Vigdis Hjorth is a pretty big deal in Norway. She has written thirty-seven books, the majority of them novels, but Will and Testament is the first to be published in English translation by a trade publisher in the UK, and only her second novel to be published in English translation. It has just been nominated for a National Book Award. It is not surprising that her long overdue breakthrough is happening with this novel, now. Not only was it a bestseller in Norway, and nominated for some of the region’s biggest prizes, it also kicked off a scandal that turned into yet another nationwide discussion about truth in fiction.
Hjorth’s translator Charlotte Barslund mostly maintains Hjorth’s direct, occasionally abrupt, prosaic language and skilfully conveys Hjorth’s long sentences and inner monologues, so key to an author who takes readers deep into the psyche of her protagonists. Arriving in English translation, the novel comes packaged with a slight sheen of Scandi noir and is promoted with the – familiar – tagline, ‘A terrible secret’. Much of the discussion around it has centred on Hjorth’s own family story, and how it relates to the novel. But whether or not Hjorth’s novels are autobiographical is one of the less interesting questions about her work. Anglophone readers are finally introduced to a writer at the height of her powers, a deeply political author who combines blunt critique of the country and society she lives in with an investigation into the personal failings of its supposed intellectual elite.
Both Will and Testament and Hjorth’s previous novel, A House in Norway, feature a narrator who works in the arts, has grown-up children and a partner she doesn’t live with; who drinks a lot of red wine and has a tendency towards angry nocturnal outbursts; who goes on holidays in Europe (Spain, Germany), references classic psychology, Central European and Norwegian writers, and left-wing politics. Both narrators may or may not be Vigdis Hjorth; what is certain is that Hjorth always starts from a personal point, with something that ‘burns’ her. From there, she develops stories that dissolve the border – if it exists – between the personal and the political, and uncovers the hypocrisies inherent in being a left-wing adult in a privileged North European country. At the end of A House in Norway, her protagonist, a landlord and artist, receives a text message from her former tenant that neatly sums up that gap between self-perception and reality. ‘In the newspaper, it says you are a cultural person. I have a different opinion.’
A House in Norway is a Künstlerroman with a twist. Originally published in 2014, and brought to the UK two years later by the excellent university press Norvik Press, it tells the story of Alma, a textile artist with strong left-wing ideals, who rents out an apartment in her house to a Polish couple. Later, they separate, and the Polish woman is left alone with her young daughter. Over the course of the novel, Alma’s lofty ideas about herself and others are challenged by the realities of cohabiting with someone she only ever refers to as ‘the Pole’. Alma’s inability to remember her neighbour’s ‘difficult’ name (Slawomira) is symptomatic for a generalised xenophobia towards Eastern Europeans so typical even among allegedly enlightened Western Europeans. Alma, who mostly works for trade unions and creates a tapestry in honour of the centenary of women’s suffrage, discovers – but does not accept as true – that her socialist ideals don’t extend to feeling empathy for her own neighbours: she is first baffled, then irritated by their differences in lifestyle, until the relationship breaks down entirely.
Will and Testament, originally published in Norway in 2016, is the story of Bergljot, a theatre critic who finds herself entangled in an inheritance dispute with her family. Her parents have drawn up their will, and Bergljot and her older brother are excluded from inheriting two cabins that will be left to the two younger sisters instead. Underneath it all, there is growing certainty that something else is going on: Bergljot was sexually abused by her father as a child, a truth that neither her parents nor her sisters ever accepted or wanted to make amends for. Bergljot, whose trauma resurfaced when she was in her twenties, has tried to keep communication with her family at a minimum for years, but is forced into contact with them first by the inheritance dispute, and then by the death of her father. As Bergljot struggles with the fact that her family flatly refuses to listen to her, Hjorth reveals layers upon layers of conflict, family delusion and trauma recovery, drawing parallels to international politics, performance art and the work of Norway’s national writer Henrik Ibsen, the patron saint of exposing fake morals and lies. Throughout the novel, Bergljot refers to her parents as ‘mor og far’ (‘mother and father’, translated by Barslund into English as ‘mum and dad’). This intentional distancing effect is a trope that Hjorth uses to great effect in her novels; in this case, the parent figures can be seen as stand-ins from classical psychoanalysis.
In both books, Hjorth asks a simple question: how do our political ideals translate to our daily lives? Again and again, her characters show that they would rather believe a lie about themselves than face an uncomfortable truth about their place in the world: that they are in positions of power, and that that power turns them into perpetrators, not victims.
In the world of these novels, as in real life, the personal is political. For Hjorth, this is not merely about insisting that issues that are often relegated to the private sphere have, in fact, broad public importance. Instead, the personal – relationships between family, friends, neighbours – is shown to be performed according to similar rules as the political – the codes of international relations, diplomacy, war. This is particularly obvious in Will and Testament. Bigger in scale than the previous novel and, in Hjorth’s own words, her most explicitly political work to date, it jumps back and forth in time, and is structurally more complex than A House in Norway. Hjorth tells Bergljot’s story in a circular fashion, returning to the same events over and over again. As a result, the central topic is approached in a way that mirrors both trauma recovery and suspense novels: slowly, in fits and starts. Hjorth carves her truths into our memory as if we were learning them by heart, as if we were uncovering her memories with her. The novel is peppered with references that offer possible interpretations of what we are reading, and that reflect and magnify each other. The centrepiece of these is a performance by Marina Abramovic, which ends with Abramovic commenting on an audience happy to cause her physical harm during her performance: ‘They couldn’t stand me because of what they had done to me.’
