Literary reviews & academic assessments
of David Heidenstam’s writings.

 

Academic assessment of Tales for My Dog

Tales for My Dog is one of the most impressive collections of microfictions that I’ve ever read. Its range of genre, subject and feeling is remarkable. Among the many little gems in Heidenstam’s book are pieces that resemble aphorisms, parables and beast fables, as well as miniature second-person narratives. Heidenstam expertly combines the realist, the funny and the absurd in a way that resembles short shorts by some of the greatest practitioners of the genre, such as Robert Coover, Lydia Davis and Dan Rhodes. At times, his writing has a beautiful meditative quality, as when he closes a piece with the words: “There are too many people in this world, and you can’t tell anything about their lives.” For me, the volume provides conclusive evidence that microfiction has a much greater range and affective potential than is commonly believed.

Dr Wojciech Drąg, Assistant Professor, Institute of English Studies, University of Wrocław; co-editor of The Poetics of Fragmentation in Contemporary British and American Fiction (2019) and author of Collage in Twenty-First-Century Literature: Art of Crisis (2020).

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Review of In the Beginning…

In the Beginning… reimagines the first chapters of the book of Genesis with wry humor. While our laughter is tinged with bitterness, anger, and above all sadness, in the end, perhaps we see the Fall of Man as a triumph.

The familiar Christian notion is that we fell from a perfect state of grace when we ate the apple. Heidenstam puts that state of grace a bit earlier, before the universe began: God, Satan, and all of creation existed together in perfect harmony. Then, God broke it to pieces, separating Himself from Satan and creating everything. No one in Heidenstam’s Eden feels this loss more than Satan himself; the playwright evokes sympathy for the Devil with a clever combination of naturalistic action, humor, and engaging, thoughtful dialogue.

God and Satan are very human in this play. In the first act, Satan has a sneezing fit; God, the harried creator, gets discombobulated while naming all the marsupials; the pair get drunk over a game of chess; and Satan gets shit on by a bird. But just when we are disarmed and laughing, we begin to understand Satan’s plight: He has been divorced from his brother and forced to play a role he does not want. Satan bemoans, “your world rejects me. Wherever I go I am a stranger.” Satan is without love. He begs God, “Let me be loved. You are loved. Let me be loved.”

Satan has not chosen this; he is as God has created him. Love is out of reach. Eve sees this, and her compassion for Satan turns the moment when she and Adam eat the apple from humanity’s greatest failure to a moment of triumph. In Heidenstam’s telling, Eve is not tricked; rather, she makes a moral choice.

This deceptively simple play is well worth a read. Like the Biblical story it is based on, it confounds in the most pleasurable manner and promises a feast of challenging ideas for those who are willing to taste of it.

Bryon Reiger, Rain Taxi, Volume 25 Number 2 Summer 2020 (#98).

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David’s background is English and Irish on one side, Scottish, Welsh, Swedish, and Greek on the other. His mother’s family: London tradesmen who became merchants on Grimsby fish docks. His father’s: wanderers who transited from the Swedish diplomatic service to the British colonial, via a spell working for the Ottoman empire.

       David grew up in England in the 1950s, and ended university with an MA in “political science” – which by then even he had realised was nonsense. Turning down a PhD grant, he became a labourer, security guard, and hitch-hiker, before getting drawn, thanks to an old girlfriend, into the world of popularised encyclopaedias. This involved summarising the official Olympic rules of clay-pigeon shooting, and then becoming expert on all the gambling games of the world.

       Jumped up to “editor” at £2 an hour because there wasn’t anyone else, he then had to write, for a US publisher, Man’s Body: an owner’s manual – in five months with a couple of researchers waiting to go to university, Ruth Berenbaum and Jefferson Cann. This went into 16 languages, sold over a million copies, and in many cultures (Catholic, Asian, Muslim) was the first time ordinary people had access to health and body information. He’d added a final section, “Woman’s body: a non-owner’s guide”, which he hoped did some good. Then contributed to the Woman’s Body book itself (edited by Ann Kramer), writing the chapters on gynaecology and on ageing.

