A Catastrophe by Jorgen Nielsen
Translated by W. Glyn Jones
It happened in the good old times before the First World War. At
ten years of age, little Anders Sorensen, by profession a servant boy
in the country, knew nothing of good or bad times; he had not been in
existence for very long, you know. On the contrary, he believed life
was fair—if one always did what was right, the reward would follow as
a matter of course. These scraps of information about life he had
received from the very best sources, school and home, and he took
everything literally. And the right things were to work hard and
conscientiously, as you were expected to do, and then to save all you
could. You should start on that as a child, and in this way you should
continue. Then you could not help becoming a big and rich and happy
It was, however, difficult to live up to these demands—but the
fact that you thought it was difficult revealed that your character
was not strong enough, and it was up to you to make it stronger.
The boy's wages were two pounds twelve shillings a year—a shilling
a week—plus board and lodging, and he was allowed to do as he liked
with them—this he had achieved after many difficult negotiations with
his father. Although society demanded of him that he should go to
school three days a week he could keep himself and still lay some
money by. That was extremely well managed, he thought; that was to
live like a grown man. But it was made so difficult for him, that he
was often almost in despair. There were so many rocks to go aground
To begin with the work he had to do was far too heavy for a lad of
his age; it was not far from being a labourer's work. Life made
demands on him. It would have demanded less had he not been so
terribly alert, so amazingly full of energy. Unreasonable things were
expected of him; and he himself did even more than he was asked—but
he was only a child. It would have been a good thing for him to have
felt a little drowsy sometimes, to have given up occasionally or to
have shirked the more difficult work; but where was he to know that
from? He had always been told that such an attitude is wrong under any
circumstances. It was his habit to take the bull by the horns, he did
not dodge but went on ahead with his eyes wide open. And that is a
good thing, but it is not ALWAYS a good thing. He had too much
will-power, but not for a moment did he suspect it, he thought he had
He set about things every day as though it were a matter of
carrying out a superhuman task or enduring some torture. Each evening
he marvelled that he had survived the day. Was his strength wasted?
Not a bit of it. Not in any conceivable way. A man who worked would
not lose his reward; the world was just. Every day unfailingly yielded
its income, two pence, a little less than that in fact, for he knew so
accurately what the fraction was. Out of his wages of course he had to
pay for any clothes and clogs and other things he could not do
without, but he had worked it out that he could probably have fifteen
shillings or a pound by the end of the year. He was hoping for a
pound. That was a lot of money.
No, he did not think of his exacting job as a burden that was laid
on him, but as a path to distinction, to victory, as a beginning to
advancement in the world.
But there were all those rocks.
He had only to keep himself, of course, but that state of affairs
could not last long. His parents were in difficult circumstances, and
at that time his mother was seriously ill; biscuits were about the
only things she could eat, but they were expensive things in
comparison with the sorts of food they normally lived on at home. His
mother rarely had her biscuits.
Anders, however, who was not entirely without means, could not bear
the idea of his mother's having to do without them. So every Wednesday
he bought her a packet of biscuits. A packet at twopence-halfpenny.
Oh, he was painfully well aware of the price. It was just about a
halfpenny more than he earned that day. It was a great sacrifice, for
every day was a struggle and had its significance in the endless chain
of exertions which was to advance him in the world. But he dare not do
otherwise; he had to do what HE could to help his mother to get well
again. His mother thought it was sweet of him to come with the
biscuits, but she never imagined what it cost him.
It never occurred to him to buy himself a few pence worth of
sweets; those day were past, he thought. Not that he was an ascetic by
nature, quite the contrary, he wanted all the fullness of life. One
day he would have all the good things possible, but the path he had to
follow to reach them was long and tiring. In his home he had never
seen anything but the most utter, dire poverty—he wanted so much to
get away from all that. "To get on in the world." That was the
formula. In actual fact his most ardent dreams of wealth were dictated
to him by the fear of having to lead the same distressing and joyless
existence as his mother and father. He dreamt of achieving more than
other people because he was afraid of having to be content with less
than they. It was what scholars call over-compensation. Anders never
thought about the cause of it. He was only a little overworked peasant
lad with a burning thirst for life.
