Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Herman Bang's fragments and similes - like the stabs of a knife

Yesterday I emphasized interesting and rare subject of Herman Bang’s 1889 Tina; today I want to look at unusual prose.

Bang had been keeping up on his French writers.  Flaubert, Maupassant, the Goncourts.  That is clear enough.  “Realism” and “objectivity.”  The former meaning, if it means anything here, a focus on material surfaces, the latter, if it means anything here, a near-complete absence of narrator identifiable as a character.  Thus the metaphor of the camera, with the author as cameraman.  In a film we never see the camera even though we both know it is there and know that someone is operating it.  The personality of the operator is expressed through the choice of exactly what to film and the way the pieces are edited together.

But of course the author is not operating a camera.  If he were, we could in some sense see everything within the frame, no matter how trivial, while a fiction writer works with fragments.  Bang’s fragments are especially fragmented in a way that puts me in mind of certain 20th century authors, and no one at all from Bang’s time or earlier.  Short sentences, short paragraphs, short divisions within short chapters.

“Puff – Christmas is over,” he said proudly as he blew out each candle, as if he was grandly closing the door on Christmas; the others stood watching attentively while candle after candle was blown out.

“The last one,” cried Mrs Berg.  “The last one.”

The last candle was out, and the room was in darkness when Berg put Herluf down on the floor.  Mrs Berg took her husband’s arm, and they all left the room in silence.  (39)

I have quoted two other passages from Tina, the sudden beginning of the novel and a bit about refugees from the artillery bombardment, noisy and active scenes compared to Christmas winding down.  I did not mention that each one managed to slip in some metaphorical language.  A carriage, as it rolls away in the dark, is “likea great shadow,” and a man welcomes refugees into a house “like an officiousundertaker at a funeral,” which is excellent, if almost too portentous for those poor refugees.  Bang works in similes.  We cannot actually see what the imaginary camera sees, so we are given a little help seeing it.  It is like a shadow, he is like an undertaker, the boy’s movement is like – well that’s a funny one, isn’t it, because the simile does not appear to be visual at all, yet now I imaginatively give the boy some dramatic flourishes.

Through the storm and the pounding of the guns, which made the square tremble, came the screams of the wounded like the stabs of a knife, whenever the congestion on the road halted the strawless wagons into which they had been thrown, without compassion, by worn-out ambulance men at the end of their tether because of all the misery around them.  (118)

Now I am making Bang’s similes seem more common than they really are.  but I like the way he sneaks them in when he wants just a little bit more precision.


  1. And this is 19th century? Such a lovely antidote to the Victorians. I wonder why this book doesn't crop up in discussions of precursors to 20th century fiction, especially modernism? Perhaps those discussions are too English focused. Makes me wonder what other literature in translation we might be missing out on.

  2. Just what I have been wondering. I had never even heard of Bang before I started thinking I might do this Scandinavian bit.