Norvik Press brought one of Denmark’s greatest writers, Dorrit Willumsen, author of the novel Bang, over the North Sea for a chat with her translator, Professor Marina Allemano, about their love of the nineteenth-century author Herman Bang, and walking over cracks in the ground. The event took place high above the ground on the tenth floor in the Arena Centre in Bloomsbury. With an amazing view of the London skyline, the city itself made a poetic backdrop to the literary conversation.
The idea of the book originated when Willumsen was asked to write about one of her heroes. She had two subjects in mind, one being her grandfather, and the other Herman Bang – her favourite Danish writer. Known for re-imagining historical figures using the first person, Willumsen used the same technique for the protagonist in Bang. The work was originally commissioned by her publisher as a biography. Willumsen, however, discovered this was problematic, as there were so many biographies about Bang already in print. She read them all, and as she progressed in her research, it became increasingly difficult for her to hold her creativeness at bay. Eventually, the book turned out to be a novel about the last days of the eccentric, flamboyant writer and inspiring actor. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks as we follow Bang on his final book tour through America. He is ill, dependent on help from others and on his morphine to get to sleep. But the reader also gets to know the younger, livelier man through his reminiscing.
A household name in Denmark, Dorrit Willumsen started out as a writer in 1965, although sadly not much of her work is translated into English. This translation of Bang goes some way towards remedying that. And that task was undertaken by Allemano, who has always had a great admiration for Willumsen and published a biography about her in Danish in 2015. When asked where she positions herself as a translator, Allemano humbly defined herself as a servant to the original work, a technician; a problem solver. She described the translating process with an analogy: imagine walking on an Earth full of cracks. When you look down between the cracks, you can vaguely distinguish the real, more beautiful world underneath, but you can never fully get to it. However, this modest depiction of her own efforts was quickly modified by voices in the audience. Translation is also a rewriting of the script and demands a great deal of artistic imagination.
Throughout the evening Willumsen lapsed into several entertaining anecdotes of the writing process and how Bang lived his life. The audience learnt that he was a man with a love of spending money when he had it and reduced to borrowing when he did not. He even went so far as borrowing from his doctor and then from his doctor’s wife, with a plea that she would not tell her husband … Willumsen also described what it was like working on a project like Bang, saying it took her five years to write the book; when she had finally finished, her son was relieved that Bang had moved out after living in their home for so long.
Rounding off the evening, as the darkness had settled – creating the perfect storytelling ambience – Dorrit and Marina delighted the audience with the opening passage of Bang in both Danish and English. Herman Bang’s brusque meeting with the big city of New York made a stark contrast to the romantic twinkling of the skyline in the background.
A reading and panel discussion with author Dorrit Willumsen and translator Marina Allemano
Tuesday 16 October 2018, 6.00-7.30pm
UCL Arena Centre
10th Floor, 1-19 Torrington Place, London, WC1E 7HB Tickets are free, but pre-registration is essential. To book your place, please email firstname.lastname@example.org by 9 October
Join us over a glass of wine with Danish author Dorrit Willumsen and translator Marina Allemano, as they discuss the process of bringing Herman Bang to the English-speaking world. Bang will be available for sale at a special discounted price for one night only.
In Bang, winner of the 1997 Nordic Council Literature Prize, Dorrit Willumsen re-works the life story of Danish author, journalist and dramaturge Herman Bang (1857-1912). In a series of compelling flashbacks that unfold during his last fateful train ride across the USA, we are transported to fin-de-siècle St Petersburg, Prague, Copenhagen, and a Norwegian mountainside. A key figure in Scandinavia’s Modern Breakthrough, Herman Bang’s major works include Haabløse Slægter (Hopeless Generations, 1880), Stuk (Stucco, 1887) and Tine (Tina, 1889).
We’ve come to that time of the year where the only sensible thing to do is to snuggle up under a blanket in the biggest, comfiest chair you can find, and get yourself something hot to drink and a good book. Well, we don’t do blankets, but we can help with the book part! At Norvik, we’ve put together a seasonal recommended reading list of our treasures fit for winter. These are perfect as stocking fillers for friends and family, or why not treat yourself for a few hours in that comfy chair during what the Swedes call mellandagarna (the days between Christmas and New Year)? Click on the link in each title below to visit our website for more information on the books, and how to buy.
This spirited and at times sinister novel ensnares the reader in a tangled encounter between modern-day Scandinavia and the ancient world of myth. In the 1980s, a hardworking Icelandic businesswoman and her teenage daughter Dís, who has been arrested for apparently committing a strange and senseless robbery, are unwittingly drawn into a ritual-bound world of goddesses, sacrificial priests, golden thrones and kings-in-waiting. It is said that Gunnlöth was seduced by Odin so he could win the ‘mead’ of poetry from her, but is that really true, and why was Dís summoned to their world?
