The notion that form should follow function is rarely so apparent in fiction as in the prose of Danish writer Dorthe Nors. Her first book available in English, 2014’s Karate Chop (adeptly translated by Martin Aitken), was a collection of stories so concise that their very brevity seemed to lobby for their substantiality. This second volume (masterfully translated by Misha Hoekstra) collects two novellas that use the conceit of their structures to question the reliability of structure itself.
The first and longer of the novellas, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” follows its eponymous protagonist as she attempts to rescue her happiness from the family, friends, and love interests that continually stifle it. Her reporter boyfriend Lars has just left her. He is infatuated, Minna fears, with Linda Lund, a former conservatory classmate of Minna’s who has had greater subsequent success in the music industry, due in no small part to her looks and charisma. Minna knows that “Minna can screw a reporter without getting her picture in the paper. Linda Lund just has to cross the street.” Unable to work in her apartment, where an irate neighbor bangs on her wall the instant she makes any noise, Minna is forced to compose at Copenhagen’s Royal Library, where she is working on a paper sonata: “Minna writes soundless music. Minna is a tad avant-garde. Minna has a tough time explaining the idea to people.”
Yet the Library keeps Minna too accessible to those individuals, strangers and friends both, who wish to force upon her comparisons to their own lives. Her friend Jette brings Minna coffee and discusses her many sexual conquests. Her friend Karin sends Minna long emails about her idyllic country life in Jutland. Minna’s sister and mother call to badger and worry. Beautiful students flaunt their youth. A conference of policemen flaunt their virility. Worst of all, Minna can too easily click and see Lars commenting on Linda’s Facebook wall. Minna wants children, wants love, wants independence, wants approval. She wants to find herself on the winning side of an interaction. When the city becomes too oppressive, she decides to take a holiday to Bornholm (with no company other than the prose of Ingmar Bergman, with whom she engages in an imaginary affair), though there are further indignities to be suffered on the Baltic island’s rocky shores.
The story is told as a series of one-sentence (or one-clause) paragraphs that drop like a rope ladder down the left margin of the page, each formatted as a frank, object-verb-subject declaration:
Bornholm waits in the sunshine.
Bus #5 swoops across the island.
Minna’s looking forward to seeing the landscape again.
Minna’s quickly disappointed.
Bornholm had more cliffs in her memory.
Bornholm was exotic, Swedish.
Bornholm seems abandoned now.
The effect is one of reading a children’s book (or perhaps a sheet of music), with discrete thoughts separated for maximum clarity. The irony is that Minna still has great trouble navigating her life, with people and problems managing to sneak up on her. The world eschews the order Minna thrusts upon it, undermining her schemes even as she lays them out on the page.
While “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” is funny and accessible, the second, shorter novella, “Days,” is a quieter, more introverted rumination on loss that doesn’t sweat its occasional inscrutability. As with the first novella, the format of “Days” is central to its meaning: each page (or pair of pages) is written as a numbered list, its sentences jotted down like thoughts in a journal. Lurching yet intricate, the numbered fragments are a mix of memories, descriptions, and epiphanies that could be read either as confessional diary entries or notes toward the narrator’s future work.
While the short lines in “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” create the illusion of clarity and organization, the lists in “Days” are employed to more disruptive ends, giving the reader the sense that he is working his way through a long poem. One page begins:
Woke an hour early,
made instant coffee,
stood by my kitchen window the same way I stood by my kitchen window when I lived on the island of Fanø and went down to the beach every day and crushed razor shells underfoot: Why do I live here? I’d wondered
and couldn’t have known that one day I would stand in a flat in Valby and look at the crooked tulips in the backyard and wonder the same thing.
What emerges is the life of an unnamed woman approaching middle age, a writer now living in Copenhagen after years spent in New York and the Danish Wadden Sea Islands, fumbling on in the absence of the man who broke up with her in a note the previous winter. She jogs around Copenhagen, often in the rain and often through cemeteries, arguing in her head with her erstwhile love and her own warring instincts. As spring turns to summer, the narrator attempts to outmaneuver her grief (to which she assigns the identity of Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction) and contemplates the inscriptions on gravestones. Sickness, seasons, age, ennui: every development seems to trend toward death.
The two novellas read very much as a pair. While the narrator of “Days” is not Minna, she shares with Minna the same fears of loneliness, the same bad luck with men, the same instinct to search for solace in the music of Brahms and the geography of Copenhagen. But what looks comic and plot-driven in the wide shot of “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” reads as melancholy and uncertain in “Days”. It’s as though when a person is forced to narrate her own life, without the paternalistic determinism of an author, the shape of her story is far less clear and, ultimately, far less assuring. And yet, with increased interiority, the specificity which Nors plays for laughs in the first novella becomes, in the second, a entryway to incredible intimacy, with the details of the narrator’s life blooming like spring perennials in a drab flat’s hidden garden.
Nors is a wholly unique voice in contemporary literature: a maximalist working within minimalist forms, hammering her prose into those shapes that will better amplify its power. The work suggests effortlessness and a lack of constraint, even as it hews to an almost skeletal simplicity. With these novellas, Nors replicates the modular nature of existence, line following line, day following day. Life presents us with a structure, yes, but one that contains variations, and it is in these moments of unexpected disruption that we may find the sustenance to keep us moving forward:
Chopped lettuce without cutting my finger
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:
darkness darkness darkness darkness
and then suddenly a greenhouse crackling warm
in the middle of it all.