I think that writers who don’t deal with those personal things, those demons, are a little cheap. That’s the problem with minimalist writing sometimes. It doesn’t have the content beneath it. —Dorthe Nors
So Much for That Winter
Trans. Misha Hoekstra
Graywolf Press, 2016
160 pages, $15.00
I. So Much for That Winter comprises two novellas, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days” by the Danish author Dorthe Nors. In the first, she employs simple sentences (as rendered in the translation) that often begin with the first name of the main character, Minna, or someone she knows. “Days” is the diary of an unnamed female narrator with most quotidian details left aside. In both works there is inventiveness and emotion, angst and loss, puzzles and minor epiphanies.
Nors is the author of novels, as well, and a breakout collection of short stories, Karate Chop (Graywolf, 2014), that introduced North American audiences to her. In his review of Karate Chop and Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (Pushkin) in the Guardian, John Self declared:
For those whose attention span has been shot to pieces by social media, parenthood and other excuses, who struggle to read even a 20-page story in one sweep: this is the book for us. Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, contains 15 stories in 82 pages. The stories don’t feel minimalist – they’re full of life and ripe with death – but they’re brief because there is no fat on them. This makes them moreish, and if you don’t like one, there will be another along in a minute.
Similarly, these two novellas occupy a small amount of space and are, at the same time, big with themes and passion.
In “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” the sentences are quite short, offering minimal background information oscillating between two topics: Minna’s broken heart, and her need for a place to practice her music. Everything is given in lists of sentences. Here is passage where Minna is with her older, domineering sister:
It’s a miracle.
Elisabeth’s visiting Minna’s apartment.
Elisabeth stands in the middle of the living room.
Elisabeth’s in stocking feet.
The face as hard as enamel.
Elisabeth’s rage is family legend.
The examples are legion:
Elisabeth removes bikes in Potato Row.
Nothing may shade the house.
Nothing may destroy the harmony of the façade.
Elisabeth doesn’t move the bikes a couple yards.
Elisabeth walks around to other streets with the bikes.
No one should think they’re safe.
Elisabeth threatens people with lawsuits and
(An unpredictable force, Elisabeth brings into the novella a crackling energy. Perhaps we’re meant to see that she robbed Minna of her share of verve and iron control by coming first into the world by ten years—but what a burglary gone wrong! The contrast between the sisters on this level does not obscure their kinship when it comes to single-mindedness.)
There are at least two things one can draw from this sample. First, the presentation calls to mind works by, to choose two writers, Édouard Levé (if he had separated his sentences and cared about plot) and David Markson (with his index card notes). Each effectively compiled lists or banal utterances to get across the content of a narrator’s mind. (One can say that in the case of the Ten Commandments both a religion and a culture’s concerns are codified with the same succinctness.) These previous works are mentioned to avoid the risk of claiming too much for Nors’ work, and not to take away from the arrangement of the material.
Second, that focus on this and then this moment in Minna’s life (and that of the few others who make an appearance), each thought separated by space at the end of a line, allows for the kind of breathing associated with mindfulness, albeit a mindfulness more evident on the part of Nors than her unhappy character who, as each page shows, goes from mood to mood as she urinates (defecation occurs often), sweats, cries, unfriends people on social media, indulges in self-pity, resents hearing about the sex lives of her female friends and her former boyfriend, and reads, aghast, her mother’s blog that “is more intimate than Mom’s Christmas letter to the family.” Minna is regularly nonplused by what people do and the confidences they want to share. Though she has friends, she is a lonely woman, and alone as a composer (“Paper sonatas don’t write themselves”). Her sole source of male company is represented by the written works of a film-maker, though this relationship is one-sided and a source of frustration:
Ingmar Bergman opens up for her.
Bergman’s wearing the beret.
Bergman’s gaze peers deep into Minna.
Bergman wants to get in under Minna’s persona.
Minna’s persona attempts to make way for him.
Minna wants Bergman all the way inside…
Bergman’s words don’t work.
Minna’s lower lip quivers.
Minna whispers, I used to sing.
Always around, more insistent at some times than others, is the requirement for a room of Minna’s own where her music can open up. This is both a ‘real-world’ requirement demanded by the fiction, and emblematic of how the lead character is going through something that, one suspects, she has done before—breakup and recovery—but that hurts more keenly than past experience. Rehearsals help us learn something by heart. What is Minna supposed to learn that she hasn’t yet? Often in her thoughts is her father, who spent a lot of time with Minna and taught her many things. This male figure, the template for the kind of partner she’s looking for—though never fully described, we gather he provided support, kindness, and love—is present and absent (much like the idea of the rehearsal space), and someone like Lars will come up short of the mark. When Minna does find her room and her voice—and it would be a spoiler to describe that episode—the threads of this intimate novella come together.
In the TLS, Alison Kelly described “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” as experimental and almost a “verse novel,” while at the same time charging Nors with choosing a form that resisted letting out the emotions; in her phrase, “[d]espite this somewhat self-conscious format, rather than thanks to it, the novella offers poignant insights into rejection…” This misses a point, I believe. The intimations we get of the future—a throwaway line from early on resounds in the last pages—and the palpable emotions would come off as melodramatic if not restrained by the form Nors has chosen. We can see her awareness of the restriction in the imagery of Minna singing at the top of her voice when out alone on a spit of rocks. She can only feel unconfined when far away from everyone else, but she rarely feels such release. We can sympathize with her quest for the right space and can join in when she “doesn’t pull her punches” in the freedom she discovers. Or to put it another way, escaping from the normal modes of writing allows Nors to let out Minna’s thoughts and feelings.
