Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Monday, March 31, 2008

I'm Deeply Honored, Your Majesty, But Please Forgive Me for Wearing an Orange Shirt at your Fabulous Reception.

I'm sweating like a short order cook. So would you, if you were at the Royal Castle of Copenhagen waiting to shake hands with the Queen, the Prince Consort, the Crown Prince, and the Crown Princess. Yes, you would sweat as well. Even if you're not a snob, your arm pits would itch, your deodorant would fail, you might even giggle like a retard.

"Monsieur Peter H. Fogtdal, Ecrivain e Madame Fogtdal," shouts a man who probably has a fancy title I can't pronounce.

"Oh my God," sighs My Pale Girlfriend who's even paler than usual. As a true American, she has never met anything as exotic as a queen or a prince. She has only run into Laura Bush at Safeway, so right now she's out of her league. But she does look great in her black dress and the Syrian scarf I've given her. However, Madame Fogtdal she ain't. There is no one with that dubious title. She is, however, my gorgeous girlfriend, so she definitely belongs at my side at this defining moment in space and time.

I walk up to the Queen. She is dressed in a beautiful gown in the same color as a forest fire. She smiles and for a second we shake hands. Then on to the Prince Consort followed by Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary who looks even better than in the tabloids. Oh yes, my heart is beating fast, my nose is running. Does this make me a snob, or is it all right to be in awe of this Scandinavian Versailles with paintings of perfumed kings and effeminate barons?

Why do I deserve the honor of being invited to Amalienborg, you rudely ask? Well, the reason is simple. This is a reception for the French speaking countries and everything French - and I won the Francophone literature prize in 2005 (or Le Prix Litteraire de la Francophonie, if you will) - a prize given to the best Danish book to come out in the nineteen Francophone countries. (Yes, technically my prize winner Le Front Chantilly (Flødeskumsfronten) is out in nineteen countries, even though I doubt you can get a copy of it in the book stores in Tunisia).

Some of the other prize winners are here as well. Michael Larsen who won in 2007, Leif Davidsen who took the honors in 2004, and Jens Christian Grøndahl who triumphed back in 2003. We form a writers' circle before we enter the palace to mingle with ambassadors, Oscar winning directors, and socialites from the suburbs.

Before entering the palace: Three proud writers and a pale girlfriend getting ready for royal handshakes, some great Flora Danica, Mozart, and a huge Gin and Tonic on the house.

I don't know what's wrong with me but I have this thing for castles and royal intrigue.

In school I loved to study our kings. I knew everything about them - I knew when they ruled, what they wore, and how they were murdered. I even had a few kings on my wall where they watched me fall asleep with royal indifference.

Actually, I've always been a Frederik IV fan. Frederik IV of Denmark-Norway, Slesvig-Holsten, Dittmarsken, Iceland, Greenland, and Lolland-Falster (I don't think I got that title right) ruled from 1699 to 1728 and wore powdered wings. He loved everything Italian, including a nun or two. In 2002 I wrote a novel about him called Lystrejsen. I've brought it along for the Queen. I'm sure Her Majesty is dying for a signed copy. But how do you give her the book? I know you can't walk up and hand it to her. You just can't shove a book into her royal hands and start babbling about it, so I ask a waiter if I can talk to Her Majesty's lady-in-waiting.

"It's so kind of you to bring a gift for the Queen," the lady-in-waiting tells me. "What is it, may I ask?"

I tell her about Lystrejsen. She interrupts me: "Oh, I read that. It's wonderful."

I beam like a toddler and start telling her about the research I did for the book - how I traveled to Italy and saw the places where Frederik IV stayed on his Italian tours - how his palace in Rome has become a bank where good folk exchange their Euros. After a while I'm boring the poor lady to tears, but she listens graciously and promises me that the Queen will be pleased.

