How slippery the work of the Danish writer Dorthe Nors is, how it sideswipes and gleams. When I consider her four books translated into English—two story collections, a pair of novellas, one novel—I think of music. As with music, I can hold only small strands of Nors’s work in my mind at a time, while the whole composition eludes my grasp. Certain moments slide forward briefly, diffidently, to show themselves, before hiding: characters walk again and again in cemeteries, sing folk songs in the direction of the sea, ride ferries and horses and bicycles, wear yellow clogs, read books, drink takeout coffee, slowly topple over with vertigo.
Nors’s fictional world is a world of conflicts gentler than those that animate most contemporary literature. What happens—the events that take place, the plots—is much less important than the delicate traces of emotion that drift through her characters. If there are murders in her books, they are only seen indirectly, as fiction, like the ones in the grisly Swedish crime novels that Sonja, the protagonist of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, translates for a living. This may be one of Nors’s wry jokes. Scandi noir—the bloody, moody work of writers like Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell—is, as a genre, the antithesis of her foggy and playful and slightly chilly stories.
Nors’s characters are nearly all materially comfortable yet spiritually lonely. The relatively hygge nature of their loneliness is a result—at least it seems to me, a capitalism-poisoned American—of a gentle Danish socialism. One can feel a taut safety net strung under the lovelorn Minna in the most joyous and experimental of Nors’s works, the novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, collected in So Much for That Winter. The story, which is written in single-sentence paragraphs like a series of short status updates on Facebook or staff lines in a musical score, begins:
Minna introduces herself.
Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.
Minna can play four instruments.
Minna’s lost her rehearsal space.
Minna lives in Amager.
Minna spends her days in the Royal Library.
Minna has to work without noise.
Minna’s working on a paper sonata.
The paper sonata consists of tonal rows.
Minna writes soundless music.
Minna is a tad avant-garde.
In most places in the world, being a tad avant-garde as an artist is tantamount to being penniless, but Minna apparently needs no other job than composing her soundless music. After the journalist Lars dumps her, she can nurse her woe without succumbing to money angst; she can moon about, reading Ingmar Bergman’s books, bicycling through Copenhagen, eating cake, failing to write her paper sonata, failing to text her overbearing sister back, failing to be a good friend, failing even in her attempt to take a working vacation to an island called Bornholm.
Because failure is the privilege of the secure, and because there is no evidence of Minna having family money or prodigious fiscal savvy, her art, one begins to suspect, has been subsidized by the state. She does not fret about bankrupting herself with hospital fees when, in the book’s culminating set piece, she slips on a rock, conks her head, and almost drowns before painfully pulling herself, dazzled and woozy, from the sea.
To have the luxury of freedom from the corrosive acid of financial worries! In the middle of this endless-seeming pandemic, in which half the United States has demonstrated they don’t give a whit if millions of people die, I cannot stop wondering what it might feel like to exist in a world of such relative collective care. Even in good times, the American safety net is riddled with holes. A huge chunk of my first novel’s advance went to an emergency C-section, and I have what passes in the United States as excellent health insurance.
Perhaps it’s the particular exhaustion of being an American at this time, but reading a Nors book is like reading about the heartbreak of angels. Of course we sympathize with them in their tribulations—the characters are angels, after all—but the sadness is softened by our understanding that, when the brunt of the distress wears off, they will still find themselves in heaven. I say this with great appreciation. It is easy for a writer to garner a reader’s sympathy in fiction by subjecting a character to trauma. It is far more difficult to make a reader feel deeply for a character whose pain, in the wild technicolor enormity of global human anguish, is sketched, so very delicately, in grayscale.
Nors’s fiction feels Nordic not only in its underlying social webbing, but also in the curious internal tensions between the large, thoughtful collectivism of the characters’ society and the ferocious individualism that the art itself posits. To be an artist is to insist that one’s own peculiar vision is notable enough to put into the world. To write fiction is to assert that one’s characters are worth focused and loving attention, that they are special—perhaps even more important or more interesting than other characters—because they have been selected to be examined in depth by the author. While a writer might choose to write fiction, in part, to disperse the anxiety of her own personality—fiction is a kind of plausible deniability, a screen against the artist’s culpability in the work—the compulsion to make art tends to contradict any impulse toward self-effacement.
