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Havoc by Tom Kristensen - Thoughts and Reflections


I turn out to be a simple, ordinary man who has made a slight attempt to plumb the depths of the soul and find the meaning of absolute freedom. 

-- Ole Jastrau


There’s a good chance that this quote, taken from Tom Kristensen’s long (very long) 1930s Danish novel, Havoc, could apply to almost everyone, at least in spirit. I mean, who amongst us hasn’t looked up from their desk from time to time and pondered the banality existence, wondering if perhaps we are guilty of settling for a less than interesting life. If any of the criticism I have read on the novel is to believed, then this is certainly the general response to a first reading and goes some way to explaining the novel’s enduring and seemingly timeless appeal. Reading this line uttered by the novel’s principal protagonist Ole “Jazz” Jastrau, I immediately flashed to that famous quote from Henry David Thoreau, proclaiming how ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’ and ‘what is called resignation is confirmed desperation.’


As bleak as this may seem, this is precisely the kind of outwardly gloomy writing that gives me the most comfort. I like it because amongst the shadows there is a degree of reassurance that comes from knowing that you are not alone in such thinking, and that better minds than yours have struggled with the same existential dilemmas, often without resolution. This is why, and as difficult as it is, I count Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot amongst my favourite works of literature, where all that swirling doubt and seemingly desperate philosophising coalesces in a humour and accompanying pathos that reassures us that we’re not alone so long as we lean into the absurdity together. There’s comfort in that. It feels more honest this way, and certainly more relatable than any scripture.


But Jastrau also speaks of something he calls absolute freedom and his thwarted pursuit of it.  I think this is Nietzsche’s influence bleeding through, in the sense that all of us are free – terribly free – if we only choose to be. According this to line of thinking, all that is required to attain this level of personal clarity is to prioritise our will over everything and everyone else. Nietzsche tells us that freedom is quite simple ‘the will to be responsible to ourselves’ although he also likens it to the power of a God, which is a pretty broad playing field. This all sounds reasonable enough in the abstract, except that responsibility is rarely so singular and unburdened by consequence that to talk about it in absolute terms doesn’t really help. In the context of Havoc, a better quote might be Aleister Crowley’s licentious command to ‘Do what thou wilt’ which has been taken-up by a litany of rock musicians as varied as Jimmy Page and David Bowie as both a monument to Ego and an easy rationale for its worship.


This has always struck me as grotesquely egomaniacal, but that might be too simplistic a view. Pausing to consider this purely as a thought experiment it does raise some interesting and difficult questions about what each of us would do if we chose to walk this path ourselves. I tend to conceptualise this state of mind as a kind of enlightened isolationism, which is close to what we find in Havoc, with Jastrau purging himself of personal constraints, be they work, marriage, relationships, social mores, cultural expectations, good manners and so on, in pursuit of an indefinable notion of absolute freedom. Only once he is free from such constraints and responsibilities, save the one for own sanity, his hope is that he will finally gain the insight necessary to move forward with his life or gain the conviction he needs to end it. The self-destructive behaviours, the excessive drinking, the self-sabotage can all be read in this way, as a determined effort on his part to force his existence to crisis  point to better understand what it means to be truly alive.


In the days since I finished the novel, I found myself asking whether I have ever plumbed the depths in such a way. I’ve certainly thought about it; thought about the purpose and value of my life. The idea of “truth” seems inexorably caught up in this mess of conflicting and at times profoundly upsetting thoughts. Back when I was obsessed with Lacan it was the notion of The Real that most keenly ensnared my imagination, that there might be a mode of experience that is somehow more real, or less comprised by the clutter of an imperfect language and inherited world of symbols. What would it be to experience that unfiltered reality and is it even possible. Proximity to death and the experience of mourning a loved one does bring a certainly high definition rawness to existence, but I don’t think this really fits in the same category. More than anything else, Jastrau is bored with the world yet also tragically lacking the imagination needed to find new ways of being in it. Ironically enough, his actions seem more of a surrender to the forces of entropy than the single minded Nietzschean pursuit of freedom, which actually now feels quite adolescent. In simple terms his will to freedom is to let go of the wheel and hope to chance upon some form of truth or new beginning.


