Review of Peter Høeg’s
Tales Of The Night
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/15/06
Peter Høeg’s 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 Smilla’s 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 a brief review of each tale:
Journey Into A Dark Heart: this tale’s trite title augurs its really poor construction and bad end. Basically, a young Danish mathematician named David Rehn, meets reporter Josef Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad’s 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 tale’s 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 Høeg’s learning (although getting Conrad’s 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 piece’s poor construction, and far too long and silly dialogue. The ending is rather dull, as well implausible, and the final paragraph illustrates Høeg’s contempt for his readers’ intellect:
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 judge’s 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 that’s 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 Høeg’s 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 he’s a learned man. Consequently all the human interactions are dull and feel as if they’ve 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 Høeg’s 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 boy’s 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. He had long since learned to use mathematics as both medicine and stimulant. If he felt downhearted he could console himself with the scintillating logic of Bertrand Russell, if he was feeling cocky he would read one of the unsuccessful attempts at a geometric trisectioning of the angle, and if his mind was in turmoil he found tranquility and stringency in Euclid’s Elements. But on this particular day, in seeking some salve for his despair, he made it wrong move.
Later in that tale, another of Høeg’s 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 Africa’s dark hell.
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.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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