“Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alliteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.” This line might sound like a writer’s earnest musings, written longhand in a journal, but the character who voices the sentiment is in fact responding to a massage therapist’s frank assessment of her buttocks: “hard,” because, as the therapist puts it, “you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight-fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?”
The buttocks in question belong to Sonja, a translator of gruesome crime novels, an aspiring licensed driver, and the woman at the heart of Dorthe Nors’s sharp, funny, brooding new novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, out in June from Graywolf Press. The juxtaposition of light humor and profound insight is a common feature of Nors’s work. A Danish writer, she has published two other books in the U.S.: Karate Chop, a collection of fifteen stories that average a few pages in length; and So Much for That Winter, a set of two experimental novellas about women “on the brink of disappearing.” The arrival of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, longlisted last year for the Man Booker International Prize, establishes Nors as a writer of rare formal range. Consistent in all of her books is a wry, playful voice that makes the darkness lurking under the surface (and sometimes very much above it) all the more unsettling.
Nors and I spoke on the phone about, among other things, the place of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal in her larger body of work; the split identities of those who leave home; and the difference between mathematics and literature.
Yale Literary Magazine: Your last book published in the U.S., So Much for That Winter, begins with the novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. I felt that there was a certain kinship between Minna and Sonja, the protagonist of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Did you see the works as taking on similar questions?
Dorthe Nors: They didn’t feel like writing the same story, but all writers will have books that are connected in the things that they investigate. In these two, I guess there is a way of looking at life when you’re not that young anymore. That’s part of it. But I see them as very, very independent pieces. First of all, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space was driven by a conceptual need to play. It’s the most playful thing I ever wrote, and I had so much fun writing it because I made these rules for myself, and I tried to play by them. It’s not that Mirror, Shoulder, Signal wasn’t fun to write, but writing novels is always a different experience from writing shorter pieces. It takes a lot of time, you have to have a different approach for characters to meet, and so on.
It’s interesting because in the short stories I always choose what gender I please. I mean the protagonist can be a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, black, white, whatever. In Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, I chose quite deliberately to have a woman, and that, of course, connects them. But basically, they’re still working on shedding a light on the same things, which are structures of time and existential structures, and people on the edge of losing themselves, or people at a crossroads. Those are the things that keep pulling me in.
YLM: Was it hard to go from writing stories, and then these formally inventive and playful novellas, back into longer works? Or had you been working on Mirror, Shoulder, Signal in the background?
DN: I always write one book at a time. I wouldn’t say that it was hard, but since the novel is the more classical form, there are more restrictions around it. Also, you have to stay with your character for maybe two, three years when you write a novel, sometimes even longer. With short stories, you can take a character that is pretty cruel and awful, and you don’t have to spend that much time with them. That’s the primary difference: when you write a novel you really have to choose a protagonist that you can endure hanging out with for a long time.
I think it’s incredibly important that writers change form now and then, exercise other sides of their language. This is how precision is born. So in order to keep my language and my perception sharp, I do change genres now and then. I just finished a short story collection here that will be out in Denmark in September.
YLM: I’m wondering what your earlier novels were like, because we haven’t been able to read them in English.
DN: My true voice was born with the book just before Karate Chop. The first two novels were thicker, they were longer, and they were very inspired by Swedish writers that I had studied at university. I do feel that I grew into my voice around the third book, and that it crystallized in Karate Chop. The problem with having these earlier works translated is that I don’t remember why I wrote them. [laughs] And I think age has not been kind to them, I don’t know. I haven’t read them for quite a while because I’ve been so focused on contemporary things. But who knows, maybe the third book would be translated one day.
YLM: I wanted to ask about Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and Days, and just your formal experimentation in general. Is that something that’s common in Denmark, or is there not really a big experimental scene?