Yet, Jastrau is more than a caricature of bourgeois malaise, embodying instead something closer to the universal struggle with unhappiness and the elusive search for fulfilment that affects so many of us. The author, Kristensen, is said to present a somewhat sympathetic portrait of a man adrift in his discontent and unsure how to proceed along any of the conventional paths that remain available to him. The temptation is to characterise this as a mid-life crisis, and from what little criticism I’ve read this does appear to be how it is generally received. On a first reading, however, he comes across as an uncompromising asshole, especially in the opening chapters, which undercuts the sympathetic argument. Reading this for the first time it made me think of the wealthy middle class professional who enlists the services of a renowned psychotherapist because they are convinced there is still room for additional happiness, when in fact they’re just bored.  Despite thinking of himself as an artist, Jastrau is similarly short on imagination or for that matter, empathy, which only adds to his feeling of intense social claustrophobia.   This toxic aspect of his character is perhaps overlooked in the rush to paint him as an everyman sufferer of the modernist’s malaise, when I don’t think he’s meant to be sympathetic at all. His misanthropy is part of the pathology of his condition, so why would we expect to him be easy to get along with. He’s quick to anger and rushes into conflict with the world around him, and in doing so alienates pretty much anyone who dares to show him even a slither of compassion.


A more sympathetic appraisal would be to consider his descent into self-harm the result of a nervous breakdown. This would at least explain the irrational behaviour and his decision to actively swerve into traffic, but even this feels like too convenient an explanation when the Jastrau seems to be something closer to a pioneer in directionless despair. At one point he says, “I’m also interested in how one constructs a real world –finds reality.” That being said, the drinking, the self-harm could just as easily be symptomatic of something deeper, only I don’t think the novel necessarily wants or needs a diagnosis of this kind, and for me at least works best as a philosophical study. At several points I wondered if all of this was a drawn out suicide attempt, and certainly the novel hints that this could be one outcome, ending as it does with a question mark hanging over his future, his health ruined without a penny to his name.


As a study in drunkenness and the ravages of alcoholism it is remarkably candid. Anyone who has ever partaken of an impromptu afternoon session will know the curiously disorientating experience of emerging from the artificial darkness of the barroom into blazing afternoon sun, people milling about doing their shopping. Its equal measures shameful and liberating, especially if undertaken on a workday. The best you can say about these experiences is that it’s like recapturing time lost elsewhere, a kind of indulgent rebellion, which all too quickly can become an early evening hangover if a few precautions go unobserved. Extend this process out from a random Friday afternoon indulgence to habitual all-day sessions and you’ll find yourself in the postcode of dependency, which is where Jastrau is determined to unspool his days.


There are also future echoes here of the adolescent anti-capitalist rage of Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club, with Jastrau waking-up to the sad reality that the life he has been sold is not as advertised. At various junctures in the narrative, Jastrau fixates on the word ‘recurrence,’ underscoring the corrosive grip of daily monotony — an observation that landed with a certain existential weight as I devoured the novel amidst the humdrum rhythms of my daily tram ride. Yet, within these pages, recurrence morphs from a mundane cadence into a portent of self-fulfilling doom; a slow dance toward nihilistic surrender, marked by small yet resolute steps down a path of existential resignation, a man teetering on the brink of self-imposed oblivion. Through Jastrau’s eyes, we witness the allure of surrendering to the void and the seductive invitation to embrace meaninglessness in a world devoid of imaginative escape.


From the outset Jastrau’s life is portrayed as a kind of gilded cage, which never failed to irritate the shit out of me. The ringing phone might as well be the endless “pings” of email alerts, and goodness knows we can all relate to that little Hell. There’s nothing overly amiss with his life, he’s just bored with it, and yet for some reason also unwilling to reflect on why he feels this way, it’s like he feels betrayed and is constantly waiting on the apology that will never come. His rage is misdirected at his wife, aimable yet superficially and annoyingly content with their twee existence, who offends him in ways he struggles articulate other than taking sniping shots at her at every opportunity. He becomes hyperaware of the superficiality of his work and colleagues, along with a growing irritation at their inability to see this for themselves. Instead, Jastrau searches for realness amongst the poor, drunk and abused survivors of society, although Kristensen treats the poor with a kind of undisguised disgust that is hard to ignore. Likewise, female characters flit in and out of shot as largely undeveloped passers-by, posed more as foils to be used by Jastrau to sharpen his misguided notion of assumed superiority, although there is a certain dangerous radicalism behind his portrayal of progressive female sexuality, it just seldom advances beyond the superficial. The more generous point being that some amongst Kristensen’s women, like his men, enjoy sex as much as they feel trapped and even ruined by it, which again is refreshingly unguarded for the time and gives the novel a sense of unfiltered realism. It’s just frustrating to get very little sense of what is going on inside their heads, and I’m sure we could write a compelling paper about how the novel draws attention to this inequity by reducing female characters, perhaps deliberately so, to a set of limiting algorithms.


