Writers & Company·Nordic Imagination

From Hans Christian Andersen to hygge — Dorthe Nors on the Danish psyche

Dorthe Nors talks to Eleanor Wachtel about the virtues of solitude in Danish fiction.
Danish author Dorthe Nors explores the existential side of driving lessons in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. The novel was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. (Eleanor Wachtel/CBC/Graywolf Press)

In part three of Writers & Company's series Darkness and Light: The Nordic Imagination, Eleanor Wachtel travels to Copenhagen to talk to prominent Danish writer Dorthe Nors. 

Dorthe Nors is one of the most original voices in current Danish writing. Her fiction combines wit with acute observation, Danish minimalism with Nordic angst. Described as "beautiful, faceted and haunting," her short stories have been widely published, including in The New Yorker and collected in her acclaimed book, Karate Chop. Her latest novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, was a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. It's a complex story about a woman — a translator of Swedish noir — who's dealing with family, loneliness and learning how to drive. 

Nors was born in 1970 on the Jutland Peninsula and grew up in rural Denmark. She moved to Copenhagen in her 30s, but after seven years of city life, the silence of the countryside beckoned her back to Jutland — where she now lives near the North Sea.

The freedom to leave

"Getting a driver's license was a very existential experience for me. I learned to drive in Copenhagen when I was around 40 — so there is a similarity to Sonja, the protagonist of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Most Danes who moved from the rural areas in the 90s and went to Copenhagen never got a driver's license because a car is basically an obstacle. It's easier to take public transportation. That also means they are not free to choose where they live. This is one of the reasons why Sonja needs a driver's license — she wants to get out of Copenhagen and have a geographical emancipation.

"But it's also an existential thing. In order to be in command of your own being, you need to learn how to drive. You're normally completely in control of your identity and who you are — you run your own life and you pay your own bills — and then, suddenly, you have to deposit all your free will in the driving instructor. Depositing your free will in another human being is a real eye-opener to how not to live."

Being alone

"I live by the ocean, where you can't run away from things. There are no escape routes except those leading back to your house. But in a city you can always run away. It leads to loneliness because people are not connecting with each other — they're constantly on the run. But there is a difference between solitude and feeling very lonely. Solitude, or being on your own with something that is bigger than yourself — it could be the landscape, literature or music — is not a painful experience. That is where imagination comes from.

"But being disconnected from other people, not being able to have an intimate relationship, that's painful. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is about growing apart from people you love and not being able to communicate with them anymore. There are scenes in this book that describe how weirdly Sonja communicates with her sister. It's really painful when people you love don't understand what you're saying."

The tyranny of hygge

"Hygge is a very big export business. The side we are exporting is the superficial side — of knitted socks, the nice cups of cocoa by the fire and cuddling up in the winter. It's a combination of Denmark being a farm country and living in a cold climate. In reality, hygge is a social control system. Farm cultures are always nervous of intruders and people who are disturbing the balance of things — we don't want any conflicts. To talk about emotional problems and conflicts is considered 'spoiling the hygge.' That sometimes means you can't talk about problems. And of course, as a writer, I want to wreck the hygge."

Saying a lot with fewer words

"I wanted to look into the deepest abyss with eyes wide open and describe it as it was. So I found a kindred spirit in the Swedish literary tradition. The Danish tradition is more playful and naughty; the Swedish is more controlled. The Danes are very ironic and like to poke fun at things — and that's part of the Danish language. To find a combination between a love of Swedish content and the Danish playful form was difficult. That calls for good short prose.

"We Danes have Hans Christian Andersen, a modern writer. I love The Little Mermaid — it breaks my heart. He is really good at writing in a way that gets you not only to think, but to feel something. This is how we write, this is how we make furniture — we make it simple and playful, but delicate. That's a match made in heaven for me."

Dorthe Nors's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: Sønderho Bridal Trilogy Part II, arranged and performed by the Danish String Quartet.

Eleanor Wachtel's photos from Copenhagen