DN: There is a big scene—well, “big.” Nothing is “big” in Denmark. We’re five million people who speak this language, so it’s hard to call it “big.” But there are some communities in the Danish literary scene that do work with short, short prose and experiments like that. Writing within a small culture sometimes results in a withdrawn style. When you primarily communicate with the others in the group it becomes a very coded kind of literature. I think the difference is that Days and Minna Needs Rehearsal Space have a strong awareness of the reader, that there is somebody listening. That might be a slight distance to what is going on some places in the Danish scene. But basically I think the Danes write novels, and experimental stuff—the same things you do.
YLM: Are there authors from Denmark that are being translated into English that you would recommend people check out?
DN: Kim Leine. He’s won big awards. He writes about Greenland and the Greenlandic history—pretty good, but it’s very different from what I write. It’s a very, very thick book, thick narrative. He’s out in the U.S.
I think there might be a book out next year by a writer called Naja Marie Aidt. She has a book that was translated in the U.S. called Baboon. She also wrote a book about losing her son, which is the best she’s written, I think. It will be out in the U.K., so therefore it probably will be out in the U.S. also. It’s called When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book.
YLM: Thinking about your own experience with translation, have there been any surprises with this most recent book?
DN: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal has been sold to twenty countries, and the really funny thing is that when the translator returns it to me it’s always with the same questions, no matter what the language. It’s the same complications. It could be a small word that troubles people. And in some countries, for instance some Slavic countries, you can’t be gender neutral in your verbs, which bothered me because I really like, in some texts, to leave the gender out of it. In some languages that is impossible.
YLM: You’ve spoken before about your dual national influences, with Swedish literature informing some of your subject matter, and then the Danish language being very playful. In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the chief distinction seems to me to be between city and country. I’m curious if those opposing forces have played a role in your life or in your writing at all.
DN: The answer to that is dual. I did come from the Danish countryside. I was born far away from urban life and personally knew that I had to leave because I had potential, as my teacher said, and I had to go to university, I had to go somewhere else. That leaves a damaging thing on your soul. Your identity is split between two places: the place you came from and love, but can’t return to; and the place you have to go, but don’t really belong to.
The other answer to that question is that right now in Denmark, this is a huge conflict, and I guess it is in Trump U.S.A., too. There are the urban people versus people outside, in the rural areas and the industrial areas, who are not benefiting from the same goods that people in the big cities are. And there is a very, very strong political conflict between the outsiders and the insiders. Very few Danish writers know both positions. Most Danish writers come from Copenhagen or live in the Copenhagen area. They just don’t know what’s out there—but I do. So I wanted to take it to that level. That is not the same as Sonja being a replica of myself— I don’t see her as an autobiographical character. But I donate knowledge to my characters. Otherwise they would be completely two-dimensional, and they would also be boring to read about if they did not have some general existential and political qualities that people would be able to mirror.
YLM: One thing I find so impressive about your prose in general—and I think it is part of that Danish tradition that you’ve talked about—but the playfulness and the understated language and the wry way of putting things. You have that on the one hand, but there’s always an earnest emotional core to everything you write. Is it hard to strike that balance, or does it come naturally to you?
DN: Well, I hope it comes naturally to me, because the day it doesn’t feel natural anymore, I’ve got to do something about it. When I said that I think that I found my voice around Karate Chop, that is what I found. I want people to feel that there is an abyss beneath the sentences, that there is something else, a void, a darkness, something that you’re not too certain about. I would say emotional presence is probably the way to put it—it sucks the reader in and allows them to be present with their emotions.
When I studied at university, I studied literature, and Swedish literature in particular. The approach to literature was that it only took place in our heads and that it was something that could be analyzed, that it was something that could be pulled apart and understood, and I hated it. I rose up against it, I hated it. Because I do think literature has to of course be smart and engage our minds and intellects, but it should also acknowledge that human beings are full of emotions and memories and things that they bring into the text. If there’s nothing to mirror that, the text dies. It becomes math. Math is boring. Literature shouldn’t be math.