I’m no expert on Danish culture, but I do know that in Scandinavian countries the drive toward collectivism and egalitarianism is called Janteloven, or the Law of Jante, after the ten precepts set forth in the satirical 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, by the Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose. These ten precepts are:
You mustn’t think you are anything special.
You mustn’t think you are as good as we are.
You mustn’t think you are smarter than we are.
You mustn’t imagine yourself better than we are.
You mustn’t think you know more than we do.
You mustn’t think you are more important than we are.
You mustn’t think you are good at anything.
You mustn’t laugh at us.
You mustn’t think anyone cares about you.
You mustn’t think you can teach us anything.
Satire keeps its knives sharp only if it continuously whets them on some larger or more essential truth.
A novel tends to be a more populated form than a short story, more invested in ideas of community, because the canvas is larger; the story, with its tighter constraints, lingers even more insistently on the individual. Danish writers from Hans Christian Andersen to Isak Dinesen elevated the story to a serious art form, but, as Nors explained in an interview with Yale Literary Magazine, they had gone out of fashion in the country for a spell. The way Nors tells it, over time the Danish Academy, a powerful writers’ organization, began to believe that “the short story was not anything they would study because it was a non-genre. If you wanted to write a short story, that was just because you weren’t able to write a novel.” Nors resisted this notion, perhaps because she had spent some time in the hyper-individualistic United States, where short stories are the laboratories in which emerging writers experiment to develop their skills, and where story collections prove a writer’s literary bona fides. Her fourth book, published in 2008, was the collection Karate Chop, which became her first to be published in English and brought her international renown. The pair of novellas collected in So Much for That Winter dazzled critics with the way they broke and reassembled the novella form into spiky and gleeful lists. Her novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, was a finalist for the 2017 International Booker Prize.
Nors’s latest book, Wild Swims, her second story collection, has been translated into English by the nimble Misha Hoekstra, who also translated Nors’s novellas and novel. As in Karate Chop, the fourteen stories of Wild Swims are extremely short, all between four and seven pages, nearly all focused on a single Danish character in an ambiguous and static moment in time, caught in thoughts about a peculiar darkness in their past or the uncertainty of their immediate future. The stories range in place from rural Denmark to Copenhagen to Los Angeles and Minneapolis; each spins around a gentle puncturing of hypocrisy. The brokenhearted protagonist of “By Sydvest Station,” collecting money for the Cancer Society, asks for a donation from a person she finds so pitiable that her own shame and self-disgust crack open. In “On Narrow Paved Paths,” an unwelcome neighbor inserts herself into a dying man’s last days and insists on taking care of his cat, by which she means putting the poor beast down. The stories are vivid the way a flash of immobilizing pain is vivid.
In the title story, the narrator is grieving something immense but vaguely alluded to that perhaps happened to a childhood friend named Emilie. This is the sensed but unseen center of the story toward which all of the narrator’s thoughts return: the thought of Emilie reminding the narrator of sleeping houses, the memory of Emilie and her as children out by Pigsfoot Spit, squealing, she says,
with delight and terror, until suddenly we stood on the edge of the old channel, a tar-black river of crabs and slime. Our feet had never seemed so white before. Emilie’s like snow, and my right foot with the birthmark; one step and we’d sink into the darkness.
The narrator cannot sleep for the heat of the summer and the ambulances on the street below her apartment. To distract herself, she goes for walks. One evening she wants to go swimming but can’t quite summon the energy.
At last she visits the local pool, where she observes other swimmers and, unpleasantly, is observed by a hairy man with a snorkel who dives underwater to watch every time a woman swims past. In the water, the narrator feels, if not quite an epiphany, an alchemy: being at last out of the heat, remembering swimming in childhood, the profound discomfort of the presence of other, unloved bodies, all of which makes her grief nearly come into focus. But not quite; her living body asserts itself: “And I looked down: my white feet on the narrow ledge, beneath me the deeps, clinical and descaled. Emilie’s hand in mine. A step, the suction, and then off to other realms.” Nors’s weapon in this story, and all the stories of the collection, is disquiet.
