The publication in 1871 of Georg Brandes’ book The Men of the Modern Breakthrough marked the beginning of realist fiction in Denmark, and the following 20 years saw the emergence of a generation of writers that included some of the most outstanding names in the Danish literary canon. In particular one thinks of Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-85) for his psychological realism (and linguistic skill), Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943) for his profound social realism and Herman Bang (1857-1912) for an equally acute, though perhaps less comprehensive portrayal of contemporary society. Bang certainly did express a criticism of society in a novel such as Stucco, which is about speculation in Copenhagen as it begins to develop into a modern city, but social criticism in his work– and there is plenty of it – is generally unspoken rather than directly stated: one thinks perhaps of the ruthlessly condescending manner in which the fine family treats its social inferiors in Ida Brandt while at the same time themselves being the targets of the author’s merciless humour. Despite the social criticism implicit in this novel it is nevertheless Ida’s personal tragedy in becoming the victim of social aggrandizement that is at its centre – all of this being finely balanced against the transformation of the traditional mansion into an ostentatious, dehumanised pile, which takes place at the same time. As the Trains Pass By(Katinka) is also by way of a personal tragedy and such social criticism as there is in the novel is more muted though undoubtedly present.
There is a sensitivity – sometimes perhaps bordering on sentimentality – in Bang’s work that makes it quite unlike that of any of his contemporaries. He understands personal suffering as few other Scandinavian authors of his day, and he conveys it not by an authorial voice, but by means of a brilliant impressionistic style. He rarely says things as directly as did many of his contemporaries, but he hints and leaves it to his readers to pick up the hints. He says little of what is actually going on in people’s minds, but allows us to see their behaviour, to hear their words – and then to reach our own inevitable conclusions. The result can well be an almost excruciating insight into what a character such as Ida Brandt is undergoing, gradually edged out by the wealthy family with whose son she is in love and looked on askance by some of her nurse colleagues on account of the money she has inherited from her mother. There is a terrible irony in this: too ordinary for the opulent family and too wealthy for the far more modestly placed “ordinary” community.
The personal suffering portrayed in these novels can well be accompanied by a sense of isolation, something that Bang himself knew only too well. His first novel, Generations without Hope from 1880, with its portrayal of a relationship between a young man and an older woman, was too forthright for its time and was banned for obscenity after a court case in which Bang himself was forced to appear and for which he suffered deeply. That he was also a homosexual led to his lifelong partial exclusion from Copenhagen society. He was the ultimate loner and he was an outstanding expert in portraying loneliness.