Vigdis Hjorth’s (Oslo,1959) last novel, “La herencia” (“Will and testament”), (Nórdicalibros, 2019), manages to show us how pain passes from generation to generation, if we do not cope to heal ourselves.
Bergljot, the protagonist, has fought to “repair” herself, in order to save her son and daughters, probably her future grandchildren and nephews too, from a chaotic broken mother, who suffered a violent abusive father, who had himself suffered something, which is not specified in the book; and a depressed mother who spends her life in competition with her older daughter, which happens to be Bergljot herself.
One of the details that underline the quality of Miss Hjorth’s writing is how the narrator insists on showing the mental and social consequences of the facts that did happen, how they persisted, and not on flooding the pages with rugged details of those facts.
I felt that Vigdis Hjorth, obviously, had a lot to say.
Please, find bellow the result of a bunch of mails that we exchanged during July 2020.
Where are you spending this pandemic period?
At home, working! I live on an island in Asker, by the Oslo-fjord.
What’s the next project?
I have just finished a new novel. It will be published in August. I am a bit nervous.
Have you been isolated?
Yes, as usual.
Writers are used to isolation but during this pandemic, many of them have been complaining about lack of concentration and productivity. Was that your case?
I worked well, but at the end of the day I was more afraid of the future than I used to be. I’m very afraid of the future, for my children and grandchildren – not myself.
Do you believe that this virus will produce a real change in the way you write and the way you live?
Please, have in mind that “La herencia” (Arv og miljø ) is your first book that we get to read translated to Spanish. Are you still promoting this book?
Yes, in some countries. It is fun and a little bit boring.
I am interested in the boring part. You are welcome to be cruel, for sure.
I would rather talk about my new novel – it is always like that – the newest one is the most interesting for the author.
To how many languages was it translated, till today?
Twenty-five, I think.
Outside Norway, where was it best received?
I do not have the overview, but at least I know that, outside Norway, readers have been less interested in whether or not the book is autobiographic.
Do you believe this book was well understood?
You start the novel with a phrase: “My father died five months ago, at an opportune or inopportune moment, depending on how you look at it.”
Then, as the plot advances, the reader believes that he faces the harshness of the comparative tort in the distribution of an inheritance, inside a Norwegian family.
This force has always been the engine of many disputes, in so many families, but soon that same reader comes across something very different, a lot more painful and unacceptable. The story shifts from some sort of known bourgeois angst to a child abuse. Was this the plan from the conception of the piece?
Yes! But, often the disagreement about an inheritage is a disagreement about what kind of family the family members have grown up in.
Is the narrative arc clear before you start writing your plots?
No, but I have kind of a plan.
“What would it be like to be a healthy person? I didn’t know what it was like to be a healthy person, an uninjured person; I had no more experience than mine.”
Throughout the book, the dreams of Bergljot, and even her mother’s, are used to advance the plot or deepen our
understanding of the character. It is a risky resource, because the reader may perceive it as a trick, but here it works smoothly. Do you frequently use it?
Yes! To me, dreams are very important, they tell us a lot. I listen to my dreams! They are wiser than me.
The entire story is riddled with references to psychiatric classic masters, such as Freud or Jung, and visits to the psychoanalyst. Is this novel part of a therapeutic process?
Not for me. But, in my perspective, Freud and Jung are Philosophers, not only psychoanalysts.
Which one is your favorite and which one is more useful for your life and your writing?
I like both of them, but if I have to choose, I would choose Freud. He is less metaphysically oriented than Jung. Freud is a philosopher of
every-day-life (and every-night-life).
Analysis helps you to write better? Your book seems deeply influenced by that experience.
Analysis helped me to live. And to live is a prerequisite for my writing.
In the analysis practice there is also a search for the storytelling that allows us to keep on with our existence. I feel that Bergljot, maybe like any human being, is desperately looking for an acceptance of her story that allows her, somehow, to pass this dirty chapter, and keep on with her life.
Yes. But she writes about theater and when she sees and writes about theater, she can use her own story in one way or the other. She treats her trauma by writing and talking with intelligent and interesting people and by reading. It is possible!
Bergljot appears to us as an obvious victim of his father’s violence, and of his mother’s neglect, but the story shows us the subtleties with which our middle-class lives can make us doubt our possibility of denunciation. After all, she accepts money, cars and other help from her father, who seems to be willing to buy an impossible silence and forgiveness.
