Panellists at the live launch of Some Would Call This Living, an anthology of Herman Bang’s writings
This is the first of two blogs reporting on our recent book launch event for an anthology of writings by Herman Bang: Some Would Call This Living. Part one introduces the anthology using comments from two of the panellists.
Paul Binding on the writer Herman Bang
Herman Bang was a master of very different forms of writing, although there is a thematic unity in his production which binds it all together. On the one hand, he was a superb and respected journalist with an enormous social compass, a sharp observer of social distinctions and dramatic events. In his description of the catastrophic Christiansborg fire of 1884, the immediacy of his account makes the reader feel the heat and hear the flames; in his brief recording of a fatal car accident, ‘In a Flash’, he brings home the terrible finality of violent death.
On the other hand, he also wrote many wonderful short stories and novellas, like Ved vejen (Katinka), often recording the quiet existence of those on the sidelines of life, those whose fates are normally unrecorded. This was the era of the short story, and Bang admired amongst others Maupassant and Chekhov. In a story like ‘Frøken Kaja’ he brings to life the inhabitants of a boarding house with a keen awareness of the tiny distinctions which mark out some of the boarders as being of a slightly higher class than the others.
Bang was in many ways an outsider in Danish literary circles. Although he shared many of the preoccupations of the Modern Breakthrough movement with its emphasis on realistic depictions of contemporary society, he had strained relations with its Danish leaders, Georg and Edvard Brandes – perhaps partly because of his precocious early success as a critic with Realisme og Realister, published when he was only 22. He was also an outsider because of his sexuality, being homosexual during a period when it was regarded with hostility. Despite fleeing abroad, he never achieved a harmonious relationship, perhaps because he was too complicated for anyone to be able to reciprocate fully.
The subversive nature of sexuality is a theme of many of his stories, such as ‘Les Quatre Diables’, which tells of a circus act of high-flying trapeze artists, two men and two women whose harsh early lives have led them to form an intimate bond through their act. But their work and dedication is undermined by desire, as Fritz is seduced by an aristocratic lady who saps his strength in their encounters. Here sexuality is shown to be a threat to a well-regulated society.
Dorrit Willumsen’s novel Bang (also published by Norvik Press) is one of the best ever written about a creative writer, tracing how Herman Bang was hounded across Europe, at one and the same time suffering acutely and deliberately provoking his own tragedy.
Janet Garton on the background to the publication
The story of this anthology goes back to 2018, when I was contacted by a group of Danes going by the mysterious name of De Bangske Morgenmænd (translates roughly as The Bangian Morning Men). I had not heard of them, but it transpired that they are a group of men with a passion for Herman Bang’s works and a desire to promote them, who meet every year on the morning of his birthday to celebrate his achievements. They were aware of how little Bang is known in the English-speaking world, and suggested that Norvik Press might consider publishing some of his short stories and journalism, two genres in which he excelled and which have hardly been translated into English at all. They sent us a quite long and very varied list of short stories, autobiographical pieces, journalism and letters – which is practically identical with the final contents of our volume. We were a little daunted at first by the prospect of such a large publication – a total of 170,000 words to translate – but decided that it would be a really worthwhile undertaking, if we could raise enough funding to cover the substantial costs. It helped a lot that De Bangske Morgenmænd are well connected. We were able to discuss the project in detail when I was in Copenhagen in the autumn of 2019, and as a result we applied to and received funding from Augustinus Fonden and Consul George Jorck og hustru Emma Jorck’s Fond. Professor Poul Houe from the University of Minnesota, who is one of the Morgenmænd, brought us some funding from his university as well as supplying the informative introduction. And the translations were also supported by the ever-reliable Statens Kunstfond. That is how we were able to produce this handsome volume.
Part two will delve into the translators’ experiences while working on this project. Stay tuned!