As Jastrau attempts to plumb the depths of his soul he finds a whisper of truth in lives of unwashed common humanity but not without painting them as victims without recourse to redemption. This lends itself to a kind of victim voyeurism that doesn’t entirely work, not least for us reading in 2024. What this does achieve, however, is to develop another of the themes of the novel – that of the contagious, corrosive nature of the unexamined contemporary life. In one memorable scene that hints at Jastrau burgeoning self-awareness he considers how everything feels tainted, as though there is a film of unreality covering everything:


It was so unreal, this mode of thinking. And it was as if the unreality spread to their surroundings. The buildings on the other side of the street became gathering rain clouds. The oval table, the visiting-card bowl, and the hat tree seemed like pieces of furniture that had been placed out on the pavement by the king’s bailiff.


He can’t connect to people. Nor does he appear to even want to try, preferring instead to tempt fate from the periphery of altered consciousness and the false courageousness of drunkenness. The times when I most desperately wanted to reach into the novel and throttle him were those when he just abandons any semblance of control without a hint of introspection, and if indeed freedom is the act of surrendering control then perhaps he needs to venture outside of the same half-mile of downtown Copenhagen. As breakdowns go it’s interesting how he always seems to keep at least one hand on the safety line. Which is to say that I don’t think Jastrau is even meant to be a cautionary tale when he is more of a vanishing point, your attention better spent on what’s going around him. He’s more of a state of mind made physical and let out into the world as a social experiment. Yes, he’s an asshole, but there is sufficient purpose behind his behaviour to keep you turning pages. Recurrence, then, is a coming back to a point, not as a newborn but as a someone with foreknowledge of what is to follow.


I can relate to. Perhaps many can, even if it is difficult to admit. Each working day a slight variation on the last. The same traffic jams at the big interchange, the same faces on the bus, in the queue, in the office. The little voice daring you to change. Routine recurrences everywhere, but this time with an added element of self-awareness that we have gained from watching a character like Jastrau travel beyond our own limit. The same exhausted language of everyday life given a new sheen. Perhaps it's around middle age when the act of feigning motivation loses its charm, and we must confront the absurdity that's seeped into our lives. Breaking free requires a leap of imagination so potentially ruinous that we choose instead to accept the dull comfort of the routine, but even this is only a poor kind of distraction.  This is where Jastrau's retreat begins and possible ends. On finishing the novel one thought that occurred to me is whether giving up feels like a gradual disengagement from the world we once sought to conquer.


And who amongst us isn’t a failed something? A colleague recently asked if I had any regrets, proclaiming that they did not - not even one. Whether or not this is true who can say, but my response was a resounding, “well yes, of course I have regrets!” wondering out loud how a person can live a life without accumulating at least a few regrettable mistakes and bad calls.  It seems very strange to me that someone could reach forty without regret and I would admire anyone so well adjusted and self-assured that they could accept life’s blows without fixating on the scars. One critical difference is that in youth we have the benefit of time, since regardless of how dire your situation may be there is always (theoretically) enough time to find your way. Regrets can be parked because resolution may be coming. Spin on a couple of decades and that equation no longer offers the same naive reassurances it once did, and in such moments we must reckon with the clawing doubts and hard reality of our personal limitations which can all too easily fester if left unexamined. That’s where we join Jastrau, wanting to leap to something else but unable to imagine what that might be. He’s not exactly unhappy. He has the classic Bourgeoise malaise of suspecting that he could be happier. It’s a symptom of unarticulated regret that takes time to metastasise, usually in middle-age or thereabouts. He is grieving the life he thinks he should have led, only he doesn’t know what that should be, and doesn’t resolve any of this during the course of the novel. This is why some criticism fixate on the meaningless fall of Jastrau, which misses the larger and possibly more profound point that such crises in self-knowing can be painfully amorphous and poorly defined. The mere sense of a life wasted, even in the midst of comparable success, isn’t any less confounding.  To uncompromisingly charge after freedom as Nietzsche says or shut the fuck up. What makes Havoc a compelling yet infuriating read, is that Jastrau takes Nietzsche’s instruction half-heartedly and succeeds only in sabotaging his life rather than resuscitating it, hence why he finds himself a depressingly ordinary man who has only flirted with absolute freedom.


