Study Guide

Peter Høeg

Peter Høeg Essay - Critical Essays

Høeg, Peter (Vol. 156)

Introduction

Peter Høeg 1957-

Danish novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Høeg's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 95.

Høeg is a critically acclaimed and award-winning Danish novelist. Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (1992; Smilla's Sense of Snow), Høeg's most internationally recognized work, has been sold in more than thirty countries. Critics have likened Høeg's works to those of such authors as Jules Verne, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino.

Biographical Information

Høeg was born May 17, 1957, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father, a lawyer, and his mother, a Latin teacher, raised Høeg and his siblings in an intellectual, middle-class environment. Høeg graduated from Frederiksberg Gymnasium in 1976 and then attended the University of Copenhagen. In 1984 he earned a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature. Høeg then embarked on a series of career choices that moved him away from the intellectual world and academia. He spent time as a mountaineer, a professional dancer for the Royal Danish Ballet, and as a crew member on pleasure boats. It was during a boating trip that Høeg developed an idea which would become Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede (1988). In 1995 this work was translated into English as The History of Danish Dreams. Høeg's penchant for travel and adventure is often highlighted during his rare public performances, where he has been known to entertain audiences with tales of mountain climbing and visits to Kenya. Høeg met his wife, Akinyi, who is a member of the Kenyan Luo tribe, while visiting in Kenya. In 1996 Høeg established the Lolwe Foundation to provide aid to women and children from the Third World. The word “lolwe” is from the language of the Luo tribe (called Dhu-luo) and is used to describe the infinite space where lake meets the sky to the west. Høeg donated all the proceeds from his novel Kvinden og aben (1996; The Woman and the Ape) to the Lolwe foundation.

Major Works

The History of Danish Dreams, narrated by the central character named Mads, begins near the year 1520 and progresses through four centuries and four generations. Mads is a member of the last generation and the novel focuses on Mads's recounting of dreams he receives from his ancestors. The novel is written in the style of magical realism and includes themes that are also examined in many of Høeg's later works. These themes include the representation of time, both physical and symbolic, social class, the battle between the individual and society, and the mistreatment of children. The book is divided into three sections, with each section covering the lives of one generation. The narrative examines the history of four families who intermarry as the sections progress, until all four families are joined as one. The four families represent four different social classes of Danish society; the main character from each class is a thief, an aristocrat, a priest, and a newspaper publisher, respectively. Covering such widely varying characters and economic backgrounds enabled Høeg to provide social commentary and criticism of Danish culture. Høeg published a collection of short stories, Fortœllinger om natten, in 1990. This work was translated into English in 1998 as Tales of the Night. The stories are set during the year 1929 and focus on a particular day, March 19. Each deals with a different character who is undergoing a traumatic change in life. Smilla's Sense of Snow marked a departure for Høeg in that it is a mystery, but the book retained many common themes that mark much of Høeg's work—magical realism, a focus on child welfare, and a critical look at Danish society. The narrator, Smilla, exhibits traits unusual for a character in a detective genre book: she is most at ease alone or when discussing mathematics, and she is an expert on glacial morphology. It is this skill which leads her to believe that her neighbor and closest friend, an Inuit boy named Isaiah, has been murdered. Isaiah's death has been attributed to an accidental fall from a rooftop, but Smilla suspects foul play. As the novel progresses, Høeg discusses ethnic tensions present within Danish society (Smilla is half Danish, half Inuit, and never feels comfortable within the Danish culture), as well as the exploitation of Greenland and its native population by Danes. De måske egnede was published in 1993 and translated into English as Borderliners in 1994. The novel is told through the eyes of Peter, an orphan who recounts his childhood experiences at a boarding school engaged in an experiment in Social Darwinism. Failure to conform to the headmaster's standards equates to a failure to conform in Danish society and to being banished to the lower rung of the class system. Peter is joined at the Academy by Katarina and August, each from a different social background, and the three characters ally themselves in an effort to destroy the rigid hierarchy that the Academy enforces. The narrator of The Woman and the Ape, Madeline, who has been compared to Smilla in Smilla's Sense of Snow, as both characters are solitary scientists, embarks on a love affair with a highly intelligent talking ape named Erasmus. She frees Erasmus from his bonds as the subject of scientific experimentation, and in turn Erasmus frees Madeline from her unhappy marriage and addiction to alcohol.