“Days” also stays in the world of one female narrator, and while the sentences are longer Nors has kept to a form that limits what can be said. List follows list, ranging from 11 to 22 items. Here is the opening:
1. So much for that winter,
2. I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;
3. they lay down on the ground
4. and I was in doubt.
5. Chewed out an entire school because a single sentence bugged me
6. and drank my hot chocolate, sweet/bitter.
8. considered traveling somewhere I never imagined I’d find myself
9. yet stayed where I was
10. and banged on my neighbor’s wall,
11. was in doubt, but sure,
12. was insecure,
13. stood still by the window,
14. let my gaze move from running shoes to wool socks
15. and lay down on the bed.
These lists, resembling what’s found on the Internet, rarely concern themselves with people, though a former lover and her parents do make appearances. News stories and mundane parts of a day largely are left out. Instead, poetic insights, pregnant images, and flashes of emotions are recorded, with emphasis added through italicization. We learn of the narrator’s desire to change from the person she was, involved with a man in some way, to something else with “gills, paws, antennae.” She is caught in her life, bicycling and jogging, translating books, or crying. Shifts from speculation to personal philosophy to optimism, in a wry humour at times, are registered, as here:
3. went for a run through Søndermarken and through the cemeteries, for now it is spring, and it’s tough to be happy on schedule, and rarely does anyone get what they deserve, yet now it is spring.
4. Took notes that later might prove useful, and everything’s dicey, but quiet.
5. Thought of the people you’re allowed to like, the ones you’re not allowed to, and the ones you really do anyway but never mention a word about.
6. Gave my secrets a good going-over.
7. and I haven’t given up hope, I still believe that things can open and become soft and alive, German bunkers, Berlin walls, abandoned abattoirs, it’s only a question of time and it’s all well in the end, I thought in line at the grocer’s…
The “art of loving in the right way” is a theme of “Days,” and however far the entries might seem to stray from that topic it rises up, often exposing the rage that lies just under the surface of the narrator’s entries. She can feel possessed by Kali, goddess of creation and destruction: “Felt the fury drawing up from the floor through my body like a soundless roar…” and this can be provoked by a simple act. Eating an ice cream cone leads into a fight for her own individualized way of thinking about life: “for people who don’t know how I feel should stop feeling for me, and if they can’t think my thoughts to their conclusion, they should think about something else, maybe they should think about their own lives, and when they think about them, they should ask themselves if their lives make more sense…”
Each list shows the narrator in a different light, and while we see facets rather than a rounded picture, nevertheless, patterns and concerns recur, while others appear at random, true to any list we might want to compile about ourselves. “Agreed with myself never to wear a large hat, not even if I could use some class” shares with note 6 above both humour and self-questioning, this time on a more superficial level. Who does the narrator want to impress, or not impress, through the acquisition of class? In the same list, commenting on pigeons mating, she says: “…those of us over here in our segment know that nothing done is undone… and that you have to take the consequence.” Mating has meant more to her than the animal act, we glean, and this reveals a tiny bit about her past relationship, but what is more intriguing is the word “segment.” Like finding herself lacking in class—and therefore in some other, lower category—segment separates her (and many others, though perhaps not all) from the non-human animal world. There is pain under the words “nothing done is undone” and the “consequence” of those actions, whereas the pigeons’ biological function is uncomplicated by feeling. We are left to wonder if she envies them. As the entries continue there are shifts, improvements in mood, regressions, losses and gains, and a small measure of peace at the conclusion.
As with “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” this work is far from disconnected—the lists are as plot-driven as traditionalists might want—and one can view both works as fictions made up of fragments. S.D. Chrostowska’s philosophical novel Matches (2015), itself a fragmentary work, offers a useful interpretation:
The aphorism, the romantic fragment, the sketch, the kleines Stück, and a host of other diminutive artistic forms share a resistance to the spirit of system, whether the latter unfolds primarily in time, as it does for instance in music or literature… or in space, as in visual representation… The freedom of art is best exercised, best “captured,” in small pieces; they let us come and go at will, without a key or address. They require no submission to creative force, no suspension of judgment or disbelief. Rarely do they define the artist who produced them. In a society that rewards consistency and individualism, they assume the character of common property, if not its form, without (for this very reason) becoming common.
That “freedom of art” sits alongside Self’s words from the opening of this review: “For those whose attention span has been shot to pieces by social media…” Yet Nors packs much into her telegraphic works; readers are given what’s required, but not in a mingy fashion when it comes to style or emotion.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Dorthe Nors expresses a definite position on what, for her, writing should offer:
I think that writers who don’t deal with those personal things, those demons, are a little cheap. That’s the problem with minimalist writing sometimes. It doesn’t have the content beneath it. Some minimalist writers, they want to have the literary language, but they don’t want to have the passion or they don’t want to risk too much. That kind of writing is cheap. It doesn’t dare to stand out there naked. When I see that kind of writing, I always wonder, as a reader, Am I not worth it? Why don’t you want to give me any of your skin?
What a very provocative last question. “Skin in the game” is the overused demand of personal investment (does it replace asking for a pound of flesh?). While the novellas that make up So Much for That Winter may look slight, they contain despair, grief, family conflicts, aesthetic pursuits, and the mundane; the two narrators are present, flesh, bone, heart, and spirit.
Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author the novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East
- Alison Kelly, “How nature acts,” Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 2015, No. 5847, 20.↵