At times when he isn’t railing against him, Jastrau seems jealous of Steffensen’s poetic talents precisely because he feels that he has squandered his own, or otherwise allowed them to be snuffed out by choosing a more secure but less interesting life. His work is demanding, and despite remaining adjacent to the field of literature, writing literary reviews for a newspaper he doesn’t respect, he remains in close proximity to the very thing that once inspired him without being part of it. The joke about how professional critics are really only seeking revenge on their own thwarted careers carries a certain weight in the case of Jastrau. When he effectively steals one of Steffensen’s poems for a taste of “true” creative glory we’re left wondering whether it is to reclaim some long absent artistic potential or enact revenge on the man whom he sees as experiencing the freedom he mourns in himself. One way of reading Jastrau’s collapse is as a man determined to force a personal reckoning with the world in the hope, perhaps vain hope, of discovering something profound. It is a desperate, flailing sort of move, and ultimately comes to nothing. As he sits on the bench awaiting his possible departure to the Berlin there is little to suggest that he has gained any real insight, although it isn’t a despairing end. There is a masochism here, but not without some misguided purpose.


At the same time that I was reading Havoc I was listening to Rollo May on audiobook. For uninitiated, Rollo May was one of the early advocates of what became existential psychotherapy, publishing the bulk of his work in the 1950s and 60s, and so is burdened by the intellectual fashions of his time, some of which haven’t aged particularly well. One idea he interrogates with enthusiasm is that of the perception of freedom, and we’re talking here of freedom as the extent to which a person perceives that they have control over certain key aspects of their life. May argues that true creative freedom is that which arises when we think we have very little freedom at all. He takes as his example the sonnet form, offered as a metaphor for freedom under duress. He explains that despite the many rules of the sonnet, poets have nevertheless managed to express a remarkable range of complex emotions and a full bag of impressive poetic conceits, almost as though the constraints of the sonnet are the catalyst that releases the poetic potential. It’s an old argument, but with Jastrau busy taking up residence in my head its one worth remembering. Fuelling his predicament is his inability or reluctance to even begin to try to imagine a way out of this personal cul-de-sac. 


There’s a scene roughly at the half-way point where he visits Tivoli, a kind of permanent fairground close to the centre of Copenhagen, where he is unexpectedly caught off guard by a large outdoor aquarium containing a pike. The image of a caged predator surrounded by small inconsequential fish who are themselves surrounded by the ceaseless bustle of people enjoying the Tivoli attractions leaves Jastrau momentarily and profoundly unsettled:


“Look! See the fish!” Anna Marie exclaimed in childish glee as she dragged Jastrau over in front of one of the aquariums.

   Some large red fish were pursuing and snapping at each other with soft muzzles, and behind them came a swarm of small, striped perch, a teeming mass of tails and fins in rapid motion, while bubbles effervesced up through the green, illuminated water. A long eel floated with his glistening body suspended down through the aquarium like the stalk of a plant.

   And a moment later, Jastrau was just as hypnotised by the gliding movements of the fish as the other spectators.

   Then he gave a start. Midway in the tank was pearl-grey fish that was remaining motionless in an oblique position with its bill-like head down at the sandy bottom. A sinister strength radiated from its unruffled composure. It was conscious of its power.

   And now it was impossible to understand why he not caught sight of it immediately. It was the centre of the attraction, fearsome and imperturbable. And when it shifted its eye ever so slightly, an electrical tremor ran through its body.

   It was a pike. (393).


