I’ve got to stop reading these old Danish novels. There is no end to the good ones. There must be an end; the number of old Danish novels available in English must be small. My revised assumption, after reading Herman Bang’s Tina (1889) is that they are all worth reading, by someone, not necessarily me. I am glad I read this one.
The fact remains, as this first translation in English makes clear, that Tina is one of the great nineteenth-century European novels, and the mystery is that the English-speaking world should have had to wait for only a few years short of a century for an opportunity of reading it. (ix)
This is from the foreword, by Walter Allen, to the 1984 Paul Christophersen translation of Tina. Do you like the optimism of “first”? Using certain definitions of “great,” in terms of ambition or international significance or place in non-Danish literary history, that word is close to preposterous, although I note that a glance at German and French Amazon shows numerous translations in print, so I do not mean to take my own ignorance as the measure of greatness.
Regardless, Tina is certainly a finely made novel.
The novel’s subject is unusual and the book is deeply interesting for that reason alone. It is a sad love story set just behind friendly lines during the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, a war that the Danes unfortunately lost badly, although the novel ends before the war does so the characters do not know that. The front line parks itself just a short distance from the home of the young, large, generous, insufficiently appreciated and loved heroine, Tina. Ordinary life is suddenly disrupted by bivouacking soldiers, mud, the incessant noise of artillery fire, and, soon enough, the wounded and the dead.
“And it’s for ever getting worse,” she said, shaking her head.
It did get worse. Like the sound of rising waters at a spring tide, the thunder of the guns rolled over the house.
A new stream of refugees began knocking at their doors, and the Baron let them all in. He stood at the drawing-room door like an officious undertaker at a funeral, and got an entrance ticket out of everyone in the form of an account of the horrors of the bombardment. (111)
The emotional intensity and temporarily modified moral standards also lead to sex. There is some amusing stuff with some of the servants who are more adaptable to the change (“’We’ve got to give the boys some fun this evening’”) in contrast with poor Tina. She may not be everyone’s ideal of a Strong Female Character, since she is weak in some interesting and ultimately tragic ways. Walter Allen notes a strong resemblance to Thomas Hardy, which I also felt, “but Hardy never had to show us the Valley of the Great Dairies under the onslaught of war.” Are you like me, are you thinking “I want to read that variant of Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” maybe more than I want to read the real thing.
A novel about a young woman coping with the nearby war would have been interesting by itself, but the love affair leads to some artful emotional effects, and it certainly keeps the stakes high for Tina.
The style of the book is as original as the subject. That sounds like a topic for tomorrow.