International Writers Magazine:
Of The Night by Peter Høegs
Høegs Tales Of The Night, translated by Barbara
Haveland, is not a difficult book to read because of the nature
of the tales, but because of the dense and clunky style his prose
wields. I have not read his much lauded novel Smillas
Sense Of Snow, published in 1992, two years after this book
was released in Denmark, and only got this acclaimed book because
of its premise being all the eight tales are set on a single night-
March 19th, 1929.
Well, that premise
is a bit strained, as each tale, merely has, at best, a tangential relation
to that particular night, as there is no particular significance to
that date historically, nor in the unfolding of the tales. Therefore
it is mere gimmickry. Each tale is too long, the unwinding of the dramatic
center is too long in coming, and there is far too heavy a reliance
on clichés and banalities for the stories, or the book, to succeed.
Here's a brief review of each tale:
Journey Into A Dark Heart: this tales trite title augurs its
really poor construction and bad end. Basically, a young Danish mathematician
named David Rehn, meets reporter Josef Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrads
real name) on a train trip in the Congo. He has abandoned his studies
after a disillusioning discussion with famed mathematician Kurt Gödel,
and accepts a job with an African railroad company. The Conrad
stand-in (the real man in reality died five years before the tales
setting) is in support of anti-European terrorists, and the whole tale
soon bogs down into dull conversations that show its famed real-life
protagonists, mentioned merely to show Høegs learning (although
getting Conrads death date correct would have been more impressive),
as boobs and simpletons. An African servant girl and a General are no
less stereotyped and dull. The tension should come from knowing the
train, the first to travel on the rail line between Cabinda and Katanga,
is headed towards a sabotage bridge, but the fact is does not is testament
to the whole pieces poor construction, and far too long and silly
dialogue. The ending is rather dull, as well implausible, and the final
paragraph illustrates Høegs contempt for his readers
David did not watch her go. Instead he sat down and buried
his head in his hands. Above him Libra crossed the zenith of the night
sky and dropped toward the horizon. European justice descending over
tropical Africa. Not only is it melodramatic, manifest, and
trite, before the last sentence, but them he gives us the last sentence,
to boot! You almost root for these characters to die.
Homage A Bournonville: follows two bums on a boat in Lisbon-
one possibly a former Danish ballet star, from the Royal Theater in
Copenhagen, named Jakob Natten, and the other a Moslem Turkish dervish
named Rumi- a stand-in (just as the Conradian character was in the first
tale). Jakob relates the tale of a failed love of a ballet star whom
Rumi suspects was Jakob. The motto of the tale may be what the two characters
dance around: it may be necessary to stand on the outside if one
is to see things clearly. The tale ends with them still floating
aimlessly in the harbor. In a sense, this recapitulates this dull tale
that did not seem to have a clue about what it was really about.
The Verdict On The Right Honorable Ignatio Landstad Rasker,
Lord Chief Justice: this is a very PC tale which condemns censorship
and homophobia, but in such a trite and ridiculous way as to be sickening.
Basically, a young Danish writer named Morten Ross has written a scandalous
book that is banned, and is brought up on morals charges not dissimilar
to those Oscar Wilde faced, sodomy with a sixteen year old boy. He faces
the conservative Lord Chief Justice of Denmark, who, guess what?, is
a closeted homosexual, who falls in love with the writer. The tale is
told in flashback by the judges son to his own son. After condemning
Ross to hard labor, he runs off with him. There was no need for the
convoluted narrative form, for it only obfuscates things, and allows
Høeg to prattle on about his ideas of morals and ethics, with
no real artistry. The banal end just lays in the mind, and does not
move the reader. This is an atrocious story from every possible angle.
An Experiment On The Constancy Of Love: in this tale a
brilliant and, of course, beautiful, female student of physicist Niels
Bohr, named Charlotte Gabel, who investigates the decay
of sexual attraction by an unusual method- time travel. The tale succumbs
to such banalities such as emotions physics would never be capable
of explaining. She is frigid, and pursued by a childhood lover.
Of course, they are rivals in science. She believes in little more than
pseudoscience, as when she claims, 'I am convinced that certain
emotions automatically decay. In the lives of individuals and also down
through the ages. That people in earlier periods of history felt things
far more intensely than people do today. Much of the tale reads
like a lecture, and again we get a sprinkling of the famous, such as
Bohr and Albert Einstein. It may be the best of the tales to this point,
but thats not saying much.
