Heavy Melodies: The Quiet Existence of Herman Bang

Born in Asserballe on the Danish island of Als on 20thApril 1857, Herman Bang came from a family with a long history of eccentricity, tales of which his paternal grandfather delighted in telling him. After graduating from the Sorø Academy, a boarding school that had once been a monastery and dated back to the twelfth century, in 1879, Bang made his literary début with the collection of essays, Realism and Realists. The volume’s positive reception saw its author drawn towards the Modern Breakthrough, a Scandinavian movement founded by the critic Georg Brandes in 1870, to promote naturalism – a theory influenced by Darwin and espousing the notion that environment and social situations had the most profound influence of all upon human behaviour. Therefore, even the most disturbing aspects of human existence were to be embraced.

Bang’s first collection of short stories, Heavy Melodies was published in 1880, followed by his first novel, Generations Without Hope. The book told the tale of William Hawk, the last surviving male descendent of an aristocratic family who becomes embroiled in a torrid love affair with the much older Countess Hatzfeldt. Generations of Hope was banned after its romantic descriptions resulted in it being classified as pornographic by an outraged Danish press. In July 1881, Bang was tried for obscenity and faced a hefty fine or fourteen days imprisonment; he chose the former.

Nevertheless, the scandal propelled him into the public eye and he moved to Copenhagen. Living in the Danish capital, he produced works such as At Home and Out (1881), Phaedra: Fragments Of a Life History (1883) and Eccentric Short Stories (1885). From 1885 to 1886, he lived in Prague, Vienna and Berlin with the German actor Max Eisfeld, who was also his lover, and wrote the novel Quiet Existences. Separating from Eisfeld, Bang returned to Denmark, where he penned several poems about their relationship, including Night and New Year, and completed the novels Stucco in 1887, Tina in 1889 and Two Tragedies in 1891.

In 1893, Copenhagen was rocked by several riots in the wake of the brutal murder of a well-known homosexual property developer. Feeling persecuted because of his sexuality, Bang moved to Paris – a city he considered to be far more liberal about such matters and where he was comfortable indulging his rather dandified sartorial tastes. Forbidden or doomed love was a dominant theme throughout Bang’s work, a reflection of the injustice he felt regarding his own inability to love freely. Furthermore, Bang had an overwhelming sense of empathy for women, believing that they too had suffered because of their gender, which, like his sexual orientation, was a factor outside of their control. 

Bang continued to write novels, such as White House (1898) and Life and Death (1899), worked as a journalist, and acted in and staged several plays, gaining him a reputation as a first-rate theatre producer. At that time, Paris was home to a sizeable Norweigian community with whom Bang often socialised. Knut Hamsun, a Norweigian writer and critic of the playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen, whom Bang greatly admired, took a strong dislike to the Danish writer. Hamsun incited a vicious smear campaign against Bang within their mutual social circles in Paris and Copenhagen. In Copenhagen in 1906, Bang was caught up in a police investigation into homosexual activity. The press turned against Bang once again and he was routinely caricatured, ridiculed, and vilified, notably by the author Johannes V. Jensen, who would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1944. 

Moving to Berlin in July 1907, in 1908 Bang wrote the short story About Fame, in which he ruminated that ‘Nothing seems to me so sad or so bleak as fame. It is a cell in which God’s green earth is  trapped. It is a wall which separates us from life.’

On 29th January 1912, Bang travelled to Ogden, Utah, to give a public reading of his latest work, People and Masks (1910); tragically, he died before he could address his audience.

In 1916, Bang’s 1902 novel Mikaël was turned into a film entitled, The Wings by the Swedish director Mauritz Stiller. The Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer remade the film as Michael, alternatively known as Mikaël, Chained: The Story of the Third Sex or Heart’s Desire, in 1924. The plot centres around Claude Zoret, an artist who falls madly in love with Michael, one of his young male life models. To begin with, the couple are blissfully happy, but as time progresses, their age difference becomes ever more apparent. An impoverished Countess who hopes to sit for Zoret manages to seduce Michael and encourages him to steal from Zoret as well as sell the paintings he has given him as a token of his affection.

His heart broken, Zoret devotes himself to the creation of his masterpiece, a depiction of ‘a man who has lost everything.’ Upon its completion, Zoret becomes ill and is nursed by his old friend Charles Switt, who has secretly harboured feelings for him for many years. As Zoret lays dying, Switt contacts Michael, urging him to come as soon as possible, but the message is intercepted by the Countess and he never arrives. Moments before his death, Zoret tells Switt, ‘Now I can die in peace, for I have seen true love.’


Above: Michael (1924)


Selected Sources:

Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II – Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon (2002)

The Nordic Storyteller: Essays in Honour of Niels Ingwersen – Susan Brantly and Thomas A. DuBois (2008)