Books

Vigdis Hjorth
Long Live the Post Horn!

“Why couldn’t I just feel the way I was used to? Except that was exactly what I didn’t want.” Ellinor is a mixed-up person: she is always rushing about in order to hurry through bad feelings; she is concealing a hidden grief from her boyfriend, Stein, whom she loves poorly; and strange typos are showing up in the copy she files at work. Like the other two novels by Vigdis Hjorth published in English so far, also translated by Charlotte Barslund, Long Live the Post Horn! richly charts the troughs and arias of the protagonist’s emotional life.

Here’s what has gone down: Ellinor works in a boutique communications company and her co-worker Dag has up and disappeared, leaving behind a dispiriting letter and an unfinished contract with the union of the Norwegian post office. Yes, this novel, originally published in Norway in 2013, is about the post office – so timely – and as Ellinor works to activate a sense of personal investment in Dag’s incomplete assignment, which entails rallying public sentiment against encroaching neoliberal interests, she finds the grist she needs is right in front of her.

There’s the letter from Dag – “I’ve deleted everything on the computer so it’s ready for the next poor sucker” – and the strange letter Stein pockets surreptitiously, and there’s another letter from Dag, and a letter her post office client describes with great fanfare. Then there’s the most magnificent break-up letter one could have the misfortune of receiving, drafted by Ellinor herself. In it she writes, “I feel as if my life is too banal for my despair. That our relationship is too trivial and not passionate enough for our despair. What do we do with our despair if our lives are too small to contain it?” This is the moment she clocks the significance of the personal letter as a kind of exalted space, a space for private feeling and free expression, a form that compels boldness and risk. Once a letter is opened, its contents turn ambient, hanging over everything like a mist. Or a chemtrail. Now Ellinor has her angle, she can approach the task at hand with greater verve.

More to the point, though, Ellinor is struggling through a rather chaotic period to reset the dictates of her life. In this she joins the cast of Hjorth’s other protagonists: in 2017’s A House in Norway Alma’s latent xenophobia asserts itself when she rents her flat out to a Polish family. Her practice as an artist examining questions of social harmony flourishes, while tensions with the family reach fever pitch. In 2019’s Will and Testament, a woman in the middle of her life suddenly recalls early sexual abuse perpetrated by her father, and this repressed family knowledge is brought to bear on issues of his will. That novel asks if you are loved when you are disbelieved.

The competing drives of Hjorth’s women are often horrible and often laudable. Ellinor is creeped out by Stein’s young son, Truls, and can muster no genuine affection for him; her sister wants to buy an alarm clock for their mother, a stupid idea in Ellinor’s mind: “What has she got to get up for, why can’t she sleep and sleep until she dies!” Ellinor is engaged with what she calls her “unrequited love affair with life”, but from which direction flows the injustice?

As the novel progresses, Ellinor wakes up to the knowledge of her own baffling and volatile contingency, as well as that of those around her. In a panicked hiatus from work, she travels to Paris in an attempt at a reset; there, she watches a group of people experiencing homelessness who are assembling for the evening. At first she wonders why they aren’t talking to each other, sharing stories or a bottle. Then she reconsiders: “The homeless under the awning didn’t pretend to have something in common,” she observes. “Did people normally pretend to have something in common? I envied other people their togetherness, but was it fake, was there no such thing?” Across the novel Ellinor tries to spite her disaffection by stretching towards others, only to find that her encounters twist on hidden knowledge, circumstances outside her limited view. The next night she watches again: “The man from last night staggered into the telephone booth, leaned his head against the panel above the telephone, his long arms dangling. At a quarter past one a dark stain grew on his trouser leg. This was the world. When I woke up, he was gone.”

The brilliance of Vigdis Hjorth is her ability to match a distinctive lack of sentimentality with a seductive and questing idealism – even at her most alienated, Ellinor can’t escape a sense of what she names as “restless yearning”. For a reader it’s a refreshing and addictive torrent to enter. Ellinor feels keenly the malaise of her middle-class existence, all her failures of communication, big and small. And while the post office contract revives a sense of greater social purpose, as the project inevitably winds down it is time for Ellinor to face the question of what she really wants: “For so long I’d been on some kind of merry-go-round that had finally stopped so I could get off and I didn’t want to get back on.” Long Live the Post Horn! is a novel about the frustrations of a writer who comes to recognise an easily forgotten truth – that the making of a life is, at its essence, creative work. This is a novel for all of us who have scrolled through job listings while at our desks. Dare I say it’s a novel for 2020.

At one point Ellinor reflects that “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.” So when after each revelatory bomb she wades back into the quagmire, well, you wait and you hope.

Emily Stewart

Verso, 208pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "Vigdis Hjorth, Long Live the Post Horn!".

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Reviewer: Emily Stewart