Sometimes, though, the disquiet intimates not just darkness but evil. In “Honeysuckle,” a hideous man thinks about Annette, a blind woman he seduced because he found the formlessness of her face exciting:
No, she didn’t really have a face until he engaged her, and she didn’t really have a face afterward. Yet somewhere in between there was a sweet blossoming, an identity squeezing its way out, a wet mouth, tears, passionate pain. He granted her a will, trained on him, and later he biked home through Aarhus, satisfied that he would keep her. And thus the years passed. He’d kept her, and God he had fucked her often. Sometimes when he was sitting under the honeysuckle in their yard in Risskov, watching her stare blindly at the robot mower, her face a bit flushed and swollen with fluid, yet still quite anonymous, it would hit him just how many times he’d fucked her.
The unpleasantness here lingers without the catharsis of explosion or epiphany. It becomes more powerful because it never disperses.
Perhaps because they’re so very short and because they mostly sketch slight interior shifts in her characters, Nors’s stories all feel a little bashful, a little tender. Surely this is intentional. The unattributed epigraph of Wild Swims is “You can always withdraw a little bit further.” Most of her stories are too short to linger deeply in time or consciousness; the characters spin back into their silence almost as soon as they emerge on the page. Nors is a master at portraying female rage, but here there is also no violent explosion outward, instead a sort of inner collapse; her characters assiduously resist confronting their fury until it rises up against them and attacks their bodies. Sonja in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal goes to a masseuse who says that “something’s wandered from Sonja’s abdomen, up through her body. Anger, most likely. And it’s on the cusp of wanting to come out her mouth.” The nameless narrator of the second novella in So Much for That Winter, Days, who becomes inhabited by the spirit of the goddess Kali, feels “the fury drawing up from the floor through my body like a soundless roar…volcanic, huge, fragile.”
The sense of simultaneous, furious upwelling into text and retraction into shame or reticence gives the stories a powerful undercurrent, as if they were constantly wrestling with themselves. Inherently self-contradicting, they wobble interestingly on their axes, pulled between outraged individualism and the restrictive Janteloven.
Nors’s work in both Karate Chop and Wild Swims feel a bit more like fictional sketches than the deeply inhabited short stories that are most often lauded and anthologized and taught in creative writing programs in the United States. Her lineage is less along the lines of Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Yiyun Li—capacious, layered, economical, but complex prose—than of her contemporaries who write brilliant, tight, elliptical stories, like Lydia Davis or Diane Williams, whose work tends not to dwell too much on plot. But her closest predecessor may be Guy de Maupassant, who published short contes in newspapers later in his career. The French word conte is tricksy, even contradictory, but what I had always been taught is that contes are more anecdotal than conventional short stories, coming out of the tradition of oral tales and often devoted to a single theme. Following in this tradition, Nors’s stories each strike one strong emotional note.
For instance, in the unsettling “Mutual Destruction,” from Karate Chop, a man named Henrik watches his neighbor and hunting pal Morten move around his farmyard and thinks about their long-term pact to shoot each other’s dogs when it is time for the animals to die. The story ends like this:
[Henrik] had to take it in. Take a good look, because that’s how it was: there was something inside Morten that shunned the light. Something [Morten’s wife] Tina said was a kind of complex. He didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know what to say about it, other than that it smelled like offal, and that the smell was spreading.
As in the story “Honeysuckle,” the final and lingering note is one of unease, and it seems to infect the whole story, threading back through the characters and turning their friendship into something shadowy, something vaguely sinister. Nearly all of Nors’s stories end with this type of seeping dread. Take “Inside St. Paul’s,” from Wild Swims, when a man visits Lord Nelson’s tomb at St. Paul’s Cathedral and thinks about the distance that has grown between him and his wife over the years. At the end of the story,
he forms a gob of spit behind his teeth. He leans in to the boards, and then he spits. It’s a paltry gob and not exactly epic as it slides first down the plexiglass, then the marble. Nope, it’s not exactly epic.