Critical Reception

The History of Danish Dreams received a largely positive European critical response. Many Danish critics labeled the book a “significant novel debut of the 1980s,” but reviews of the English translation were mixed: reviewers either felt that Høeg's social commentary was too clever or faulted the author for using characters who were too one-dimensional. Tales of the Night received praise for its clever descriptions of the passage of time and its effective character development. Nader Mousavizadeh asserted: “Høeg illuminates the political and the cultural through the prism of small, intimate lives of no apparent consequence, simultaneously elevating and denigrating, mocking the grand and dignifying the petty.” Smilla's Sense of Snow generally received positive reviews from both European and American critics. Many reviewers characterized the book as an “anti-colonial thriller” and praised Høeg's reinventing the mystery genre with his unique prose, rendering of Smilla, and introduction of magical realism. Negative comments focused on the conclusion, which left many questions unanswered and which critics felt drifted into the realm of science fiction and away from the murder mystery genre. Borderliners received generally unfavorable response from American critics. Some reviewers were disappointed with Høeg's return to the passage of time as a theme, feeling it detracted from the plot line. European reaction to the book was also mixed, with initial reviews being generally positive but later comments turning negative. Erik Skyum-Nielsen referred to the novel's treatment of human rationality as “pompous” and called the novel overrated. The negative European reviews of Borderliners also initiated debate about Høeg's political aims. The Woman and the Ape was faulted by critics as a simple recycling of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan stories. Danish critics argued that the novel was too preachy and that the examination of the animal rights issue within the book overrode the plotline. Constant comparison to Smilla's Sense of Snow diminished further positive American reviews for The Woman and the Ape, which was also labeled a mystery. The negative criticism for The Woman and the Ape helped to create a backlash against Høeg with some critics concluding that the author had reached his creative peak with Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Principal Works

Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede [The History of Danish Dreams] (novel) 1988

Fortœllinger om natten [Tales of the Night] (short stories) 1990

*Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne [Smilla's Sense of Snow] (novel) 1992

De måske egnede [Borderliners] (novel) 1993

Kvinden og aben [The Woman and the Ape] (novel) 1996

*This work was published under the title Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow in the United Kingdom.

(The entire section is 63 words.)

Criticism

Jane Smiley (review date 24 October 1993)

SOURCE: Smiley, Jane. “In Distant Lands of Ice and Sun.” Washington Post Book World 23, no. 43 (24 October 1993): 1, 11.

[In the following positive review, Smiley applauds Høeg's redevelopment of the mystery genre in Smilla's Sense of Snow.]

It's not hard to tell that Peter Høeg, the Danish author of Smilla's Sense of Snow, has been, among other things, a mountaineer, an actor and a sailor. The novel, his first to be translated into English, is bursting with hows—how arctic ice is formed; how to get to Greenland from Denmark by ship; how the Inuit world view, i.e., that of the Eskimos of North America and Greenland, differs from the European; how to swim...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

Brad Leithauser (review date 1 November 1993)

SOURCE: Leithauser, Brad. “Thrills and Chills.” New Republic 209, no. 4111 (1 November 1993): 39–41.

[In the following review, Leithhauser offers a generally positive assessment of Smilla's Sense of Snow, despite the protagonist's “professorial” narration style.]

So many other puzzles beset the reader of Smilla's Sense of Snow that, adrift in its mazes, you almost forget to ask, What type of novel is this? It is a mystery? A techno-thriller? Some mutant species of science fiction? The publishers bill it as a simple thriller, albeit with an exotic setting; they compare it to Gorky Park. If a thriller is what it is, it's the best one I've...

(The entire section is 2170 words.)

Peter Høeg and Karina Porcelli (interview date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Høeg, Peter and Karina Porcelli. “Overnight Success: Peter's Sense of Fiction.” Scandinavian Review 82, no. 1 (spring 1994): 19–22.

