Miss Nors’ Sense of Sharp Edges

"There is a Scandinavian tradition in my writing that is evident in my use of darkness and the more existential structures ... combined with the particularly Danish aesthetic of cutting into to the bone, dismissing everything that is unnecessary and letting the form and precision carry the story."

The last time a Danish writer broke into the English-language literary world was in 1992, when Peter Høeg’s thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow became an international bestseller. While few Danes have managed to emulate Høeg’s success with English readers since, 44-year-old Dorthe Nors may just be Denmark’s next big literary export.

Nors’ collection of short stories Karate Chop (Kantslag in Danish) was translated and released in the US market in February to critical acclaim in The New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. When one of the short stories, The Heron was republished in The New Yorker last September last year, she secured the honour of being the first Dane to have short fiction published in that esteemed magazine.

But it did not stop there. Karate Chop was given a glowing review by Oprah Winfrey’s online magazine oprah.com, before being picked up by popular magazines Elle, Marie Claire and Vogue, where the praise continued. Back in northern Jutland, Dothe Nors couldn’t believe the attention. After several years in Copenhagen, she had returned to the mainland in order to live not far from her birthplace. Simply being a talented writer is no guarantee of success in the international market, so how did Nors do what so few of her predecessors had managed?

Unsettling normality
In her interview with The Murmur, she attempts an explanation.

“Since I was a teenager, I have had Americans in my life, so it has been natural to work with them. I have worked with the PEN organisation as well, and so I met American writers here and in New York. I had my first short story, “The Buddhist” from Karate Chop, printed in Boston Review back in 2009. Then in 2010, I was discovered by the important literary magazine A Public Space, based in Brooklyn. They started working with the publishing company Greywolf. So in short, I put it down to good texts, good translations and an enthusiastic American literary audience,” Nors says.

So what is Nors’ secret as a writer? How can she captivate people on a scale like this? It may be boiled down to a few words: the unsettling normality. A Los Angeles Times review suggests as much: “Nors illuminates an ominous world of disconnected people trying to make sense of their dislocation (…) Nors’ affectless, matter-of-fact storytelling (…) is the perfect complement to the low-wattage desperation and inertia her characters feel (…) Karate Chop is just like that: It loves you and wants to teach you, but it also wants to harm you.”

This is a perfect recipe for fiction that reaches out to both the literary establishment and voracious readers who demand quality rather than a backrub and empty calories. Nors captures her readers and gently guides them toward a new of understanding of the mysterious ways of the world and of people.

There may be nothing new under the sun, but all human beings contain mystery. Good writers in Nors’ field of fiction know that if there is any amount of truth to these statements, it lies in the balance between the two. It takes both a good stylist and a better-than-average understanding of and compassion for people and their strange ways to capture this.

While her work has international appeal, Nors argues that it is deeply embedded in her Nordic roots.

“There is a Scandinavian tradition in my writing that is evident in  my use of darkness and the more existential structures. In Karate Chop, I think it is combined with the particularly Danish aesthetic of cutting away to the bone, dismissing everything that is unnecessary and letting the form and precision carry the story. There is also the deep, mainly Swedish tradition, of stories with a heavy impact. And yes, I believe that Karate Chop has some kind of international appeal. You are allowed to smile while reading, and you are also allowed to cry. But preferably, you kind of wonder about things while reading.”

Basking in the limelight
But despite an awareness that she is drawing upon Scandinavian tradition – Danish form and Swedish impact – Nors admits that she does not read enough Danish literature to give more examples.

“I am more at home in the Swedish tradition. I think the so-called Danish minimalism is often about everyday life, but my short stories and short prose are not minimalistic – at least they are not regarded as such in the US – and actually not here in Denmark either. And then we are back to the Swedish tradition.”

Dorthe Nors published her first novel Soul in 1998. Despite a lack of critical success, it attracted readers who sensed that something was really at stake in a story about a tumultuous relationship between two young people. Her next two novels secured her a strong following before the publication of Karate Chop propelled her into the American literary limelight. Her success abroad fueled her domestic interest, which is a typically Danish phenomenon: international success stoking pride in the small country’s accomplishments.

Following the success of Karate Chop, two more novellas, Minna Needs Rehearsal Spaceand Days, are both being translated and will soon be published by Greywolf. She is also being translated into German, and the calendar on her website reveals that she is fully booked with readings and appearances in the US and Denmark this autumn and winter. So is there any time for writing now?

“I have been writing all summer, and with all this bustle I have rearranged my day. I am not online before noon, so I have quiet mornings where I write and think. But what I am working on is a secret. Books you talk about have a tendency not to get written.” M


By Flemming Andersen

Journalist, editor and communications consultant with his own company named Ordlyd.

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