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Other books by Peter Høeg:

The History of Danish Dreams

Borderliners

Readers' Group Companion to Borderliners

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Readers' Group Companion to Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg

Dell paperback, ISBN 0-440-21853-5, $6.99 US/ $8.99 CAN

Delta trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-31514-7, $9.95 US/ $13.95 CAN

Readers' Group Companion to Smilla's Sense of Snow © 1995 Dell Publishing.



Contents:

1. About the Author
2. A Conversation with Peter Høeg
3. Questions for Discussion


About the Author:

Peter Høeg, born in Denmark in 1957, pursued various interests--he was a professional dancer, an actor, a sailor, a fencer, and a mountaineer--before turning seriously to writing. He lives in Copenhagen with his family and has no phone, television, or car.

He has traveled throughout most of the world, and has spent considerable time in Africa.

Smilla's Sense of Snow is his third novel and the first to be published in English. It has also been published in twelve other countries including Korea, Brazil, and most of western Europe.


A Conversation With Peter Høeg

Q: When did you start writing?

A: There is a day of change in the life of most authors... That is the day they go from writing poems and short stories to working on a novel and writing for several hours every day. I'm thirty-six now; I must have been about twenty-four or twenty-five when I reached that turning point. I'd written for years before that but had never sent anything to a publisher.

Q: How many years did it take to finish your first novel?

A: My first novel took four years to write, but that doesn't say anything about the quality or the size of the novel. It was a learning piece, an apprentice book, because writing is not just a talent but a skill. It's something you have to learn and develop. It's a slow process.

Q: What was the inspiration for Smilla's Sense of Snow?

A: I had two dreams about Greenland. I'm interested in dreams but I don't usually base anything in my life on them. Dreams are too flimsy and unstable for that. Still, these were very strong dreams. Some dreams seem to stay in the mind for years with a clarity that approaches that of real life. Before that I had had almost no contact with Greenland. I knew something about it, because Greenland used to be a Danish colony. I grew up in a very poor part of Copenhagen where there were many Greenlanders. So it was a part of my cultures of course, but it was not something I was that interested in. Out of these two dreams grew a certain feelings and I knew I had to write this book.

Q: You had visited Greenland before then?

A: Yes, I had visited Greenland before, but only for very short periods of time and went back for longer visits while I was writing the book.

Q: The book is so vivid in its descriptions of Greenland that it feels like a lifetime interest.

A: I received valuable help from the Greenlanders living in Copenhagen. Without their help, the book could not have been written.

Q: What about Smilla? Readers are amazed that this is a woman written by a man. Is she the first female narrator you have created?

A: Yes she is. The book is the first long text in the first person that I tried to write. I think now, in hindsight, that it is an attempt to get close to my inner self. That is the hard part for me, not technique. I have a barrier that goes up whenever it gets very personal. This book is somehow an attempt to get in touch with my feelings. Nobody is just one sex. To live in this world and love a woman, you have to have some kind of understanding of the other sex or mutual consciousness. The use of language is one way of getting closer.

Q: You had a number of other professional lives or interests before making writing your full-time occupation. You were a professional ballet dancer, fencer, and seaman for a number of years.

A: My life now is much more quiet that it used to be. Doing a lot of things can also be an expression of restlessness. It's difficult to write a book and be restless. To write big books you have to have a kind of calm. I grew up in a welfare society and a book like this one about Smilla is something that has to be understood within the framework of a welfare society. I was given the opportunity to write full-time for two years without having to do anything else. My parents gave me the opportunity to follow different interests and I've been grateful for that. Writing a book like Smilla's Sense of Snow--which uses language and images from many different areas of human life--would not have been possible otherwise.

Q: You've done a great deal of traveling all around the world. That seems clear in your writing. It doesn't have just a Danish perspective. Where have you been?

A: Many places in the tropics. For me, one of the main themes of Smilla is a portrait of a woman standing between two cultures. As society becomes more global, as colonies achieve independence, we see more interracial marriages, and children grow up standing in two cultures. My wife is African, which means my daughter, in a way, is in the same situation as Smilla. Less problematic, I should hope, but still... What kinds of problems do the parents face? What can be done to keep both cultures intact? That is why the character Smilla became the person she is in the book.

Q: Your daughter speaks both Danish and her mother's native language?

A: Yes. One of Smilla's problems is language. I hope by painting a black picture of Smilla's problems I shall avoid the same problems with my daughter.

