It’s the middle of the hot, dead summer of 2018 when I speak to Jenny Hval for the first time. Talking via web phone, we are both, for once, in the countries we were born in, and for the moment, both in retrograde: me, in my parents’ house, sweltering in the attic room where I avoided homework and chatted to boys for the first time on MSN; her, talking to me about a time before she had learned how to express herself as an artist, when she didn’t know which language to call her own.
We have arranged to talk about Paradise Rot, her first novel, which originally came out in Norwegian as Perlebryggeriet in 2009. Now translated by Marjam Idriss and published by Verso, it is finally available to audiences in the language Hval originally – if unsuccessfully – began writing it in. It tells the story of Jo, in a strange country for university, who finds herself living in a huge, decaying house share with the confident, but ultimately fragile Carral. Against the narrative of Jo’s biology degree and her sexual awakening, the two girls explore how things spread and spill over in this strange house: mushrooms sprout, sounds echo and bodily fluids leak, adding to the uncomfortable frisson of vulnerability. The novel’s naïveté is an early blueprint for the bodily, intimate, communal, queer, and theoretically-conscious work she has since made.
While it’s true to say Jenny Hval makes music – avant-garde pop which wanders with facility between a heightened euphoria and pulsing weight – it is her lyrics that affect me the most. She allows herself to wallow in childish rhyme and playful pattern, a drip-drip juice that spatters sound with meaning. Here, the personal is also political but, undoubtedly for Hval, the personal is also the artistic. What contributes to the sense of self also contributes to the sense of the artist, often almost in the same breath. ‘Like capitalism, it works like unrequited love,’ she sings on ‘The Great Undressing’. And then, a few breaths later: ‘But I need to keep writing, because everything else is death.’ The song comes from her album Blood Bitch, which is arranged lyrically around themes of menstruation, vampires and female gangs, and muses on immortality, bodily autonomy and the experience of time. On an earlier song, ‘That Battle is Over’, she lets loose her fury at those saying feminism is no longer needed, despite her personal experiences of sexism. Again, it’s not just a satisfying clickbait takedown, no ‘sublime thinkpiece’, to use her own words from this interview, although it is deeply gratifying in its own way. Even when she sets her lyrical vision on an obvious target, she is still writing about the narrative arc of her own artistic life, making plain her interest in digging through the dirt of what is forbidden, unsanitary or otherwise repulsive.