There are a number of ways you might interpret this, but for now I’m interested in May’s notion of freedom and constrained creativity. What’s intriguing about the pike in the aquarium is that while it remains trapped in the glass tank it retains its fearsome imperturbability, almost as if its innate pike-ness transcends its captivity. As human beings we are constrained by language as much as it liberates us, ostensibly peering at the world through a series of filters and mirrors that distort the image even as it grants us access to it. The pike is not so inhibited – as far as we know. As the narrator points out, it is a pike in every conceivable way despite it’s captivity, whereas Jastrau, who is on the outside of the tank and able to roam freely, feels himself not only trapped but having lose any sense of his own realness, his soul, or something of that nature. Like the pike, he finds himself trapped in a strange, simulated world, and you can imagine Jastrau catching sight of his own reflection in the glass, along with the movement of fairground lights and bustle of the Tivoli crowds. It is a moment similar to that experienced by Roquentin in Satre’s novella Nausea, when he is overcome by a similar sense of raw existential realness, a palpable, nauseating awareness of his own presence when contemplating the tangled roots of a chestnut tree.


All at once the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen.... The roots of the chestnut tree sank into the ground just beneath my bench. I couldn't remember it was a root anymore. Words had vanished and with them the meaning of things, the ways things are to be used, the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping over, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty lump, entirely raw, frightening me. Then I had this vision.

It took my breath away. Never, up until these last few days, had I suspected the meaning of "existence."


Like Jastrau, he experiences the alarming sensation of being self-consciously alive yet frail and mortal, and now suddenly responsible for one’s existence in a way that had previously gone only partially acknowledged amongst the helter-skelter of the day-to-day.  Roquentin at least pursues this thought, expanding upon it:


I, too, was superfluous Fortunately, I didn't feel it, rather it was a matter of understanding it; but I was uncomfortable because I was afraid of feeling it (even now I'm afraid — afraid that it might catch me behind my head and lift me up like a wave from the depths). I dreamed vaguely of killing myself to wipe out at least one of these superfluous existences. But even my death would have been superfluous. Superfluous, my corpse, my blood on these stones, between these plants, at the bottom of this smiling garden. And the gnawed flesh would have been superfluous in the earth which would receive my bones, at last, cleaned, peeled, as clean as teeth, it would have been superfluous: I was superfluous for eternity.


Is that awareness a form of liberation or something far more troubling? Satre then uses the word ‘absurdity’ to give the idea some shape, and I imagine most of us know the way from there. It's at times like these that I wish there was an existential helpline that you could call when confounded by the unbearable realness of existence, or in Roquentin’s words, a ‘horrible ecstasy.’


“Hello, yes, I need to speak to someone about a pike I saw at a fairground that was somehow more real than real and made me painfully aware of the precarity of my own fragile existence, accompanied by a creeping sense of paralysis and, inexplicably, arousal.”


It’s not that you need therapy to process this, although in my experience it can help a bit. Rather that you need to play some language games and kick around some philosophy with people with a similar interests, many of whom have helpfully written books and a good number of difficult novels. The point isn’t to find answers per se, it is to find new and perhaps more interesting ways of posing questions and thinking about the underlying problems. I mentioned all of this to a friend, who in turn directed me to Yeats’ poem:


The Fascination of What’s Difficult

 

The fascination of what's difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There's something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day's war with every knave and dolt,

Theatre business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I'll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

 

And there’s some strange comfort here, also. The putting into words. How many times have we sworn before the dawn to make a change. It seems almost a daily refrain to sit on the evening tram wishing for oblivion or something to rekindle the sense of possibility that I knew in youth. Was that only ever naivety? If there is a lesson in Jastrau it is surely to consider where contentment can be found easily within reach and if enlightenment could be found at the bottom of a bottle then it would be a cheap enlightenment indeed.  


Epilogue: Brain's Story


It just so happened that as I was finishing the novel another friend steered me towards a 2001 BBC Cutting Edge documentary about former novelist, Cambridge English literature graduate and acclaimed journalist Brain Davis, who by his late thirties had achieved considerable success only to suddenly, and with frightening rapidity, find himself drunk and homeless on the streets of London. Brian’s Story is a moving forty-seven minute glimpse into the tortured grotesquery of untethered manic depression, the narrator splicing extracts from Brian’s once celebrated non-fiction work into the pantomime-esque tragic absurdity of his daily existence. At times eloquent and lucid but with the unintentional poetics of unreality, I found myself, perhaps shamefully, laughing at his antics as often as I felt overcome by the pathos of the story. We learn, for instance, that shortly after being appointed editor of Campaign magazine at the height of his powers when he seemed destined for great things he abruptly quit and succumbed to the worst impulses of bipolarism. This could be any of us, the documentary seems to whisper but never state outright, Brian carrying copies of magazine articles around in an appropriately upmarket but battle worn Sotheby’s  carrier bag.


