Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg

Prélude en Do M. Ja.
With the publication of Høeg's latest, The Elephant Keeper's Children, came a timely reminder that I had so far neglected his often disparaged 2006 "thriller". This may be a tiresome refrain, but it had been on the shelves for quite some time (since approximately 2006 in fact) and looked off-puttingly drizzle-grey, conjuring images of prose of vague beauty and uncrackable intellectualism, coupled with only a dizzy hint of narrative and mostly confusing characters. Of course, this is written with hindsight, so most of my now fully formed thoughts are informed by one particular review I read before starting, that of the much enjoyed Bookslut which one may read by clicking on the disturbing moniker so indicated.

Of course, regular readers (oh ho! More tired self-deprecation approaching - the plural noun there is probably redundant) of mine will understand that, as Aristotle puts it, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it" so of course, believing myself to be educated (by which I mean I have amassed a substantial quantity of facts with which to give the lie to my restricted intelligence) I set out immediately to make camp in the opposite point of view. On went Bach's Goldberg Variations and out came the stern, furrowed brows and pensive lip-chewing.

For those of you unable to successfully navigate an embedded hyperlink, what Bookslut suggests is as follows: in order not to actually enjoy but to simply comprehend Høeg's much maligned novel, one would need most if not all of the following tools:
  • the complete audio recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach, which, as collected in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis [Bach Works Catalogue], amount to some 1,100-plus cantatas, canons, fugues and chorales;
  • a comprehensive book on music theory;
  • a detailed street map of Copenhagen;
  • a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device;
  • a guide to the Danish tax system;
  • a working knowledge of poker;
  • a thorough understanding of gambling addiction, which can be acquired through sitting in on a few Gamblers Anonymous meetings;
  • a Ouija board;
  • an picture book of nun orders of the world;
  • a familiarity with clown performances, ranging from slapstick to the highly stylized;
  • a hearing aid (or better yet a bionic ear, if you can afford one);
  • and a bottle of extra-strength ibuprofen [for the inevitable headache GBD]
"Get Bach, get Bach,
get Bach to where..." etc.
So, Kasper Krone, world-renowned clown (something it seems to be considered a boon in Denmark) has supersonic hearing, a deep and abiding love of J.S. Bach, and an awful lot of trouble with the Danish (and Spanish - she neglects to mention this point) authorities for various misdemeanours and felonies. For context's sake, he is thus manoeuvred into helping a bizarre cult-ish order of nuns (of an Orthodox Eastern Russian denomination if I'm not mistaken) find a missing child, whose proximity provides Krone with a mystical and mysterious oasis of calm in the sound-scape of the modern world.

However, to pick off the first on the above list: one need not be familiar with the works of Bach, or the modal key of his cantatas and fugues, to appreciate the reason for their inclusion. Whilst Bookslut accuses the author of overloading the reader, I would argue that the additional information comes as a caveat or footnote to explain to the lay reader what this means to the character and is therefore quite important to a fuller understanding. One may counter by saying that he is therefore spoon-feeding the reader. One wouldn't if one had actually read the book! 

In addition, Chabon makes no apologies for the use of the streets and environs of Sitka in The Yiddish Policeman's Union without providing a scale O/S map of the city; nor does Delillo for a similar oversight in Cosmopolis (worryingly, so it would seem, now a film with the versatile ex-vamp R-Patz). Høeg goes to town (pardon the pun) on the streets of Copenhagen, where he was born way back in 1957* with a love that is evident in the way he lingers on the names and places that evoke the place of his birth and no doubt bring back happy childhood memories**. The essential information is present, clearly so, and we understand where Krone is in relation to other key venues and points of action, and although perhaps persiflage to the reader in search of distracting enjoyment, the additional info adds value to the sense of place and indeed time.

I, no more so than any other, understand the lure of a good hook in a book review, but I think Bookslut may have over-reached with the employment of this one. After these two points have been addressed, the others are merely superfluity to draw out a creaking trope.

To reaffirm my thorough enjoyment of Bookslut's talents here would not be a bad idea. I think she is a very talented critic, with a mostly positive influence on the way that others read. Here, I think, she may have been slightly overawed to the point of fatigue by the weight of detail. As an apologist for Høeg I would defend this novel, even to the death (of course, not my death). I have since invested in the (nearly) complete works of Bach (as well as Haydn and have also added to my Mozart collection) and even pursued the foolish notion that Kasper Krone may have a real-life doppelganger (not that I can see). This book has inspired me to listen to beautiful music and suspend my disbelief, even in things as crazy as Children of the Corn-type telekinesis. For that I am grateful to the author and would recommend The Quiet Girl to anyone with some time and patience, and an ear for wonderful prose.

BUT - please go read more of Bookslut's reviews and columns. She too is the worth the effort.

Well would you credit it? The lovely author is only a chuffin' Taurean, born a day "after" me! In my book, that makes him a solid gold, stand-up guy with no praise undue. 

** Forgive the projections here. I SAID FORGIVE!

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