Posts Tagged ‘Vigdis Hjorth’

Is Mother Dead

March 18, 2023

Superficially, Vigdis Hjorth’s latest novel Is Mother Dead (again translated by Charlotte Barslund) has much in common with Will and Testament. Here is another dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (interestingly, Hjorth has an as-yet-untranslated novel entitled What’s Wrong with Mother) where contact has been broken off and attempts at reconciliation seem difficult, if not impossible. In this case, however, it is the disowned daughter, Johanna, who determines to repair her relationship with her mother having returned to Norway from America after the death of her husband. Her father is dead, and she blames her sister, Ruth, for preventing her mother replying to her messages. (At this point we may well remember that Hjorth’s sister wrote her own novel in response to Will and Testament “in which a character suffers the trauma of living with the public fallout from a narcissistic sibling’s “dishonest” autobiographical novel.”)

The story is told from Johanna’s point of view, and she admits that the original rupture occurred as a result of her actions:

“The situation was of my own making. I had chosen to leave my marriage, my family and my country almost three decades before, although it hadn’t felt as if I had choice.”

The sense of not having a choice relates to her vocation as a painter, a talent that was initially encouraged by her mother. When Johanna is asked to draw the school’s Constitution Day invitation as she “has a talent for drawing”, her mother whispers to her, “That’s what I’ve been saying all along.” It is her father Johanna blames for stifling her ambition – she imagines:

“Mum had told Dad I had a talent for drawing, but Dad had disagreed.”

When she leaves school, she studies law like her father rather than art. Looking back to her mother’s fiftieth birthday party she remembers:

“…how I struggled to breath, the knot in my stomach I always had on such occasions when the family showed its public face, the feeling of having had script thrust at me, the expectation that I would play my part, the loyal daughter of a lawyer, the wife of a lawyer, the law student, I was ill at ease with this role…”

It is only when she falls in love with her American tutor, Mark, at a water-colour painting evening class, that she sees the chance to live the life she wants and takes it. Even then, after she moves to America, there is still some contact, but the exhibition of her artwork Child and Mother 1 and 2 in Oslo is seen as an attack by her family:

“Ruth’s occasional messages and Mum’s seasonal greetings ceased.”

Even more unforgivably, when her father dies, she does not attend his funeral. Just as she placed the blame on her father when he was alive, Johanna now regards her sister as the barrier between her and her mother – she tells herself that if her Mum had asked her to come home when her father was ill she would have, and that it is Ruth who has blocked her number on her Mum’s phone. She is, at least, self-aware enough to admit, “I blame Ruth so that Mum can go free, it’s simpler that way.”

Whether Johanna’s version of events is entirely reliable is, of course, a question that the reader will increasingly ask themselves. The novel is told in a series of short chapters, some only a sentence or two long, and its entire focus is Johanna’s relationship with her mother. This gives an impression of monomania in stark contrast to her years of detachment. We learn that Mark has recently died and that their son has moved to Europe – events which may make the reader speculate as to both Johanna’s motivation and state of mind. There are also indications that her reactions can be extreme, as for example:

“I had thought from an early age that Dad wasn’t my father.”

The unanswered phone calls from the novel’s opening pages develop into hours spent sitting in her car outside her mother’s apartment – in fact, her behaviour takes on the aspect of a stalker. She remains convinced that her mother feels the same way:

“I live a secret life in Mum’s mind and Mum lives a secret one in mine, but I’m in the process of unearthing her from the darkness, dragging her out into the light, and slowly she emerges because I want it to happen.”

Is Mother Dead could be regarded as a companion piece to Will and Testament. In the latter it is Bergjlot’s decision to break off ties with her family (“the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief”); here, Johanna wishes to renew them. In both cases Hjorth powerfully exposes the cracks and fissures which divide families and the desperate remedies we adopt to either paper them over or peer inside.

Best Books of 2020 Part 3

December 29, 2020

Finally, here are my favourite books from 2020:

Firstly, this was the year I finally got round to reading Bae Suh. Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is a beguiling and disconcerting reading experience which is difficult to summarise. Over its four parts, it tells numerous stories that may also be one story, a text of incessant echoes from characters with uncanny similarities to the repetition of specific lines. What begins as a quest for identity ends up questioning whether certainty is possible

Identity is also important in Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron (translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona McIntyre). Everything from Argentinian national identity to sexual discovery, colonialism to class, is covered in the guise of a rip-roaring adventure. The novel wins its place on energy alone, and is another reminder of the excellence of Charco Press. It is also the only Booker International long-listed book among my favourites, which suggests I think it should have won