Yes – she accepts anything that resembles an admission.
Is there any possibility of repairing the affective damages within a family that faces a tragedy like the one you describe in your book?
Maybe, if the mother – after the father’s death had started to cry, to admit that she knew, if she had said: I have been so powerless, so dependent on your father, and this was heartfelt – that Berljliot actually believed her – I think maybe Bergljot would have understood and forgiven her.
Is there a more dysfunctional environment than a Western middle class family?
Oh yes! Families are dysfunctional everywhere – in different ways.
«I could have been happy if it wasn’t for that».
Can we be reborn after childhood trauma or we carry that weight for the rest of our lives?
We cannot be reborn, but we can learn how to carry our trauma in a way that does not destroy us, I hope.
Is forgiveness possible? Does it really exist? Is it even fair to ask for forgiveness?
I think forgiveness is possible, but it is difficult to forgive something that is not admitted.
«I had learned that it was not allowed to tell the truth, that if I did, I would be punished”.
I believe this is, maybe, the center of the conflict in your book. The need for admission is not satisfied, no matter what happens, or how time passes by.
Yes. But you can learn to live with dissatisfaction. It is hard, but possible.
That topic, and the search for the truth about what really happened, seems to me crucial in your story. Is it really possible to agree in a “shared truth” of what has been the history of a family?
I do not know – I guess it is difficult, but I think it is possible to get to understand “the other´s” truth.
Why do you think there is this interest in distinguishing whether your story is real or not? From the point of view of the literary quality of a book, this morbid curiosity does not contribute anything positive or negative.
A: I think the question “Is it “real” – was used to disqualify me as a writer morally.
I would love to go deeper in this subject, if that’s possible.
If the newspaper could “prove” that many of the situations or conversations in the novel had happen “in real life” – they could claim that I indirectly was accusing my own father of abuse, and that would be bad because he’s dead and he does not have the possibility to defend himself. That would be bad behavior and people would not buy and read a novel written by such an immoral writer. That is how I think my family was resonating when they gave information to the media, that then tried to find similarities between the novel and “real life”.
The story manages to escape the cliché of the sisters, Astrid and Åsa, showing solidarity with Bergljot; and Bård, the brother, taking sides with his father. Boys with the boys; girls with the girls.
I have not thought of this that way, but you have a point.
“It is curious how casual it is to meet people who will later be decisive for the development of our lives”.
The fact that Bergljot finds understanding outside the family, Klara, in particular, and not within the closed universe of his parents and siblings, tells us a lot about the value of those relationships that we maintain, with those who are not our blood.
Bergljot is a well-rounded character. She’s not perfect. She’s far from it, in fact. She is chaotic, contradictory, dipsomaniac, among other small defects.
In other circumstances, you would risk losing the empathy of the reader to the character, but how could you not take sides with the victim of child sexual abuse?
You don’t get nice and healthy and kind by suffering, by being abused. It is hard work to make the pain you have experienced into something good for others.
In the book there are several references to Ibsen. While reading the book, from time to time, I kept thinking about Stockmann, the protagonist of «An enemy of the people», who will tell the truth, regardless of the costs involved. In some intervention of Tale, especially.
Ibsen is a reference for all Norwegians writers!
Which is your favorite piece by Ibsen?
I have many: Peer Gynt, Vildanden, Gjengangere.
What about Bjørn Bjørnson?
He is more important as a nation-builder and progressive figure than an author, even though he got the Nobel prize for his writing, not Ibsen.
At some point, Bergljot feels sorry for her father, because he shares with her the condition of victim of his past. «An immense compassion for my father rises within me. That old man who did not get rid of his past» He is also a broken man, who will not heal anymore.
Yes, and in some sense – in his silence – he admits his sin.
As impossible as it may seem, since she does not commit sexual abuse, the mother is presented as the most unfriendly character in the family. The most selfish, in a continuous competition with the abused daughter, and incapable of occupying the position that she is supposed to occupy, in the natural law of things, that of protector of her offspring.
The mother is both irresponsible and childish, and in some respects, she chooses to be so.
“Can that be done? I asked, sobbing.”