But how pleased, I think? Will she actually read it? Or perhaps she did when Lystrejsen came out? Maybe Margrethe hates it with a vengeance. And maybe I'll never be invited again, since I'm using a four letter word on page 71.

No, it's not easy being a guest at the Royal Castle. But I must admit, I could get used to it. I could definitely get used to the lazy champagne and the gilded frames! Just give me a few incarnations and my upper lip will be as stiff as Prince Philip's.

We continue our walk through the castle. In the background some musicians plays Mozart - I guess he's been invited as well. Guests mingle, a few counts raid the bar in search of cognac.

At the end of a long hall there's a wonderful exhibition of Flora Danica, 18th century china that covers every inch of the walls. We admire the plates - the engravings of rare flowers and common seaweed. In the same instant we're approached by Leif Davidsen, thriller writer per excellence. He says to Choul:

"These rooms aren't open to the public. You're probably the third American to see this exhibition after George Bush and Bill Clinton."

Choul looks pleased and we continue talking to interesting people while drinking ourselves silly in spring water. From the room there's a great view of the Amalienborg square. A few tourists are taking snap shots of the Royal guard. I wave at them hoping they think I'm a disturbed duke.

"I don't know why they serve cauliflower at a reception like this," a South European ambassador complains. He also tells us that his wife hates Denmark. "The weather is s o gloomy here."

The Mexican ambassador is more fun. She is introduced to me and tells me she enjoyed Le Front Chantilly. "That was the first Danish novel I ever read." For the next few minutes she talks about it like a true connoisseur.

"Take that, Peter Høeg," I smirk and feel like kissing the Mexican, but I'm not sure you're allowed to kiss an ambassador - it could be against the Geneva convention.

My Pale Girlfriend, Leif Davidsen, Jens Christian Grøndahl and wife.

Two and a half hours later the reception is over. The Queen and the Prince Consort leave the ballroom. This is an indicator that we should get the hell out as well, but my beauty and I want to stay. For a second, I try to chain myself to a French butler but decide against it. I want this day to be without scandals. After all, I'm a Royalist at heart, I admit it.

And next time I'll wear a white shirt and a tie, I promise.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Secret Confessions of a Moose Lover (Happily Lost in Fairbanks, Alaska)

Let's face it. I'm a moose lover.

But the moose don't want my love. This is the second time I'm in Alaska and the moose never show themselves. I only see them on tacky t-shirts and street signs. After a few days I'm so desperate I buy a pair of moose socks at Fred Meyer, so I don't walk around feeling so cheated.

"Actually, you're as likely to see a moose in the parking lot as you are in the wilderness," a local tells me. "The moose are so huge that they don't give a damn about humans," she continues.

So every morning I get up and look out of my hotel window hoping to see a moose licking a Volvo.

Talking about Volvos, I'm in Fairbanks to attend the annual SASS conference. SASS stands for the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. It's always a great bunch of people who show up, most of them are scholars worn out by their PhDs, but there are also a few weirdos like me. There's even a Bulgarian grad student who studies Per Olov Enquist and a Romanian from Transylvania who has psychoanalyzed Elling - the famous Norwegian film.

"Norwegian films are preoccupied with the mentally ill," she tells us. All Danes, Swedes, and Finns in the audience nod happily. We're from the sane part of Scandinavia after all - at least that's what we think, which just goes to show how delusional we are.

No don't get me wrong. The SASS conference is pure bliss. We all get along. There's no nasty teasing, just laughter and heavy drinking as you would expect. After all, Scandinavians have a reputation to live up to, especially if you're Finnish or Danish. We eat muffins, too, and have a craving for Northern lights. Actually, the receptionist offers to wake us up if the sky becomes clear.

"Could you also wake me up if you see a moose?" I beg.

The receptionist nods. Moose alerts are included in the price at Princess hotel. So are the fancy ice sculptures in the parking lot that melt when you look at them.

From my room I see a beaver. Or maybe I just want it to be a beaver. It's probably a rat.

