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Tales of the Night

Tales Of The Night - Peter Høeg Before he became an author Peter Høeg was a dancer, an actor, a fencer, a sailor, and a mountaineer. His experiences in those fields are apparent in this collection of eight short stories which are "concerned with love. Love and its conditions on the night of 19 March 1929." When I first read Tales of the Night a few years ago, I had lost patience with short stories. The trend seemed to be to write stories that were all middle. No beginning and no end. But I loved this, and have been looking forward to re-reading it ever since. My expectations were a little too high, though. To be honest I don't understand four of the stories, but that was more than made up for by the five I enjoyed. Those of you who are au fait with basic arithmetic will be puzzled by that, being as there are only eight stories. Well, it's because I enjoyed, without really understanding the first of these Tales of the Night... JOURNEY INTO A DARK HEART describes a strange meeting between four people in a carriage of the first train to travel on the railway line between Cabinda and Katanga in Central Africa. There's a young Danish man, who has given up studying mathematics and is working for a trading company, a one-eyed German general, and a reporter called Joseph Korzeniowski, accompanied by a black servant girl. The three men have a philosophical and political conversation before their journey is terminated unexpectedly. Now Joseph Korzeniowski was the real name of novelist Joseph Conrad, who was most famous for writing Heart of Darkness, set in Africa. You see what's going on here? It's very enigmatic, but it went right over my head I'm afraid. And anyway, hadn't Conrad been dead for five years by 1929? In the second tale, HOMAGE TO BOURNONVILLE, a ballet dancer, travelling with no papers, in a boat he has stolen, tells his companion, an Islamic monk, the tale of his friend Andreas... which I just lost interest in. Sorry. THE VERDICT ON THE RIGHT HONOURABLE IGNATIO LANDSTAD RASKER, LORD CHIEF JUSTICE was my favourite. Like several of these tales, it is told by one of the characters. Høeg is telling tales about people telling tales. On the night of his daughter's wedding, a barrister describes the occasion twenty-two years earlier, when he was summoned by his father, the Lord Chief Justice, who told him about a trial he presided over - which echoes the trials of Oscar Wilde and Flaubert (for Madame Bovary). A young writer stands accused of offending public decency with a novel, and having 'unnatural relations' with a sixteen year-old boy. Of course, ` he is convicted, but a meeting with the writer in his cell has a strange effect on the judge, and leads to a wonderfully funny and moving climax. I would have cheered if I hadn't been too busy laughing my socks off. I also loved the next story: AN EXPERIMENT IN THE CONSTANCY OF LOVE. This is the tale of a physicist called Charlotte who is trying to find echoes of the past through quantum mechanics. I'll bet that some of you feel like you're falling asleep at the back of a lecture theatre already, eh? The tale of her scientific, literary and sexual awakening is truly beautiful, and, I felt, imbued with the spirit of that other great Dane, Hans Christian Andersen. Since her mother was also a physicist mother, and her father was the Danish ambassador to Paris, she encounters several famous scientists including Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, en passant, from an early age. This will bore those of you who find scientific motifs in literature tiresome, but please remember that without science there would be no internet! Charlotte, is trying to escape the inevitable disappointment of love, which always seems to fade: ' "There is no such thing," thought Charlotte, "there can never be any such thing as *perpetuum mobile* of love." ' She stood there stock-still and her thoughts, maddened by grief, launched themselves off into space. And although she could not have put this flash of insight into words she discerned that the universe was elastic, that everything was expanding, that each and every human being was distancing themself from every other human being at an unbelievable rate of knots and that the spaces between the random particle collisions known as love were filled with nothing but the emptiness within which the sun will eventually burn out and crumble into a cloud of ash, while lifeless Earth, cooled to zero degrees on the Kelvin scale, subsides into the eternal winter of outer space.Ahhh... "the random particle collisions known as love"I love that line. You see, you don't need to read holy books to find beauty. Beautiful things can be created by pure chance. They can be and they are. Call me a romantic old atheist, if you like, but I do love that line. PORTRAIT OF THE AVANT-GARDE is about a young artist who paints his first picture on March 19th, 1929. After becoming famous he publicly supports that bloke that ran Germany in the 1930's, and he ends up on a boat with an old bloke, erm, that's about it. Sorry, I don't know what to make of this. I thought the sixth tale, PITY FOR THE CHILDREN OF VADEN TOWN, started very promisingly. The people of Vaden Town in Jutland love their children beyond price, having legislated against mistreatment of children long ago. So when a local merchant is warned of an outbreak of an unknown strain of smallpox which has killed children in Zealand, the townspeople elect to cut themselves off from the rest of the country. But when a ship sails into the harbour with a circus on board, the quarantine is broken. The main attraction of the circus is a dwarf clown who used to be an opera singer. Shades of the pied piper perhaps? Not really, and not much of an ending, either. But whereas this one started brilliantly and then disappointed me, the next tale, did the opposite... STORY OF A MARRIAGE is about the van Austen family, who are considered by some to embody the Danish nation. The family's wealth was gained through the shipping trade, but they have since come to avoid all contact with foreigners, apart for one Indian family from which they always employ an attendant. Georg and Margrethe van Austen seem the perfect couple, deeply in love. Although they've retired from the public eye they are often seen dancing round the dining room of their mansion house with the curtains open... Now this story really does have a satisfying ending. If only Jane Austen had begun one of her novels the way Høeg begins the last, and shortest, tale here - RETURN OF A YOUNG MAN IN THE BALANCE: It is with mild indifference that I view the fact that I live in a world which talks so fast that it needs must breathe through its arse.This is the tale of a young man who is a mirror maker, and what happens when he seeks the help of a girl renowned as a glass grinder. Which is, erm, not much. I think I'm just way too shallow for some of these tales... Tales of the Night is an excellent collection of short stories, but be warned, they are rather deep and highbrow. {Review originally posted on dooyoo.co.uk on March 19th, 2002}