[In the following interview, Høeg discusses his career and the popular success of Smilla's Sense of Snow.]

Peter Høeg is not a man of appearances. The 36-year-old Danish author arrives at an appointment via bicycle—not a mountain bike, not a racing bike—but an old, black bike with a plastic bag wrapped around the seat. The number of gears is inconsequential. This is what is important: to spin through the streets of Copenhagen.

For the most popular Danish novelist since Isak Dinesen, discriminating...

(The entire section is 1366 words.)

Jeffrey Frank (review date 11 December 1994)

SOURCE: Frank, Jeffrey. “Prisoners of Time and Chance.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 50 (11 December 1994): 9.

[In the following review, Frank offers a mixed assessment of Borderliners, lamenting the novel's poor translation into English.]

The narrator of Peter Høeg's puzzling and artful Borderliners is someone named Peter Høeg. This Peter Høeg may or may not be the same person as the author, but both are drawn to the mysteries of time—linear time and circular, from the apparent simplicities of childhood to the physics of Newton, Einstein and Hawking. Both Høegs also try to understand the meaning of a “special” Danish private school...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Julia Glass (review date 1 January 1995)

SOURCE: Glass, Julia. “Peter Høeg's New Tale of Time, Trauma and Character.” Chicago Tribune Books 148, no. 1 (1 January 1995): 3, 7.

[In the following positive review of Borderliners, Glass explores Høeg's recurring themes of time, child neglect, and parenthood.]

The narrator of Borderliners, Peter Høeg's new novel, is a man whose lifelong obsession with time—its history, physics and meaning—frames his account of a childhood trauma that nearly destroyed his life. In this brooding, austere tale, set in a state-run orphanage and a prosperous private school, we witness the subtle tyranny of adults and its consequences, both real and imagined,...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

Tina Lund Andersen (review date April 1995)

SOURCE: Andersen, Tina Lund. Review of Borderliners, by Peter Høeg. Europe, no. 345 (April 1995): 27.

[In the following review, Andersen compares Smilla's Sense of Snow to Borderliners, noting Høeg's use of time as a plot device.]

As a follow-up to the internationally successful Smilla's Sense of Snow, Peter Høeg shows us his sense of time, irony, and brutal detail in his newest work, Borderliners.

The Danish author first broke into the American consciousness with the hugely successful Smilla, published in 1993 and now being made into a movie by fellow Dane Bille August. At age 37, Høeg has been around the...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Nader Mousavizadeh (review date 3 April 1995)

SOURCE: Mousavizadeh, Nader. Review of Borderliners, by Peter Høeg. New Republic 212, no. 14 (3 April 1995): 39–41.

[In the following review, Mousavizadeh offers a positive assessment of Borderliners.]

“With the knife of light they would scrape the darkness clean,” observes the young narrator of Borderliners, who languishes in the private boarding school that is the setting for Peter Høeg's new novel. Barely a teenager, barely sane, he speaks of the zealotry of his superiors, of the cruelty of best intentions, with the weariness of an old man. Høeg's novel is the story of three children whose shattered lives merge at the center of an educational...

(The entire section is 2938 words.)

John R. Bradley (review date 14 April 1995)

SOURCE: Bradley, John R. “Time and Time Again.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4802 (14 April 1995): 20.

[In the following review of Borderliners, Bradley examines the influences of Charles Darwin, Samuel Beckett, and Marcel Proust on the novel.]

Borderliners is published in the wake of the huge success of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1993). The first book was a whodunit, while Borderliners is an intense psychological study of the self, but there are similarities between the two novels which point to Peter Høeg's central, recurring themes. Both narrators are social outsiders; both have an inveterate hatred of all forms of authority;...

(The entire section is 812 words.)

Barry Unsworth (review date 15 April 1995)

SOURCE: Unsworth, Barry. “School of Thought.” Spectator 274, no. 8701 (15 April 1995): 36–37.

[In the following review, Unsworth offers a negative assessment of Borderliners, and accuses Høeg of sacrificing the novel's plot in order to make a political statement.]