The end of the book seems like an acknowledgment that the end does not exist. That it is impossible to truly break up with your family. Something that we have, already, perceived during the rest of the story. That those two frail, elderly people, who are her parents still dominate her existence.
Yes. It is sad!
«I was in my fifties, but still suffered from that fear of parental authority that children have.»
Bergljot shows a real panic about being a girl again. “I would like to be a calm and balanced adult”. She makes premature existential decisions because of that fear and that flight forward: «I had married and had children soon to stop being a daughter and become a mother»
We all carry the child we were inside us! But we can carry it in different ways, more or less destructive.
A phrase by Klara, “Enduring is the first duty of living beings.”, shows what I think is another powerful idea of the book, the importance of resisting the vicissitudes of life. Whatever they are. Resist, survive, and continue living, always.
Yes, we’re all animals of instinct. Freud said: Nothing animal is alien to me.
«You broke up, Bo said, and yet you are not freed from it.»
Bard, almost 60 years old, is still obsessed with childhood and wants an explanation of why things were the way they were, but it does not come. So, again, the victim of the sexual abuse is one of the victims, not the only one.
You are right! We carry our childhood throughout life.
“It is not easy to be a person”.
When I finish the book, I am left with the impression that the narrator considers that hers was a lost childhood, and that the rest of her life is an eternal return of that loss, from which she cannot escape, as she cannot escape of the scenarios and the protagonists of that loss. It doesn’t matter how many hours of psychiatrist are paid by the generous Norwegian healthcare.
Yes and no. The novel takes place in a special period of Bergljots life. The father dies and this becomes an opportunity to confront her family in a more direct manner. I hope that she will live and work more balanced after this period.
Bergljot consumes a lot of wine, during the book. She seems to trust a lot more in alcohol than in Xanax or Prozac.
Yes! Like myself!
References to “Festen”(Celebration) are continuous. Aside from this success of the Dogma group, has the cinema influenced the writing of this book, in particular, your literature, in a broader spectrum? The TV series?
No! But I am a huge fan of Lars von Trier!
Which are the writers that influenced you the most during your literary journey?
Many! Dag Solstad, Thomas Bernhard, Marguerite Duras, Tove Ditlevsen, Herta Müller and a lot of others.
In addition to literature and cinema, what other disciplines had an impact on your writing?
Life, in general.
From the Mediterranean, I am afraid that we tend to see the Scandinavian countries as a whole, forgetting the obvious differences between their societies. Are there big differences between national literatures or authors that you can explain easily to our audience?
Sweden is known to have a more restrict and strained public life than in Denmark and Norway. There are not as many unspoken rules in Denmark and Norway, so it’s easier to be contrarian.
The rest of the world tends to have an idealized view of Scandinavians. Perhaps the flood of crime novels on the market, all around the world, is menacing that vision. In your book you deal with the subject of the Bosnian war, The Israel-Palestine conflict and their consequences. You have worked with refugees. How would you describe the Norwegian refugee reception policy and your vision of racism in your own society?
The Norwegians consider themselves as a peace-loving nation, but in reality, we are obedient to USA in all questions. No other nation bombed Libya more than Norway did.
You have been a writer since you were twenty-two. How do you keep your motivation? Where do you get the discipline to keep on going?
I‘ve never done anything else! Reading and writing is not only my way of making a living, but my way of living– what makes life meaningful.
Has your process of writing changed a lot since you started?
I think I have more courage in my writing now than before.
I understand that you mean that you have more courage concerning the topics that you write about. Is this courage, also, translated in the form of your writings?
Yes. My topics are more complex than before and the literary form, as well, because the topic and the form/the language are inextricably linked.
I read your phrase: “Writing is the relationship between head, gut and hand.” I loved it. It is so precise that I cannot promise that I will not steal it in the future.
My last article was about Kjell Askildsen’s most recent book. Do you like his work? Did you get the chance to meet him?
Yes! I have met him many times! Norway is a small country and we do not have that many writers. I am a huge fan!
Hanne Ørstavik’s novel, “Love”, has also arrived to our bookshelves. Her work seems very different from yours too. Do you like her?
Yes! She is a very interesting writer. I know her and I’m fond of her work!
What do you think about the controversy surrounding the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir?
I support freedom of speech.
Since the Knausgård phenomenon started, has there been any interview in which you were not asked about Karl Ove? This will be the first one.