Next is a book I freely admit is unlikely to feature in anyone else’s best of the year – Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann). As a long-time admirer of Stamm, I found this one of his best yet. As is often the case with his work, it begins with a single decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena. On this occasion, however, Christoph later discovers another couple whose lives seem to exactly replicate his and Magdalena’s. How he reacts to these doppelgangers makes for a fascinating exploration of how we tell the stories of our lives

Another writer I particularly admire is Annie Ernaux, whose work, thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, is now reaching a wider audience in the UK. This year saw the translation, by Alison L Strayer, of A Girl’s Story. Here she tells of her early sexual experiences at a summer camp, but, as Ernaux explains, she does not regard the story she tells as ‘hers’ in the sense we would normally understand with biographical writing: “I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo.” What I love about Ernaux’s work is how she forensically captures the details of the time alongside truths of human experience which remain as insightful today as ever

Finally, 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 last year. I was transfixed by the way a story of mid-life crisis became one of transformation and hope via the fight to preserve the postal service. It was a reminder that regarding ‘mental health’ as something entirely abstract, existing only in our heads, is a dangerous mistake. Interestingly, it joined the other four books in offering a version of hope in a year which needed it more than most.

Long Live the Post Horn!

September 24, 2020

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.

Will and Testament

October 21, 2019

Verso are no strangers to translated fiction, having published writers like Jose Saramago and Wu Ming in the past, but in August they announced the launch of a translated fiction imprint with two titles published this autumn, the first of which was Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament translated by Charlotte Barslund. Hjorth is a Norwegian writer with a career beginning in the 1980s, but Will and Testament is a recent novel, originally published in 2016. Its topic is, as the title suggests, is a disputed will, but the dispute is only the final fracture in a family which is no longer a family.

The novel is narrated by estranged daughter Bergjlot, who at first characterises the dispute as one between her brother, Bard, and her two sisters, Asa and Astrid, beginning when their parents’ will is changed before the unexpected death of their father:

“In the weeks leading up to his death, my siblings had become embroiled in a heated argument about how to share the family estate, the holiday cabins on Hvaler.”

The new will leaves the two holiday cabins to Astrid and Asa despite a long-stated intention that all four children will be treated equally. Bard and Bergjlot will be compensated financially, though the amount they are offered under-values the cabins according to Bard, who views the will as “the final straw in a long line of financial favouritism.” It soon becomes clear, however, that the real story is Bergjlot’s estrangement. For a long time her only contact with her family has been through Astrid, but even here there is tension, particularly when Astrid passes on news regarding their mother:

“Sometimes I had sent furious replies to such messages because Astrid treated me as though it were a matter of will, as though I could simply decide to turn up, to be nice, to make conversation. Astrid had deleted my furious emails without reading them, she wrote, and that was her right…”

This is also the first indication that Bergjlot is not listened to by her family: while deciding not to read a message sent in anger may initially be seen as emotionally mature, it is also a form of selective blindness, refusing to acknowledge that the anger exists, and may even be justified. (Ironically, Astrid is a human rights lawyer: “Everybody makes mistakes, you write… When you meet victims of human rights abuses, is that what you tell them?”). Bergjlot comments frequently ion not being heard: I has learned that speaking the truth was against the rules,” she says, and, “it was as if I didn’t exist, as if my story didn’t exist.”

Clearly something has happened in Bergjlot’s past which the family will not acknowledge, something which, though it is only revealed later in ten narrative, is unlikely to surprise many readers. The novel, however, is not really about what happened, but about the family’s reaction to it, both initially, when it is suppressed by Berjlot as well as her parents, and later, when Bergjlot, through counselling, faces up to her past:

“To finally admit the truth about the very thing they had devoted so much energy to repress and deny.”

She reaches this point after years of unhappiness: “I existed in a state of pain and shame, which couldn’t be undone, but which I couldn’t live with unprocessed either.” Her family’s refusal to engage with her, however, eventually leads her to cut off almost all ties: “the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief.”

Hjorth is not writing a novel where the character’s past is dangled in front of the reader like a carrot; she is instead interested in the ways in which we choose to ignore or side-step what is inconvenient or disruptive. Bergjlot’s mother refuses to acknowledge what happened to Bergjlot not so much by openly denying it as by not hearing it; her sisters, similarly, allow the accusations to exist in a grey area they choose never to visit, instead carrying on as normal. Behaving otherwise poses too much of a challenge to the comfortable status quo:

“If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable.”

As Bergjlot says of Astrid, “she sought reconciliation and cooperation, but there are opposites which can’t be cancelled out, there are times when you must choose.”

Will and Testament is a novel which probes large questions about guilt, acknowledgment and reconciliation in the small space of a family feud; it is a domestic drama with philosophical inquiry at its heart. It marks the discovery of another wonderful Scandinavian writer.