“Once a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Czeslaw Milosz
“I won’t talk about my family.” Vigdis Hjorth
“I object greatly to this taking people’s lives and putting them into fiction. And then a famous author who resents critics for saying that he doesn’t make things up”. Deception, Phillip Roth
A novel that combines “reality fiction” and metafiction is difficult to pull off. Hjorth’s novel is an absorbing read. It exposes the treachery of Norway’s Social Democratic party’s attempt to privatise its postal service and integrate it fully into its capitalist economic system.
It has to be said that Long Live the Post Horn is one of the few novels about the postal service. Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 comes to mind, as does Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, which reviewers of Hjorth’s book have ignored.
Hjorth, born in 1959, is a prolific author of over 20 novels and is well-known in her own country, although not as renowned abroad. However, her latest book, Is Mother Dead, is changing that. Long Live the Post Horn! (2012) is the third of her books translated into English by the superb Charlotte Barslund. The surreal cover of Long Live the Post Horn! was designed by Rumors. It is beautiful and was included on a BuzzFeed News list of “the most beautiful book covers of 2020”. All major media publications extensively reviewed the novel.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Makenna Goodman wrote of Long Live the Post Horn! that it was “a familiar exposition of capital and commodity” and argued that “Hjorth manages to make it feel urgent in a new way” and that her writing style was “neat and direct, even when it becomes circuitous” and concluded that “a novel like Long Live the Post Horn! does not come around often enough.”
The book’s main character is Ellinor, a PR consultant who decides to take on the European Union [EU] and the Norwegian Social Democratic Party’s attempt to privatise the postal network. While exposing the treachery of the Social Democrats, the novel glorifies the trade unions, which in the modern period have collaborated with big business as much as the European Labour Parties.
During a recent book launch of Hjorth’s new book Is Mother dead, she chilling recounts that one of the leading Social Democratic politicians mentioned in the book was killed in the July 22, 2011, massacre at a social-democratic summer camp organised by the youth division of the Labour Party, where 69 people were brutally killed, by the fascist Anders Breivik.
During the same meeting, Hjorth was brutally honest about how writing about her family in her novels had deeply affected her mental health. Hjorth writes about being in psychoanalysis, “What is interesting, when you go to see an analyst, you find out how many lies you have in your story about yourself,” she says. “Often, you survive because you have these lies. But still, you have to get rid of those lies even though you have survived by telling them to yourself. And that’s a painful process. I think that people who have been in psychoanalysis learn not to lie as much as they did before. So, like we are talking here now, my mind might be thinking, ‘Ah, Vigdis, Is this right? Are you lying now? Is this how you like to see it? OK, be honest.’ So you learn the technique of communicating with yourself.”
Her novel Will and Testament provoked a lawsuit from her own family, and her sister then wrote her book in response to Hjorth’s. According to Hjorth.”Most families have a kind of official family story,” This is how we do Christmas’, and so on. If one member does not share this official, nice story, there is a big tension. I think I have given a voice to that person who has a more complex story who is not prepared to be part of it. The family won’t listen to her, and there is a great deal of unpleasantness.”
She suggests a long tradition in Norwegian fiction, especially among female writers, to expose the dark underbelly of family life. “I think literally the first sentence that Sigrid Undset, our Nobel prize winner, wrote, in her first book was ‘I have been unfaithful to my husband’,” she says, with a laugh. “So it was always there.” The desire for truth-telling emerges, perhaps, from a particular sameness in Norwegian family life, she adds. “I think in England for example the difference between rich and poor has always been big and especially now. And so there are lots of versions of family life. In Norway I think we are more equal in generally. And I think when everyone is living the same way, people compare all the time. It makes them look from behind the curtains at their neighbours.”
Hjorth’s honesty has deeply affected her readers as well as the people who translate her novels, with Charlotte Barslund writing, “When I translate a novel, I am always conscious of the place where it takes off and the place where it lands. Will its themes resonate with its new readers who bring their own experiences to a novel conceived in another country? Since I was commissioned to translate Is Mother Dead two years ago, I have become increasingly aware of how many instances of family estrangement exist both among people I know and outside my circle. Hjorth’s thoughtful, honest and razor-sharp analysis of estrangement has left me with a sense of profound sadness and a desperate plea for compassion, humility and tolerance. There has to be another way than cutting people out of your life if they don’t share your truth. Is Mother Dead shows us that there are no winners in the intergenerational battle”?
From a philosophical standpoint, Hjorth is deeply influenced by the work of Soren Kierkegaard. The title of Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Long Live the Post Horn!, is taken from Soren Kierkegaard’s work, Repetition, in which the 19th-century Danish philosopher cites the post horn. The horn was used in Norway to announce the coming of the mail. It must be said that Kierkegaard is not a healthy influence on Hjorth’s work.
In a critical review of Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joachim Garff, Tom Carter writes, “Kierkegaard, whose major works include Fear and Trembling, Either-Or, and From the Papers of One Still Living, remains a major figure in philosophy. He is one of the principal authors of some of the most prevalent philosophical positions in academia today, which include the rejection of reason, science and the Enlightenment, and, above all, a rejection of the unity of reason and reality, which is a rejection of the possibility of science. Kierkegaard saw no correlation between universal essence and individual existence—between the law-governed processes of the objective world and the perceptive and cognitive faculties of the individual. Moreover, he denied that such a correlation was achievable.”
Unlike Kierkegaard, Hjorth does see a connection between universal essence and individual existence. This does not make her a socialist or anti-capitalist, but it gives her a deeper insight into the problems millions of workers face worldwide. As a teacher, Hjorth worked with people who had no papers or were refugees, and this empathy with working people imbues her work. Her new book deserves a wide readership, and her previous work should be re-examined.
 Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, by Joachim Garff, translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse. 867 pages, Princeton University Press, http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/04/kier-a17.html