Høeg, Peter 1957–
Høeg, Peter 1957–
PERSONAL: Born 1957, in Denmark; children: a daughter.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Nerete Ries, Monksgaard Rosinante, Norre Sogad 35, DK-1016 Copenhagen K., Denmark.
CAREER: Worked variously as an actor, dancer, drama teacher, and sailor; writer, 1983–.
Forestilling om det tyvende arhundrede (novel), Rosinante (Charlottenlund, Denmark), 1988, translation published as The History of Danish Dreams, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Fortällinger om natten, Rosinante (Copenhagen, Denmark), 1990, translation published as Tales of the Night (short stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (novel; also see below), Rosinante (Copenhagen, Denmark), 1992, translation by Tiina Nunnally published as Smilla's Sense of Snow, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993.
De Maske Egnede (novel), Rosinante (Copenhagen, Denmark), 1993, translation by Barbara Haveland published as Borderliners, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
The Woman and the Ape, translation of Kvinden og Aben by Barbara Haveland, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
(Author of preface) Henrik Saxgren, Point of View, Aperture (New York, NY), 1998.
Tales of the Night, translated by Barbara Haveland, Far-rar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Smilla's Sense of Snow (screenplay), Fox/Searchlight, 1998.
Smilla's Sense of Snow has been translated into seventeen languages.
SIDELIGHTS: Danish author Peter Høeg gained critical acclaim for his 1992 novel Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, translated into English as Smilla's Sense of Snow. Gaining an international following after the novel's publication in over thirty countries, Høeg has gained critical praise as well as comparison to such writers as Jules Verne, Jorge Luis Borges, John Le Carre, and Italo Calvino. Calling Smilla's Sense of Snow "one of the oddest and most beguiling journeys I've come across in contemporary fiction" in New Republic, contributor Brad Leithauser added that the novel extends far beyond the traditional limits of the genre, drawing on colonialism, Danish history, and the prejudicial attitudes toward Denmark's native Inuit culture. "Høeg understands just how Denmark and the Danish character are representative of a larger European attitude toward the non-European world," Jane Smiley explained in her review of the novel for Washington Post Book World, "and the remote and mysterious Inuit are representative of the destruction and transformation all non-European peoples have suffered at the hands of the most well-intentioned colonizers." Far more than a thriller, Høeg's novel brings to the fore the racial and cultural conflicts born of the colonialism of a century past, and their affect on modern society.
After a year on the bestseller list in Denmark, Smilla's Sense of Snow reached U.S. readers. The first of Høeg's novels to be translated into English, this thriller is told in the first person by Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, a thirty-seven-year-old, half-Inuit/half-Danish glaciologist who lives in Copenhagen. Smilla stumbles upon a conspiracy when she investigates the death of a neighbor boy who has fallen from the snow-covered roof of their apartment building. The intrigue eventually takes Smilla to Greenland in search of a mysterious and valuable object, which is also sought after by a host of minor characters.
Writing in New Republic, Leithauser noted that the plot of Smilla's Sense of Snow is typical of a thriller in its use of a small event leading to the discovery of a conspiracy. Such a plot, he remarked, "presents a monumental task to a writer bent on presenting it with artistic freshness." Leithauser commented that Høeg overcomes this obstacle "with great deftness. Everything in the story seems to build simultaneously." While calling the "sinuous turns of his story deeply engrossing," Richard Eder in Los Angeles Times Book Review faulted the work's ambiguous finale: "The book's only real weakness is an ending that doesn't live up to what has gone before and that fails to satisfy, not our emotional expectations, but our logical ones. It is not a matter of anti-climax … but of not quite making sense."
Other critics focused on character instead of plot in their appraisal of Smilla's Sense of Snow. The protagonist Smilla is a complex and erudite character whom New York Times reviewer Sarah Lyall described as "so fully and interestingly drawn that the book's plot almost become beside the point." Although in New Republic Leithauser criticized the archvillian as stereotypical, he called other, minor, characters "nothing short of dazzling."