I don't know if there are many people who really think, when they look back at things, that schooldays are the happiest of one's life. Certainly [Borderliners] deals a lethal blow to the adage. The school in question here is an experimental private one called Biehl's Academy and among the pupils are three emotionally damaged children, the borderliners of the title, who have been sent...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Robert Irwin (review date 1 October 1995)

SOURCE: Irwin, Robert. “Northern Exposure.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 40 (1 October 1995): 4.

[In the following review, Irwin discusses the qualities of magical realism in The History of Danish Dreams, drawing comparisons to Latino-American novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende.]

The History of Danish Dreams is a novel in the international weird genre—or magical realism, as that sort of thing is better known. Høeg's first novel to have been published in English, in 1993, was Smilla's Sense of Snow. This was a splendidly unusual, if rather chilly, thriller, which richly deserved the best-seller status it achieved....

(The entire section is 759 words.)

John Leonard (review date 20 November 1995)

SOURCE: Leonard, John. “Children of the Panopticon.” Nation 261, no. 17 (20 November 1995): 642–45.

[In the following review, Leonard explores the theme of child abuse in The History of Danish Dreams and Borderliners.]

You have to work hard to find Kierkegaard in the city where he died, of fear and trembling, at age 42. There's a single room devoted to his memory (letters, snapshots, book jackets, pipe), upstairs at the Kobenhavns Bymuseum. Whereas they will haul you by air-conditioned bus all over Copenhagen on a daylong tour of the habitats and artifacts of Kierkegaard's contemporary, Hans Christian Andersen, ending with a visit to a statue of the Little...

(The entire section is 2256 words.)

Peter Whittaker (review date 5 January 1996)

SOURCE: Whittaker, Peter. “Scintillating Sage.” New Statesman & Society 9, no. 384 (5 January 1996): 41.

[In the following review, Whittaker examines Høeg's use of dream imagery and portrayal of children in The History of Danish Dreams.]

Following the surprise success of his meditative thriller Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow and the critical acclaim for Borderliners, the word was that Peter Høeg's first novel—published in Denmark in 1988—was something special. With Harvill's new translation, we have a chance to see if the rumours were correct. The History of Danish Dreams is indeed an astonishingly mature debut. Tracing 400 years of...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Claus Von Bülow (review date 6 January 1996)

SOURCE: Von Bülow, Claus. “Before the Snow Came.” Spectator 275, no. 8738 (6 January 1996): 32.

[In the following review of The History of Danish Dreams, Von Bülow compares Høeg to Hans Christian Andersen.]

Students of the best-seller lists will recognise Peter Høeg as the author of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, a brilliant Arctic murder story with a strong dose of philosophical meditation. Høeg followed this with Borderliners, a story about three children, who have been judged mentally incompetent by the State, and their attempts to escape the regimentation of an experimental school. More gloomy Northern philosophy.

We...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Paul Binding (review date 19 January 1996)

SOURCE: Binding, Paul. “Family Failings.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4842 (19 January 1996): 26.

[In the following review, Binding discusses the narrator of The History of Danish Dreams and the familial bonds that are prevalent throughout the novel.]

Only on the very last page of Peter Høeg's first novel, The History of Danish Dreams (which was originally published in 1988), do readers learn the identity of the “I” who has periodically made authorial intrusions into the narrative—explaining the difficulties of assembling material, pointing out the general significance of the particular people and events. This “I” is Mads, the descendant...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)

Irving Malin (review date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The History of Danish Dreams, by Peter Høeg. Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 2 (summer 1996): 159–60.

[In the following review, Malin discusses time, the use of dreams, and the concept of history in The History of Danish Dreams.]

I admire this intriguing novel. [The History of Danish Dreams] is a challenging text because it apparently questions the very notion of its form. If we look closely at the title we are startled by the concepts of “history” and “dreams.” Some of the questions the title suggests are the following: Is “history”—or the past—a “dream”? How can one write a “history of...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Hans Henrik Möller (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Möller, Hans Henrik. “Peter Høeg or the Sense of Writing.” Scandinavian Studies 69, no. 1 (winter 1997): 29–51.

[In the following essay, Möller examines Høeg's career, focusing on how his works relate to society and how society relates back to Høeg.]

