Ida Brandt, By Herman Bang. Dedalus, £9.99


"If only Ida could be made happy!" says her best friend Olivia, after she has raised the subject of love. Olivia's husband pauses, then replies: "I don't think she ever will be." And why not? "Because she will never learn to seek her own happiness."

Ida, the heroine of this classic Danish novel, has many attributes which should draw people to her. She is beautiful, well-off (after the deaths of both parents) capable. When we meet her, aged 28, she is a nurse in a mental hospital in Copenhagen, dealing efficiently with often fractious patients.

She holds her own with the doctors and other nurses. She even has a good-looking male admirer, the hospital's head clerk Karl von Eichbaum, whom she knew back in rural Jutland, and with whom she enjoys a more intimate relationship than she can make public. But her friend's husband is correct; Ida lacks the ability to assert herself. She can be counted on to bow out or give up.

It is a personality-type which fascinated Herman Bang (1857-1912). He was among the leading writers of Denmark's Modern Breakthrough, and had that late 19th-century interest in what forces promote survival and progress.

Ida Brandt (1896), a quiet novel eschewing violent confrontations, has something of Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns (1902) in its combination of delicacy of art and feeling for the marginalised. Bang's homosexuality accounts considerably for both qualities. He endured social ostracism, but this enabled him to observe people from the sidelines. And, like Ida, he knew emotions he could not declare.

In Danish the novel is called Ludvigsbakke, the name of the mid-Jutland estate which links Ida and Karl's pasts. The original does suggest the novel's underlying theme of disorientation; lively Copenhagen cannot offer the secure identity of the country community, radical changes in which are presented in deft, vivid flashbacks. This is a masterpiece, both moving and thought-provoking. Its deliberate lightness of authorial touch, rendered superbly by translator W Glyn Jones, allows us to gaze into depths of heartache.