The celebrations of Kirsten Thorup and this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize are still not over, and in the light of this, we would like to announce that another winner of this prestigious award is joining our ranks. Our latest book, fresh from the press, is by Dorrit Willumsen, who in 1997 was awarded the Nordic Council Literature Prize for Bang: En roman om Herman Bang. Marina Allemano’s English translation of this novel, generously supported by the Danish Arts Foundation, is now ready for an English-speaking readership.
Bang relates the life story of the notorious author Herman Bang. The title of Willumsen’s novel might be a play on both his extravagant life and his sortie, as Bang’s life came to a sudden end while he was doing a reading tour across the USA. His last days form the back-story of Willumsen’s novel, a novel that weaves fiction and fact together in a touching and exciting portrait of an extraordinary man leading an extraordinary life (read an extract from the novel here).
Willumsen was at first supposed to write a traditional biography about Bang, and she did months of reading and researching previous biographies, his literary works and journalism and his thousands of letters, but the story fired her imagination to the extent that the book became a fictional biography, which describes Bang’s life from the inside rather than the outside. We first encounter Bang in New York, where he is starting out on his USA tour. The city is a grim, grey and loud place, according to Bang, and he is happy to board the train to escape from it, although he seems to want to escape the tour altogether. Unfortunately for Bang, the tour must go ahead, but he does find a way to escape – into his dreams. He dreams of his life, starting with his childhood: his mentally ill father and his beloved mother. Good, bad, sweet and sore memories are mixed and presented to the reader through young Herman’s eyes. As the story progresses we follow him throughout the USA, and in his flashbacks throughout his life. We get to know his youthful infatuations with young men and women, his bohemian life full of wonders but also scandals, his travels and life in different cities in Europe – from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg to Prague, and we discover the hardships he suffered as a well-known writer and a homosexual.
As well as a novelist Bang was a journalist, critic and playwright, as well as an actor and a theatre director. Because of this, he was omnipresent in Danish cultural life. He often wore eccentric clothes that shocked the conservative public, and of course, his homosexuality shocked them even more. His first novel was banned for immorality, as much for its content as for the writer himself.
But although Herman Bang was viewed as what we might now call an attention-seeking drama queen, his novels often focus on quiet, downtrodden people who do not raise their voices; people with a lack of agency; people who seem to accept the fate that society has in store for them. These stories of Stille eksistenser (Quiet Lives) are what made him a celebrated and loved author in Denmark. One example is the novel Tine from 1889. This novel interweaves the Prussian invasion of Denmark with male invasion of female innocence. Tine is a young girl who takes up the housekeeping chores at the neighbouring farm, owned by the charming and handsome Henrik Berg, who has just seen his wife and son shipped off to Copenhagen because of the war. Henrik and Tine become intimate, despite her being much younger and far below him in class – although Henrik is a decent man. Tine is inexperienced and mistakes desire for true love. This is her downfall, and when she realises that Henrik in fact never loved her, she drowns herself.
It seems that the love Bang always wrote about, was the kind of love that fails or the kind of love that cannot be fulfilled. Maybe he saw parallels with his own life, or maybe not – the kind of love that cannot be fulfilled is always novel material. He did write an essay, published in 1922, after his death, where his thoughts on his own kind of love seem rather grim. He writes that homosexuality is a harmless mistake in nature, and he expresses the hope that future medicine will not only cure homosexuality, but prevent it altogether. This tragic conclusion, in which Bang converts the hostility of his own times into a form of self-abnegation, is contextualised by an Afterword by Dag Heede, a leading Danish queer theorist.
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