OCTOBER 28, 2020
MY HUSBAND SAID to me in bed last night: “It’s possible I’m not a reader.” He had just put down another novel after 10 pages, unable to connect with it, a common repetition he was growing tired of. But this felt to me like giving up. Wasn’t it just as possible that every book that came across his path failed to address the core of his inquiry?
A life-changing book is elusive. It’s what we long for as readers, the feeling of traveling a new pathway toward consciousness, like discovering the missing pages of an honest diary, the one explaining human existence. This kind of telepathic communication can provide a comfort that, like a perfectly timed joke, offers relief from life’s prolonged tension. And yet, if a powerful book holds up the mirror, it also breaks it down upon our heads. We experience our image just before we see the glass shatter, and a good writer guides us as we pick up the pieces. Many readers dislike this feeling of familiarity or rupture, however — through reading they seek an escape or to be titillated beyond their own well-trod fetishes. For others, reading is more like a spiritual path; good books are like prophets. And yet, very little literature, even when considered critically important, is as good as the mythology of its greatness.
There are many transcendent exceptions, of course, and each time I discover one, my nightstand, a towering altar of possible idols, is swept clean as if purified. I become frenzied, possessed. I read everything the author has produced and burrow as far as possible into the truth. I begin a prolonged phase of intimate discovery from which I cannot be distracted. These writers are rare. Vigdis Hjorth is one of them.
I was introduced to Hjorth by a writer friend who gave me A House in Norway, Hjorth’s first book translated into English, which was originally published in Norway in 2014 and came out three years later in the United Kingdom with a university press devoted to translating Nordic literature. A Norwegian bookseller had approached my friend who was on tour, pressed Hjorth’s book into her arms, and said, “This is the Norwegian writer you should be reading.” Hjorth’s translator, Charlotte Barslund, had worked closely with Norvik Press to reveal Hjorth’s work, at last, to an English reader with the best possible introduction (not her most recent). A House in Norway lays out the internal devolution of a tapestry artist who rents her in-law apartment to a Polish woman and her young daughter struggling to make ends meet. It is one of the most brilliant novels about class and the defensive hypocrisy of well-intentioned elites I have encountered. I read it in one sitting, then read it again.
Hjorth is well known and admired in Norway; she has published more than 20 novels that have been translated into many languages. Her second English-translated novel, Will and Testament (Verso, 2019), a family saga about inheritance and the devastating revelation of childhood abuse, won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize, and was longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, among others. After its initial publication in Norway in 2016, it resulted in a literary scandal including a rebuttal novel by Hjorth’s sister, who condemned the book as lies. But the book was a novel, and a prodigious one. And what are the boundaries between reality and creation anyway? Hjorth has always maintained that her work is fiction. The question “Is this Vigdis?” is a tired one. The point is not to discover the hidden truth about Vigdis Hjorth, but what her writing can reveal about the hidden truths of society.
Hjorth is not interested in just telling a good story; she turns a narrative inside out and hands us the innards. In an interview, she refers to writing as a sort of realization tool — the relationship, she says, between head, gut, and hand. Her work deconstructs the human condition. It seems to be building a theory — about the abuses perpetuated by those in power, about those who give and those who take, about those hiding behind acts of virtue with a knife drawn.
Long Live the Post Horn! is her latest novel to be translated into English, and it tells the story of Ellinor, a 35-year-old publicist who inherits a project after the abrupt disappearance and suicide of her colleague. Her task is to manage communications for Postkom, the Norwegian Post and Communications Union, which opposes the European Union’s directive to allow competition for letters weighing less than 50 grams, which would put the workers’ jobs at risk and threaten the reliability of the postal system in general. Ellinor is jaded, apathetic. She lacks desire for her boyfriend and doesn’t care much about her sister’s fertility woes. She can’t figure out how to write for a client named the Real Thing, a chain of American organic food restaurants. And now, she must learn about the postal service and advise the union, at the last minute, on messaging to convince Norway’s ruling Labour Party to block the EU’s directive, and as such save many postal workers’ jobs. She has to pretend to care — it’s all a performance — and is constantly advised by a colleague, Rolf, to turn to her templates and wait for the project’s inevitable failure, at which point she’ll nod solemnly and accept payment for an outcome that was doomed from the beginning.
