All right, I was wrong, I am not going to write about the characters in Pelle the Conqueror quite yet. I want to write about the opening of another Danish novel. Compare and contrast, as they say.
The novel is Herman Bang’s 1889 Tina. I have just read the long first chapter, and have little idea about what the novel is about except for two things, 1) it is “about” or at least set during the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, which ought to be interesting, and 2) it does appear to be “about” the title character, who is female, a schoolmaster’s daughter heading towards old maid-dom. The latter point is only of interest because after reading Niels Lyhne, Pelle the Conqueror, and reading about Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per through Scott Bailey’s many posts, I began to suspect that all classic Danish novels were Bildungsroman about young men. Whatever Tina might be, is definitely not one of those.
But I just want to look at the beginning, since the beginning of Pelle the Conqueror is fresh in my mind. Nexø begins with pure description, slowly introducing any people at all and only slowly moving to his main characters. This is how Bang starts:
The first word is the novel’s title.
Tina, in tears, continued to run beside the carriage, while Mrs Berg shouted her last words into the darkness and the wind.
“You’ll make up the bed then – in the Blue Room – tonight – from tonight, don’t forget.”
“Yes – yes,” answered Tina, unable to speak for tears.
“And remember me – remember me to everybody,” sobbed Mrs Berg. The wind carried her words away. One last time Tina ran up and tried to grasp her outstretched hand, but she could no longer reach it. She stopped, and the carriage, like a great shadow, vanished into the darkness. Soon the sound of its wheel could be heard no more.
Splash, right into the middle. This may not be so obvious to you folks who spend your time with new-fangled novels, but for a 19th century novel this opening is radical. Who is Tina? Who is Mrs. Berg? Who knows? What relationship do they have with each other – is Tina Mrs Berg’s servant, or daughter? Why the tears?
Perhaps this will all be cleared up in the next paragraph, but it is not. A new character is mentioned, Herluf. He is absent, but he has toys, so he is a child, or else a pet. Next paragraph: Lars, probably a servant, since he is in the “servants’ hall.” Next: Maren, also a servant. no, I was wrong, a crofter. Then “Sophie the housemaid.” Finally Bang violates the purity of his system a bit. But the narrator never stops to explain. He has moved close to the idea of narrator as movie camera. He can read thoughts, so a telepathic movie camera. I see what it sees and hear what it hears and have to piece the rest together as information gradually, naturally reveals itself.
No, not a camera, since it sees so selectively. What does Tina look like, for example? Madame Bovary begins with a description of Charles Bovary, his height and hair and boots and hat. Tina refuses to simply tell me that, or anything. I really have to pay attention and piece it all together as I go along.
How fun. Bang is writing, in this sense, like William Faulkner, or like Eudora Welty in Delta Wedding (1946), which I think of a particularly artful examples of this kind of technique with its huge extended family and complicated history, although as I look at it I see that the first paragraph is close to what is now called an “infodump.” Laura is nine years old, she is going to her cousin’s wedding, her mother is dead, etc. In a few pages Laura will be plopped into the middle of her extended family where she and I are both disoriented by all of the uncles and aunts and cousins, although I will be able to piece the family tree together eventually if I pay attention.
Maybe I should dump everything else for Delta Wedding. No, no, Bang and Pelle are good, too.
Paul Christophersen is Bang’s translator.