Literature

Katinka from Quiet Lives

Herman Bang (1857-1912)

By Dorthe Sondrup Andersen, master's degree in literature and culture writer, 2006

Small-town idyll and hell 

Herman Bang tells us how he was struck by the idea for his novella Katinka during a train ride in Northern Jutland. When the train made a brief stop at a small station, he caught sight of a green window in the stationmaster’s house. It was filled with flowering potted plants and above those he saw a woman’s face. Herman Bang couldn’t forget the face and especially its expression, and thus he tried to guess, in literary form, what events had caused that expression. 

A barren marriage 

Herman Bang calls the woman Katinka and at the beginning of the novella, she has been married to stationmaster Bai for ten years. In a way she is happy and contented, but she is sexually inhibited.

Whereas Mr Bai, a former lieutenant, looks quite handsome as he struts around the platform wearing his uniform, it makes Mrs Bai uncomfortable when at bedtime he pads about in his underwear right before her eyes instead of going to bed. No wonder the marriage is childless and the stationmaster ends up with sex on the brain. 

Sparkling wit 

Before finishing his novella, Herman Bang has exposed just about all the inhabitants of the small railway town. It is extremely funny because he is unable to repress his laughter when describing what they look like, and how they act and talk. For example, the clergyman’s daughter Agnes Linde, who gesticulates so wildly when speaking that it looks like she is boxing people’s ears. Herman Bang describes the clergyman’s daughter, who is as tall as a guardsman, as “swinging her arms” and says that it looks like a violent assault when she throws them around someone she loves. 

Anything but a happy ending 

However, the Bais are the main characters of the novella, and they drift apart when an agronomist by the name of Huus comes to town. The sequence of events that follows makes it difficult even for Herman Bang to keep laughing. Let me put it this way: it all comes to a bad end -a very bad end.

Time stands still in Katinka from Quiet Lives. Watch from Danmarks Jernbanemuseem. Photo: Flemming Wedell
Herman Bang, 1880. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Literature

Did you know?

Source: Thor Eskiltuna (Klaus Rothstein): Litteratur quiz: 350 spørgsmål fra bøgernes verden. Aschehoug, 2004.

Herman Bang was buried twice at the end of his way. The graves at Vestre Kirkegård in Copenhagen had initially placed the great poet to rest an incorrect place. Today he rests where it was supposed to: anonymously, under a bloodbuck.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

“When she went to bed and lay in the dark at next to the deeply slumbering Bai, she could not get to sleep and felt such discomfort that she got up again and went into the sitting room. She sat by the window. The night train rushed by, and stillness once again lay over the field.”

In a small provincial town in Jutland, the still young Katinka Bai lives her humdrum life together with the stationmaster, a staid, mediocre man with a penchant for the pleasures of the table and a little affair every now and then. The days pass by almost unnoticed while the trains pass by and the seasons change; however, one day, a nearby farm gets a new overseer. Slowly, Katinka awakens from her drowsy, humdrum existence, without initially understanding what is happening, and for the first time, she experiences the feeling of deeper contact with another person. However, the social divisions and the stuffy provincial milieu stifle the promising relationship, and Ved Vejen becomes a melancholy account of a lonely woman’s desperation and resignation.

Herman Bang’s short novel has become one of Danish literature’s dearest treasures. This is not least because of his gentle and empathetic portrayal of a meek mind that becomes conscious of itself in a meeting of emotions that she herself was unaware she possessed. With bittersweet irony, Bang allows the eternally caring Katinka to feel an inkling of her love by listening to the heartache of others, and through the portrayal of her emotions, other people’s inner lives are exposed in sharply defined glimpses. In every single sentence, the brief, almost film-like sequences of the novel maintain the balance of understated humour and a perfect eye for the emotions that move deep within an individual.  In switching between the spoken and unspoken in his world of small, unremarkable details, Bang shows how life is lived in a remote area far removed from wider society. However, this is about more than a faithful portrait of a bygone provincial world that seems so typically Danish. Bang’s art lies in making the touch of egotism and the unheroic pain of hidden loneliness recognisable to contemporary readers.

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