       With the proceeds, he bought a half-terrace of three houses for £2000, in a village in the Forest of Dean. The empty one should have taken six months to do up. Him it took four years, so he became village postman. Eventually escaping to Ireland, he ran backpackers’ hostels, then got taken on as a sailboat-delivery cook/crewman. They only realised after they’d left Ireland that they might have asked more carefully about his sailing and cooking skills.

       Earlier, the hitch-hiking had taken him through Iraq just after the Ba’ath party had come to power (including resting up for a few days in the family home of one of their government ministers), and twice to Morocco – where he stayed for a while on a kif farm in the Rif mountains (the first European they’d ever met who had absolutely no interest in drugs), and then, without even a green belt, ended up teaching karate in a village down south. The sailing led to a couple of Atlantic crossings, an enforced dismasted stay in the Azores, travels in the Caribbean and USA, and a spell of owning his own boat in the Canary Islands – a wooden-hulled Hungarian-built bilge keeler with a Welsh name.

       Back in the UK he did a bit more editing, then returned to Norwich to keep his father company after his mother died. Couldn’t take him travelling at first, the authorities wouldn’t give his father a new passport, they’d decided he wasn’t British any more. But eventually the two of them got away, to Tunisia, Morocco, India, Egypt, eastern Europe, in the last years of his father’s life.

       David now mostly splits his time between Great Yarmouth and Vietnam, sits in cafés scribbling or cheap hotel rooms on his computer, and is one of just four surviving male members of the senior branch of the von Heidenstam family.

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Based on the Q&A with David Heidenstam on Goodreads.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a writer?

David Heidenstam  You can do the writing anywhere. Yes, at some point you’ll probably have to type it up on a computer. But the creative part, that can be sitting at a café table with pen and paper. Or talking into a pocket recorder as you walk – or when you wake in the night.

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Q: What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

David Heidenstam  Only do it if you have to. Some can make a living from it: but that’s mostly if you’re in contract writing, or (for a successful very few) creating genre fiction, or working in some non-fiction genres – business, health, self-development. Thanks to modern self-publishing & self-promotion, you can bypass the old gatekeepers. But that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to read your stuff. So then it’s a lifestyle choice; sometimes a driven one. Which is fine if you can fit it into the corners of a life that makes you happy in other ways. But if not, you may be facing unhappy choices.

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Q: Where did you get the idea for Tales for my dog?

David Heidenstam  The individual stories came in many different ways. Some years ago, I started trying to tap the unconscious by setting out to write stories in five minutes – with no ideas beforehand… That worked. “The moondreamer” came about in that way, at a hotel café table on Djerba. One minute it didn’t exist, and I had no inkling of it; two minutes later it unalterably did.

Many of the stories in Part One happened like that. Others came deliberately, from memories I wanted to explore. Sometimes the two things came together. The title “The archipelago of the dead” came out of nowhere – and was too good to waste! At first, it seemed it would have to be some kind of fantasy about the afterlife. But then I realised how it could bring together experiences both from sailing and from childhood – with only at the end a nod to the looming consequences of age and to those who’ve gone before.

As for the overall concept, “Tales for my dog” – that started as a jokey title (and a potentially dangerous one – since people might expect them to be stories about dogs). And the justification only comes in the very last words of the last story – with the claim that most people might have had happier lives as dogs… Which then allows one to look back, and see the stories as a kind of education, for, perhaps, a canine audience, in the various strange psychologies of humans.

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Q: How would you compare your treatment of men and women in Tales for my dog?

David Heidenstam  Well, I’m clearly pretty hard on the men! Their portrayals range from old cultural distortions (the man who talks about “keeping a ‘mistress’”) to sudden violent domestic insanity. In between, there are the stupid, the naively optimistic, those ready to beat people into submission or to death, and those happy to have embarked on world conquest because it’s finally made them feel loved… The women are not shown in such positions of power, because that’s still usually untrue to people’s observations, including my own. Instead they are mostly shown trying to deal with circumstances with intelligence and sensitivity – including turning the tables on someone who’s using authority to threaten them. But, to even things up a bit, there’s a woman with a very emotionless approach to marriage; and – humorously – another who tries to turn a profit from her ex-lover’s heart!