"I'm fascinated by the ambiguity of Smilla, by the dichotomy between her two selves," Høeg told Lyall in New York Times. With her mixed ethnic heritage, Smilla can be seen as representing the native in the worldwide treatment of natives by imperial powers. Writing for Washington Post Book World, Jane Smiley labeled Høeg's insights into this war of cultures "first rate." According to Eder, who in Los Angeles Times Book Review called Smilla's Sense of Snow a "moving and suggestive book" and an "anti-colonial thriller," the novel's suspense lies in the development of its characters: "There is Smilla's character and that of half a dozen figures whom she encounters. There is the character of a process that has despoiled her Eskimo culture both of its adeptness and its sense of wonder within its own world, as it has done long before in the industrial world. In this respect, Høeg has written an artful and astonishing book." In Washington Post Book World, Smiley recommended Smilla's Sense of Snow as "a serious and absorbing novel of character and geography masquerading as a thriller."
Høeg's second novel to be translated into English is Borderliners, released in the United States in 1994. Borderliners focuses on the survival of three children at a strict Danish boarding school, and the novel is narrated by a teenager named Peter. At Peter's school, stu-dents' failure to conform to the authoritarian headmaster's standards symbolizes the artist's failure to conform in Danish society, with the consequence that both are banished to the lower rung of the class—or class system. Forming an alliance with two fellow boarders, Katarina and August—the latter a psychopathic child who has already murdered his parents—Peter sets out to subvert the extreme social experiment being conducted at the school. "Høeg's pervasive theme … is the abuse of children by the means that civilization—especially, perhaps, an enlightened Scandinavian civilization—has used to advance itself," observed Eder in Los Angeles Times Book Review. In the course of his investigations, Peter uncovers evidence of "some sort of Darwinian experiment," according to Michiko Kakutani in New York Times. "As evidence, [Peter] cites some disturbing incidents: a student's attempt to cut off his own tongue, the administration of sedatives to August, the concealment of student records."
"The well-crafted suspense, the emotions that strike unexpectedly and the intimate portrayal of Peter himself make this a forceful tale. The ending is especially charged," commented Laura Shapiro in Newsweek. In Borderliners, Eder pointed out in Los Angeles Times Book Review, "children stand for humanity's instinctive and unspoiled possibilities; by making them the victims, Høeg is able to distill the passionate rage that gives energy to his writing."
The History of Danish Dreams, released in English in 1995, is a translation of Høeg's first novel. The narrative encompasses four centuries and weaves the history of four families until they eventually mesh into one. Their story is described in a series of dreams—"dreams," in the words of Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Jim Shepard, "because both grandiose aspiration and self-delusion are so central to the ways in which families and societies operate; dreams because of the book's pessimism concerning the likelihood of progressive change; and dreams because a history of dreams is, of course, by definition a sly critique of history itself." Høeg pens his novel in the style of magical realism and interweaves themes that will become characteristic of his later works: the representation of time, both physical and symbolic; social class; conflict between the individual and society; and mistreatment of children. The History of Danish Dreams is divided into three sections, with each section covering the lives of one generation of the families involved. The novelist stresses the absence of a vital "inner life" from generation to generation; children are locked into a cycle of mental isolation. In assessing The History of Danish Dreams Shepard wrote: "If the social criticism is at times insistent, or unsubtle, the novel's gathering force—and its persistent return to the specifics of human suffering—ultimately grants such satire an affecting sadness." In New Statesman, Peter Whittaker was enthusiastic about Høeg's narrative, with its "subtle pleasures of character, language and sly wit." Comparing the novel to the works of Salman Rusdie and Gabriel GarcÍa Márquez, he added that The History of Danish Dreams "heralds a writer who combines narrative scope and imaginative zest to breathtaking effect."
