Cover of Some Would Call This Living, our forthcoming collection of Bang’s writings
Herman Bang (1857–1912) was a sharp-witted observer of the society and manners of his age; with an eye for telling details, he could at one moment mercilessly puncture hypocrisy and arrogance, at the next invoke indignant sympathy for the outcasts and failures of a ruthlessly competitive world. In his novels and especially in his short stories he often takes as his protagonist an unremarkable character who might be dismissed by a casual observer as uninteresting: a failed ballet dancer who scrapes a living as a peripatetic dance teacher in outlying villages (‘Irene Holm’), or a lodging-house-keeper’s daughter who toils from dawn to dusk to make ends meet (‘Frøken Caja’). He can also make wicked fun of pretensions and plots, as in ‘The Ravens’, where the family of the aging Frøken Sejer are scheming to have her declared incapable, whilst she is selling off her valuables behind their backs to cheat them of their inheritance. His wide-ranging journalism has many targets, alerting readers to the wretched poverty hidden just a few steps from the thriving city shops or the ineptitude of Europe’s ruling houses – as well as celebrating the innovations of the modern age, such as the automobile or the department store. Bang was well known throughout Europe in his lifetime, especially in Germany, where his works were translated early. In the English-speaking world he has had little impact, partly no doubt because of his homosexuality, for which he was hounded across Europe. Even now, only a couple of his novels have been translated. This volume is an attempt to remedy this lack by introducing a broad selection of his short stories and journalism to a new public.
Although in-person Pride marches originally planned for this summer are now postponed or re-envisioned online due to the pandemic, there are lots of alternative ways to support the movement. This week, we are highlighting two titles for your LGBTQ+ and ally reading lists.
Crisis by Karin Boye
Karin Boye’s Crisis is a queer modernist masterpiece. Recently published in a translation by Amanda Doxtater, it defies stylistic conventions through its innovative use of voice and has even had a love letter written to it! You can find an extract here, and order the full book while supporting your friendly local bookshop via Hive here.
Bang: A Novel about the Danish Writer by Dorrit Willumsen
Bang by Dorrit Willumsen, translated by Marina Allemano and a Nordic Council Literature Prize awardee, re-works the life story of the pioneering journalist, author and dramatist Herman Bang in a series of compelling flashbacks that unfold during his last fateful reading tour across the USA. Bang (1857–1912) was a key figure in Scandinavia’s Modern Breakthrough. 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. You can read an extract from the first chapter detailing Bang’s memories of his childhood here or order the book through Hive here.
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 email@example.com 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).
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.