World Literature

Peter Hoeg

 

BORN: 1957, Copenhagen, Denmark

NATIONALITY: Danish

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The History of Danish Dreams (1988)

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1992)

Borderliners (1993)

The Woman and the Ape (1996)

 

Overview

The most recognized contemporary Danish writer on the international literary scene, Peter Hoeg gained widespread acclaim for his second novel, Froken Smillas for-nemmelse for sne (1992; translated as Smilla’s Sense of Snow), which was sold to publishers in more than thirty countries. In the United States the novel spent twenty-six weeks on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, and both Time and Entertainment Weekly chose it as their 1993 book of the year. In his works, Hoeg questions the cultural and political values of modern Denmark, particularly as they relate to the struggle between individuality and societal conformity, values that he believes have detrimental effects on the lives of Danish children.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Young and Very Friendly Pirate. Peter Hoeg was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 17, 1957, the son of Erik Hoeg, a lawyer, and Karen Kjellund, a classical philologist. He graduated from Frederiksberg Gymnasium in 1976 and went on to study literary theory at the University of Copenhagen, where he received his master of arts degree in 1984. Before devoting himself to full-time writing, Hoeg performed in classical ballet, acted, taught acting, competed as a professional fencer, and worked as a crewman on pleasure boats. One interviewer described Hoeg as ‘‘en ung og meget venligtsindet pirat’’ (a young and very friendly pirate). An extensive traveler, Hoeg often entertains audiences with stories of his mountain-climbing adventures or his travels throughout Africa. Hoeg’s wife, Akinyi, is a native of Kenya. They live with their two daughters in Copenhagen and make frequent trips to Kenya to visit Akinyi’s family.

Hoeg was twenty-five years old when he began his first novel, Forestilling om det tyvende Arhundrede (1988; translated as The History of Danish Dreams, 1995), which he worked on for six years, rewriting one chapter twenty times and discarding hundreds of pages. In one interview, Hoeg referred to this early book as his apprenticeship in writing. Danish critics were quick to praise the work, and some have called it the most significant novel debut of the 1980s.

Embracing Genre Fiction. Nonetheless, Hoeg’s work did not reach an international audience until he wrote his second novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Although it may not appear so to Anglo-American readers, whose introduction to Hoeg came with this work, Hoeg’s second novel signals a departure from his previous work. With Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Hoeg entered the world of genre fiction, specifically the thriller.

When Smilla’s Sense of Snow first appeared in the United States in 1993, it led sales for all translated novels that year. Both popular and literary magazines printed positive reviews of it, and the National Public Radio program Talk of the Nation featured the novel on one of its call-in shows. All of this attention was not entirely welcomed by the author. Since the publication of his first novel, Hoeg has maintained that he is not interested in fame. After the worldwide success of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, however, Hoeg’s popularity in Denmark reached celebrity status. He grew reluctant to give interviews, and in those that he did give he often complained of having to hide his private affairs and to keep his address secret.

The Writing Process: A Search for Serenity. After the fanfare surrounding Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Hoeg expressed a desire to return to the calmness of his life outside Copenhagen and work on his next project, a novel titled Borderliners (1993; translated version published in 1994). In various interviews, Hoeg has described his process of writing a novel as a matter of quiet intensity, usually lasting two years, during which he works every day, striving to remain ‘‘totally focused and totally relaxed, to save any buildup of tension.’’ Called ‘‘otherworldly calm’’ by one interviewer, Hoeg insists on periods of obscurity for the sake of his work.

To this day, Hoeg continues to produce work in his slow methodical way, producing more and more complex novels as his talent grows.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Hoeg's famous contemporaries include:

Isabel Allende (1942-): Chilean novelist who utilizes magic realism in her books. Allende is perhaps best known for her novel The House of the Spirits.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1928-): Colombian novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

John Lennon (1940-1980): A singer in the influential rock band The Beatles. Lennon was murdered at the age of forty.

Princess Caroline of Hanover (1957-): An aristocrat born in the same year as Peter Hoeg. Princess Caroline, since her father's death in 2005, is next in line, after the currently reigning Prince Albert, to take the throne in Monaco.

Saddam Hussein (1937-2006): The president of Iraq from 1979 until 2003. He was executed on December 30, 2006, for crimes against humanity.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Hoeg is on record as saying one of his major concerns in writing Smilla's Sense of Snow was accurately portraying what it is to be a "Greenlander." Here are some works that deal with identity, individuality, and ethnicity:

Pocho (1970), a novel by Jose Antonio Villarreal. In this text, Villarreal follows the development of Richard, the son of Mexicans who immigrate to the United States when he is very young. As Richard grows, he begins to understand that while he is both Mexican and American, he feels distance from both Mexicans and Americans, sensing, in essence, that neither culture fully embraces or explains his own perspective on the world.

The Human Stain (2000), a novel by Philip Roth. In this novel, the light-skinned African-American Coleman Silk, for emotional and financial reasons, passes himself off as white for the majority of his life, until at last he is accused of racism in his later years.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), a film directed by Ken Loach. This moving film, set in the 1920s, explores the conflict between two Irish brothers who take different personal and political positions on the question of Ireland's independence.

 

Works in Literary Context

Methodical in his research and in his application of literary traditions, Hoeg’s work has been seen as a continuation and tweaking of traditional detective novels and the reimagining of magic realism.

