Saturday, April 5, 2014

Another opening of another Danish novel - Herman Bang won't tell me anything

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.


  1. 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?

    I wanted to test this, so I looked back at the opening lines of the last five nineteenth-century novels I've read (all by Leskov or Pisemsky), and sure enough, none of them are remotely like Tina. They lead up to things; maybe they even have anonymous minor characters discussing who the important people are as they arrive on the scene.

    But this reminded me, oddly enough, of Chernyshevsky. I'll grant that the opening of What Is to Be Done? isn't this radical either, but doesn't the opening of Bang's novel remind you of Chernyshevsky's metaliterary third chapter: "Yes, the first pages of the story reveal that I have a very low opinion of the reading public. I used that usual trick of novelists: I started the tale with some dramatic scenes taken from the middle or the end of it and covered them in fog." Yes, he's talking about the specific trick where a writer starts with a late event and then backs way up to explain what led up to it, but what he's saying could apply to all kinds of "in medias res" beginnings, which maybe 19c writers were bored of, especially if they'd had a classical education.

  2. Erik, you know so many more less famous Russian novels than I do - is this device actually common, like Chernyshevsky says? Is it just confined to cheap stuff, thrillers and romances? I have in mind a Mickey Spillane novel where Mike Hammer is gunned down on the first page. There must have been Russian - or French - equivalents.

    Anna Karenina begins in the middle of a scene, but it still begins with a scene-setting - here is what is happening. And even Chernyshevsky, after his opening joke, undoes it all in 1.i., "Vera Pavlovna's Life with Her Family," which is all background.

    Bang never flinches. There are some disadvantages to his technique, but he sure is pure. No history, no pauses for description. It is like Mrs. Dalloway or something.

    An offender - I am moving to the side a bit - is Turgenev, earlyish Turgenev, who in some works introduces each character with a complete physical inventory down to the shape of the nose. None of it is memorable and it kills forward movement. Bang will drop in the relevant details as they naturally come up; anything that does not come up I did not need to know.

    1. I honestly don't know. The famous and less famous Russian examples I've checked are all unlike Tina. Chernyshevsky may have been referring to thrillers and romances, as you suggest. It seems plausible that, at the height of "realism," high-prestige writers thought these devices were tricks unworthy of them, while low-prestige writers continued to use them - but I can't give a single low-prestige example at the moment.

      George Sand's L'Uscoque (1838), which I haven't read but Chernyshevsky might have, starts in the middle of some dialogue without explaining much: "'I believe, Lélio,' said Beppa, 'that we have put the worthy Asseim Zuzuf to sleep.' 'All our stories bore him,' said the abbé, 'he's too serious a man to be interested in such frivolous subjects.' 'Forgive me,' replied the wise Zuzuf. 'In my country we passionately love stories..." It looks like it's only a framing device, and the story proper starts by giving background, but for a moment the reader is trying to catch up and figure out who these people are and where and why they're talking to each other.

      But that's the closest I've found to an example. I can tell I'll be thinking for a while about whether (when, where) this device was actually common.

    2. Sand is très plausible. The two Sand novellas I read don't do this, but what I've read ain't hardly nothing.

      Those punchy little paragraphs, often single lines, are also typical of the book. It is like he prefigures Hemingway. What is going on here?

  3. Bang sounds quite intriguing especially since you make a comparison to Mrs Dalloway in your comment. Have you finished the book? Does he keep it going throughout?

  4. Short novel, 170 pages, and I'm half through. So far, yes, he keeps it going, and at this point it will be a shock if he shifts to another mode. The big difference from Woolf is that Bang minimizes interiority. We only rarely inhabit someone's thoughts. It really is more like a movie. Well, you know - a European movie.

  5. I'm thinking about M. E. Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret which begins with a marvelous description of Audley Hall--you know something bad happened there immediately.

    I've got to read Bang. For the name alone.

  6. Yeah, Braddon is like Nexø - eight paragraphs of pure description before a human wanders onto the scene, spoiling everything. No, strike that last bit. You need the humans eventually.

    I cannot believe how good this Bang novel is. Depressing, in a way.