She’s a deceptively spare kind of writer, is Dorthe Nors. Karate Chop, her brisk and highly acclaimed collection of short stories, was composed of 15 lacerating vignettes spread over just 82 pages. Her “novel in headlines”, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, charted the fortunes of its titular heroine by using nothing other than single-sentence social media updates.
This brevity should not be mistaken for lack of substance. As Dors — whose Mirror, Shoulder, Signal chronicled a woman’s psychological efforts to escape the pull of her past and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017 — has remarked: “I write minimalism that is under attack from within. There’s always something bursting out of this very tight structure. It’s like an elephant in a very cool Danish chair.”
In Wild Swims, Nors’s latest collection of short fiction, ably translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra, the elephant in the chair is the theme of human connection — its difficulties, its importance and its involvement with our recurrent intimations of memory, loss and love.
The book opens with “In a Deer Stand” and an image of a 47-year-old man, 80 miles from home, damp and frozen on a deserted dirt track. Troubled by an injured ankle and searching the night sky for signs of life, he thinks mournfully of his wife (whom he suspects has dishonestly told the authorities that he has left home in a fit of depression) and of the destructive nature of their marriage. He is granted no resolution.
But Nors is not interested in resolutions. Her stories eddy rather than build, unfurling in multiple directions at once. Nothing happens. Everything happens. Often in a singularly resonant way. In the magnificently troubling “By Sydvest Station”, we join Kirsten and Lina as they move through a neighbourhood, fraudulently collecting donations for a cancer charity while Lina (as we know but Kirsten does not) is suffering from a terminal condition herself.
In “The Fairground”, a harrowing consideration of the lineaments of romantic trauma, we encounter a woman who spends her evenings gazing at an empty amusement park, wondering if loneliness might be the inevitable condition of intimacy. And in Nors’s wonderfully elegiac title story we are introduced to the reflections of a woman who, while visiting Kastellet fort in Copenhagen, remembers wild swims with a childhood friend who once saved her from being dragged out to sea, and from whom she is now many miles and a lifetime away.
If this gives the impression that Nors’s stories are lenten or whimsical (or both), it shouldn’t. At their best they are sharp, affecting, splendidly atmospheric, sometimes funny (a wedding photo shows “she in white, he in something resembling an iron lung”). They are also brilliantly written. Nors’s conjunction of tenuously related clauses (“Her heart, it’s got a flutter, or something in there is pressing, and on one of her first evenings she met up with a colleague”) elegantly captures the strange workings of associative cognition, while her characters’ ostensibly workaday thoughts are transformed into glistening gems of fecundity.
There are infelicities. Nors occasionally uses bloodless phrases like “went to the dogs” and “stifling heat” (casualties, perhaps, of translation), and her predilection for gnomically portentous endings can feel formulaic. But these are minor complaints. Wild Swims is an enchanting work whose brief, almost fugitive stories achieve multitudes in a gesture. Maximalism does not require copiousness. Just look at the elephant in its chair.
Wild Swims, by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra, Pushkin Press, RRP£9.99, 128 pages
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