Wilfred – alias Little Lord – is a privileged young man growing up in upper-class society in Kristiania (now Oslo) during the halcyon days before the First World War. Beneath the strikingly well-adjusted surface, however, runs a darker current; he is haunted by the sudden death of his father and driven to escape the stifling care of his mother for risky adventures in Kristiania’s criminal underworld. The two sides of his personality must be kept separate, but the strain of living a double life threatens breakdown and catastrophe. This best-selling novel by Johan Borgen, one of Norway’s most talented twentieth-century writers, is also an evocative study of a vanished age of biplanes, variety shows, and Viennese psychiatry.
29 January 1912. In a train compartment in Ogden, Utah, a Danish author was found unconscious. The 54-year-old Herman Bang was en route from New York to San Francisco as part of a round-the-world reading tour. It was a poignant end for a man whose life had been spent on the move. Having fled his birthplace on the island of Als ahead of the Prussian advance of 1864, he was later hounded out of Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna and Prague by homophobic laws and hostility to his uncompromising social critique as journalist, novelist, actor and dramaturge. Dorrit Willumsen re-works Bang’s life story in a series of compelling flashbacks that unfold during his last fateful train ride across the USA. Along the way, we are transported to an audience in St Petersburg with the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, to a lovers’ nest in a flea-ridden Prague boarding house, to the newsrooms and variety theatres of fin-de-siècle Copenhagen, and to a Norwegian mountainside, where Claude Monet has come to paint snow and lauds Bang’s writing as literary impressionism.
A richly-illustrated one-volume hardback edition of Selma Lagerlöf’s classic tale. This novel started out as a commissioned school reader designed to present the geography of Sweden to nine-year-olds, but Lagerlöf’s work quickly won international fame and popularity, which it still enjoys over a century later. It is a fantastic story of a naughty boy who climbs on the back of a gander and is then carried the length of the country, learning both geography and good behaviour as he goes. It is a story of Sweden, where every province has its tale and out of the many fantasies, a diverse country emerges; a country of the great and the grand, majestic nature and lords and ladies, but also a country of farmers and fishers, goose-herds and Sami, miners and loggers, and of animals – rats and eagles and elk, foxes and geese and all the other creatures who are part of the life cycle of the land.
A House in Norway tells the story of Alma, a divorced textile artist who makes a living from weaving standards for trade unions and marching bands. She lives alone in an old villa, and rents out an apartment in her house to supplement her income. She is overjoyed to be given a more creative assignment, to design a tapestry for an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Norway, but soon finds that it is a much more daunting task than she had anticipated. Meanwhile, a Polish family moves into her apartment, and their activities become a challenge to her unconscious assumptions and her self-image as a good feminist and an open-minded liberal. Is it possible to reconcile the desire to be tolerant and altruistic with the imperative need for creative and personal space?
Kerstin Ekman’s wonderful poem Childhood is presented here as a dual language English/Swedish publication illustrated with original photographs provided by the author. Kerstin Ekman is primarily known as a novelist, but she has occasionally turned to free verse, especially when the subject is autobiographical. In 1993-1994, Swedish TV 1 conducted a series of talks with prominent writers under the rubric ‘Seven Boys and Seven Girls’. In place of an ordinary interview, Kerstin Ekman read aloud Barndom (Childhood). The prose passages are quotations from Ekman’s 1988 novel Rövarna i Skuleskogen (The Forest of Hours).
Also by Kerstin Ekman is the novel The Angel House, in which Ekman provides an alternative, subversive history of the community in which she grew up. It is a story that stretches through a century, told through the perspective of the generation of women living in those times:
A giant had a washbowl which he set down in the forest at the base of a moraine. It was made of granite and deeply indented, and he filled it with clear, amber water which looked like solidified resin when the sun shone on it on a summer’s afternoon.
In winter, the top layer of the water froze into a lid and the entire bowl went very still, just like the forest around it. Then, down at its deepest point, a pattern of stripes and dashes would move. A pike, if there had been one, would have seen that it was not broken lengths of hollow reed swaying there but thousands of his brothers the perch, sluggishly and cautiously changing positions.
Across the top of the lid spun a rope-covered ball and after it, heavy but fast, skated men with clubs in their hands. They were dressed in black knee breeches and grey woollen sweaters. About half of them had black, peaked caps with both earflaps turned up and kept in place with two thin shoelaces knotted on top of their heads.
Half had red knitted hats with tassels. Sometimes one of the ones in peaked caps went whizzing off with long blade strokes, feet inclining inwards, guiding the ball in front of him with his club. If a tassel-hat got in his way, both of them would go crashing onto the rough ice near the shore, flattening the broken reeds and sending ice and coarse snow spraying round their metal blades.
Round the edge of the Giant’s Washbowl, people stood watching, virtually all men, coming so far out of town. But Ingrid Eriksson was standing there too. She stood there every winter Sunday, whenever there was a match on.
For further reading in the New Year, watch out for the brilliant Pobeda, coming very soon.
Finally, we’d like to wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas!
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.