Long Live the Post Horn!

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament was one of my favourite novels of last year; the good news is that Long Live the Post Horn! (translated again by Charlotte Barslund) is even better. Its narrator, Ellinor, is a PR consultant who finds herself questioning her life. The crisis begins when she discovers an old diary and sees clearly the emptiness of her past – and present:

“…there was no sense of progression, no coherence, no joy, only frustration; shopping, sunbathing, gossiping, eating – I might as well have written ‘she’ instead of ‘I’. And had anything changed, had growing older made any difference?”

Her relationship with Stein, a divorcee with a young son, Truls, leaves her largely numb. When she meets Truls for the first time she finds the significance Stein places on this uncomfortable: “I was embarrassed on his behalf because he cared so much.” Similarly, a visit to her sister, Margrete, after she has had had a miscarriage leaves her feeling like “an imposter, a fraud” as Margrete assumes her distress is sympathetic. “Why couldn’t I feel the way I used to?” she wonders, “Except that was exactly what I didn’t want.”

In an echo of her own despair, one of her two business partners, Dag, goes missing and is later discovered to have killed himself. “I yearned for a breakdown,” she tells us, but even that release seems beyond her reach. In Paris to collect Dag’s body, she sees a group of homeless people gather beneath an awning to sleep:

“They were alone with their stories just like I was, I thought, except they were aware of it.”

Later she recalls this image as an escape: “I can go home, fly to Paris, and sleep under the awning.” Hjorth brilliantly captures the continual anxiety, to the point that it’s difficult to read this section of the novel without your heart beating faster and a knot of dread in your stomach:

“Even during my worst nightmares was more excited about continuing to dream than what the day I was waking up to would bring.”

Such a mid-life crisis is, of course, a staple of a certain kind of novel; Hjorth’s portrayal of it is almost too real (the first fifty pages read like an extended panic attack) but it is where Hjorth takes us next that marks the novel out as something special.

At the point of his suicide, Dag was working on the ‘postal directive’, an EU ruling that the Norwegian Labour government looks likely to enforce which will open postal services to competition (British readers will recognise a similar change which took place here). Dag’s remit was to prevent this happening, at the behest of the postal workers’ union, a task that Ellinor and her remaining partner, Rolf, will now need to take on. It is through this unlikely campaign that Ellinor will find a reason to continue; as she realises quite quickly, “I was lacking a cause.”

The change is not overtly political – it occurs when she meets the men and women of the post office in an attempt to school them in the rules of media communication, and listen to their stories for the first time:

“Rolf was bamboozled, but my heartbeat changed pace and my breath filled my body.”

She immediately decides that the training would, in fact, hinder their attempt to get their message across:

“If you were to write letters in the way I was going to teach you, your words wouldn’t move anyone.”

One story in particular moves her – that of a poorly addressed letter which eventually finds its intended recipient only because of the persistence of the local postman. What is the significance of this story? It demonstrates purpose, caring and connection (as all letters do) – all elements which seem to have gone missing from Ellinor’s life and which she now attempts to get back. Slowly she connects to Stein, realising for the first time, “he existed, he was real, he had a heart.” Instead of waiting for a future which she realises is not coming, “waiting for my fairy tale to begin,” she attempts to live in the moment:

“I didn’t want to distance myself, I wanted to engage with the present, but how could I without faking it. Stop faking, I ordered myself, be real!”

Just as Hjorth is convincing when it comes to Ellinor’s spiralling anxiety, she is equally believable when describing her struggle to change. It is neither instantaneous nor complete, but a process she must drive herself, all the time motivated by having a social as well as a personal goal. In this way, Hjorth turns the outcome of the postal directive vote into both a political and a personal drama in which the reader quickly becomes utterly involved. Her great skill lies in taking the most ordinary characters in the most ordinary situations and creating narratives which feel like life or death. She is no ordinary writer.

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8 Responses to “Long Live the Post Horn!”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I must get around to trying this author, especially given your enthusiasm for her work. Is this a new novel or an older one freshly translated?

    • 1streading Says:

      This is a slightly older one – 2013 – which would make sense politically. I’ve found both this and Will and Testament riveting, however unlikely that may seem from their subject matter!

  2. Cathy746books Says:

    I really enjoyed Will & Testament too. Must check this one out

  3. MarinaSofia Says:

    I have Will and Testament (still unread, I’m sorry to say), but this sounds even more my style, especially since I have frankly horrific memories of working with Royal Mail just before and during privatisation…

  4. Best Books of 2020 Part 3 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Vigdis Hjoth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (translated by Charlotte Barslund) stood out for me this year as much as Will and Testament did […]

  5. International Booker Prize Predictions 2021 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] likely continue to make up around 50% of the long list. My tip here would be Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (tr. Charlotte Barslund), one of my favourite books from last year. Andres Barba’s A Luminous […]

  6. What I Read, March 2021 | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau Says:

    […] At first I found the main character’s flat affect irritating—I kept comparing it to the much more devastating portrayals of female despair in Jean Rhys—and almost put the book aside but I was glad I stuck around long enough to see her wary transformation. In the end, though, Hjorth is better at naming values than at making us feel them. Here’s Ellinor watching through a lit window as a man paces his office with his phone to his ear: “It was a comforting sight. If I had kept a diary, I would have written about it. About the working human being, the committed human being, about people trying to change things, people investing their energy, talking to one another and coming together.” Later this sentiment turns into a full-blown encomium for “a language that didn’t seek to spin or obfuscate, but to open and elevate, a language that had helped me to greater clarity, which had pulled me from the mire.” Ellinor herself never experiences that kind of language, and I’m unclear Hjorth knows it. But a lot of smart readers like this book; for a much more positive take, read Grant’s piece. […]

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