Hans Scherfig: Det forsømte forår (Stolen Spring)
This novel recounts the story of a school, which includes some of the characters whom we will meet in Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat), written two years earlier. The school is based on the Metropolitanskole (link in Danish), a prestigious school for future lawyers, doctors and senior civil servants, which Scherfig himself attended and which he hated. Indeed, he wrote the first draft of this novel when he was still at the school. The story starts with the school’s headmaster, Blomme (probably based on Karl Hude (link in Danish), though, unlike Blomme, he survived his time as headmaster by nine years), taking his usual evening constitutional. He has with him his favourite malt drops, one of which he sucks when he feels a cough coming on. On this occasion, he took a malt drop and started sucking it but found it rather bitter. He spat it out and took another, which also seemed bitter. By this time, he felt very unwell and people assumed he was drunk. However, it is soon apparent that he is in distress. A policeman assists him and an ambulance is called but it is too late. Before he dies, he mentions the malt drops. However, while the autopsy shows strychnine poisoning, there is no evidence of any of the other malt drops having been tampered with. After a long investigation, the police cannot find out any more.
The book then immediately moves to what, it is soon clear, is going to be a twenty-fifth anniversary class reunion. Various men, aged forty-three, most, though not all, of whom have gone on to successful careers – police chief, judge, chief medical officer – are introduced individually. We do not meet them all but we do know that there were twenty-two men in that class. Nineteen come to the reunion, one being dead, one in prison and one in the Far East. We also learn that one of the nineteen is the man who murdered Blomme though, obviously, we do not learn which one till the end of the book. Of course, some of these men are not having the straightforward life they would have wished. The police chief, for example, has a difficult marriage with a highly strung wife but his position prevents him from divorcing her. Interestingly enough, they do not seem to have had much contact with one another since school.
Much of the book, however, is devoted to the school. Scherfig makes it clear that most, if not all, of the teachers are border-line psychopaths and have been frustrated in their career aspirations. They range from totally incompetent to viciously brutal. While corporal punishment with a rod has been abolished in Denmark, to the regret of many of the teachers, who remember the good old days, hitting the boys with the hand is frequent and expected. It also seems quite accepted for the teacher to demean the boys in any way he chooses, whether because of some physical defect – overweight, a large nose – or because they are not quite as bright as their peers. The one teacher who is weak takes the punishment for all his colleagues, as the boys know they can torment him (erasers in the stove, wood pile made to collapse with a barely seen string). However, many of the boys think evil thoughts about the various teachers. The boys, themselves, learn from their teachers. Bullying is rife, both with the new boys and with those weaker than the rest. Homosexuality, both from the teachers as well as from the older boys, toward the younger boys is not uncommon. In short, this school resembles the tough schools of both fiction and reality found in other countries.
We follow this class for several years, till they graduate and, of course, it includes the episode of Blomme’s murder. We learn who did it and why but no-one else does. Scherfig pours on the satire, both of the teachers but also of the boys once they become adults. Indeed, it seems that he has many scores to settle. While it is an interesting book, it does not have the originality and verve of Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat) perhaps because his bitterness is the main driving force and not his artistic creativity.
First published by Gyldendal in 1940
First published in English by Fjord Press in 1986
Translated by Frank Hugus