acceptable and correct, but as a qualified starting point and foundation for an on-going debate about Danish art and culture”. This justification was unequivocally linked to the moral ‘crusade’ to further national introspection and self-acceptance.

The notions and ideas, which to an increasing extent permeate the public debate about literature and language, steer national self-understanding through works such as 2005’s Hovedsporet; Dansk litteraturs historie [A history of Danish literature], in which literary history is compared to a three-kilometre-long core sample taken from the Greenlandic ice cap. In the same way that a core sample does not just tell about the snow that fell last year, but tells about the snow which has fallen over millennia, this literary history tells us about “new concepts of reality and forms of expression” (p.17), which layer by layer have formed our modern conscience.

Hovedsporet wants to tell the story of the Danes, “for we are the story”; “we Danes are not only the same as one another and different from other peoples – we are first and foremost the same as our selves, i.e. the same as who we were one year ago, ten years ago, one hundred years ago, one thousand years ago (p.18). And this reaction comes in the knowledge “that the historic identity is under constant attack” (p.18) exemplified by globalisation, the EU, the US, and by the fact that Denmark has “become a target for immigration with the different immigrant groups practicing their own cultures parallel to the traditional Danish culture” (p.18).

Throughout the past decade, the phrase ‘social cohesion’ has haunted the public cultural and political spheres. The phrase crops up everywhere and is used by both the ruling and opposition parties at every occasion, particularly on Denmark’s Constitution Day, when it is trotted out in an endless barrage of speeches, articles, letters to editors, and political initiatives. But difficult as it may be to be opposed to a buzzword such as ‘social cohesion’ (for the sole reason that it makes no sense to wish for a society that lacks such a thing), it remains a controversial term. What relationship is there between “the Danish tribe” and “the sub-cultural foreigners”, who some may see as becoming part of the tribe expanding it, whereas other see the outsiders as a threat which will dissolve a nation from the inside.

The culturally conservative culture and literature researcher Kasper Støvring rejects liberal and left-wing definitions of the term in his 2010 book entitled Sammenhængskraft [Social Cohesion]. He claims that it is not liberal rights or democracy that creates social cohesion, but it is old social ties, cultural prejudices and religion.

Left-wing criticism, represented by the 1968 youth movement and cultural radicals, is itself an expression of destructive cultural self-loathing in the West, which makes us weak and insecure in when different cultures, such as the Christian Danish culture and the Muslim Middle-Eastern culture, meet. An article in Berlingske Tidende from 3 September 2010 states that representing the enemy are tribunals and courts of law whose “increasing power undermines democracy and is a symptom of a nation’s decaying social cohesion.” Støvring’s worry, “particularly regarding immigration policy”, is defined in the article as a risk of weakening the democratic process if tribunals and courts of law take power away from the Parliament under the influence of “human rights organisations who argue their case legally”, but “are merely conducting politics under the pretext of law”.

In Støvring’s political dictionary, social cohesion is described in short as “a culturally rooted trust between people in a nationally unified society characterised by positive, informal norms” (p.180). In a slightly more expanded definition, he describes it as “a country’s citizens tied together by history and language and bound by life circumstances and communication forms. Social cohesion is also linked to a defined geographical area, and citizens, to a great extent, share common names, traditions, recollections of past events, myths, associations and religious beliefs. In other words, they share a common core culture, including a common political culture. This is why we can talk about ‘the people’ as a nation with a unique identity” (p. 37)

According to Støvring, It takes several hundreds of years to build up a society, which, like the Danish society, is characterised by unusually strong social cohesion. The immediate challenge he sees is that this society as it is today (and which has taken many generations to be built) can be lost in an instant.

Put simply, what Kasper Støvring is recommending is a highly restrictive immigration policy and an active assimilation of Muslims in Denmark, as, in his eyes, it is immigration from the Muslim countries in particular that threatens the core values of Danish culture. The only feasible way he believes this can be achieved is by assimilation through mixed marriage. “Immigrants should marry into Danish families and in this way become part of ‘the people’ – the ethnic tribe. Intermarriage is an attestation of strong emotional bonds to the Danish people, and it makes it more difficult for immigrants to uphold their own culture and links to their ethnic community” (article in Jyllands-Posten, 19 April 2010).

