While I would happily refer to myself as an enthusiast of Danish culture (a Daneophile, perhaps?), there are several Great Danes who I just can’t get behind. One is the self-proclaimed “best film director in the world” and cosmically manipulative emotional sadist (I would have spit at him, too, Björk), Lars von Trier. The other is Peter Høeg. Both are considered geniuses by many, but alas, I just do not connect with either of these artists at all.
Many critics both in Denmark and abroad did not connect with Høeg’s first book after 10 years without publishing, The Quiet Girl. For my part, I agreed with much of the frustration with the book, despite claims by Høeg himself that perhaps those who didn’t connect with the book, simply were unwilling to admit their own inability to grasp his greater message (““If you don’t understand something, it’s a psychological reaction to feel that there must be something wrong with what you’re reading…It’s much harder to feel ‘maybe I should read the book more times?’”), and the avid support of other authors who I very much respect (like Jan Kjaerstad).
At any rate, here is my review of The Quiet Girl, which was published by The L in November 2007. Read it on their website, here or see the full text below.
“Hasn’t it just been a series of variations on a very simple thing?” Kasper Krone is asked in The Quiet Girl. It’s a good question to ask Peter Høeg himself. For while the plot seems almost ludicrously imaginative — a bankrupt circus clown sets forth to rescue a clairvoyant child who has been kidnapped from a convent school — anyone who has read his best-selling Smilla’s Sense of Snow will have difficulty ignoring the parallels. Each novel champions socially-exiled protagonists with fantastic talents that are indispensable to themselves and practically useless to anyone else (here, Kasper’s ability to hear all of humanity’s musical key). Both are unlikely aesthetes from modest backgrounds, lost their free-spirited mothers at an early age, have troubled relationships with their bourgeois fathers and have found their only meaningful companionship in the form of equally alienated young children with wisdom far beyond their years.
More generous readers might contend that by constantly exploring the same themes — societal exiles, abused children — Høeg might be verbalizing a larger ethos within his fiction. But while he’s truly virtuosic when it comes to expanding a story, Høeg constantly undercuts this talent by assuming that that which is ‘larger’ is somehow more important, more revelatory. Forget the fraught colonial relations between Danes and Greenlanders, forget a handful of maltreated children. Think meteors carrying space viruses. Think city-devastating earthquakes. Think like Peter Høeg.
Perhaps this tendency could be excused if the reader was at least marginally included in the process. But if Høeg has accessed some over-arching truism within his sprawling visions, he certainly isn’t sharing. Chronologies are blurred, characters enter and exit with almost no introduction. Any orienting details are withheld until he is good and ready to share them: you won’t know that a character is wearing a clown’s wig until he takes it off. Famed Norwegian author Jan Kjærstad has defended The Quiet Girl, stating that “in breaking the rules, it gives rise to a new universe and points the way to a future… style of writing.” Perhaps Peter Høeg is capable of such innovation, but The Quiet Girl is strictly the product of his own private echo-chamber.