Q: You've arranged your life in a way ideal for a writer, especially for Americans who can't imagine life without an answering machine. You don't have a phone, and you spend a good part of the year outside Denmark. Is spending time traveling a plan for the future, too?

A: It is not to avoid people; it is an attempt to find balance. The book is the slowest art/media form. Everything else is very fast, but a book is very slow. It took me two years of working full-time to write Smilla, and I have packed into that one small object a lot of energy and concentration. Now that it is finished, it is waiting to explode, to blow up. To pack in that energy and keep in that wave of tension that has built up for a couple of years, I had to have a lot of calm and quiet in my personal life. On the other hand, I like the public. Every book begs for people to read it, to listen to it. I like contact with readers. But there's a risk in becoming a public or semi-public person, because it can invade your life until you lose your concentration. So I try to find a balance.



Questions For Discussion:

1. "It's hard to figure out what genre this dense and tantalizing story belongs to--is it a murder mystery, science fiction, morality tale, or an intricately plotted adventure wrapped in a carapace of technical information, a la Tom Clancy?"
--Partisan Review

How would you classify Smilla's Sense of Snow? What elements of the book fit into the conventions of the genres named above? Does the book include elements of any other genres? Discuss other books you feel are comparable to Smilla's Sense of Snow.

2. "The portrait of the woman was very important to me. Writing as a woman is an illusion. It was difficult but it was also fun," Peter Høeg has said. "Longing for a woman is one of the strongest moving forces in the life of a man, so maybe this was an attempt to get closer to a woman, to explore the landscape of a woman."

Discuss the above statements. How do you feel about a male author writing from the point of view of a woman? How successful was Peter Høeg in portraying the inner life of his heroine, Smilla? What techniques did he use to make his portrait vivid and realistic? Discuss other books in which a man has written from a woman's point of view--or vice versa. How do they compare to Smilla's Sense of Snow?

3. In the course of the novel, Smilla says: "I think more highly of snow and ice than love. It's easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings."

Is Smilla devoid of feelings or is she merely hiding them? What are the causes of her antisocial behavior? If Smilla does not care for other people, why is she telling her story at all? Is she a reliable narrator when it comes to her analysis of her own personality? Do you feel that Smilla genuinely cares for any other characters in the novel? If so, which ones?

4. Discuss Smilla's relationship with her father. What are the causes of the rift between them? Do you feel he deserves the poor treatment he receives from Smilla? Is there some degree of reconciliation between them in the course of the novel?

5. What impact has Smilla's mother had on her life? How has Smilla dealt with her mother's death over the years? Discuss Smilla's parents as representatives of two different, opposed worlds which Smilla must straddle.

6. "Høeg understands just how Denmark and the Danish character are representative of a larger European attitude toward the non-European world, and the remote and mysterious Inuit are representative of the destruction and transformation all non-European peoples have suffered at the hands of the most well-intentioned colonizers."
--Jane Smiley, Washington Post Book World

Discuss the clash of cultures portrayed Smilla's Sense of Snow--specifically, Denmark's exploitation of Greenland and the Inuit, and in general, the conflict between the technological culture of the West and traditional, indigenous cultures. How does Smilla herself symbolize this clash? Discuss parallels to similar culture clashes in the United States and elsewhere. Do you agree with Richard Eder's assessment of the novel in the Los Angeles Times as "an anti-colonial thriller"?

7. Smilla's Sense of Snow will be adapted for film. What elements of the book lend themselves to film adaptation? What elements will be difficult to translate to the screen? Come up with your ideal cast for the movies and discuss your choices in terms of the qualities and characteristics that make them right for their character.

8. "The primal stuff of this novel, of course, is snow and ice, which Høeg conjures up in all its varieties--frazil ice, grease ice, pancake, porridge, field ice--with the relish of Richard Burton anatomizing melancholia"
--Fernanda Eberstadt, The New Yorker

Discuss the significance of the title Smilla's Sense of Snow. What meanings could it have beyond the literal one? What do snow and ice represent to Smilla? To what effect does Høeg use images of, and information about, snow and ice throughout the book?

9. It is rare for a translated book by an unknown foreign author to attain the level of success that Smilla's Sense of Snow has achieved in the United States. What factors do you think most contributed to that success? What did American readers identify with in the novel? What does this book have to say to an American audience?

10. Discuss the moral ambiguity of the supporting characters--the mechanic, Investigator Rivn, Lander, and so on.