It was a biscuit-day. Anders had just come from school after
running home with the biscuits which he had fetched from the grocer's
during his mid-day break. And now, after a hurried meal, he was sent
out to plough.
It was a sunless, chilly day in early spring, and the wind was so
strong that it almost amounted to a gale. The horses were young,
unruly animals which Anders had difficulty in keeping in check. The
fact that the soil in the field was sandy with a lot of gravel in it
did not make matters easier. The plough showed a tendency to jump out
of the ground at every moment. The strong wind also helped to make him
To look at he was an ordinary lad of ten, with blue eyes and
freckles, and wearing clothes with a lot of patches on them; he
patched them himself now that his mother was ill, but the result was
not so good as when she had done it.
He was not big enough for his plough-team; it was easy to see that
he was far too small. He did not behave like the grown-up plough-man
he thought he was, but like a miserable little creature being dragged
around and ill-treated by the two large animals. A feeling of deep
despondency was smouldering in Anders' heart; he was overstrained in
the extreme and had harassed nerves, but did not know it. (A peasant
lad cannot possibly have nerves!) That day, as on all other days, he
had been up at five o'clock, had worked on the farm for a couple of
hours with the milking and clearing away the dung and so on, and after
that he had been to school for a few hours. Whilst he was eating his
belated lunch he had become irresistably drowsy. But he had to go out
with the horses as soon as possible. His master was always rather
impatient on the days when Anders had to go to school. He regarded it
as a sort of negligence on the part of Anders that he went to school.
He thought it was a bit too much that he had to do without his lad
until far into the afternoon even in the busiest season of the year—
and all for the sake of school...
Anders was not at all happy that afternoon as he walked behind the
plough.—No, he was running behind the plough, he was jumping about in
a daze, ploughing, that is what he was doing.
He was perfectly well aware that he was in a bad mood and very
disheartened. He was extremely well aware of it today. The magic
formula which had kept him going on other days—almost twopence in
wages—failed him on days such as this. The day's wages were used up
before they were earned. Because of that the day was spoiled, it was
revealed in all its nakedness as being purely joyless thraldom, at a
complete loss. Had anyone been able to read the poor child's thoughts
they would have said he was mean. The spirit of a miser developed to
its fullest extent in a child. How dreadful! Yes, he was mean. Nature
helps itself as best it can. Being parsimonious in the extreme was the
only means whereby Anders could transform days of adversity into days
of triumph. Yes, he might be having a rough time of it, but he was
striving for the future, making the future secure; his reward would
Today he was just having a rough time of it.
And then it happened. How, he did not know afterwards, but the
accident happened. During his breathless struggle with the horses the
whip sprang out of his hands and chanced to fall in such unfortunate
position that he plough ran right over the handle and broke it.
It was a really first class handle, costing one and threepence.—He
knew the exact price of it.
And that money would be deducted from his wages. Whatever was
broken at work had to be replaced; the master had said that once and
for all, and the ruling had been adhered to. Up to now it had been
bearable, although distressing: once it had been a case of a wooden
tethering- stake and once a whip-lash.
But one shilling and three pence!
His master would not grumble; oh, no, he was cleverer than that.
Anders wished so fervently to be treated as a grown-up person, as a
man. Some people humoured him willingly—in those instances where they
saw their own advantage in it.
He stopped the plough. The horses were no longer rebellious now
that evening was approaching. The wind had subsided, and the first
suggestion of dusk had crept over the flat, colourless landscape. The
lad stood and broke down completely; everything was in vain. The
conditions under which he had been living had made him stoical,
although he never realised it; he never wept, not even now, but he had
suffered a complete spiritual breakdown here beside the broken whip-
handle. It was a fine, gold-painted, slender handle, a feast for the
eyes, but dear accordingly. Normally it was only used when the family
went to town, but the ordinary whip had been mislaid. So fatefully
Ten days work together with strict economy all wasted in a moment!
