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.
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.
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.
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.