We all have our own lines in the world: A circuitous route that marches us around our environs on a walk, a daily commute to work; a border that slashes a partition between one part of land and its neighbor; a journey—or migration—from here to there. How do we read the lines of others?
In the essay-like chapters of Dorthe Nors’s A Line in the World— translated from the Danish by Caroline Waight, and a 2023 finalist for the PEN Translation Prize—Nors describes a year spent along the coastline of the North Sea from Skagen at the Danish Jutland peninsula’s cusp to Huisduinen in the Netherlands. The book, she writes at the outset, is not intended to be a traditional chronicle of a regional landscape nor a linear travelogue of her journeys up or down the coast. Rather, it is an account of her personal encounters with this singular “line in the world”:
I will not let my movements be dictated by the fixed conventions of reading a map: north to south, west to east. I will look at it as a line and dive into it the way one dives into text. It is necessity that will guide me—and seasons, coincidence and memory. I’m not looking for some trumped-up truth about a particular piece of geography. Humans, with our kerosene and our short fuses, have been ranting and raving in nature for far too long. As much as possible, I’d rather be open to the truth that arises between me and the place, at the moment we meet.
Indeed: Seasons, from beach bonfires at midsummer to the dark quiet of winter solstice; coincidental encounters with locals, tourists and birds; and especially memory—both collective and personal—guide Nors’s dives along the line. While standing at the tip of Skagen and straddling the point between the Skagerrak and Kattegat Seas, Nors remembers herself as a girl one summer—standing in that very spot, barefoot and hands sticky with ice cream—and layers that memory into her current experience. She writes about Jutlandish ancestors and her own position caught in the “schism” between this land and her many sojourns in places beyond it. She muses on the bones of Viking ships and shipwreck victims and the present-day windmill farms in the North Sea’s water; on the strength of generations of women on the island of Fanø and their connection to the “tidal pulse” of the Wadden Sea; on the magnetic navigational abilities of migrating birds that stop along the coast to feed and what humans who migrate to the North Sea carry with them.
Walking on paths at the bird cliffs of Bulbjerg, Nors notices a stone stump, all that remains of a rock column, emerging from the ocean. She can’t see the stump without remembering her father’s tears when in 1978 a television news anchor announced the column has fallen, and how her father’s grief at the recent loss of his brother is now enmeshed with the loss of that pillar of stone. Standing on a path, Nors texts the Norwegian neuropsychologist Ylva Østby to ask whether paths and memories are similar. Østby writes back:
The paths through the landscape are a feat of memory that we create with the landscape and with the other people who have walked and are walking through it. . . . Your memories of a particular landscape are stored in a network connected to all the associations you had when you went there for the very first time.
And Nors responds: “The landscape is an archive of memory.”
Landscape as an archive of memory. In a chapter named “The Secret Place,” Nors describes a family cabin next to the Limfjord and memories of her grandmother lying in the grass with binoculars, of her brother digging lugworms, of rowing in boats with friends. Across the fjord from the cabin is a chemical factory called Cheminova, where toxic waste was stored in a concrete depot near the water; the unpredictable coastal storms occasionally knock holes in the concrete, and waste secretes. If we were to lie in the grass near the cabin, look up into the sky with binoculars and observe migrating birds, smell the salt air and the “crowberry stalks,” not knowing about the toxic waste leaked into the fjord, how differently would we experience the landscape? But if we only knew about Cheminova and not about the decades of formative memories the cabin and its surrounding land and sea hold, how much would we be missing?
I thought about Nors’s book when flying from Bangalore via Frankfurt to Boston. Those many hours in the air were diagrammed as an evolving line of travel on the monitor in front of me. The silhouette of an airplane nosed the line forward in two-dimensional space across the mapped images of oceans, mountains, rivers, towns, while below me lives were lived in those towns and along those rivers and up those mountainsides and next to those oceans in dimensions I couldn’t begin to fathom from up in my plane seat. At some distinct moment, my line of travel crossed the line in the world drawn along the coast from Skagen to Huisduinen. I’m not sure exactly where the lines intersected, and out the windows, only thick layers of clouds were visible below me. But I felt then my own pull toward that coast and wished I knew it with the intimacy Nors does. I have spent some time near the German North Sea shore, sunk my toes into the Wadden Sea’s mud at low tide, experienced the enormity of the sky over flat land and ocean. A relative once lived in a centuries-old thatched-roof house next to a meadow with grazing cows in a village—Aventoft—Nors mentions in her chapter “Borderland.” Reading A Line in the World made me long for the meadow and chomping cows, for the sound of near-constant wind and shivering leaves, for the expanse of the North Sea—on blue days, on days of clouds and rain—and for my relative, while also knowing that any return to that part of the world would be underlaid with memories of her last difficult years in the thatched-roof house. There is a crossing into Denmark in Aventoft but, as Nors quotes a local Danish barman correcting her, in Denmark it’s not called the Aventoft crossing: “It’s called the Møllehusvej border crossing.”
We all have our own ways of naming, describing, interpreting lines and borders, our own archives of memory stored in whatever landscapes we and our ancestors have inhabited. As a reader of Nors’s Line in the World and of “the truth that arises between her and the place,” I found myself probing the truths along my own lines, asked by her writing to examine my position in those places anew. “We’re in a kind of quest for things that transcend time,” Nors says to a priest when she visits Staby Church to look at its frescoes. There is truth for us all in that.
About the Reviewer
Lisa Harries Schumann is a translator from the German, a graduate of Boston’s Grub Street Short Story Incubator, and is currently at work on stories that stem from her obsession with narratives left ignored by histories and buried by families.