Ellinor, however, does something no one else at the firm seems to bother with — she listens, in particular to Rudolf Karena Hansen, a postal worker serving 1,500 remote homes beyond the Arctic Circle who tells the story of dead letters (ones that are illegible or have an addressee unknown) that he has brought back to life, specifically his heroic quest to deliver one to an unknown man named “Helge Brun.” Over the years, after communicating with the people on his mail route, Hansen discovered he had been misreading the name. It was Helga Brun — a woman’s name — that one letter “e” had kept him off track for years. Helga was a visiting summer school teacher who had asked her students to answer this question in an essay: “Why am I unhappy”? The topic had overwhelmed the children with anxiety, and their families were horrified; Helga was chased out of town, never to be heard from again. The dead letter turned out to be a thank you note from a former student — Helga’s essay assignment had changed his life and given him the courage to accept himself. Hansen had saved the letter from disappearing, had sewn the thread back into the seam. Helga had read the letter on her deathbed:
“My point here”, [sic] [Hansen] said, “is to show how important it is to turn dead letters into living ones. And that people are the decisive factor when that needs doing, and that’s why postal workers must have job security, decent working conditions and enough time to dedicate themselves to this demanding and honourable job.”
Ellinor asks herself, upon hearing the tale of Helga Brun: “Self-acceptance, was that what I was struggling with, was that what I was longing for?” She wonders, too, what she is willing to fight for. What will be her contribution to society once she accepts herself? Eventually, she abandons her templates and helps the postal service with their own imperative, one that must be fought for against all odds (and in their own words). In the end, Ellinor achieves a kind of existential peace because she has found something that is really real, as opposed to a simulacrum of reality: “Was the man behind The Real Thing himself the real thing, I wondered? I googled him; he looked like every other capitalist.” But could she have done something sooner? “This is politics, I said to myself in the car […] perhaps many things would have been different if Rolf, Dag and I had discussed politics in our breaks.” In other words, if she had integrated the language of societal struggle into her daily life and committed to it:
But there was another language that was equally necessary, one which had sustained me these last few months. It was the language spoken in the shadows and in the corners and on remote islands and in seedy dives and in attics, in bedrooms and letters and on the phone by those standing at the edge of the precipice and those who are falling. A language that has no agenda other than to express a truth about the writer, just like the postal worker had written plainly that he hoped the years wouldn’t be tough. 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. And that language had to be preserved and protected because without it no one would survive, including the elephants. Because elephants, too, dream of not being elephants and yearn for something higher which can’t be described with or advertised in elephant language.
I made up my mind to buy myself a diary and cultivate that language.
Long Live the Post Horn! presents a familiar exposition of capital and commodity: with the introduction of something new comes a frenzy to sell it, a competition to own it, and a wake of waste that has been hauled over the sides of the ship to make it the fleetest. But Hjorth manages to make it feel urgent in a new way, by focusing in exponentially on something we might otherwise overlook — less so now, perhaps, since the US postal service is currently experiencing its own threat, as the powers that be attempt to monopolize control over the upcoming election-by-mail. It takes an act of great social responsibility to prevent another capitalist takeover — this is Ellinor’s journey, to support the postal workers’ stories and make overturning the EU’s directive convincing to the “top brass” at the Labour Party conference.
And yet, as passionate as she becomes about the project, Ellinor doesn’t have much on the line. Losing will not make a significant difference in her life. The fact that she begins to care deeply is an act of individual choice, not one of necessity. Her firm doesn’t require an understanding of their clients; their motto seems to be If it’s not your neck on the line, there’s no point in sticking it out. And isn’t this the case for many so-called liberal elites — the ones who say they care but may not be willing to give anything up in support of the cause, who clock in every day yet fail to do much honest work? They might clock out feeling a little shabby, but nothing a glass of wine or two can’t solve. Hjorth asserts elite society as lazy, blind to the fact that something seemingly trivial like a postal directive, in fact, can threaten the foundation of democracy — that without a deep understanding of labor, we will never achieve existential clarity. If we don’t protect the workers, Hjorth asks, who will? And should we fail to protect them, what does that make us?