Portrait Of The Avant-Garde: this tale follows a young
Danish painter, who paints his first picture on the fateful date of
March 19th, 1929, and becomes a Nazi sympathizer. The tale ends with
another really poor bit of symbolism.
Pity For The Children Of Vaden Town: this tale follows
the aftermath of a small pox epidemic and a latter day pied piper in
a small town in Jutland. The tale is cringingly bad and laden with tenth
rate refried Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen overtones. The
children are worshipped by adults, who isolate themselves from the rest
of the nation when word of a smallpox epidemic in Zealand reaches them.
A circus and a clown come to town and, well, nothing much occurs
Story Of A Marriage: this tale is a bit of a downer, and
Høegs attempt to try to be realistic, after such earlier
aeries, also fails. It follows the marriage of the Van Austens, Georg
and Margrethe, that seems doomed, although outwardly successful. They
are shipping magnates who employ members of an Indian family. The tale
starts and ends well, but is far too long and dull in the middle.
Reflection Of A Young Man In Balance: this tale is about
the destructive power of a perfect mirror, and its revelations of self.
It is another banal fairy tale that relies on axioms like, The
great systems that inform the world about the truth and life invariably
claim to be absolutely truthful and well-balanced. In reality they are
quaking bridges built out of yearning.
Too many of the tales are simple-minded, heavyhanded (especially
with his symbolism), and larded with triteness- most especially with
the one dimensionality of the characters. Worse, they are far too long
and they go on and on with explications that should flow naturally out
of the fabric of the tales. Instead, Høeg hammers points home
with no subtlety, as if not trusting his readership to get his points.
And those points are rather simple-minded- such as unswerving obsessions
with love. He balances this simplemindedness out with overly dense references
to famous Danes and other artists of note, as if to tell his readers
that hes a learned man. Consequently all the human interactions
are dull and feel as if theyve been pie charted and graphed, not
as if they ever occurred. Worst, are the conversations.
Too many of the tales are larded down with descriptions that
are designed to show off Høegs intellect, yet result in
dense and unwieldy passages that seem downright pedantic, as this one
from Journey Into A Dark Heart:
Algebra seemed to offer an obvious, exhilarating, and in every
respect satisfying career for David until, while studying at the University
of Vienna, he met a boy a couple of years his junior, a boy who ran
into David in a fog of abstraction and optimism. The boys name
was Kurt Gödel. He was a sickly individual with a thirst for knowledge
that took nothing for granted and had earned him the nickname Herr Warum.
When they met he was pursuing a line of thought that would result just
a few years later in a proposition destined to shake the world of mathematics
to its very foundations, and even though it had not as yet been perfected
it shook David to his on the day, sitting in a cafe, the boy had made
him privy to his cogently formulated doubts. Later David walked the
streets of Vienna in it state of shock, knowing full well that after
what he had heard that day nothing would ever be the same again.
Later in that tale, another of Høegs greatest weakness
manifests, and that is an over-reliance on clichés:
For a second not a breath stirred. Then everyone stood up
and gravely raised their glasses, there being times when a happy event
may be so overwhelming that it can only be comprehended gradually and
in silence. To new arrivals like David the name Lueni had an exotic
ring to it, as menacing as the dense jungle that surrounded the town.
But to the permanent residents it constituted the essence of fear, it
represented death as precipitate as cerebral malaria, it meant cut supply
lines and hunger, burnt-out steamships drifting downriver with no trace
of their crew. A name from the innermost chamber of Africas dark
Overall, Peter Høeg shows that he has no real idea of
what constitutes a good short story. His tales read like bad European
cinema from the 1970s- dull, slow-paced, and pretentious, with too much
conscious symbolism and name-dropping. His prose is turgid and leaden
(they are not synonyms!), but perhaps he could be a good novelist if
his prose thins out with length. Sermonizing and morality plays seem
to go over far better on the Continent than in the Colonies, but bad
is bad. Sometimes things are not poetic, and it really is that cut and
dried. If Høeg knew that his tales might have had a life. Instead
they are as dead as that night he could never impart.
© Dan Schnieder
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