The Inscrutable Landscape of ‘A Line in the World’

February 15, 2023 | 3 books mentioned 4 min read

In her essay collection A Line in the World, Danish writer Dorthe Nors maps the personal, social, and geographical landscapes of Denmark’s western coast and takes the reader to the unforgiving landscape of Denmark’s western coast. Hers is an intimate yet stark portrait of a space at once ancient and modern, where the past is never truly in the past: tides disinter the dead from their graves, medieval frescoes endure on church walls, mines from World War II remain armed. Far more than a picaresque travel narrative, the book’s 14 essays, elegantly translated into colloquial British English by Caroline Waight, reflect on inheritance, beauty, and how we understand our place in the world.

What begins with Nors’s desire to escape the city becomes a meditative portrait of identity—personal, regional, national—in its making. Growing up the child of a carpenter and hairdresser in the post-industrial town of Herning, Nors followed the path of ambitious Danes from the provinces by heading east, first to study Swedish literature at the University of Aarhus before continuing on to join the Copenhagen literati. But, as A Line in the World describes, Nors felt confined by city living and longed for the region that shaped her. Lying on her apartment floor one day, Nors realizes she must change her life: “I want a storm surge, I thought. I want a north-west wind, fierce and hard. I want trees so battered and beaten they’re crawling over the ground.” But most of all, a “horizon is what I want, and I want solitude.” And so she returns West.

The source of Nors’s discomfort is what she identifies as the schism in which “all identity is formed”: the inability to remain one thing in one place. For Nors, this schism “made me sew great tacking stitches into the world. I was drawn east, but then back west.” Later, the idea is glossed further: “You carry the place you come from inside you, but you can never go back to it.” A Line in the World explores the schism’s geographical equivalent: the coast that marks the division between land and sea, between remaining at home and striking out on her own. Tracing an itinerary from Denmark’s northern tip down the Western coast to the German border, each essay is a self-contained account mixing memoir and history, anthropology and identity, and reflections on art and literature.

The essays ebb and flow like the tide. And within individual essays, different fragments wash up on the shore and for a passing moment the flotsam and jetsam cohere into a magnificent collage. Nors begins the fifth essay, for instance, looking at Blåvandshuk Lighthouse at Denmark’s westernmost point, before turning towards the sea and musing on landmines from WWII that are still being discovered in the area. Gazing across Skallingen Peninsula, Nors sees a further reminder of the war: Nazi bunkers on the beach that a public art project has turned into concrete mules through the addition of ears and tails, mules symbolizing peace because of their inability to reproduce. Nors heads north, roaming on a heath previously used for military training operations by the nearby barracks where, it so happens, her parents first met. This, in turn, sets off a broader consideration of Viking raids and the myths of masculinity they convey. Then, a pause, and the tide flows back:

It’s a fantastic story.… Incomprehensible in its daring, its beauty and its cruelty, and for those who crave raw masculine strength, who yearn for blood and honor, it’s easy to tap into. It can lead them down all sorts of wrong tracks, until sometimes they end up as bunkers on the beach by Blåvandshuk. As mules of peace with Nazi bodies. Tough to shake off. Like my mother with her fiery red hair at the demob party–that image, too, is tough to shake off.

History contracts and expands as the tide swells and withdraws. For one moment, we perceive the forces of violence and conquest that connect medieval raiders with twentieth-century fascists, as well as the startling personal history that fits within such vast narratives. Once the waves of the essay crash onto the shore and their disparate parts reprise, it’s time to move on to another location as they all wash away.

mirror, shoulder, signal cover Landscape

“I’m not looking for some trumped-up truth about a particular piece of geography,” Nors writes. “As much as possible, I’d rather be open to the truth that arises between me and the place, at the moment we meet.” For Nors, being open to that truth is also part of a broader feminist project: the reclamation of women’s relationships with the landscape. Nors has written about her interest in writing about middle-aged, childless women, women “on the brink of disappearing,” “on the brink of losing their license to live.” Her 2018 novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, treats the metaphor of “license to live” almost literally by following the protagonist Sonja as she learns to drive. A Line in the World extends these themes, with Nors’s exploration of the landscape enabled by her “little Toyota.” The English translation is accompanied with illustrations by the Danish artist Signe Parkins, who appears in one the collection’s essays in a tour of church frescoes that doubles as a reflection on the conditions necessary for women to make art.

the living mountain cover Landscape

The project of A Line in the World recalls Scottish writer Nan Shepherd’s Living Mountain, a 1977 reflection on life amid the Cairngorm mountains. Shepherd’s mountains aren’t sites to be conquered or places to announce man’s triumph over nature, but part of an ecosystem, shared living. Like Shepherd, Nors finds the landscape itself rich with significance without needing to make it a vessel for greater meaning. In an essay about the medieval Børglum Abbey, Nors confronts a problem: the abbey exists, yet there are records of people’s experience where the abbey has disappeared. Her friend, the writer Knud Sørensen, is one such person: deeply familiar with the area, one day he’s looking for the abbey and can’t find it. Did this disappearance mean something more? In America, she states, ventriloquizing the views of a friend, the landscape is so vast that you cannot but find greater meaning there: “you knew nature had a consciousness all its own. Its sense of time, space, direction is unmoored from our small conceptual world.” Could this explain Børglum Abbey? “Brilliant. But I don’t know,” Sørensen says when she puts it to him. Transcendence isn’t viable on the Danish coast. Denmark is not America. The landscape is inscrutable. Maybe there is no greater significance to the abbey’s disappearance. “Don’t dream of other dimensions,” Nors concludes, “simply be grateful for the dimension you’ve been dealt.”

teaches English at the University of Houston. A medievalist by trade, his essays on British national identity and the affective ties of scholars’ books can be found at Public Seminar and Avidly. Find him at www.danieldavies.co or @daniel_j_davies.