The final frontier
For me, the commonly used and widespread concept of social cohesion casts new light on Kirsten Thorup’s apocalyptic portrayal of the present age in Den yderste grænse [The Final Frontier], in which she tells Jonna’s story from 1952 up until 1985.

Where in Himmel og helvede [Heaven and Hell] it was the changes and the breakthrough of the 1968 youth revolution into the characters’ lives that created the pattern of the novel, it is in Den yderste grænse Kirsten Thorup’s repetitive images of doomsday that permeate and connect the lives of the characters. These images permeate to such an extent that in my previous reading I began to speculate whether she had, in her bleak cultural analysis of the development of a society that through both good and bad intentions meets its end, had symbolically written on from the Apocalypse of John in the Book of Revelation. If nothing, this provided me with an explanation for the conspicuous use of the names Jonna, John and Jonni.

To begin with, Himmel og helvede could be read as one long exultation, like a fairytale where good triumphs in the end, like a testimony to the opportunity of change. Yet simultaneously, it could also be read as a vision of hell and a portrayal of the youth movement’s gigantic, self-destructive and reality-hostile arrogance which manifested itself through terrorism – such terrorism as the youth movement’s political offshoots practiced, like at the showdown around the World Bank which ends the novel.

For what happens, as Jonna asks herself in Den yderste grænse, if you begin to see yourself or part of yourself in the German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, “the nice, bright girl who had turned herself into to the flipside of power, its shadow. And had become foreign to all that is human?”

It was immediately easy to interpret that far from being an apology for the youth rebellion, Himmel og helvede was more a literary attempt of a self-critical reflection made by Kirsten Thorup on behalf of the 1970s generation.

I had a harder time decoding the doomsday images in Den yderste grænse. Individually, the personal breakdowns within the story’s framework are plausible enough, such as when the student activist Asger (who alone is working to develop an economic world order in a grandiose attempt to prevent the end of the world) commits suicide when he realises that he, yet again, has been living under an illusion. Or when the ambitious teacher “trapped within a travesty, a forewarning of doomsday” is committed to a psychiatric institution the morning she searches for the frightened children in a home where the mother has been drinking. Also for Esther, the children’s mother, whose world has collapsed and who decides to burn down the sewing room, of which she is manager. Whereas her sister Doris, the peace activist sees the images of the apocalypse as “fire and flames, and lightning that lacerates the sky”. Bruno, Esther’s secret admirer, manages, in a loving surprise manoeuvre, to take the matches from her, saying “just because you are standing on the brink of the abyss, it does not mean that you have to throw yourself in. And finally, “Esther had met her match. She had found love”.

This fairy-tale-like message that only love can prevent the world from going under is nevertheless refuted by the fact that the love disintegrates in all the individual love stories.

The fact that Jonni, the gay man, loves women but desires men does not make him an outsider in Kirsten Thorup’s universe. Rather, this is solely an expression of general confusion that desire and love cannot be aimed at one and the same person. Jonna herself has an erotic relationship with the take-away owner Kris while she awaits the marriage promised her by student activist Asger. She merely wishes that “Asker and he [Kris] could melt into one person, one man. And that I myself could melt into one person”.

How precisely Kirsten Thorup’s end-of-the-world images were meant to have been understood back then was something that I was unsure about, and, to my knowledge, no other readings have concerned themselves with these bleak statements.

Den yderste grænse recasts a melancholy and critical light on the hope and dreams of the first three novels, on Jonna’s hope for a new and different life as a woman, and on the shared dream of a totally new and just society. For despite the existence of hope and desire, the dream did not come to fruition.

And perhaps these end-of-the-world images are also connected to Kirsten Thorup’s premonitions of what the future held in store? But whatever the author may have seen in her crystal ball in 1985, it was something of which I had no inkling back then. Today, however, I have no problem in understanding and interpreting these bleak visions – visions which almost demonstratively populated the end of the Jonna series.

According to Kasper Støvring, one of our greatest taboos today is the idea that social cohesion can solely be established between those who are ethnically connected: i.e. between people of the same national ethnic group. I do not share his belief, and I can suggest an even greater taboo which automatically shuts everyone up. This taboo goes so far as to suggest that the current tendencies for increasingly influential xenophobic right-wing parties in Europe is a situation which lets us draw comparisons between 1930s Germany and the current stigmatisation of immigrants and refugees, which at a national level is most strongly expressed in the views towards the Muslim minority.

