Review: So Much for that Winter by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra

9781555977429
Cover courtesy of Graywolf press

So Much for that Winter is a collection of two novellas by Dorthe Nors, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days.” Both are about break-ups to varying extents, and both take highly lineated forms. Every sentence in “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” get its own line, with scarce use of pronouns or compound sentences, meaning most of the novella looks like this:

Minna introduces herself.
Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.

“Days”, on the other hand, often breaks sentences across multiple lines. It is made up of numbered lists, with each list composing one day, so it looks like this:

1. So much for that winter,
2. I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;
3. they lay down on the ground
4. and I was in doubt.

As I said, both novellas are about break-ups, but “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” is a little more explicitly about a break-up. Minna is a composer who is in love with Lars, and a few pages into the novella Lars dumps her via text. Also, Minna needs rehearsal space, and she was supposed to get a space through a friend of Lars’s, but that’s a no-go now. So Minna tries to go about her life, tries to get over Lars, tries to keep composing, and eventually goes on a vacation to Bornholm which takes up the last third or so of the story.

“Minna” is a very humorous novella, reveling in awkward encounters and embarrassing moments. It honestly reads a bit like chick lit, just in an unusual form—a form which does, in fact, accentuate its dry, pithy humor at times, while also allowing some more poignant, meditative moments at others. Overall I quite enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel a very strong connection to the main character. Maybe it’s the form, making even the most sincere moments seem a bit flip in their delivery. Or maybe it’s the pacing, the constant release of tension from each line break, each period, preventing total immersion. Or maybe I just don’t care that much about break-ups? I also found it strange (and this is kind of a problem with “Days” as well) that the main character appears to have no job. Is she really making a living off of her “paper sonatas”? It’s a touch odd, in a book focused on everyday life, that monetary concerns/financial anxiety basically never come up. Maybe that’s just how people are in Denmark, IDK.

Regardless, it’s a good read, and I’d probably talk more about it, but I feel like a lot of what it does well “Days” does even better, so let’s talk about “Days” now.

“Days” has hardly any plot at all. We get a few hints at the fact that our first-person narrator has been broken up with, but it’s not such a dominant theme as in “Minna.” Which is part of the glory of this novella, how committed it is to just keeping time, presenting one day after another. The only real progress in the story is the progress of time, the steady slide of late Spring into Summer. I suppose there’s also the sub plot of our narrator having tooth pains and needing dental work, but really the novella has as much plot as a series of vlogs might.

So then, what is this novella about? It’s about someone trying to be happy. It’s about someone continuing on with their life. It’s about someone continually telling themselves that it will all end well, eventually. It’s about being alive again and again and again. And it’s presented in numbered lists—though each item is not necessarily a single sentence. This frees up Nors a lot, allowing her to have moments of stark, simple declarations like in “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” as well as longer more stream-of-consciousness sections. Overall, the prose is much more vivid in “Days,” perhaps because the narrator is a writer? A translator? Anyway, it allows for some striking images, both concrete and metaphorical.

Through these lists, the novella presents big ideas and quotidian vignettes with equal weight, and in fact blurs the line between the two. When you’re going through something awful, or trying to lift your spirits, small moments, sights that you may pass by every day without even noticing them, suddenly take on new meaning (the fourth day, for example, begins, “Woke at the sound of my mirror falling down, and that cannot be good“). Or maybe the narrator is just desperate to make meaning out of what’s going on around her, to find signs that things will get better—she is constantly writing notes to herself, jotting down stray thoughts like “From her heart sprang the periphery of everything” and “I’m angry, and not everything is art”—which really captures the central juxtaposition of this piece. Big lofty thoughts alongside the necessary steps to continue life. At one point the narrator is in the Open Air Museum in Brede, and has this wonderful self-affirming moment which ends with her thinking “I want to exist,” and immediately this is followed with “Used a toilet in the section on early industrialization.”

That’s what provides a lot of the humor of this novella, which is, indeed, very humorous—and what keeps it from being cloying and self-helpy. It would be so easy for “Days” to just be a more poetic, imagistic rephrasing of tired clichés—it gets better, life goes on, chin up, etc. etc. But it’s not. Really, things don’t get “better” in any clear sense. The novella ends on a happy day, but there’s no solution to any of the narrator’s problems, she is not suddenly and permanently happy, because that’s not how life goes. So the book does have its sentimental moments—partly because sentimentality is a sort of coping mechanism for the narrator—but it is constantly butting up against the endless procession of waking, eating, sleeping, walking, using the toilet in the section on early industrialization.

My favorite quote from the novella is actually a haiku (I only realized it was one on rereading it, props to Hoekstra or Nors or whoever for actually working that out), and it could serve as both a thesis statement and a kind of embodiment of the whole novella:

“15. for there comes a day,
“16. and a day after that day,
“17. that’s the way days are.”

I love it because it begins sounding very gnomic—”for there comes a day”—setting up an expectation of a “when” phrase which will put the world in order and promise light to balance dark, but instead the sentence ends with this very pragmatic, blunt statement—”that’s the way days are.” Like, duh.

And ultimately that’s how the novella is. There comes a day, and then several more days, and then more days, and then a day, and then a day, and so on. Days. No false comfort, but no pessimism either. The most you can make of it is that one day will replace another, which I find a lot more heartening in its elegant honesty than any lofty cliché.

Full disclosure, I first read “Days” at a time when I was miserable. I was painfully lonely with no free time to spend with friends because school was working me to death. I was incredibly high-strung, I would flinch at loud noises, and it was a constant struggle to get myself to calm down for even a few moments. I had trouble enjoying things without worrying about all the work I still had to do, even writing didn’t make me feel any better. There were only a handful of things that I found truly rewarding at this time, and “Days” was one of them. Truly, if you are in a place where you’re struggling to be happy, getting over a break-up, generally miserable, I highly recommend “Days.” For me it spoke to a lot of what I was going through, and it did so in a way that was very easily readable (those lists make for fast reading), which mattered a lot given my diminished attention span and mental fatigue at the time. It didn’t make things better, but it did help make sense of things, and reminded me that I wasn’t alone in feeling horrible and small and incapable of being a functioning human, it reminded me that this miserable state was actually quite human.

That said, now I’ve reread it at a time when I’m generally content, and I still enjoyed it, I even appreciate it more now. I don’t know that the novella will resonate with everyone the way it has with me (again, the lack of any mention of monetary concerns feels bizarre), but I think it executes its concept phenomenally, and remains both honest and artful throughout. Immense credit is due to Misha Hoekstra for his translation. These novellas would not work without the clean, clear prose he achieves, the vitality of the diction, the musicality that rises at times—in stories with such an economy of words and sentences, Hoekstra’s task as translator was instrumental, and he’s done a superb job.

So I’d recommend So Much for that Winter, but I’d especially recommend “Days.” And come on, how can you not love that title?

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