Grimly charismatic in his crumpled blazer, Brain repeatedly remains buoyantly optimistic when assuring us that this is just a momentary set-back, a brief stumble before recovering his fame and fortune. At several points he seems to resurface in the midst of a manic episode to remind us although not entirely convincingly, that he has a plan. “This time next week I’ll be fine,” he says from beneath a pile of newspapers in a damp shop doorway.


Perhaps the most jarringly surreal moment that provides a coda back to his previous life, the documentary opens with Brain trying to find the money to go to Paris to interview Roman Polanski, only to mere moments later lose the scrap of paper upon which he wrote down the address of a would be benefactor. Confused and enraged he lunges at passersby, always more bark than bite, a stream of expletives that seem to be directed more at himself than anyone else. He does eventually find his way to the address where he received enough for a ticket to Paris only to immediately decamp to the Saracen’s Arms to liquidate his assets.


As recently as this past Monday I was tapped on the shoulder by a homeless man called Scott (not his real name) who was riding the tram and determined to strike up a conversation with somebody. This happens surprisingly often; I think I have one of those faces and perhaps my choice of soft green linen scarf and blue engineer’s jacket is more socially inviting than the branded sportswear armour preferred by many of my fellow travellers. In a remarkably brief yet sadly well practiced series of circular vignettes I learned how his mother had struggled to support the children. How he’d ended up in a care home and the abuse that prompted his running away. Then prison and the streets. At some point he had lost most of his front teeth. All of this unfolded from behind the glassy inward gaze of what I assumed, perhaps unfairly, to be addiction, the conversation almost entirely one sided, really more of an unfiltered testimony. Even so, and much like Brian, he repeatedly told me that despite everything he remained optimistic. This was said in such a way that suggested he didn’t really have a choice, as though gritty optimism kicks in when it is least expected, but then I imagine that you would keep saying such things to yourself, rejecting permanent victim status in the hope that you just might start to believe it. It’s surely much easier to write your autobiography from the standpoint of redemption than unremitting tragedy. There is something reassuringly hopeful in that mindset however misguided or untrue it might be. It’s certainly not coming from a place of naivety, which is why it gave me pause and left me thinking about the different turns of his life as I made the drive home from the park and ride. Just before we parted he said he was visiting family, but then rode the tam to the end of the line and didn’t get off.   


The filmmakers did at least refrain from filming Brian drinking, choosing instead to provide audio of him ordering at the bar in the deep infectiously confident tones of a Peter O’Toole or Christopher Lee, what would appear to be a perfectly respectable half a Pedigree and then, smuggled a touch surreptitiously under the cover of an innocuous half, a large scotch. It’s a sequence that repeats itself several times - Brian trying to rationalise the consequences of his illness with that same kind of grim and at times charmingly upbeat stoicism that I encountered on the tram, closely followed by a momentary reprieve and another sequence of increasingly frenetic self-destruction.


In a blog entry written by one of Brian’s old journalistic buddies, Mike Bygrave recalls how they had grown up in the same town and for a time shared a similar professional trajectory. Reflecting on Brian’s claims of a heroic return, Bygrave writes:


I don’t know to what extent the filmmakers bought this version of events, but my guess is that they did buy it, for a while at least. The very title of the film, “Brian’s Story” plays into this scenario, whereas the harsh truth is that Brian’s didn’t have a story to tell, heroic or otherwise. Being a mentally ill alcoholic is a non-story-  story’s end- like writing, “and he lived unhappily ever after”. At best, it’s a hiatus in a story that only resumes with the commencement of recovery. I doubt the filmmakers understood this. It’s amazing how ignorant otherwise intelligent and educated people can be when it comes to addiction and mental illness, and at a loss as to how to deal with them.


