Posts Tagged ‘dorthe nors’

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

March 23, 2017

Sonja is in her forties and learning to drive, a situation she finds both intimidating and awkward. This is the unprepossessing premise of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, translated, like Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, by Misha Hoekstra. In middle-age, Sonja finds herself alone and childless; her sister, Kate, won’t speak to her and her best friend, Molly, doesn’t understand her. Even her job is solitary: translating the crime novels of Gosta Svensson:

“All that flesh decomposing; the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil.”

(She also calls them “A crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots” – it seems Northe is not averse to poking fun at the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction). When Molly asks her why she doesn’t translate some other writer, she simply replies, “Free market forces.”

Learning to drive is an attempt to gain some control over her life, but to do this she must first relinquish control and “Sonja’s never liked being someone who has to be taken in hand and assisted.” Unfortunately her instructor, Jytte, is reluctant to return any of that control to her, dominating both the conversation and the gear-stick:

“Because Jytte’s got a lot on her mind she hasn’t had time to teach Sonja to shift for herself. Sonja’s been driving with Jytte for six months and she still fumbles with the gears. Jytte seizes the initiative and deals with it for her, since when Jytte deals with changing gears “

Sonja’s anxiety over not having control of her future can be best seen in repeated mentions of a fortune teller whose predictions she cannot, or perhaps refuses to, recall. Her attempt to change her own destiny can be seen in numerous ways. She accepts an invitation from her masseur, Ellen, to go on a ‘meditative hike’ in the country, but abandons the others over an inability to pee outdoors. She writes a letter to her sister, but doesn’t post it. She nurses the possibility of an affair with her new driving instructor, Folke, while not necessarily wanting one.

The nagging doubts which typify Sonja’s thoughts seem to originate, however, in a homesickness for the countryside where she grew up which she finds difficult to accept. Like many young people, she convinced herself that the only way to get on in life was to move to Copenhagen: “When we were driving across Funen, you said the Great Belt ferry would be ‘the point of no return.’” she tells her friend, Molly:

“And besides, who’d want to go back to Skjern anyhow?”

Yet her friendship with Molly is based entirely on their shared past:

“They came to a crossroads in their relationship years ago, but no one else in Copenhagen remembers them as they were before that. There’s no one else to nourish their roots.”

Sonja frequently remembers her childhood. Her happiest moments were alone in the rye:

“Sonja circles around in the rye like a field mouse. She’s made the path herself, and it took her some time. Above her, the sky is endless.”

These memories are echoed in her present day habit of spending time alone in a cemetery:

“Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there… The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a clever novel, built with precision around a series of ordinary events which resonate with unexpected anxiety. Northe has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ of middle-age women, and we sense Sonja’s efforts to make herself matter; this seems to be partly by accepting who she is rather than who others want her to be. Some may find it a little dry, but it builds to a moving conclusion. I suspect it will not make the short list as it will be seen as ‘minor’ – lacking the ‘depth’ required for a prize winner. Yet Sonja’s story will resonate with many readers.

Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

August 27, 2015

Karate Chop

At Edinburgh International Book Festival, Dorthe Nors spoke about the spaces she leaves in her stories. In the novella which comes with her first collection to be translated into English, ‘Minna Needs Rehearsal Space’ (translated by Misha Hoekstra), those spaces are visible on the page:

“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.”

In a series of short statements which abhor the pronoun and are suspicious of the conjunction, Nors tells Minna’s story, the story of a search for rehearsal space, which is also a search for love, and for herself. Each introductory statement can be seen as a rehearsal of her own character, couched in the format of an online dating profile. It is quickly apparent that her problems lie not only with obtaining a suitable rehearsal space, but with coming to terms with a deteriorating relationship. Though her boyfriend, Lars, is similarly represented, it is immediately clear that Minna’s perspective remains:

“Lars ought to help her but
Lars uses condoms.
Lars is on his bike and gone.
Lars is Lars.”

The final statement, particularly as it is repeated, is an example of how meaningful the meaningless can become in the hands of a skilled writer. Lars is drifting away from Minna (Lars vanishing on his bike is also a reoccurring event) and Minna is struggling to come to terms with this:

“Lars is a hit-and-run driver.
The hit-and-run driver has suffered at most a dented fender.”

Nors’ brevity does not mean she cannot alight on the perfect metaphor to describe Minna’s sense of the relationship ending. A style that might at first appear inevitably linked to superficial characterisation (however entertaining) in fact proves synonymous with complexity, the layering sentences creating an unexpected depth. Statements like “Minna isn’t shielded from anything” lie subtly between authorial omniscience and Minna’s interior monologue. Nors also moves deftly between the unembellished action and the surreal:

“Minna places her hands cross her eyes.
Minna feels something: Was that hair?
Minna slips out to the mirror.
Minna places her face against it, and there she is:
Minna with fur on her face.
Minna in a wild stampede.”

Later we are told “Minna’s fur is a metaphor,” but, importantly, it is not a symbol imposed upon her by the narrative, but an image which rises from her own subconscious to describe her sense of herself at that moment.

In reference to another story, ‘The Buddhist’, Nors spoke of how the story similarly turns inwards to the psychology of the protagonist and how he views himself. Before the Buddhist’s conversion he is a government official, but his new belief system requires a new occupation and leading the charity People to People seems ideal:

Aha, he thinks, an organisation is a good place to begin if you want to change the world.”

Throughout the story he is simply ‘the Buddhist’, another example of the narrative voice enforcing the character’s interior monologue while creating an ironic distance. It is as he drives in his ridiculous Berlingo (which he believes “signals inner values”) that the story verges into the surreal:

“The moment the wheels of the Berlingo touch the Lillebaelt Bridge, the grey metal of the Lillebaelt Bridge is transformed into a shining Bifrost arching across the strait and stretching into the sky. It is like a mirage and yet quite real.”

In fact it is, as Nors points out, either a delusion of the character or the author’s use of surrealism: importantly, we do not have to decide which. That it is the key to the story’s conclusion is what matters.

While such flights of fancy are not the norm in Nors stories, the use of something seemingly extraneous to the plot (or artificially creating it as ‘The Big Tomato’) to explore her characters’ inner lives is. Often this is used to open the story: the overheard remark from the television in ‘Do You Know Jussi?’; the comedian’s death in ‘The Winter Garden’; the duck farm in ‘Duckling.’ The final lines of ‘The Wadden Sea’ are indicative of her approach:

“Then she pointed into the fog. She pointed into it like it was a piece of psychology. She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.”

As with ‘Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space’, this gives her stories a depth that belies their brevity. Both the novella and the short story collection (which has a different translator, Martin Aitken, and was published alone in the US) suggest a writer of great talent; hopefully Nors’ novels will follow them into English.