- The Danish writer Dorthe Nors decided to leave Copenhagen for Jutland, and she’s having a wild time: “Just about the time that I seriously began to consider moving from Copenhagen, the first wolf was sighted in Jutland. Big commotion! Wolves had been wiped out a couple of centuries previous, and suddenly: ‘a wolf in Jutland!’ Interest groups sprouted up that felt the wolf should be shot. A wolf-free Denmark, they said. Out trickled tales that seemed to have come from the Brothers Grimm. Letters fired off to editors screamed, ‘The wolf is coming, the wolf is coming!’ People said they were afraid that the wolf would approach their houses, would snatch their children. ‘But Jutland is a big place,’ said others, who knew that the most dangerous wolf is the one that lurks in our minds. ‘Let’s welcome the wolf back.’ The debate was heated.”
- Vinson Cunningham has been staring at a lot of ugly things—and reading Gretchen Henderson’s new Ugliness: A Cultural History. The role of ugliness in our culture is changing, he writes: “I can’t remember the last time I heard one person call another person ugly. Art: sure. But when it comes to other human beings, we seem to have invested almost totally in metaphoric deployments of the word: ‘ugly’ now describes degrading items like the steadily worsening rhetoric of Donald Trump; or, simply, sinful behavior, as in: ‘God don’t like ugly.’ This may seem like progress, but it could also be regarded as a kind of absurd end state for Aristotelian thinking. No longer does the outward merely track the inward: by an almost forgotten transitive process, the two have become one. And so, today, ugly means evil, and the philosopher’s conflation is complete.”
- Today in the quest for utopia: pause to remember Paul Scheerbart (discussed previously on the Daily), a German writer whose work was animated by “unfashionable, childlike hopefulness”: “Scheerbart often reads like an apocalyptic mystic out of the Middle Ages who was somehow transported to the age of railroads and telegraphs. He returns again and again to the idea that existence—our own, or those of aliens on other planets—can be transformed into a paradise inhabited by beings who are like gods … Yet the agency of earthly renewal, in Scheerbart’s work, is not divine—at least, not directly. It is, rather, the power of human ingenuity, operating with hitherto unimaginable tools and techniques, that will literally remake the face of the earth.”
- A new exhibition, “Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado,” gives a sumptuous public presentation to paintings that were once strictly a private affair: “During the culturally repressive late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spanish kings often secreted away their nude paintings in rooms known as ‘salas reservadas,’ where they could enjoy them in private … ‘These types of paintings were considered anathema,’ said Kathleen Morris … ‘The royals, the kings and their entourage found a way around the idea that they were not considered to be appropriate.’ ”
- If I know you, you’ve been living in your little bubble, completely ignoring South Korean abstract art. Well, it’s time to stop ignoring South Korean abstract art, says Barry Schwabsky, who has paid attention while the rest of us distracted ourselves: “One attraction is that ready-made label: tansaekhwa (sometimes rendered dansaekhwa). The word means ‘monochrome painting,’ but it’s usually translated as ‘Korean monochrome painting’ to distinguish it within the genre that came into existence in Russia when Malevich painted his white-on-white canvas in 1918 … Tansaekhwa deserves the attention of anyone with a genuine interest in painting, in part because it originated in a deep ambivalence about painting. In South Korea, education in painting runs on two separate tracks: ‘Oriental’ (ink) and ‘Western’ (oil). The tansaekhwa artists, born and partly educated in the prewar period of Japanese occupation, may not have been trained under this system, but it’s worth considering their work not so much as a synthesis of these supposedly separate Asian and Euro-American strands, but in opposition to both—as well as in opposition to the very dichotomy between them.”
How an irritable Danish author left an enduring mark on the national character.
Your modern-day Dane is not what you would call a God-fearing creature. The Danish church, though never formally separated from the state (as happened in Sweden), plays an ever-diminishing role in the lives of the vast majority of Danes, with Sunday attendance experiencing an apparently inexorable decline, divorce increasing, and church leaders gently shunted into the margins of the popular discourse. You would imagine, then, that the teachings of Martin Luther would hold little currency in Danish society today, yet many of the core principles of Lutheranism—parsimony, modesty, disapproval of individualism or elitism—still define the manner in which the Danes behave toward one another and view the rest of the world, thanks in part to the enduring influence of an improbable literary figure.
Aksel Nielsen was a sensitive and sickly child who grew into a weak and stunted young adult. The son of a smith, he was born in 1899 in the somnolent North Jutland town of Nykøbing on the island of Mors. He received a rudimentary education at the local school until 1916, when, at the age of seventeen, he went to sea on a schooner bound for Newfoundland.
This was the first of many flights from reality upon which the bookish Aksel would embark during his life: the next came just a few weeks later on the other side of the Atlantic, where he jumped ship. But, with the world now at war, Nielsen’s habit of scribbling secretively in his notebooks late at night in his bunk bed, combined with his strange accent, aroused suspicion in Canada. His workmates began to think he might be a German spy. Once again he fled, this time back to Denmark, via Spain, working to pay his passage on a ship. Read More
This month marks the release of Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop, the Danish author’s first work to be translated into English and her only collection of short stories. Karate Chop is a small, dark collection. It consists of fifteen stories, most only a few pages long. Nors’s work often sounds like a parable relayed by one of the wryer, more fatalistic disciples, the one who doesn’t particularly care about our moral edification. But beneath the droll delivery, there tends to be a quiet heartbreak. In Karate Chop, parents disappoint, animals suffer, and certain boyfriends or husbands simply need killing. That heartbreak seems to belong as much to Nors as to her characters. We’re left with the impression that she would spare her creations all the sordid hurt and discord if the world were somehow different or she were a little less clear-eyed. Things as they are, she can only encourage them to laugh off what they can, to bear the rest, and to remember that certain dark corners of the world are “vast and beautiful and desolate.”
I spoke with Nors on her final day in the U.S. following the book’s launch. She is warm and confiding and possessed of a Northern European glamour that favors dark sweaters and disdains what most New Yorkers would consider a major and ongoing snowstorm. Throughout the hour we spent together, she drank trucker-strength coffee and held her chin in her hand. She told me about bucking tradition with new forms, the finer points of Danish comedy, and how life finds a way of slashing us all.
After four novels, it’s a short story collection—your first—giving you a breakthrough into the U.S. market. Why do you think that form did it?
Without me realizing it, I found that the short story—this compact, intensive way of writing—suited my voice. The short story isn’t really part of our tradition in Denmark. This is the country of Hans Christian Anderson and Karen Blixen, but for some reason there’s this sense that we don’t want to dirty our hands with the short story. That’s why it’s such a blessing that this is happening for me in America, where there’s such a strong tradition for the form. I feel like I’m presenting my work to a nation without having to explain what I’m doing.
How did you first step outside that tradition and decide to give the short story a try?
I always thought that writing short stories would be too difficult, but I knew this teacher who worked with at-risk teenagers and he asked me to come write a story about his class. So I spent some time with these kids and cooked something up. Afterward, the teacher assembled the entire school to hear me read this story, and when I was done, the kids were actually cheering. They could see themselves in it and they loved it. That experience boosted my confidence. Read More