The stink of offal, a non-epic spit; the stories hinge on such minor moments that one gets the sense that even the characters couldn’t explain how these events matter in their larger lives.
The way Nors’s short stories dissolve into ambiguity causes me to sit in discomfort with my own short story prejudices; the stories seem to gaze back at the reader coolly and with a little disdain. If there is a problem here, the problem is clearly not with the fiction, which is delicately wrought and patterned, but with a reader like me who may ask why Nors’s short stories feel as though they float off into the ether. Why do I feel disgruntled when things don’t really happen in short fiction, even though some of my favorite novels might seem solipsistic or passionately ingrown, à la Thomas Bernhard or Nicholson Baker, who write books in which little actually happens? Why, when reading short fiction, do I yearn for the tyranny of action?
I feel no such hunger for plot in So Much for That Winter or Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, even though not a lot happens in either. This may be because the greater scope of the novel and novellas allows for deeper immersion in the characters’ inner lives; possibly also because the books are consistently funny in ways that the short stories tend not to be. In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal one man is described “as if the hair he once had atop his head has slid down under his chin, where it now points toward his other male hair.” In Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, after spending a moment considering an irritating character who plays the harp, the narrator remarks that “harps are for fairies, angels, and the frigid.”
The climactic scene in this novella, the one where Minna almost drowns before dragging herself out of the Baltic Sea, is a spectacular bit of absurdist writing. After she falls on her head and sinks below the surface, time slows down; underwater, “Minna waves to the darkness. The darkness waves back.” Then she observes “a gestalt in the darkness,” which becomes a male figure who then turns into her father, and then “Minna’s legs fuse and articulate.” Minna, in drowning, is turning into a mermaid, recalling her many repeated visits at the beginning of the novella to the sculpture of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen Harbor, where she had once noticed that, being made of metal, “the mermaid cannot swim. The mermaid would sink to the bottom immediately.”
Similarly, Days is structured as a series of lists, replicating the way some depressed people make daily lists to drag themselves out of depression. At the end of one day’s list comes this delicious snap of imagery:
17. and decided that perhaps in time something good would happen. I do know that something will, I know it, like when you’re riding a train across Zealand in winter:
18. darkness darkness darkness darkness
19. and then suddenly a greenhouse crackling warm
20. in the middle of it all.
Nors’s fiction can be frustrating, as it is both evasive and about evasiveness. During the months I spent turning her books over in my head, I kept recalling something the critic David Orr said about Jorie Graham’s poetry, that it felt to him “as if she’s just noticed something interesting and motioned the reader over, only to stand in his light, blocking his view with her own viewing.” Nors’s ambiguity is always in service of characters who are obsessed with their own existential crises and, at the same time, terrified of them. When they edge too close to the source of their distress, they find relief in a kind of sharpened semaphoring of their anxiety, as though they were frantic to draw the reader’s eye away from the truth they were just about to show, the way a mother bird fakes a broken wing to lure a predator away from her tender new chicks.
And yet it’s a joy to be in the hands of a writer as funny and playful with form as Dorthe Nors is, a writer who trusts her readers to be adults, to figure it out, to make the connections themselves. In a strange coincidence, I did one of the last edits for this review in Copenhagen, a place of canals and herring-gray skies and cold wind off the North Sea. I rode a bike in the great streams of bicycle commuters in the slanted Monday morning light. By this, I mean that I was, for the moment, one small fish in a great silvery, darting school, guided along the streets by my fellow humans and kept well within the bounds of bicycle etiquette and traffic laws by the tiniest intimations of their disapproval, a cleared throat in the bike lane behind me, a bell rung emphatically on the left. Maybe all along I have been craving a little Janteloven in my life, a little less yelling and mayhem and bloodshed and daily, exhausting plot, a little more gentleness and watchfulness and humor. I became a Nors character in life the way I had so often become one of her characters while reading her work. For a long time, before the chill set in, it felt excellent.