Memo • Fiona Maazel • October 1, 2013
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Welcome, people, to the work of Dorthe Nors. I met Dorthe last summer on a residency in Denmark. I’d been told the Danes are the happiest people on earth—they rank highest in the World Database of Happiness [ed: actually, a close second; Costa Rica takes the happiness prize]—and that Danish writers, in particular, are not afflicted with the same malaise, gloom, and despair that seem to beset their peers worldwide. Imagine my delight, then, to find in Dorthe an utterly morbid (and thus entirely winning) sense of humor, and in her bearing the same deadpan intelligence and compassion that motors her work.
Dorthe has an illustrious career in Denmark, but only seven stories published in the United States. Happily, it takes only one story—and really just a paragraph—to note the excellence of this work in its unsentimental and forthright account of people slogging through their lives. As you can tell from “The Winter Garden” (APS 12), these stories are unapologetic. They are compact. They have no patience for conventions of scene—you never know what people look like and rarely how they talk—and caper through time with no regard for the sign posts that organize so much fiction as we know it. The next day. And then. In a Nors story, who knows where or when, and who cares. You are so busy being accosted, which is to say, philandered, by the novelty of voice that announces itself throughout this fiction, you don’t need anything else.
Consider one of my favorite stories, “Duckling,” in which the narrator sums up her father in about three pages.
“He was known for saying, whenever anyone brought something up that had already been discussed, that he thought all that had been put away in the right boxes. It didn’t matter whether it was me or my sister, a business acquaintance or just a neighbor he’d been talking politics with, he’d always say: I thought we’d got all that put away in the right boxes. He’d say it to Mom whenever anything came between them, just like he’d say it to his other women whenever they got distraught about him not wanting a divorce.”
What’s notable here is a condensation of sentiment and information that pretty much nails Dad to the cross. But equally notable is with how little affect or flourish the nailing gets done. These sentences underplay just about everything; they aren’t minimalist so much as sneaky, less big-cat predator, more silent killer. And yet, in “Duckling,” what follows are a series of memories about Dad that forgive and even celebrate his deficiencies. And so to the gist of what makes Nors’s fiction so good: she is a master of conjunction. The and that pops up throughout her prose and allows its emotional logic to accommodate nuance and complexity, to marry competing sentiments. From the same story:
“But he was fond of Mom. He couldn’t have lived without her, because men couldn’t, he said. Men had to have wives, and my sister and I still talk about how moved he was at their twenty-fifth anniversary. He’d already lost a lot of weight then and there he was making a speech for Mom and looking down at her. He said he’d be a goner without her, and we were so fond of him.”
So there’s the and that attaches Dad’s misogyny and egotism to his helplessness before them. There’s the and that yokes news of his illness (which comes as news to us readers) to what appears like humility—this sick man lauding his wife and looking down at her (a lesser writer, who cannot fathom the tryst between polar sentiments would have written but); and, finally, the coup de grace, this and that extends the moment well beyond anything we might have expected—and we were so fond of him. It’s hard to explain why this extension feels so remarkable. But it does. Perhaps it’s because these two halves of the sentence just don’t belong together; perhaps it’s because they do. Could be the progression of our narrator’s thoughts that seems so moving, the way sentiment can, without warning, upstage almost any moment (e.g. one second you’re chopping vegetables, the next you are sobbing for the horror of it all). But I don’t know. What I do know is that this prose is full of these moments—sad, surprising, memorable.
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Fiona Maazel is the author of the novels Last Last Chance (Picador) and Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press).
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