So Much For That Winter by Dorthe Nors contains two novellas with lead characters who share a similar motivation: getting through. Both stories trace loss, focusing not on the stun, but on the abyss that follows. They dwell in the days of slogging, with the inhabitants pacing through, waiting for sleep. After the book’s brief 160 pages, I felt wrung-out, yet invigorated.
The narrative architecture Nors uses here is a shift from that in her collection of stories Karate Chop, which, while extraordinary, is made of pieces that look familiar on the page. Instead this pair of novellas bends away from that structure, using form to further evoke that waiting-it-out vibe. You know this well—we all do: Will this day ever end, and if it does, will the next one be worse?
“Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” is assembled from slim sentences, stripped-down, sharp, and sarcastic. They flow in a nearly uninterrupted stream, a sort of ticker-tape of misery. They are about Minna, but also about Lars, who is gone. Minna, a musician, longed for a place to practice her musical compositions, while it turns out, Lars longed for another. The story has a forward trajectory, yet it feels more like a piling up.
Minna takes herself quite seriously, thinks a lot about Facebook, and is writing a paper sonata, which is a score without sounds. The reader is cued to be suspiscious of her drama, her artistic mission, as well as her opinions of her replacement. But still, no one deserves to be broken up with by text, which is exactly what Lars has done.
Minna has gotten Lars to elaborate on his text.
Lars wrote, But I’m not really in love with you.
Lars has always understood how to cut to the chase.
Minna can’t wring any more out of him.
Lars is a wall.
Meanwhile, her family and friends have the nerve to continue with their smug little lives. Minna’s critiques are both bitter and hilarious. Minna observes Lars’ new girlfriend (“Linda’s a cannonball in jacket and skirt”), deals with her mother (“Minna promises to look at Mom’s blog”), and tolerates her overwound sister:
Elisabeth’s into Arurvedic medicine. …
Elisabeth is fire, Elisabeth says.
No one’s surprised.
Elisabeth’s been to the Bookstore of the Unknown.
The pacing and voice in “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” are exactly what I would want from a Danish, lousily-dumped conceptual musician. Smart, dark, snide (but perfect), and funny in a way that is funny only to those of us who’ve been accused of being smart, dark and snide. Minna revels in her wretchedness; it’s hard to tell if she actually wants to be happy, as sadness provides much more meat.
The second novella’s title, “Days,” directs the reader how to take on the work. It is a journal—yech, no, not that exactly—rather, an accounting of time spent. This narrator’s list-making practice investigates the interminable time when we are so hobbled by aloneness that getting out of the house is an insurmountable feat.
The first page sets the problem up:
1. So much for that winter,
2. I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;
3. They lay on the ground
4. and I was in doubt. …
9. yet I stayed where I was …
15. and lay down on the bed.
Each segment is a poem with the same premise, but with a renewed potential. Patterns emerge: feeling at odds with the masses, running, visits to the cemetery, a certain distant reflection. There are steps forward and back, as is the way these things go. The entries become less concrete and more lyric. The days are lovely in their thick sadness.
The narrator takes the walking cure:
2. Thought about scabs and chamomile tea.
3. Couldn’t make myself clear on the phone.
4. Couldn’t stand other people, so I went out among
d them, and I walked past thousands but saw not one. …
10. Remained prone when the drizzle started,
11. Remained prone until I could tell I was cold, …
15. and didn’t want to go home, just to keep walking with
d the conviction that, if you keep walking, you’ll come
d to a day when you’re happy once more.
Each substory or “day” has its own arc, and each line within holds its own poetic weight. Because the list-writer/narrator is not named (yet there are clues), it is easy to slip into the narrator’s mind and psyche. At times, some lines are so saturated that it’s difficult to carry on without a breath, and at other times, I wanted to flip ahead, to find hope for this speaker (and therefore, myself). This novella is not to be confused with a booklet of aphorisms or some twee list forwarded from a well-meaning relative. It is instead, a side-angled process piece. Fictive or not, it was impossible to read this work without feeling askew, but also, somehow, twinned.
13. Made a note to myself: there’s the reality that the others
d keep an eye on, and next to it is my own.