More Norwegian Family Scandal: A Conversation with Vigdis Hjorth




PUBLISHED IN ENGLISH for the first time by Verso Books, Will and Testament is the latest novel from Vigdis Hjorth, one of Norway’s leading writers. Told from the perspective of Bergljot, a theater critic estranged from her parents and siblings, the narrative is centered around the inheritance of the family cabins, a dispute that forces her to confront the abuse she suffered as a child. As well as winning critical adulation and a sweep of awards, Will and Testament became the focus of an explosive Norwegian tabloid drama when it was released in 2016. Hjorth’s family claimed the novel was too close to real life and that they were being unfairly represented. Adding to the storm of media attention, one of Hjorth’s sisters, Helga, retaliated by writing her own book. The drama around the book’s publication threatened to overshadow its content — precise, contemplative, and deeply moving, it’s a masterful unpacking of the tensions, secrets, and bonds that hold a family together.

I flew to Oslo to speak with Hjorth, driving out of the city to her neighborhood. The houses, old, wooden, yellow and red and white, rose around a small marina, nestled here and there on the hillside, snug among the pines. We conducted the interview in her garden — the light was soft, diffused by the water and the tall, silvery trees. An extraordinary storyteller and a perfect host, Hjorth was warm and kind; she answered my questions animatedly, enigmatically. We ate and drank, giving occasional pets to her dog, Emma, as our conversation ranged from Kierkegaard and dream diaries to the Norwegian literary canon.

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HANNAH WILLIAMS: I was reading about how, when Will and Testament was released in Norway, the press was more focused on autobiographical elements, rather than asking about the book itself. I wanted to know if you thought the Norwegian media did a disservice to the book by focusing on those autobiographical elements?

VIGDIS HJORTH: I was not surprised. That was because I know my family. My sister has written a revenge novel, where she paints a very different picture of my family. And that has forced me to talk about the novel in another way. I can’t say that there’s nothing from reality, because she has proven it. But you know, when my family understood that I was going to write about what they call “that,” they started to make plans. And it was my family that gave that information to one of the biggest newspapers in Norway, and it was so tempting for the newspaper to use it.

But they called a lawyer, and the lawyer wrote to the director of my publishing house. That was many months before the book was published. So, I was prepared. What I was most afraid of was that my editor would panic, or that the director of the publishing house would get what you call in Norway kalde føtter — cold feet. And then I thought, if they don’t publish it, I’ll publish it on the internet for free! So, when the book came out, I could [Vigdis audibly breathes a sigh of relief] at last. And then I went to Montenegro and I was there for a long time. And I didn’t read the newspapers; I am not on social media. So, it’s a good thing that I was out for, as we say in Norway, “a winter night.” I succeeded in not getting involved. But what I observed was that when I was accused of using living models, living persons, and not painting a nice picture of them, a lot of my colleagues were defending the novel in very intelligent ways. So, I was not forced out on the battlefield.

And this happened a few years ago for you now [Will and Testament was published in Norway in 2016]. Are you worried that that firestorm could happen again when it’s published in English?

I would be very surprised if something like that happens, but I guess, for my publishing house it would be good for sales. [Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t expect that to happen at all. But of course, when it’s published in another language, another country where I’m not well known, it’s proof for myself, and for my family, that it’s a novel, that you don’t have to know me or my family or my background to enjoy it.

Since the book was published in Norway, there’s been the #MeToo movement and there’s been a lot more talk about narratives of sexual abuse. Do you think that people reading it in English in 2019 will read it differently because of that?

Yeah, I’m very curious about that. I think more than a book about sexual abuse, Will and Testament is about what it’s like to not be heard. That’s Bergljot’s struggle, to be someone who has not been listened to. But of course, what #MeToo has done is show that sexual abuse, and sexual harassment, is a big phenomenon. It has always been there, and now we’ve focused on it.

I also wondered about how you look at translated versions of your work. Do you still see them as yours? Are they something separate, or distant? Do you read the translated versions at all?

I don’t. I think one of my colleagues Tor Åge Bringsværd has said that a book is a kind of bridge, when it’s finished you burn it? But I’ll listen to people that know both languages and who can comment on the translation and talk to my publishing house about that. Because I know that translation has so much say in the sound and the tempo, and also a word that not many of my colleagues use — speed. In some of my novels, at least, I want them to have a kind of speed. And if you don’t have that in the translation, you will miss something. But I heard that my English translator, Charlotte Barslund, is very good. She asked me about the smallest things, so my impression is that she’s very serious.

There’s a very poetic flow to a lot of your work, a sense of rhythm or momentum. I’ve also noticed that there’s a particular focus on poets and poetry in your work — Tove Ditlevsen, Rolf Jacobsen, Rudolf Nilsen — can you tell me about that?

Yeah, I’m very influenced by poetry, and a lot of my favorite novelists are very poetic. I love that in poetry you can, in four lines, say something very important. Brecht is one of my favorite poets because of his talent for saying very important, very difficult things, in one sentence.