Abramovic’s quote appears more than once, as Bergljot deals with her family and talks to her friends. Bo, a writer who focuses on international relations and politics, is particularly important in helping her understanding herself (‘Have you ever noticed (…) how you use all of Bo’s observations to your own advantage?’ Bergljot asks herself.) Abramovic is quoted again in the context of a conversation with him, but this time it is in reference to the walls built to keep Palestinians and Israelis apart: not seeing the people you harm is, after all, one of the purposes of having walls. It’s typical for Hjorth that the parallels she draws in this novel are not to other survivors but to countries and societies who are recovering from war. Bergljot explicitly understands herself as someone who is first at war, and later undergoing complicated diplomatic negotiations. The processes for truth and reconciliation that underpin Will and Testament – raised by her conversations with Bo – are shown to function in similar ways. They only work when a harmed party is given space to speak their truth, and when that truth is accepted by the other party. Allowing someone else’s lived reality to exist, to acknowledge and accept it, is to perform a conscious act of empathy. For some of Hjorth’s protagonists, such efforts appear to be impossible. What Bergljot’s family demands is reconciliation without truth. First, they condemn her for cutting off contact, for making things “difficult”. Even when they offer gestures of goodwill, they refuse to listen to her truth. And so, such gestures become meaningless. Instead of being acts of restorative justice, they are nothing but virtue signalling.
Hjorth resists turning her characters into evil caricatures, instead showing them to be blind to their own flaws and ignorant of the lives of others. Alma, the first person narrator of A House in Norway, doesn’t consider that her tenant, an immigrant single mum, may not be able to afford a rent increase because she is doing the kind of low wage jobs to which Eastern European immigrants are often relegated in rich North (and Western) Europe. Bergljot’s sister Astrid, a human rights activist, convinces herself that she can stay neutral in the family dispute even though it means that she is effectively siding with her parents against Bergljot. Alma and Astrid both refuse to accept someone else’s lived reality as just as legitimate as their own because it would challenge what they think of themselves: they aren’t the enlightened, compassionate, caring left-wingers that they take themselves to be. Alma, a character so convincingly drawn as to almost be uncomfortable, isn’t flawed-yet-likeable, and therefore #relatable – Alma is flawed, and if we relate to her, then it is because we recognise our own hypocrisy and self-delusion. We are all tangled up in systems that make us oppressors, and we all benefit from forced or slave labour and the exploitation of both human and natural resources. Hjorth shows the consequences of living in a world of subjective truth where it is possible to ignore things that we, like her characters, don’t want to see.
These are novels that offer a sustained critique of a society that is as delusional about its strengths and weaknesses as her characters. Like Hjorth’s protagonists, Norway has a strong (self-) image as a positive global force – despite its continuous participation in wars. In Will and Testament, Hjorth quotes Norway’s former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland who famously claimed that it is ‘typically Norwegian to be good’ (det er typisk Norsk å være god): ‘What do we repress, what do we deny, that’s the question which must be asked over and over, he said, so that we aren’t blinded by our technological advances, our scientific progress, our magnificent new architecture, our well ordered, well-regulated society here in Norway where a prime minister once said something so very un-Freudian: It’s typically Norwegian to be good.’ Hjorth shows that any such perception can only be based on the distorted self-image of a nation that refuses to look at itself too closely.
It is ironic, and perhaps typical of the level of debate in literary circles, that Will and Testament, a deeply political novel, was discussed almost exclusively in terms of its potential autobiographical elements at home and in recent English reviews. Much of the reception focused on trying to establish the truth of Hjorth’s story, as well as on the family response. This included attempts by Hjorth’s sister Helga to meet with her Norwegian publisher to make changes to the book; later, she wrote her own novel to outline her perspective. Hjorth has maintained that it is wrong to see her novel as evidence for what has happened to her, the author; she has always insisted on treating Will and Testament as fiction. In any case, Hjorth’s intention wasn’t to write a book that could easily be relegated to the personal sphere: as in A House in Norway, she shows us a country that takes part in international conflict and doesn’t bear the consequences of its action, that portrays itself as peaceful while contributing to conflict elsewhere. Her protagonists turn out to be both products of their environment and educated by society to behave in a particular manner (the Norwegian title of Will and Testament, Arv og Miljø, literally means ‘inheritance and environment’ and refers to the nature vs nurture debate: are Bergljot, her abusive father, and their home country born this way, or were they made to be this way?). Just like Bergljot’s family, just like Alma, the Norway that Hjorth writes about is keeping up appearances, steeped in the hypocrisy and delusion not just of those who are in charge, but of us all.