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

A range of David Heidenstam’s writings have now appeared in print. Microfictions, in Tales for my dog. A theatre script, in In the beginning… And poetry in the journals Acumen, Agenda, Ambit, The Journal, Orbis, and Prole (UK), Two Thirds North (Sweden), and the American Journal of Poetry, Blue Unicorn, and Cold Mountain Review (USA), as well as in Faber, Carcanet, and other anthologies. As a result, the first assessments are beginning to appear, either as literary reviews or academic mentions.

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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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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 experience, 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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80 microfictions from humour to horror

No, not – mostly – tales about dogs

Just stories about human beings

But any intelligent dog would understand

And in the end you will too

SPR Award - Tales for my dog

 

“Probably my favorite book of the contest, in terms of heart and talent…” / “a hugely enjoyable read – intelligent and ironic and deftly crafted…” / “amusing, poetic, evocative, strange…” SPR Book Award judges

 

It was in the dark before dawn that he saw the woman walking across the water…

I had a misunderstanding the other day. I thought I was a pastry cook, but then realised I was Chief of Police…

I was disappointed when I found out I’d been lying to myself…

The house was at the end of the world, where the land ended and the water began…

Everybody knew about the blue jacket. You put it on, and it told you what you wanted to know…

He folded the dragon carefully, studying how to do it from the book he had…

There were two of them. One fat, one thin. One old, one young. One rich, one poor. One greedy, one needy…

A long time ago – before even your father was born – there was a great debate among the animals, over who should rule the land…

He was a miser, and so didn’t buy any clothes…

The dog came into the pastry shop…


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