Obviously fiction always takes elements from real life, and memoir is always a constructed narrative. So at what point do you think something becomes memoir? At what point does it become fiction?

I’d say it’s difficult. And especially today, everybody from both the memoir and fiction sides are challenging that line. And so the responsibility is what you call it: I think that if you call it a novel, it’s a novel. It’s what we in the Norwegian call “reality literature” — like Karl Ove Knausgaard, who uses the names of real people, existing people, so you can Google them and find their addresses and things like that. That’s one thing. And the other thing is that when they are talking with the press, they say, “This is the truth.” But of course, they mean “the truth for me.” And, you know, if you really want to describe the full reality, six volumes is not enough. So 400 pages, of course, it’s not the reality, but it’s true in another way of seeing it. The value of the truth is in the experience of the reader. Does that make sense? So if it feels true, the reader thinks, “Yes, this must be true in one sense or another.”

Like an emotional truth.

Yeah. So when I insist that Will and Testament is a novel, it’s because it isn’t my mother — you can maybe see something similar between the two — but it isn’t. And that’s why I don’t use names of existing persons. And Bergljot is not an author, she’s an editor of a theater magazine. And because of that I can write about Ibsen, Marina Abramović, all that kind of stuff. If I had made her a teacher, I would maybe have some scenes from the classroom — after every decision I take, the novel moves from reality and makes a kind of system for itself.

I mean, Knausgaard can’t remember conversations he had when he was a child. It’s always a fictionalization.

[Nods.] And if he was, if he was writing down only what had happened, if he had recorded? That wouldn’t have been good. That’s why he remembers, he recalls it in his books — that’s why it’s literature. Not dead, because it’s living in him. And he makes it true, in a way, within the work. But of course, it sells when you say, “Ah, it’s a true story, it happened in real life.”

Everybody loves something salacious! In your novels, there’s a real sense of interiority, and you reflect people’s patterns of thought in a really naturalistic way. You seem to be able to represent not just your narrator’s viewpoints, but also the viewpoints of other characters filtered through the narrator’s consciousness.

I’m very interested in people and people’s relationships, because they are so necessary for our existence — all of our relations to lovers, or friends, or family, or tenants. I have written a book about that, A House in Norway, because I had a tenant, a mother with a child. It’s not reality, but it’s a kind of treatment on the relationship between tenant and landlord. Because I was very curious, especially of my own reactions, the feeling of “this is mine.” I look upon myself as a politically correct, generous human being, and I was not! But I try to move my characters into insight. If I want to investigate a relation, I must try to understand how the other party experiences this. So in Will and Testament, for example, I hope I’ve succeeded in showing that her sister, Astrid, really wants the family to be happy, to come together. And she doesn’t understand how provoking her peace-language is. But I tried not to make her a monster or something. You must understand how tempting it is for the family to believe the father.

It was actually the parts about Astrid that prompted that question. It felt like a very kind of empathetic portrayal. On that note, it seems as if the protagonist is able to show more sympathy for her father than her mother. Sometimes it’s harder to forgive the person who stood by and did nothing, rather than the perpetrator — do you agree with that?

Yes. And I think it’s that the mother failed her all the time. It’s the mother who blames her. The father is silent. And he is not a happy person. It’s like his life has gone wrong somewhere. And in a way he has taken his burden on him, whereas the mother feels not guilty: “Yeah. I’ve done nothing wrong.” And when they go to the meeting to read the will, Bergljot hopes that the mother would maybe start crying and say, “Yes. I have been so powerless. I couldn’t do anything because I was so dependent on your father.” And maybe to be free of them, Bergljot needs to get rid of this hope. Because it’s demanding to have hope and then be disappointed, so she says, “Okay, now or never.” And her mother reacts like she does, and it makes Bergljot free.

In Will and Testament, there are quite a few mentions of different philosophies and philosophers. Are there any major philosophers that you feel have guided your writing?

There are many, but the main is Søren Kierkegaard. And he says that to be a human being is a gift and a task — in Norwegian there’s a similar word for both, oppgave. You should be with all your responsibilities, all your feelings; you’re a human being on earth — what an opportunity! And the adventure is not to be president in the United States or to travel around the world, but to be exactly who you are. And he talks about how there are so many people living in the basement, even though high up the perspective is infinite. I write about this in Will and Testament when Bergljot is in a church. And she’s lighting a candle, thinking about everybody she cares about. And she talks about how the flame is wafting, and wonders if it’s the wind. But it’s her breath. And she suddenly understands this very Kierkegaardian thought that just by living you can make things move. And I’m influenced by Freud, Wittgenstein, Jung …

It’s interesting that you mention Freud and Jung, because there are quite a few dream passages in Will and Testament. Is that something that you’re kind of particularly interested in?