Hjorth’s prose is neat and direct, even when it becomes circuitous. She is frugal with metaphors and doesn’t require them as a buttress. Real life, real emotion, that is enough. The depth of her intellectual power is not obscured by flowery language, and one must read her at the velocity of her narrator’s thoughts, which move at a clip with us racing after them. To slow down is to risk losing a precious part. But it is a necessary speed, energy that fuels the story. In fact, Ellinor’s description of reading letters from the union reps describes Hjorth’s style exactly: “It wasn’t the individual words, the individual word, the individual sentence, the individual, limping sentences, but the feeling that rose from the paper, it had a presence, an immediacy as if what was written wasn’t imagined but actually lived.”
Hjorth is concerned with language, with storytelling. She asks, Who is in control? Anyone who has been visited by a consultant knows what it’s like to be told what one is doing wrong and how one can do better, from someone who lacks the context and history of the entity they have been hired to fix. As Ellinor says, “[T]he postal workers had had enough of our talk, they had worked out that we didn’t know what was going on, not really, I knew that from their letters.” In fact, it is the media, journalism, and the performance of politicians that must be regarded with skepticism. “The journalist is a means, not an end,” Ellinor says. “But the means can choose for which end it wants to be the means! Or can it?” Hjorth asks us to imagine a world where those with narrative power protect the stories of the people over the interests of commerce.
The English translations of Hjorth’s novels have been released in reverse order of their publication in Norway. Long Live the Post Horn! was first published in 2012, soon after the July 22, 2011, massacre at a social-democratic summer camp organized by the youth division of the Labour Party, where 69 people were brutally killed, most of them teenagers, by a man wearing a fake police uniform. The killer had posted only one thing to his Twitter account days before the attack: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.”
The power of the single individual is a central concept in the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s work, whom Hjorth has cited as a major influence. And the epigraph to Long Live the Post Horn! is a quote from Constantin Constantius, Kierkegaard’s narrator in Repetition: A Venture in Experimental Psychology, worth quoting in full:
Long live the post horn! It’s my instrument for many reasons, principally because you can never be sure to coax the same tone from it twice; a post horn is capable of producing an infinite number of possibilities, and he who puts his lips to it and invests his wisdom in it will never be guilty of repetition, and he who, instead of answering his friend, hands him a post horn for his amusement, says nothing yet explains everything. Praised be the post horn! It’s my symbol. Just as the ascetics of old placed a skull on their desks for contemplation, so will the post horn on my desk always remind me of the meaning of life.
Like Kierkegaard, Hjorth gives her narrator the post horn. But what possibilities will Ellinor coax from it? And will her colleagues use it only for their amusement? It is a question of ethics, of one person acting in the interest of the whole. What will we, the reader, do with the post horn when it is passed to us? Just as Ellinor reflects on the repetitive inanity of her diaries from girlhood while wondering how to write something of value, Hjorth offers Long Live the Post Horn! as a kind of unearthed collective diary we can open again, years later. The hope is that we will be surprised to discover we had known the purpose of our existence all along.
And while Ellinor is the antithesis to the July 22 killer, both act as individuals. One seeks to save, the other to destroy. But they both are protecting a belief. It’s possible to interpret Ellinor’s passionate awakening as Hjorth’s call to Norway, in the wake of devastation, to value its people; to repeat their stories and support their struggles; to prevent the repetition of pathological hatred, systemic racism, and senseless violence — a directive, in many ways, that is put forth by a government fanning the flames of anti-immigration and xenophobic nationalism. The timing was right for this book in Norway in 2012, and the timing is right for us now. A novel like Long Live the Post Horn! does not come around often enough.
Will we use the post horn for our own amusement? Will we listen to the story of the people? Or will we use our practiced performances to sell, yet again, the same template of what only appears to be action? “I had a choice,” Ellinor says,
and I had to choose, we all had to, so would it be ice age or spring? I could give up the Real Thing, all it took was one keystroke, one sentence, give it up in order to give myself to something else, it’s never too late to start. I thought I’d understood that, but certain things, I realised now, must be understood over and over again.
Makenna Goodman is the author of The Shame (Milkweed, 2020). Her words and work have appeared in Electric Literature, The Paris Review, Guernica, Literary Hub, The Adroit Journal, Catapult, The Rumpus, and more.