Dorthe Nors | Longreads |  August 2015 |  8 minutes (1,904 words)

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Danish writer Dorthe Nors, translated into English by Misha Hoekstra, and chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes: 

“I first came across the intriguingly sparse work of Dorthe Nors in the pages of the literary magazine, A Public Space. And then the magazine went on to publish her first short story collection translated into English, Karate Chop, in partnership with Graywolf Press, and it became one of my favorite books last year. Although her stories are quite short, they are flashes of sharp and bright light into the otherwise obscure and dark corners of life. Last winter, a particularly cold and brutal season for New York, I helped curate a reading series for a temporary exhibition space called Winter Shack, themed around the idea of exploring the concept of “coziness.” In Denmark, I’d learned the pursuit of being cozy is a particular philosophy with its own rules and traditions, undertaken to beat the winter doldrums. We were lucky that Nors was game to send along an introduction to the Danish custom of cozy as well as an original short story that demonstrates the dangers of pursuing its creature comforts. Longreads is proud to be the first publisher of this eye-opening story about the happiest people in the world.”

* * *


All nations have a way of making themselves cozy, Denmark too, and in Denmark coziness is called HYGGE (pronounced HOOG-guh!). In Denmark, “hygge” is more than just hanging out and feeling good. “Hygge” is a way of staging coziness: candles, coffee, cake, cuddling up inside the house to protect oneself from the dark and cold winters—or in the summertime when the dark is non-existent, we “hygge” in the yard with grill parties, cold drinks, sausages! But just like the year has a dark side and a light side in Scandinavia, “hygge” has a dark and a light side too. The darker side of “hygge” is that it also serves as social control. If someone tries to get away from the “hygge,” he or she is drawn back into the circle of “hygge,” where rule number one is that you “hygge” and don’t do anything that will spoil the “hygge,” because if you spoil the “hygge,” things will turn “uhyggelig” (pronounced oo-HOOG-guh-lee!). “Uhyggelig” doesn’t mean uncozy – it means “scary.” So the other side of “hygge” is “scary.” Therefore Danes are really, really scared of stepping outside the realms of “hygge.” Here you also find one of the answers to why the Danes win the HAPPIEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD poll every year. Anything else but total happiness and “hygge” is considered destabilizing and therefore … scary. “Hygge” is also used as a way to suppress feelings in a family or relationship. Every time someone wants to address some kind of unpleasant emotion, this person is in danger of spoiling the “hygge” and will be told: “Now, let’s just “hygge”—which basically just means: Let’s just stay on the surface and behave “hyggelig” (pronounced: HOOG-guh-lee!). It’s a beautiful thing, the Danish “hygge.”And it’s also a little bit dangerous.