I try to dream every night. And I write it down, but I try not to reflect much about it. And if I feel heavy then I’ll write it down, and when I wake up, I’ll feel lighter. I’ll show you my dream book. [Vigdis fetches a notebook filled with dense handwriting and turns to a page.]

This is from the 6th January, 2008. It was a very bad time for me, and I didn’t understand why it was so painful. And when I fell asleep, I dreamt that I was sleeping and I woke up and went into the hallway and there was a deer that was hurt. And I tried to get it up, but it was so heavy, and I wanted to call the vet but it was so early. So I tried to sleep a little more, and I put a pillow over my ears so I didn’t hear its crying. And my name in Norwegian is “deer”: Vigdis Deer — “Hjort” means deer. And then I understood, now you must help yourself up, take care of yourself. So it helped me to understand my situation on a deeper level. So when I’m in a heavy situation, I ask my dreams to give me some help. And Bergljot needs that contact with herself. Her dreams make her understand that her family doesn’t want to be with her. And in that situation her dreams give her courage.

Are there any contemporary writers that you think are doing amazing work? Maybe they’re in Norwegian, and you think they deserve to be translated, or maybe they’re writing in English.

I think that the one I admire most is Dag Solstad. And he’s being translated more than ever before. Ingvild Schade is very, very exciting; she has a very special voice, Helga Flatland too. And, of course, Per Petterson.

Do you think you tend to prefer reading Norwegian authors?

No, I don’t think so, but I tend to read the same books over and over again. [Laughs.] But I very much appreciate literature that can help me to change my life, my behavior; that encourages me to have a new view. That’s why I read so much philosophy, I guess. I don’t want to dream away, I don’t want to go into a different world and pretend to be there. I’m also fond of angry writers, like Elfriede Jelinek — really angry people. I don’t think there are many angry authors in Norway, and maybe that’s because we live in one of the best countries in Europe. A lot of Norwegian literature is about how to be bored, but that can also be interesting.

Do you see yourself as belonging to a Norwegian canon, or literary tradition? Do you think that you share common themes with your peers in the Norwegian literary scene — someone like Knausgaard, for instance?

I love Knausgaard’s project, it’s very special. And in one way, he’s part of a Norwegian female tradition. We have a tradition of exceptional female writers, whose works have changed our way of thinking about society. The first modern novel in Norway was written in 1854–’55 by Camilla Collett, who was writing about a marriage of love versus a marriage of convenience. It was a scandal, of course.

Then we had Amalie Skram, who wrote about a 17-year-old, sexually inexperienced girl marrying an older sea captain, and how their marriage is destroyed by their sexual experiences, which happened to her in real life. Skram moved to Denmark to marry her Danish husband, who then sent her to asylum, where she wrote very sharply about how they treated what they called “mentally unbalanced women.” And when she wrote about these things — marriage, institutionalization — Bjørnson, the Nobel laureate, said, “You can’t talk about these things. It’s childish, it’s too intimate.” So she was betrayed by him.

And there was Sigrid Undset. Her novel opens like this: “I had betrayed my husband.” [Vigdis gasps dramatically.] There was also Torborg Nedreaas, who was writing about illegal abortion, and Herbjørg Wassmo, who wrote about incest from the perspective of a child. I think the main questions in my writing stem from a traditional modernist tradition combined with this female tradition.

That’s really interesting. I think he’s definitely working from that tradition, but the response for him, as a man, is much easier. You know, when a woman writes about memoir there’s a tendency to dismiss her, to say that there’s no artistry there. He seems to be able to have both: to write a confessional novel and lauded for it.

Yeah. In general, it’s very difficult for both men and women to admire women. There’s a strong longing for the “big man,” in all fields in our society. It’s difficult to get rid of that, I think, but I think in one way he’s helped. Even though it wasn’t his meaning he has, you know, lifted that tradition in one way. But it’s possible to say that what he does, we have done for a long time.

It seems like quite a lot of your protagonists are older or middle-aged women, often with families, often divorced. And in the history of literature that isn’t something that’s often been represented. Was that an intentional thing, to redress that balance?

When I started writing, I was around 22. And I was writing childhood books. But I also tried to write a grown-up novel — I wanted it to mean something about society, about the history of everything, and it was very pretentious. And it was by accident that my editor ever read it, and she sent it back saying, “No, we can’t, it will not get read.” And in that novel, I used the word, “I.” And then I understood that when I used “I,” I didn’t have the control to use an “I” that was not referring to me. So, the person was totally me. And so that I wrote about a person that was not me. And that was a little boy, five years old, and he was living in a little house. I wasn’t dealing with the world, with politics. And that was my debut.

But, of course, I write about my own experience, and even though I write novels, I always ask myself, “What am I dealing with now?” I have written a novel about, for example, a mother who drinks too much, and how her children deal with that. And of course, that was because I was drinking too much, and I was curious and anxious about how that affected my children. And I wouldn’t write about it if I didn’t think that others had this same problem.

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Hannah Williams is an arts and culture writer based in London.


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