Since 2001, the new proposals for a tightening of immigration laws have perhaps become the most important dance around the political golden calf. Here is apparently where the votes and the power are to be captured, and it is clearly now a case of ‘no-holds-barred’ in the fight to collect them.

The right-wing Dansk Folkeparti’s [Danish People’s Party’s] recent ad campaign Thi kendes for ret , which in 2008 ran in all the major Danish newspapers and depicted a woman judge wearing a Burka, was launched in protest against the fact that the government body responsible for the courts had permitted the wearing of headscarves in Danish courtrooms. In response, Dansk Folkeparti’s deputy leader, Peter Skaarup, used the opportunity to propose a full headscarf ban for a number of other “persons in authority”, including police officers, soldiers, teachers, nurses and teachers on the grounds that headscarves make people feel unsafe:

“What is important here is whether or not this is something that gives citizens the impression that this makes me feel unsafe. It differs, but there are some people who are uncomfortable when they see a woman dressed in a headscarf because they feel that she is repressed […]” (Kristeligt Dagblad, 30 April 2008).

Such a total ban would immediately condemn Muslim women who wear headscarves to a life completely outside the labour market! And Søren Krarup continued the stigmatisation in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, where he vigorously defended the proposal that Muslims “must renounce parts of the Koran in order to gain Danish citizenship”, but, as Søren Krarup explains, he has yet to actually raise the question in the political arena. The idea must first be allowed to “mature” and “stand fluttering in the wings attracting people’s attention” (Jyllands-Posten, 3 May 2008). Slowly but surely, the population will get used to tighter rules and tough new requirements. But to what aim?

The logical endpoint of Kasper Støvring’s view of Muslims and Søren Krarup’s view of Islam is a complete closing of the borders for any further immigration from Muslim countries. The nation state is, according to Kasper Støvring, “by far a prerequisite for democracy”, which he, with staggering consistency defines as the “political precedence of the ruling people”.

The return of such totalitarian ideas as in Støvring’s concept of democracy raises the question of where has the protection of minorities disappeared to in today’s culturally conservative thinking. And what exactly is going to happen to the Muslims who are already living their lives in Denmark?

When today it has become possible to make requirements that call for Danish Muslims to renounce parts of the Koran as a condition for gaining citizenship, what is to stop a requirement calling for them to renounce all of the Koran? Is it too radical to ask what will then happen to those who refuse voluntarily to be Christianised or enter into mixed marriages? If, on the other hand, the culturally conservative attack on the law courts continues, and if the idea that it is always the majority who are unconditionally right continues to spread, and if Kasper Støvring’s viewpoint that no single person or single group has rights of which the majority cannot approve, and that at the same time the majority is an expression of an abstract notion of ‘the people’ outside which certain groups per definition stand, well, only our imagination sets the limit for what can happen to any minority’s security and legally guaranteed protection.

With these types of examples, images and linguistic formulations on top of a single impact on the flow of political initiatives in today’s Denmark, it has unfortunately become clear to this reader just what could Kirsten Thorup’s bleak, culturally critical dystopia from 1985 could bring.

By no means am I claiming that the author with the ending of the Jonna series could actually see the final frontier ahead of her as such a frontier does not in reality exist. And, for this reason alone, we can always go further.

Facts about the Danish author Kirsten Thorup

Kirsten Thorup (born 1942) is considered one of the most important Danish modernist writers. Kirsten Thorup has been awarded numerous prizes – among them, the prestigious Danish Academy’s Prize for her novel Bonsai (2000) and, most recently, the major literary prize of BG Bank 2004 for Ingenmandsland [No Man’s Land].

Kirsten Thorup was nominated for The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize 2006.

Kirsten Thorup’s latest novel Tilfældets gud was published 5 April 2011

The essay A world that has sunk into the ground written by Elisabeth Møller Jensen was published in the Danish book Ordmagneten, april 2011. Andrew Bell has translated the essay into English.

Relevant links in English
See Kirsten Thorups Danish publishing house, Gyldendal's website and read more.
A New Ontology for the Female Subject: The Rise of the Flat Character in Stories by Solvej Balle and Kirsten Thorup


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