He could not FACE it; his nerves would not stand it. The days were so
long and heavy, so overpowering, and he could not stand them when he
no longer had the illusion that they gave a lasting reward. One day
wasted he could bear—but a whole lot of days! He gave up; he gave up
all his future. It was simply a short-circuit. He was no good; he
realised perfectly well that he was a good-for-nothing. It never once
occurred to him that he might one day regain his courage.
Of course he would have to go on attending to his work, but...
Now the plough was in motion again. Broken-hearted he staggered
after the horses. The furrows became a little crooked, but it made no
difference whether he was praised or scolded; he was no good in any
case; he was a wretch, entirely different from great men in books, the
ideal characters who had never done anything wrong and had never felt
their spirits fail them, but who always, unwavering and with set
faces, had marched forward along the straight path to fame and
fortune. Oh no, he was in no way like these people.
And when he had felt thoroughly downcast for a time, a soothing,
sweet thought crept over him. He had exactly seven shillings, a
fortune amassed in the course of many laborious months. Now when he
was free that evening he would go down to the grocer's and buy a few
cigarettes and sweets. Was it a wilful act? He could not do otherwise;
he sank to it as though in a quicksand. He had to have some pleasure,
he was so worn out. But it was not in this way he thought about it; it
was no reasoned action.
He told them about the whip when he went home with the horses. I
see. His master made a note of it in his diary; he showed no sign of
As they were sitting at supper—porridge—his master said:
"You don't seem to have got on very quickly with the ploughing this
last couple of hours."
"H'm," Anders managed to say. He looked down. That was not like a
man. He usually answered like a grown person to anything that was said
to him. People had often been amused by that. They thought it was
comical that he attached so much importance to asserting himself. But
now his self-respect was lost. In its stead he felt a new, salutary
apathy. It seemed to him that it was easier to be wretched than to
strive after perfection.
Then the thought occurred to him that it had been foolish of him to
tell them about the whip. Would other lads in his place have rushed to
admit it? He thought not. It might have been forgotten, or he could
have got out of it in some way or other—that he certainly could have
managed. When he was worth nothing in any case, he might just as well
behave like that. It is often people who conceal things who come off
best in the long run.
As soon as he could slip away from the farm he hurried off after
sweets and cigarettes. He knew the people at the grocer's, so it was
all right for him to come and buy something a little after closing-
time. At the same time he bought an extra packet of biscuits for his
mother and thought that that was a naughty thing to do as well, for it
too was a desire to which he was giving in. On the way home he met two
school friends. They were given cigarettes and sweets. He was being
generous. And it turned out that what he was doing in despair and
because he was sick with scorn for himself, impressed them and awoke
their admiration—it was a strange discovery.
And he enjoyed the sensation; he was only human and a child. But at
the same time he was tormented by the thought that what he was doing
was unforgivable. He did not know that people must have something good
now and then, for the sake of balance; no one had told him that. His
actions were determined by a passionate longing to do what was right,
indisputably right. And what was the right thing, then?—Well, the
world had greeted him with a smiling face. He was given unreasonable
conditions; nearly everything was taken from him. And then he was
confronted with a moral, a lesson in life, which ran: he could act
according to the highest ideals of life only by denying himself even
the last little bit.
But that he could not do. There was a limit. Nature demanded what
was due to it and forced him to relax when that limit was reached.
His understanding had not developed sufficiently to grasp this. He
only knew he was unable to accomplish the task he had set himself. And
in his room that night, when he had crept into bed and lay eating his
last sweets in the moonlight, he was still tormented by what seemed to
him his irremediable defeat. Just imagine what he had ruined! First
that whip-handle which cost so much money! And then in desperation he
had wasted more money—on sweets and cigarettes! He thought it was a
fantastic excess. He thought he had spoiled so much that it could
never be repaired. Yes, he was a wretch, a debauched person, a nasty
piece of work. There existed no doubt in his mind about that, and it
hurt him more than he could bear. And as though to lessen the pain he
plunged himself, so to speak, deeper into the pleasure that was at
hand—the sweets—and despair. He discovered the dangerous delight to
be found in giving up; he felt it all the more powerfully because he
had taken too much upon himself. Just let everything go on as best it
can, he was no good in any case...
It was only a mood, but it went deep, and it left traces.
Moods are the only things which really exist.