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The City and the Writer: In Copenhagen with Dorthe Nors

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series/Copenhagen, Denmark 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Copenhagen as you feel/see it?

Just to keep it straight—I don’t actually live in Copenhagen anymore. I did live there for many years but I recently moved to Jutland, so everything I write in the following doesn’t come from looking out of the window; it comes from memory and everything that comes from memory is pretty unreliable. I love Copenhagen, though, and the basic mood of the city is laid back.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

One night I saw a boy around ten years old dragging his younger brother down the street. The younger brother was crying and screaming and the older one spotted me across the street: Could you please help me deal with him, Ma’am? He doesn’t wanna go home to Mom. The look in that boy’s eyes was so helpless. Then suddenly a man crossed the street and took over. I think he was their real dad and I walked away. I have carried those two boys with me in my heart ever since. Did I let them down? Yes, I think I did.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Tippen is a secret gem in the South Harbor of Copenhagen. It’s an old garbage dump. During the German occupation they drove the debris from the allied attacks on the Gestapo headquarters out there. Then they just let nature deal with it. And nature did! Ten minutes on bike from the inner city, and you find yourself in a strange and beautiful landscape by the water. Elder and roses blossoming. Swans and silence: All that beauty covering the rubbles of Gestapo. Hardly anyone in Copenhagen knows that Tippen exists. Now you know it.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Well, most of them won’t be translated into English but you should of course read Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen and Hans Christian Andersen (and you probably already have). You should also read the poet Inger Christensen. She died a couple of years ago without winning the Noble Prize, which I think she should have won. And of the younger—and living—generation, I do think you should read Yahya Hassan. He (literally) kicks ass.

Is there a place here you return to often?

When I go back to Copenhagen, and I do that often, I always try to fit in a walk in the Frederiksberg Gardens. I used to live close to the park and it’s had a huge impact on my daily life. And since it was where I met the heron that turned into the short story that was published in The New Yorker (“The Heron”), the place has also had a huge impact on my professional life. So Frederiksberg Gardens it is.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Danish beat poet Dan Turéll used to write about the street called Istedgade. Back in the 70s it was a rough street where all the prostitutes, pimps, hustlers, alcoholics, drug addicts and pocket thieves used to hang out. Dan Turéll wrote beautifully about them. It’s a long street, and the end that goes down to the railway station is still pretty depressing. The rest of the street has turned into a modern happy-hippie hipster hell (if you ask me). But on a good day you still get that Dan Turell “beat” from Istedgade.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Oh, there are many! Most tourists end up in Christiania. It’s a hippie city within the city. Occupied illegally in the 70s during the Danish Woodstock era, Christiania is still kind of a “state within the state” and it’s quite exotic. But personally, I enjoy taking a slow walk in Nyboder. Nyboder is a village built by King Christian the Fourth. His boatmen used to live there and it’s still like taking a stroll in the seventeenth century. And while you’re there—take a walk on the old defense system “Kastellet.” It’s so beautiful.

Where does passion live here?

Well, there’s the not-so-tasteful passion that takes place in the lower end of aforementioned Istedgade. And then there’s the more romantic kind. I guess the Tivoli Gardens is still a good place to take your darling on a spring date. The narrow medieval streets of the inner city are also full of passion. Small restaurants, dark alleys; a strong sense of being embraced and cuddled by the city—and hopefully by a lover.

What is the title of one of your works about Copenhagen and what inspired it exactly?

Most of my books take place in Copenhagen, actually. Some of my stories in Karate Chop and my most recent novel Minna Needs Rehearsal Space are for instance set in Cophenhagen. In Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, I was inspired by the channels and the quay at the Royal Library. There’s a mermaid sculpture there—and we’re not talking about the old and boring mermaid sculpture at Langelinie—no, we’re talking about a mermaid done by Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen. It’s feisty, it’s strong, it’s a woman!

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Copenhagen does an outside exist?”

I do think that most big cities are pretty self-absorbed and therefore somewhat provincial. Copenhagen is no exception. Outside Copenhagen is the Denmark regarded as the outskirts: the moors, the woods, the ocean, the farmland, the villages, the shorelines, the historical Denmark, the modern Denmark, the Denmark in decay, the Denmark rising and changing. The Denmark I was born in and the Denmark I have returned to: Jutland.

Dorthe Nors is the author of five novels, and the recipient of the Danish Arts Agency’s Three Year Grant for her “unusual and extraordinary talent.” Her stories have appeared in AGNI, A Public Space, Boston Review, Ecotone, and FENCE. Karate Chop is her first book to be published in English by Graywolf Press. 

All photographs of Copenhagen in the Special City Series/Copenhagen, Denmark 2015 running January/February 2015 are by the Danish photographer Mathias Olander. His work explores the urban outskirts of the Danish capital. See more: Instagram: fagrenyeverden

Published Jan 26, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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