Katinka inhabits a passive trance; it was always like that. First she was a little girl, the youngest in her family. “While her father was still alive, she was so small that she could hardly even reach her plate at dinner.” He always had a nap after lunch. Then he would wake, convinced he had solved the many problems troubling his country. But then he died, and in time her siblings dispersed, leaving her alone with her mother.
“Those years were the best in Katinka’s life, there in the little town where she knew everyone and everyone knew her.” She caught the eye of Bai, a local man, a former cavalry officer who had become the stationmaster. There is the excitement of a courtship and the preparations for a wedding along with her tears shed in the church on the big day. “And then they moved over here, to the silence.”
The Bai marriage is a quiet arrangement; Katinka does her duty, and after her mother’s death the couple enjoy a comfortable existence. He patrols the station platform when a train is due and otherwise drinks in the local tavern, where he keeps company with an obliging woman. His wife is quiet and well loved. They have no children.
The Danish writer Herman Bang (1857-1912) was drawn to marginalised female characters. His detached empathy makes the simple, dramatically undramatic but no less painful tragedy of one woman's life shimmer with an unsettling resonance.
By the time As Trains Pass By was first published in Denmark in 1886, Bang, an aristocrat born on the island of Als, had already had seen his debut novel, Hopeless Generations, or Families Without Hope (1880), banned for obscenity. He was a homosexual in a dangerous age; he also endured intense self-hatred. He saw his fiction as a way of deflecting his sense of alienation. Katinka, the sympathetic central character of this beautiful novel, is not the only person in it inhabiting a hell. As unhappy and living a lie is Agnes, the parson's daughter, who bounds about, concealing her frustrations beneath loud, tomboyish behaviour: "She made some curious flapping gestures as she spoke, as though she intended to hit whoever she was addressing."
As a literary stylist Bang was decades ahead of his time. Influenced by the then emerging realism in Germany, his objectivity was also highly subjective in that his fiction is about outsiders. He never judges, he seldom interjects; his narratives are driven by dialogue. Claude Monet once announced, “Monsieur Bang, you are the first impressionist author in the world.” Perhaps he was. Few writers evoke the painterly chaos of apparently inconsequential social scenes as easily. Within sentences of this novel’s opening, at the railway station, he has established a sense of the small community, including the local mother most in need of marrying off her spoilt and bickering daughters. His all-too-human characters are brilliantly three-dimensional, and the dialogue is lively and convincing.
In contrast to the bustle at the station is the inertia of Katinka’s life. She has little to do except contemplate her life: “There was so much she had not imagined, and Bai was so rough in many things that she simply suffered and put up with it, frightened and insecure as she was.” She is insecure; he is not nasty or even particularly indifferent, merely crass in every gesture. Increasingly, she simply wants to tend her flowers and to sleep.
Into this tiny community of old maids, frantic widows and unhappy wives comes the new bailiff, Huus, a quiet man with his own secrets. He and Katinka begin an innocent friendship that intensifies while Bai merrily thrashes his path through life. It is exquisite. Each kind word and shared interest is treasured by Katinka.
The simplicity and intensity of the story are mirrored in this translation by W Glyn Jones, a scholar who specialises in Scandinavian literature.
This Dedalus edition, which makes effective use of Vilhelm Hammershoi's muted painting Interior (1898), also includes an extract from Bang's original introduction to the novel: "It was a couple of years ago in the north of Jutland. I had been giving a reading the previous evening in a town up there . . . and I was to give one in another town . . . The train was moving slowly . . . I rose in my seat to see how many miles we still had to go when my eye wandered from beneath the station roof and fell on one of the green-framed windows."
He describes noticing a young woman sitting among the flowers that "crammed" the window. She was staring out at the train "with the large, shiny eyes of a sick person". She made no movement, and Bang recalls that she continued to stare as the train pulled away. It is similar to the much later, and equally plaintive, observation that George Orwell made in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Katinka's catastrophe is far more powerful than either that of Emma Bovary or that of Anna Karenina in a novel that is about far more than her wilful misfortune. Bang's gentle heroine dominates her story, although, as he cleverly suggests in the understated denouement, life can, and does, carry on.
As Trains Pass By
leads on to Bang’s masterpiece,
, which is to Danish literature what Boleslaw Prus’s more panoramic
(1890) is to Poland. Originally published in 1896 as
– for the great Jutland estate that is of central importance to the narrative –
is the story of another young woman’s romantic folly. It is all the more shocking as it lacks the theatrical dimension of Katinka’s heartfelt suffering. The 2013 translation, also by W Glyn Jones, is the first English version. Gentle, kind Ida Brandt, the daughter of a land agent, becomes as much a victim of the whims of the social elite as she is of her romantic dreams.
It is a longer novel, and again Bang demonstrates a flair for observation. His minor characters are as well drawn as the major players. Of a worn mother of 11 children he writes, “Mrs Lund, who always spoke in a tone as though she were trying to quieten someone down, changed the subject to the price of butter.”
Ida Brandt represents a new order of working woman; she is a nurse and is of independent means. Her bank account earns her the resentment of a colleague who feels Ida has no right to a job. Sympathetic and timid, if blind to nuance, she is a likeable heroine. When one of her friends, wishing only good for Ida, remarks that she wishes Ida could be happy, the friend’s husband replies that it is unlikely. His reasoning is that she “will never learn to seek her own happiness”. Ida’s efforts to seek approval and love are as touching as they are doomed. It is a wonderful novel.
Bang's genius rests in his understanding of emotional need. His approach is calm and detached; such is the insistent, atmospheric allure of As Trains Pass By, it will draw a reader to Ida Brandt.