As in Smilla's Sense of Snow, the protagonist of Høeg's The Woman and the Ape is a female loner who stumbles upon forbidden scientific knowledge and risks her life in an effort to release it to the public. While Smilla's Sense of Snow remains rooted in the style of naturalism, despite its exotic aspects, The Woman and the Ape enters the realm of fantasy. The heroine, Madelene, a tippling trophy wife, finds a soul mate in a small talking ape whose captivity as a tamed and well-behaved helpmate and showpiece echoes her own. She rescues the ape from scientific experimentation and eventually the two enjoy a love affair. Going beyond the relationship between "civilized" and "primitive" man earlier explored in Smilla's Sense of Snow, Høeg examines the relationship between humans and animals—including the animal within. Discussing The Woman and the Ape in Booklist, a contributor called the novel "an anti-utopian fable in which civilization, the enemy, triumphs over disorder." Writing in New York Times Book Review, Joe Queenan compared Høeg to Ray Bradbury and lamented that "what starts out as a rather off-beat, enigmatic novel ends up in the entirely recognizable world of didactic science fiction." On the other hand, a contributor for Kirkus Reviews allowed that while the novel is "more than a little didactic in spots it was distinguished by enough wit and invention to redeem a dozen lesser books."
Høeg's first collection of short fiction, Tales of the Night, was not published in English until 1998, though it was written earlier than Smilla's Sense of Snow and The Woman and the Ape. The stories are all set on March 19, 1929, in the political and economic ferment of the time, and all are concerned with human love. Recounted in almost essay-style prose, they tend to explore one character, often a troubled genius whose worldview has collapsed. A Booklist reviewer maintained that the stories "read like entries from a writer's notebook, ideas and character sketches waiting to be molded into art … of interest to anyone curious about the evolution of a great writer." In New York Times Book Review, Jay Parini opined that in only one of the stories, "in Ignatio Rasker's decision to throw everything away for love, does Høeg live up to his full potential." Phoebe-Lou Adams, writing in Atlantic, was more impressed, describing the collection as "splendid stories and not to be missed by anyone who enjoys elegant writing and intellectual vigor."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 95, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Atlantic, December, 1994, p. 145; March, 1998, p. 118.
Booklist, October 1, 1996, p. 291; January 1, 1998.
Detroit Free Press, December 20, 1995, p. D4.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1996.
London Review of Books, June 19, 1997, p. 21.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 26, 1993, Richard Eder, review of Smilla's Sense of Snow, pp. 2, 11; November 6, 1994, pp. 3, 11; December 24, 1995, pp. 2, 8.
Nation, November 20, 1995, John Leonard, "Children of the Panopticon," pp. 642-645.
New Republic, November 1, 1993, Brad Leithauser, review of Smilla's Sense of Snow, pp. 39-41; April 3, 1995, pp. 39-41.
New Statesman, September 3, 1993, John Williams, "Fire and Ice," p. 41; January 6, 1995, p. 37; January 5, 1996, Peter Whittaker, "Scintillating Sage," p. 41.
Newsweek, September 6, 1993, p. 54; November 28, 1994, p. 68.
New Yorker, September, 1993, Fernanda Eberstadt, "Northern Light," pp. 118-119.
New York Review of Books, November 18, 1992, Michael Meyer, "Danger: Thin Ice," p. 41.
New York Times, October 6, 1993, pp. C15, C20; November 29, 1994, p. B2.
New York Times Book Review, December 22, 1996, p. 8; March 1, 1998, p. 34.
Partisan Review, winter, 1994, pp. 80-85.
Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1993, p. 14.
Scandinavian Studies, winter, 1997, Mary Kay Norseng, review of A House of Mourning, pp. 52-83.
Time, November 6, 1995, p. 84.
Times Literary Supplement, September 17, 1993, p. 20; April 14, 1995, p. 20; November 28, 1997, p. 23.
Washington Post Book World, October 24, 1993, Jane Smiley, "In Distant Lands of Ice and Sun," pp. 1, 11; October 1, 1995, p. 4; April 26, 1998, Katherine Dunn, "In the Gothic Mode," p. 4.