I’m always interested in a book of great translated literature, particularly if it’s about a current obsession, in this case, Nordic countries. Wild Swims written by Dorthe Nors and translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra sucked me in right away. Nors, author of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, a finalist for the Man Booker International prize (as was Wild Swims by the way), So Much for That Winter; Karate Chop, and four other novels.
Her new collection of short stories, Wild Swims, published by Graywolf Press, is a gorgeous assortment of wild snowy places and fraught relationships and restlessness. It’s a mere 128 pages but it packs a punch. As the reader meanders through the 14 stories presented in the book, we get a sense of nordic philosophy and emotional realness.
Nors artfully captures moments into very, short stories, typically around four pages each, with nuance, humor, and some darkness thrown in for good measure. Her ability to create such a full, whole moment in such a condensed time frame, is one of the greatest strengths and joys of reading this collection.
The book spans borders with stories in Copenhagen, London, LA, and Minneapolis among others. In a favorite story of mine, a writer ends up in a remote cabin in the woods. With all the goodness of a restless, difficult creative person, the writer eventually befriends the mother of an ex-lover. Together they go on walks and horseback rides through the snowy landscape. There is a constant undertone of paranoia that works in contrast to the quietness of the woods the cabin is settled in.
In another story, a man and woman must contend with the strangeness of their relationship, and what seems like distaste for one another. In each story, there is a theme or idea that is in disagreement with the narrative arc (although these aren’t plot-driven stories in the least). Hygee is just one example of this. As the couple wrestles with a recent disagreement, and an unconventional way of meeting, they are trying to have a cosy evening together with coffee and cakes.
In Compaction Birds, a conservationist and bird lover visits a love interest only to find that she had forgotten about a party for an aunt she must attend. He is eventually pulled along in all its humor. The disastrous nature of this story lends itself perfectly for the tone that Nors uses, always managing to bring it back to the birds that the narrator loves.
Wild Swims is expansive despite its short page count. The restlessness that characters feel is paralleled for the reader in Nors craft choices. The back cover really says it best; “Nors offers a master class in concision and restraint in Wild Swims and a path to living life without either.