This is best illustrated at the mid-point of the documentary, where we pick up with Brian’s after he has moved to Liverpool where a cousin has given him use of an empty house. Almost within minutes Brian somehow manages to transform the neat two-up-two-down terrace into a squalid self-portrait. Unable to change the speed of his record player he spends two manic days staggering about drunk, the front door wide open, listening to LPs at a giddy 45 RPM, the high speed helium voices perfectly underlining the inescapable absurdity of his situation. The following day we return to find the house almost completely wrecked, Brian subdued but already searching for a drink. Later that night we watch, with almost sketch-like comic timing, as he drunkenly tries to prepare a meal, slashing away at an apple with a fish knife, lubricating everything chef-like with glugs of what looks like some kind of viscous cherry liquor that he sips directly from the bottle like he’s channelling Keith Floyd, before immediately dropping his overspilling plate directly onto the floor. Unperturbed and without complaint, he fashions another from a crudely folded sheaf of tinfoil and sits down amongst the detritus to eat. Thes past few days, he explains, have been the happiest he has known for some time.


After a couple of house fires that he dismisses as a ‘bit of smoke’ he is finally referred into psychiatric care, the moment when Bygrave’s hiatus theory holds the greatest potential for recovery and possible redemption. But this is only a brief cutaway from what is by now a story that feels to be accelerating towards a single inevitable conclusion. The final scene opens on a rooftop and then peers down into a tiny claustrophobic courtyard, unlit and surrounded on all sides by dark London brick rising to the UPV windows of a cheap London hotel. This, we learn, is where Brian’s body lay undiscovered for two days after he went out on the ledge. The inquest recorded an open verdict, but the film chooses to linger at the edges of something self-inflicted.


While we may rightfully challenge the ethics of the documentary, the lack of narratorial intervention that characterises it does lend itself well to the subject matter. I’m tempted to call it narratorial indifference because there are times when you find yourself asking why the filmmakers didn’t try to help him, or at least talk to him more earnestly about seeking help.  One voice does hint at this from behind the camera, but it is never fully explored. Never followed through. We’re there, it would appear, to bear witness. The documentary doesn’t confirm whether any support offered, but it would seem reasonable to assume that some money was given in exchange for access. He is penniless most of the time and yet we see him in taxis, although whether these had been paid for out of kindness or out of a director’s commitment to moving a story forward is impossible to say. Did someone later tip-off the social services about the obvious risk to life in his Liverpudlian digs?


The seeming indifference of the narratorial voice reminded me of a wildlife documentary I saw many years ago about flamingos and the period of their lives when the young chicks must follow the parents on various long and precarious walks between food sources. I don’t remember its name or whether it was an Attenborough affair, but what does stand out in memory is the sight of scores of infant flamingos, their tiny feet helplessly encased in sun-hardened mud fetched up from the silted bottoms of the lakes, falling behind and then being forgotten by the shifting mass of hot pink strutting birds. I imagine that like a lot of people watching that wildlife documentary I wanted to reach through the screen and release them from their terracotta chains, only we had to just sit there helplessly and watch as the chicks succumbed to hunger and exhaustion or fell prey to the numerous loitering predators temped by easy pickings. Assuming a kind of superior Starfleet Prime Directive attitude, the narrator explained that it was their ethical duty not to intervene, and to let Nature take its course. If nothing else, my own tragically misguided attempt to hand rear an abandoned pigeon chick has taught me the necessity of non-intervention in such matters, but not to do so when a brief interaction could save a life seems callous to the point of moral abdication. I clearly wasn’t alone in thinking this, because after the credits had rolled at the very end of the documentary and in a foretaste of the post-credit Easter egg reel much beloved of recent Marvel films, we see a cameraman scooping up chick to break apart its shackles with a pair of red-handled adjustable plumber’s grips. The final shot is a chick running and then catching-up with its parent. There is no such catharsis in Brian’s Story, but there is a beaten down heroism in his valiant attempts to convince himself that this time will be different, that he will kick the habit and find his way back to sobriety and success.


When I think of Jastrau, and by extension Kristensen, I now also think of Brian. Perhaps we could say that he plumbed the depths of the human soul, hit bottom, suffered in ways I don’t even want to imagine, and ultimately was lost to the void. Whatever the philosophical pretentions of Havoc, absolute freedom of the kind Jastrau pursued has a very different coda in reality.

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