YLM: I was noticing in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal you poke fun at that idea of textual analysis. Sonja says that her massage therapist Ellen’s way of “parsing other people’s bodies […] reminds her of her university classes in textual analysis. Everything’s supposed to mean something else.” I kept thinking of that line as the book went on, with Sonja’s positional vertigo—it seems like in some ways you’re encouraging us to think of it as a spiritual condition, but in other ways you’re making fun of the reader who looks too deeply at things. Was that deliberate?
DN: I’m not very deliberate. I’m very intuitive when I write. But at one point I must have found that very funny. Sometimes when I do readings people will raise their hand and ask about that spiritual condition with her dizziness, and then I go, “It’s a very common disorder. Will everybody here who has suffered from this kind of disorder raise their hands?” About twenty percent of the audience will raise their hands because they suffer from this. And I go, “Well, there goes your symbol.”
But of course I find it funny to describe a person who doesn’t know how to find direction in life as somebody who, every time she’s under pressure, flips over. So of course it is a metaphor for her existential situation. But it’s also something concrete. You have to give your characters some fun stuff to play with. Otherwise, they don’t live.
YLM: There’s such a physical comedy to your work, and often at these emotionally climactic points—like in Minna Needs Rehearsal Space when Minna slips on a rock, or Sonja falling over in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Are these moments meant to provide relief? How do you see them functioning in your work?
DN: When you work with this kind of precision that I like to work with, I find that I can have people laugh at the beginning, and then someone will cry because it’s so heartbreaking what’s going on. And also, engaging the smile in the reader will quite often mean that they accept the heartache that is also there. But I never plan it out. In my daily life I see stuff that is pretty heartbreaking now and then, and two minutes later it cracks me up completely, there was something about it that was just so stupid. I’m that kind of person.
YLM: I think a lot of people are.
DN: Yeah, and thank God you are. How are you going to survive life if you can’t laugh at it when it’s hard?
YLM: Another running commentary in this book is on crime fiction, specifically its dominance in the Danish literary scene and its often brutal depictions of violence against women. At the same time, in the book, it’s women like Sonja’s sister or Folke’s wife who are these authors’ biggest fans. Is that a real trend in Denmark, or is it exaggerated or imagined in this book?
DN: There is some good crime fiction, Nordic noir out there. But when money poured into the industry, which it did about ten, fifteen years ago, a lot of less good writers ran to the genre in order to make money, and that has not done anything good for the genre, if you ask me. One of the things that happens is that you have to overdo it for each book. It’s not enough to just kill a prostitute on page 20 anymore; now you have to do all sorts of crazy things with her body because you want to be more spectacular than in the last book. And that has turned into something that I just can’t endure, personally.
Why women read it, well, I guess we’re used to it. That’s the worst part. We’re used to reading about women getting raped. It’s part of the genre. That’s what drives it.
YLM: You’ve spoken before about how you feel that the Danish language is especially suited to the short form, but you’ve also said that there’s not really a tradition of the short story in Denmark. I was wondering if you had any ideas of why that might be.
DN: There has been a tradition of the short story in Denmark. I usually say, for instance, that Hans Christian Andersen wrote short-short. His stories—we call them fairy tales, but they were written in the 18th century, after modernity hit in, so they are pretty modern and therefore short stories. He’s the giant in that genre. Another very big short story writer we had was Karen Blixen, Seven Gothic Tales. And then there are some really, really good short story writers from the ’40s and ’50s who are not translated at all.
What happened in my youth, when I was studying and when I started writing, was that the Danish Writers Academy, which is a powerful small institution, tapped into a trend that said 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. So it was constantly degraded. My approach to it is that it is the hardest of all the genres, because if you’re not good at it you write really terrible stories.
But it has changed. After Karate Chop had that success, there have been a lot of short story collections in Denmark. It’s really interesting. Some of the writers who fifteen years ago, or ten years ago, would say to me that they would never touch the short story genre are now publishing short story collections. It has really changed, and that’s lovely.
—Introduction and Interview by Tom Cusano