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. Continue reading