Magic Realism. The narrative of The History of Danish Dreams encompasses four centuries and weaves the history of four families until they eventually mesh into one family. Their story is described in a series of dreams. Written in the style of magic realism, this novel often recounts stories of the fabulous in a detached, matter-of-fact manner. Grandmother Teandor, for instance, has the power to read the future, and her predictions of deaths, births, and divorces are printed in the family-owned newspaper and read by Danish citizens who believe that her predictions are infallible. Anna Bak, the daughter of an Evangelical priest, has the ability to duplicate herself, and her second self reaches out and heals people. Her father takes her power as a sign that she will bear the Messiah, and he tells everyone of his conviction until Anna’s child is born and turns out to be a girl.

A Twist on the Detective Novel Genre. The first of Hoeg’s novels to be translated into English, Smilla’s Sense of Snow is told in the first person by Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, a 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.

In its outline, Smilla’s Sense of Snow certainly fits the traditional detective novel, but in many other ways it transcends the genre. Smilla, for instance, strikes many readers as a fascinating and unusual sleuth. An expert on glaciers, a loner who reads Euclid for fun, her ruminations on mathematics and philosophy would seem dry if it were not for her wit and the way in which Hoeg uses her background to delineate her character and move the plot along. Smilla’s erudition comes into play at crucial moments, such as when she sees Isaiah’s footprints in the snow and determines from subtle clues that he was not playing on the rooftop of a Copenhagen apartment building but was most likely being chased. At other times her background allows her to explain her own character, as when she refers to the German mathematician Georg Cantor’s concept of infinity to show why she values her personal space, the English philosopher Bertrand Russell’s definition of pure math to indicate why she feels confused about cooking, or an Inuit legend to clarify her relationship with her mother.

Furthermore, Smilla’s background figures prominently in the development of certain themes. The daughter of a Greenlandic mother and a Danish father, Smilla has spent the early part of her childhood in Greenland with her mother, a nurturing woman who could hunt as well as any man. While Smilla was still a child, her mother died during a hunting trip, but the adult Smilla has vivid memories of her. These scenes reveal the mother’s tenderness for her daughter and the simple but harsh lives of Inuit people. In an interview with Jes Stein Pedersen for Smilla’s Sense of Snow: The Making of a Film by Bille August, Adapted from the Novel by Peter Hoeg (1997), Hoeg said that he tried to portray Greenlanders as realistically as possible. ‘‘The book has a subtly shifting view of Greenlanders. I have tried my best to render it unsentimental. There are so many ridiculously romanticized images of the Third and Fourth Worlds which completely forget the harshness that characterizes living conditions in such places.’’

Hoeg’s Legacy. Although the assessment of his influence on contemporary Danish literature must be considered incomplete, his existing books have already raised the standards for other Danish writers. In terms of craft, linguistic ability, and scientific knowledge, he has made something new out of the novel. Perhaps most remarkably, however, Hoeg has managed to draw a wide audience and his books have thus had success in the elite literary community as well as in the broader commercial market.

 

Works in Critical Context

Hoeg has enjoyed a devoted following from the very beginning. His first novel was considered a tremendous and important debut work. Despite the enthusiasm of Hoeg’s supporters, however, he has also been the recipient of criticism. For instance, many critics found little to fault in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but the conclusion of the work troubled a number of readers. Writing for the Partisan Review, Pearl K. Bell complained about the sudden shift in the novel from the themes of the murder case and corporate corruption (which are consistent with the thriller genre) to the dangers of the meteorite, the existence of strange parasitic worms, and the evil plot of a ruthless scientist (which are more typical of science fiction). Still other critics considered the ending ambiguous and unsatisfying.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow. After a year on the best-seller list in Denmark, Smilla’s Sense of Snow reached U.S. readers. Writing in the New Republic, Brad 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 the author overcomes this obstacle, maintaining that ‘‘this is a task that Peter Hoeg handles with great deftness. Everything in the story seems to build simultaneously.’’ While calling the ‘‘sinuous turns of his story deeply engrossing,’’ Richard Eder of the 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.’’

Still, the critical and audience response to Smilla was overwhelmingly positive. The novel won several prizes in Denmark, including De Gyldne Larnter (The Golden Laurels), a prestigious award given by the Danish booksellers to the author of the year. Current world sales for Smilla, which has been translated into thirteen languages, are estimated at nearly 40 million copies.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Critics have been divided over the ending of Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Do you find the conclusion of the novel ‘‘unsatisfying’’ and ‘‘ambiguous’’? Why or why not? What effect do you think Hoeg was attempting to achieve with the ending and its dramatic shift from the rest of the novel?

2. Some critics focused on character instead of plot in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. They found Smilla so complex and interestingly drawn that any problems with the plot seemed beside the point. Do you agree? Why or why not? Provide examples of other works that feature an equally compelling protagonist.

3. Using the library and the Internet, research the term ‘‘Renaissance man.’’ In your opinion, do there exist any ‘‘Renaissance men’’ or ‘‘Renaissance women’’ today? If so, who are they and how do they qualify? If not, why do you think there are none today? Considering Hoeg’s diverse background and the research he has done for his novels, how do you think Hoeg compares to other ‘‘Renaissance Men?’’

4. The literary tradition is filled with successful writers who, like Peter Hoeg, are reluctant celebrities. Can you think of other famous writers who avoid the press whenever possible? Why do you think writers, in particular, tend to not embrace celebrity?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Pedersen, Jes Stein. Smilla’s Sense of Snow: The Making of a Film by Bille August, Adapted from the Novel by Peter Hoeg. New York: Noonday Press, 1997.

Periodicals

Aagaard, Lars Henrik. ‘‘Peter Hoeg and the Critical Apes.’’ W. Glyn Jones, trans. Danish Literary Magazine (1996).

Mousavizadeh, Nader. ‘‘Strangers in Paradise.’’ New Republic (April 3, 1993).

Lyall, Sarah. ‘‘Fleeing Literary Limelight for Calm Obscurity.’’ New York Times (October 6, 1993).