Of course, there’s always the danger that some readers may not be well attuned to satire – e.g. in the case of the man who thinks it’s easier to keep a ‘mistress’ than a dog, because you don’t have to walk her every day… They might like to remember Swift’s bitter satire, in A Modest Proposal – suggesting that the Irish can deal with poverty by selling their children as food to the rich… As a writer, I have to guard a carefully ambivalent attitude to ‘political correctness’. Changing what words are acceptable has clearly played a vital role in changing attitudes and behaviour. But changing what writing is acceptable can distort truth-telling. There are two overlapping dangers. One is a modern version of Victorian bowdlerisation, where some topics are censored. The other is a modern version of Stalinist literature – in which the job of the writer is distorted by the importance of presenting favourable role models.

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Q: How would you defend your portrayal of Christian theology, in Tales for my dog and In the Beginning…?

David Heidenstam  Oh, I don’t think I would! I happen to be religious, in the sense that I think that the material world is superficial. That consciousness is the underlying nature of the universe, not a rare result of a physical brain. But Western attitudes to religion – both favourable and critical – are grossly distorted. They are distorted by the Abrahamic tradition of God as an all-powerful person – who then has, ridiculously, to be capable of being everywhere and knowing everything. And they are distorted by Christian theology – driven into a cul-de-sac by the issues of the divinity – and parentage! – of Jesus of Nazareth. Which requires that people commit to believing unlikely things – and that they must do so by the exercise of faith. So then religion becomes something necessarily at loggerheads with science. I don’t think Westerners realise how odd Christianity is, how much of an outlier, in the spectrum of world religions. And one which clearly has nothing to do with anything that the historical Jesus actually taught. For a start, Yeshua ben Joseph – Jesus of Nazareth – was clearly a social anarchist: telling people to leave their families, not worry about the next meal. And you can’t build a structured religion on social anarchy.

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Q: How can you possibly defend the story “Keeping a dog”?!

David Heidenstam Well, yes, this one does tend to cause outrage. Some stories in Tales for my dog are meant to, for some readers. “Bargain”, for those uncritical of Christian theology. “Winning hearts”, for those enthusiastic about Western military intervention abroad to ‘promote democracy’. “Keeping a dog” is a bit different. It belongs to a valid tradition of wry jeu d’esprit; but whether that’s appropriate to the subject is another matter. The outrage arises when the speaker in the story switches from pet dogs to paid female partners… – and uses exactly the same words: “… they try to take an interest, and yawn, and don’t really have the concentration, not for your things anyway, why should they?” And for just a moment it could be taken that the reason is the same; but of course it’s not. To take the analysis further, let’s remember the joke about the man who goes to a library, and asks the librarian to tell him where he can find books about young women being attracted to much older men. (A frequent theme in Hollywood movies a few years back.) “Certainly,” she says. “In the fiction section.” In “Keeping a dog”, the ‘voice’ of the story is clearly both older and fairly wealthy. “Keeping a ‘mistress’” is an old-fashioned phrase. And it implies inequality of wealth, like any long-term monetised sexual relationship – whether it is a rich man gaining a trophy wife, or a young woman deciding that accepting a ‘sugar daddy’ is a bearable solution to paying off iniquitous education costs. And in all this context, the ‘voice’ of the story is actually refreshingly honest – within his limits. He doesn’t imagine that the woman is going to love him, or even share his interests. He uses the exact words he did about keeping a dog – but now the issue is not mental capacity, but the unlikelihood of a younger poorer woman being unflaggingly interested in the day-to-day perceptions and preoccupations of an older man who’s bought her companionship. But the provocative transition allows the man a conclusion that is simultaneously practical, psychologically acute, and somewhat thoughtful: “But you know they’ve got plenty of other lives they don’t tell you about, so you don’t feel guilty about it. Not like you would if they were a dog.”

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