‘What was this odd creature?’: Ella Griffiths introduces Sven Holm’s ‘Termush’
Posted by Ella Griffiths
Ella Griffiths, Faber’s ‘archive mole’ (that is, classics editor), introduces the latest in the superb Faber Editions series, Sven Holm’s Termush, a Danish novella of nuclear apocalypse that had her hooked from the very first page.
It was the kind of moment I dream of in my role as an archive mole.
One day, I was browsing Faber’s dusty stacks – filled with all our titles published over the last 90 years – on the hunt for overlooked classics.
Suddenly, a slim spine with the mysterious word ‘Termush’ emblazoned across it caught my eye. On taking it off the shelf, I was intrigued by the hazy scarlet cover depicting an atomic mushroom cloud. What was this odd creature? I sat down at the ancient archive table and devoured it in one sitting.
The joy of being a classics editor is opening a book lost for decades and instantly feeling the electricity of an utterly contemporary voice. As Salena Godden later said in her celebration of Termush, this hypnotic novella immediately felt like ‘someone from the future screaming to us in the past.’ That quality was obvious from the very first page:
I have been installed in one of the rooms on the top floor here in the hotel. Everything went according to plan, just as it had been run through for us beforehand, on the lines explained in the brochures we received with our enrolment forms. None of us had expected that it would happen so painlessly. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. We had unconsciously thought in terms of something more drastic, a radical transformation, with every single object showing traces of what had occurred, the furniture and the walls changing character and the view outside our window revealing a totally different world. Nevertheless we feel the changes somewhere in ourselves.
I was immediately taken aback by the uncanny parallels with our post-pandemic world, reeling at how Termush prophetically captures the aura of our dazed societies, transmitting the uneasy aftermath and psychic fallout of a cataclysmic global event – whether refracting Cold War paranoia or the geopolitical consequences of lockdowns and quarantines.
I read on. Termush is the name of the luxury hotel resort on the Atlantic coast (with shades of The White Lotus!) where wealthy guests – preppers, in a sense – reserved rooms long before a nuclear disaster. They bask in radiation shelters, eating lavish meals to a soundtrack of ambient music, embarking on tourist day trips. But outside their insular ecosystem is a post-apocalyptic world, with radioactive dust falling on the sculpture park and dead birds littering the gardens. And as their reconnaissance party scouts the area, it becomes clear that their haven cannot survive for long. The hotel management soon begins censoring news; disruptive guests are sedated; initial generosity towards strangers and refugees ceases as fears of contamination and limited resources grow …
It's a superb novella, and I was staggered that a dystopia of such crystalline power had been buried in the English-speaking world for over half a century. In its focus on the shattering existential consequences of catastrophe – with its hauntingly neutral tone and narratorial anonymity – Termush feels like a timeless parable of human alienation in a society corrupted by materialism (‘we bought the commodity called survival’). It sparks fascinating conversations with allegorical classics like Albert Camus’s The Plague as well as recent speculative fiction rediscoveries like Kay Dick’s They, Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men, and Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall – not to mention a setting reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's eerie country estates.
After more research into Faber’s publishing archives, I learned that Termush was a Danish novella first published by Gyldendal in 1967 by an author called Sven Holm – a prize-winning novelist who largely wrote realist fiction and essays, so Termush was a beguiling outlier in his oeuvre.
It was then translated into English by Sylvia Clayton (herself a charismatic novelist) for Faber in 1969. In Clayton’s report on the Danish edition, she beautifully describes it as:
A vision of life after the Third World War, a fable about survival, atom-age man seen as Noah without God. Technically it could be called science fiction, in that it imagines the future, but its arguments and distinctions are ethical and emotional rather than scientific. It points the single moral that though to involve oneself with humanity is dangerous, to isolate oneself is fatal.
The long-time editor of the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then working at Faber, also reported on the novella for a 1967 Book Committee Meeting. She called it ‘an experiment in extinction’ after an atomic war: a ‘post-bomb novel [that] feels different from most’, depicting ‘less survivors than shadows of people’ – therefore creating a fictional universe ‘full of subtlety, sensitivity and anguish.’
Indeed, our new introducer Jeff VanderMeer praises Termush as ‘a classic: stunning, dangerous, darkly beautiful'. His foreword brilliantly places the novel in its literary context, arguing that the way in which Holm prioritises the ‘psychology of the holed-up survivors and the hazards of societal breakdown’ in the ‘wrong future’ bridges the genres of 1950s ‘disaster cosies’ by John Wyndham and the extravagant 1970s dystopias of J. G. Ballard.
Termush perfectly fits the spirit of our Faber Editions series resurrecting radical literary voices, and I can’t wait for a new generation of readers to experience this masterpiece.
Termush by Sven Holm, translated by Sylvia Clayton, is out now from Faber Books.