* * *


Then we were sitting there, Lilly and me, and she had made coffee and baked one of those chocolate cakes that are soft in the middle. During the afternoon she’d also vacuumed and cleared the dead leaves off the windowsills. The budgie was no longer chattering in its cage but had been put under a dishtowel to rest, and on the tube there was some show we could guess along with. When I’d come by in the afternoon, it hadn’t been so nice. We’d had a falling out about her manner, about the way she’d act up when we were at the senior club, her jealousy and her sweetness, which just seemed vulgar. And then she’d said that business about my face—that she didn’t like it. You and your big professor mug, she’d said, and the floor in the bathroom had been littered with laundry. She hadn’t made the bed either, and there was that sweetish smell of urine. I know that smell from Aunt Marguerite’s home, back when she could no longer see, and fumbled around and knocked everything over, especially herself. It was as if something had taken up permanent residence in her cells, and now it was oozed out with her trips to the toilet. It settled into the wallpaper, and the odor was there when we would sit down to enjoy the fruit drink that I’d mix up out in her kitchen. Those long afternoons with flat fruit drink, peppermint candies, and Aunt Marguerite, who no longer fit her teeth. There are some things you never forget: the way we sang from the songbook and her transcriptions of the King’s speeches on New Year’s Eve, for instance, and I’ve never understood why I should be hostage to Aunt Marguerite’s loneliness. Yes – why it demanded my involvement. I was just a boy, and while I sat there and had King Frederik’s words placed in my mouth, I suppose my folks were at the movie theater. You’re so clever in school, they’d say. That sort of thing needs stimulation, they’d say, and then Aunt Marguerite would be there with her schoolmarm fingers on my neck. The bowl with sugar cubes up in my face: Take one, my boy, take two, eat them! But now she had made coffee, Lilly, she’d made coffee and she’d covered the budgie and gotten out the nice cups. There wasn’t any more talk about my face. My face, my hands, my knees – now she found everything cuddly. Her little hand up in my hair, inside the waist of my trousers, she wanted to grab hold of my hand, Because now we we’re going to enjoy ourselves, we’re going to have us a cozy time, yeah, and not talk about it anymore. But since I first met her in the senior club, her face has gotten more and more porridgy. It’s as if one version has started to give way to another, I can still see the original, and it’s awful how it won’t stick around. It was the Druggist who got me into the club, he claimed that we would play chess, but as a bachelor I had to place my body at the disposal of the castoff women and their expectations. Then I had a sock they needed to see to, then there was something about my collar, then their feet started hurting and they wanted to be driven home. And among the desperate, Lilly stood out. First she tried to latch onto the Druggist, but the other women were on him like hyenas around a cadaver. It was his fine beard, she said, and no doubt you can say some good things about Lilly, but those fancy blouses can’t cover up what can’t be changed. All that frippery, yes, the budgie too, it only drags her down, and then we were sitting there, it was on Saturday and the tea candles were lit. She had placed them along the edge of the bookcase, with tinfoil wrapped around the bases so they wouldn’t burn down into the laminate. It had happened to her before – that the tealights had burnt into the laminate, and she’d also had them explode. The liquid wax could get to be as flammable as gasoline, so she felt safer with tapers. The dignified sort. So long as you didn’t set them up against the curtains, you could count on them. They’re a bit like you, she giggled, so orderly and erect, she said, scooting her way off the couch and out into the kitchen, where I could hear her rummaging around. But if we can just stay awake, the little ones should be fine! she shouted from out there, and I’ve often thought that Lilly’s one of those who could easily fall asleep with a cigarette in her hand. I could see her doing that on the couch, beneath the sun-faded pictures of her relatives. There was one hanging there of Lilly too, from sometime in the ’70s. She’s got her hair crimped with an iron, the way my students crimped theirs back then. Then they would sit there, trying to make themselves attractive while I struggled with their sloppy logarithm assignments. That is if they weren’t tottering around on those espadrilles that were way too high, as if they’d attached hay bales beneath their feet, good Lord, and their shampoo just stank in the classroom when it mixed with the stench of armpits and sex. They lacked dignity, and the last day before Christmas break was always the worst. The fried doughnut holes and mulled wine, because we were supposed to hang out and talk about the year that had passed. As if the year could do anything else. As if that’s not precisely the way time works, and Lilly also had up school pictures of her aging offspring. There was something about their faces, something dumplingish and soft. They had all too much candy, those kids, and now they’re living on another side street in the same neighborhood with kids of their own, kids who are also too fat, not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s not something you could tell Lilly. She doesn’t feel anything, most of the time, but it takes nothing at all to make her feel everything, and then she was sidling through the door with a tray. We’re having Baileys with coffee, she said. Baileys and some peppermints she had left over from Christmas. We’re going to have it a little nice, she said, and then she squeezed herself in next to me on the couch; her fingers with the defunct wedding bands, and the jingle of amethyst and other costume jewels dangling from her earlobes. I guess she’s harmless enough, it’s all just heat, I know that and the Druggist says the same, but Baileys tastes of German rest areas and the corner of some party where nothing’s happening. Besides, Lilly should’ve been able to work out that I’m more one for whisky. Or a dry cognac with a cigar. I want to play chess! I’m nobody’s pet, and don’t think I don’t know what she had under the sink or out by the electric meter, Marguerite. I know all about the liquor from the corner grocer’s, and it was starting to pickle her tongue. She can’t hide anything from me. I’ve known her for a dog’s age, and I can’t be led around by the nose anymore. But it was while we were both sitting on the couch, me with her free hand on my trouser knee and her with her eye on the Baileys, that she said, We’re good friends, aren’t we? I know I’m stupid, she said, and it can’t be easy for you with all your brains to go around with someone like me, she said. So can’t we just be cozy? And so we were. We sat there and were cozy, and I can’t account for how we got from when she took the last bite of cake to when she was lying there down on the floor, halfway under the coffee table, eyes gawping, mouth too, but even then, when it all was over and done, it looked as if she was forcing me, yes she forced me, and I didn’t like it.   

* * *