On the second day of the conference, we go on an excursion. Two yellow school buses pick us up and we head for the Ice Sculpture Exhibition. It's Fairbank's version of Knots Berry Farm with joy rides made from ice blocks. There's even a phone booth made of the cold stuff - I'm sure the Sami of the group feel right at home. The exhibition also has icy advertisements for ATM and other ridiculous companies.

Then again you shouldn't be surprised. Alaskans are Americans after all, and if Heaven were run by Yankees, there would be advertisement boards there as well: Welcome to Paradise -brought to you by Praise The Lord Sneakers. Now You Too Can Walk on Water.

For Alaskans it's a warm evening, 3 degrees Fahrenheit or about minus 17 Celsius. It's a tricky cold. It creeps up on you like a bag lady. Fist, you actually feel great. "Minus 17 degrees is a piece of cake," you brag. "I'm a fucking Eskimo."

But after fifteen minutes the cold cuts into you like a knife. You start to feel like a walking ice cube. Your face goes numb, your legs start to hurt, your face goes blue quicker than your balls.

I run back to the warm school bus in the parking lot, but it's gone. Thirty ice cold Scandinavians are waiting like impatient toddlers. It isn't a pretty sight, but what a relief when we find ourselves back inside the bus. The fact that there's no leg room doesn't mean a thing. Most of us don't feel our legs, anyway.

Papers, papers, papers. Academics adore papers. That's all they live for. Everybody at SASS is an expert on something useless - that's why it's so much fun being here. In another universe, people would be committed for obsessing about Karen Blixen's syphilis or the gorgeous adverbs in the Icelandic sagas. But at SASS everybody pretends they're normal. We run around with name tags, we flash cards with pretentious titles, we spill coffee on each other. It's all theatre, but you don't have to be Shakespeare to feel that the world is a stage. Just visit SASS and listen to papers like The Boredom Paradox and the Aesthetic Responses to Freudian Slips in the Late 17th Century Scanian Poets of Southern Landskrona. Then you know why we're driven to drink. Fast.

I've been at SASS conferences several times without much of a purpose, but this time I actually have an agenda. I want the Scandinavian-American community to know that a novel of mine is coming out in English. It's my eleventh Danish work The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books), beautifully translated by Tiina Nunnally. It's out in the fall and I'm going on a book tour of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, San Francisco, L.A., Fullerton, Chicago, Madison, Des Moines, New York, West Chester, and a lot of places I don't know yet. The book has blurbs by Sebastian Berry, Irish Man Booker finalist and Joanna Scott, American Pulitzer finalist. Yes, I'm nauseatingly proud of this and will write more about it later.

So I'm here at SASS hoping that the Scandinavian professors will use the book in their classes. As everybody knows, it's a teacher's finest obligation to make their students suffer. Well, come October I'll make that easier for every one.

At SASS I give a paper called The Novelist and His Translations: The Art of Finding the Writer's Voice. It's actually not a paper. It's just me babbling away as usual. Before I came I had grand visions of a full lecture hall - of avid readers hanging on to every word; of beautiful women adoring my insights, but only six people show up. Well, size doesn't count. Isn't that what Linda Lovelace used to say?

At the farewell party I shake my booty with a few scholars. But come 11 I sneak back to bed. I have to get up at 4.30 and catch my plane. Outside it's pitch dark and beavers are looking for food. But there's no doubt: The SASS conference has been a huge success. Everybody has enjoyed themselves immensely, and people are still dancing as if there's no tomorrow. The organizers have done an excellent job and deserve a vacation somewhere warm. Even the weather has behaved and the salmon wasn't as overcooked as in Oregon.

When I take the plane back to civilization (Denmark? Starbuck's?), I only have one complaint: The good people in Fairbanks should have hired some moose to stare into our windows. And produced a few Northern lights. I know they're just gasses, but they're so damn pretty, anyway.