Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

"My God, the Poor Devils": Performing Violence through Language in Herman Bang's "Les Quatre Diables"

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

"My God, the Poor Devils": Performing Violence through Language in Herman Bang's "Les Quatre Diables"

Article excerpt

Herman Bang's novella "Les quatre Diables" (1890,1899) (3) ends on a provocative note: during a trapeze routine performed by the four-member acrobatic troupe, Les quatre Diables (The Four Devils), Aimee--one of the four acrobats--unhooks her partner's (Fritz's) swing and watches him plummet to his death onstage, only to jump to her own death beside him moments later. Silence is followed by screams as the audience comes to realize that this was not part of the act. One might think that such a catastrophic spectacle would be the most opportune moment to conclude the novella, but instead of ending here, the narrative immediately shifts to an exterior view of the theater house, where two gentlemen discuss "'Begivenheden'" [the incident]:

   Den ene af dem slog med Stokken ned i Brostenene:
    "Naa," sagde han: "Mon dieu, les pauvres diables."
    Og lidt efter begyndte de at nynne igen med Ojnene ud mod den
    myldrende Maengde:

      Amour, amour,
      oh, bel oiseau,
      chante, chante,
      chante toujours.

   De solvknappede Stokke lyste. Unge Maend slentrede frem i lange
   Kapper....

      Amour, amour,
      oh, bel oiseau,
      chante, chante,
      chante toujours.

   Der var netop den Aften meget livligt paa Markedet. (Bang 1899,
   234) (4)

   One of them struck his walking stick against the cobblestones.
    "Well," he said. "Mon dieu, les pauvres diables."
    And shortly after, they began to hum again while looking out toward
    the teeming crowd:

      Amour, amour,
      oh, bel oiseau,
      chante, chante,
      chante toujours.


   The silver-headed walking sucks glittered. Young men strolled out
   in long cloaks....

      Amour, amour,
      oh, bel oiseau,
      chante, chante,
      chante toujours.

   That particular evening it was quite lively in the market.)

Such a conclusion is disconcerting for two reasons. First, Aimee and Fritz's song ("Amour, amour ...") intrudes upon and disrupts the textual layout of the novella's finale. This intrusion is surprising because in the beginning of "Les quatre Diables," the same song appears as the synesthetic representation of Aimee's and Fritz's onstage performances. However, as the story progresses, the song begins to bleed into offstage moments, taking possession not only of the main characters but also of innocent bystanders who unknowingly begin to hum its tune even after Aimee and Fritz have died. Moreover, as the song interjects more frequently, it ends up increasingly defacing or disfiguring the textual layout of the unfolding narrative. The accelerating interjections of this song, the "Kaerlighedsvals" (love waltz), into the text, interpolates the narrative tempo and speeds it up, creating the literary equivalent of a musical crescendo as the novella approaches its own end. With the intensity produced by the accelerating interpolations, the song seemingly attains symbolic portent as a diabolical force governing the narrative. Put another way, the song no longer functions as an accompaniment to the narrative, but as an omniscient conductor, orchestrating the characters' demise and punctuating the last lines of the novella with its crescendo effect, thereby authorizing itself as the last to speak. This effectively produces what Bang's contemporary Ford Madox Ford called a progression d'effet--a term he used to denote the gradual buildup of tension by which the story can be "carried forward faster and faster and with more and more intensity" (Parkes 2011, 100).

Second, there is the unexpected intrusion of two unnamed gentlemen. By switching scenes from the theater to the anti-climactic aftermath of two anonymous men chatting outside, Bang denies his readers the sensational affect of literary rubbernecking. In this way, the conclusion becomes unsettling because there are two competing finales--the characters' horrific demise onstage versus the narrative's blithe finale offstage: "Der var netop den Aften meget livligt paa Markedet" [That particular evening it was quite lively in the market]. …

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