Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It did get worse - Herman Bang's Tina, a Danish behind-the-lines war novel and vaguely Hardyish love story

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 so 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.

13 comments:

  1. The last book I read is Sebastian Faulks' Birdson on WWI. War stories are usually sombre. I like them anyway. I have not read Tess of the d'Ubervilles though I have it.

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  2. In many ways, Tina felt like it could be a novel of WWI. I wonder if it has a good WWI cousin in English or German or French, about a woman behind the lines.

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    1. R.H. Mottram's Spanish Farm trilogy is about farm-and a woman- behind the lines. If I remember rightly, good, solid second-rate books.

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    2. Roger, thanks so much. I had never heard of Mottram. Someone should use the war centennial to reissue the Spanish Farm books.

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  3. The Hardy-ish link make this particularly attractive. Used copies (in English) aren't cheap!

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  4. The book could use a Pushkin Press / NYRB Classics reissue. It would fit right in with their catalog.

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  5. This looks really good. I'm going to see if the library here has it.

    The 1864 war left terrible psychological scars on Denmark. It's referred to constantly in Lucky Per. In fact, the loss of Schleswig-Holstein is one of the root causes of Per's grand engineering scheme.

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  6. Tina is about a fifth as long as Lucky Per, which can't hurt. Very much worth a look.

    The setting, the island of Als, is very close to the current Danish border, but not all that close to the Schleswig-Prussian border, so the first shock in the novel is when the Danish army abandons the (indefensible) southern border and suddenly show up in town.

    On the other side of the story, the war allowed Theodor Storm to return to his beloved Husum from what amounted to exile in Berlin.

    Last summer's trip to Schleswig-Holstein was my Danish culture trip. Castles had been built by the Danish royal family, not some local prince. Husum was full of Danish tourists. Someday I will go to Denmark, I hope, but I did get a nice dose of Danish history.

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    1. I could use a nice, short book after Mssrs Chernyshevsky and Pontoppidan.

      The Danes in Per never mention that they annexed Schleswig in violation of a treaty. It's presented wholly as a war of German aggression, a humiliating defeat for Denmark.

      I remember the mud flats from your trip. Ma femme and I plan to visit Denmark soonish, but likely it'll be all Zealand and Hven. Renaissance Danish history for us.

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    2. Ooh, Hven looks nice. For some reason I linked to a whiskey blog, but it has a good aerial photo of the island during peak rapeseed bloom.

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    3. Hven does look nice. I keep forgetting it's Swedish territory now. Supposedly you can bike all around the periphery of the island. That gin looks good, too.

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  7. Excellent! I like the sound of this book. And my public library has a copy too. Now to figure out when I can fit it in to my reading pile.

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  8. I'll write a little more about how the book sounds, and you can judge accordingly, but I think you would enjoy it.

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