The word “Pastiche” is derived from the Italian “pasticcio,” meaning “pie” made originally of the left-overs from the day before. In a culinary as well as a literary context, pastiche is a radical illustration of the precept that there is nothing new under the sun. Pastiche is the postmodern reflection of lost aspirations for originality—the vanishing savor of what was served for dinner...

(The entire section is 9420 words.)

Mary Kay Norseng (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Norseng, Mary Kay. “A House of Mourning.” Scandinavian Studies 69, no. 1 (winter 1997): 52–83.

[In the following essay, Norseng discusses the presence of children in Smilla's Sense of Snow.]

“Our house was the house of mourning. … Elizabeth was sad and desponding. … The first of these sorrows which are sent to wean us from the earth, had visited her, and its dimming influences quenched her dearest smiles.”

“Who can follow an animal which can traverse the sea of ice, and inhabit caves and dens where no man would venture to intrude?”

...

(The entire section is 13807 words.)

Carolyn Alessio (review date 5 January 1997)

SOURCE: Alessio, Carolyn. “Simian Savior.” Chicago Tribune Books (5 January 1997): 2.

[In the following review, Alessio explores the theme of colonialism in The Woman and the Ape.]

To paraphrase Jane Austen, a man in possession of an ape must keep an eye on his wife. In Peter Høeg's wry new novel. The Woman and the Ape. the wife of a British behavioral scientist runs off with his prized subject, an ape named Erasmus.

At once a satire and cautionary tale, The Woman and the Ape examines the reckless ambition that sometimes accompanies modern behavioral science and animal-rights activism. At the center of the novel lurks Erasmus, an...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Jerry Fodor (review date 19 June 1997)

SOURCE: Fodor, Jerry. “Bottoms Again.” London Review of Books 19, no. 12 (19 June 1997): 21.

[In the following negative review, Fodor compares The Woman and the Ape to Will Self's Great Apes, discussing the elements of allegory and the animal imagery in each.]

Archimedes thought that he could move the world if only he could get outside of it, and the same idea inspires writers in the transcendental genre of fiction. Find some place sufficiently far out and put your fulcrum there. The leverage you achieve will lend authority to your voice. Both these books hope that higher primates will supply the required pivot. The Woman and the Ape looks up...

(The entire section is 1539 words.)

D. Quentin Miller (review date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Miller, D. Quentin. “The Woman and the Ape.Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 273–74.

[In the following review, Miller focuses on the interchangeability of Madeline and Erasmus in The Woman and the Ape.]

Peter Høeg's fourth novel defies easy categorization. It is at once a tale of personal strength, a love story, and an ecological morality tale. To choose one of these or any other conventional label to describe The Woman and the Ape is to ignore its obvious unconventionality; for the personal strength comes from a woman so severely alcoholic that she seems beyond repair, the love story is between a woman and a...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Stephen Knight (review date 28 November 1997)

SOURCE: Knight, Stephen. “In Tales within Tales.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4939 (28 November 1997): 23.

[In the following review, Knight discusses Høeg's attention to detail in Tales of the Night but finds that the level of detail detracts from the flow of the storyline.]

In “The Verdict of the Right Honourable Ignatio Landstad Rasker, Lord Chief Justice,” Peter Høeg patiently uncovers the secret that has riven an eminent Danish family. On his son's wedding day, the homophobic, lugubrious Hektor recounts the events of twenty-two years earlier, when the family's ordered world was wrecked by the decision of his father, Ignatio, to abscond with a...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

Katherine Dunn (review date 26 April 1998)

SOURCE: Dunn, Katherine. “In the Gothic Mode.” Washington Post Book World 28, no. 17 (26 April 1998): 4.

[In the following review, Dunn explores Høeg's use of historical characters and attention to time as a motif in Tales of the Night.]

The Danish writer Peter Høeg made an explosive American debut in 1993 with his suspenseful literary thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow. The title character, Smilla Jasperson, is a remarkable female protagonist whose complex power is revealed in a lush layering of action, dialogue, image and flashback. The book's core gravity is her passionate intelligence as a scientific expert on the subject of ice and snow. The peculiar...

(The entire section is 917 words.)