After Knausgård, Norwegian readers thought we were used to the dramatic repercussions brought on by the thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Then, in 2016, Vigdis Hjorth’s Arv og Miljø, now translated as Will and Testament, detonated like a bomb. The book became deeply controversial, not so much because of its content as the debate it sparked. Critics claimed to find many similarities between real people and the characters portrayed in the novel, between fictional and real events – too many for there to be a coincidence. It was clear: Vigdis Hjorth was writing about her own life – and her own family.
Will and Testament is narrated by Bergljot, a middle-aged woman who has severed all ties with her family, as has her brother Bård. She has not spoken to him or her sister Åsa for years, and only has the occasional polite conversation with her other sister Astrid. When their father dies unexpectedly and it becomes clear that only Astrid and Åsa, who both cultivated close relationships with their parents, are set to inherit their parents’ summer houses in eastern Norway, while Bård and Bergljot will receive a comparatively low sum of money, the ensuing conflict comes to represent a far bigger and more serious dispute: decades before, Bergljot accused her father of sexually assaulting her as a child, and the family, with the exception of Bård, refuses to accept this.
It was the details of the incestuous relationship that reignited the Knausgårdian debate in Norway; should writers be able to (seemingly) expose their surroundings in a book whilst hiding behind the label of ‘novel’? How many non-fictional elements can a work of fiction contain before it is deemed deceitful rather than entertaining? But where Knausgård insisted on using real names in My Struggle, Hjorth does no such thing, and if her critics had not made such an effort to first dig out the dots and then connect them, Will and Testament could simply have been read as the highpoint of Hjorth’s long career as a fiction writer.
Feverish yet measured and to-the-point, Will and Testament seems determined to explore every facet of the narrator’s extreme personal conflict, and the result is striking. Again and again Bergljot attempts to distance herself from her ‘well-meaning’ sisters and infantilized mother, who demand to see her but refuses to acknowledge her pain. ‘If she wanted a relationship with me, the things I had told her had to be recognized as essential of that relationship’, Bergljot writes in an email to her sister Astrid. The fact that her version of events is neglected by her family is as painful to Bergljot as the actual abuse. Aided by a psychoanalysis she revisits her entire childhood, and tries to break away from her family, but when relations are close and emotions are high, there is rarely such a thing as a clean break. As her close friend Klara states early in the novel: ‘Endurance is the first duty of all living beings.’
The form of Will and Testament emphasizes this: with a pace that feels urgent and pressing, the sentences almost run off the page in their need to include everything, examine every possible motivation: ‘They had said no because they couldn’t say yes, and as they said no, they picked their side, they denied me’, Bergljot reasons when she recalls how her father had questioned each sibling on whether or not they believed their older sister’s accusations. These hurried, repetitive phrases, like thoughts flickering through a troubled mind, is one of the book’s greatest strengths, as it allows us to follow Bergljot through rage and terror, through her many confrontations with her family as well as her vulnerability and her subsequent need for understanding and reconciliation.
This ambivalence is highlighted through the physical formatting of the book: scenes of family conflict are broken up by pages containing just one paragraph or a single sentence. Sometimes these segments are Bergljot’s own thoughts, clear after having been stripped of all excess ruminations, which gives the reader a break from her otherwise hectic and long-winded reflections. Other times they consist of philosophy or history, of Freud, Wittgenstein, Roland Barthes and Tove Ditlevsen, and these sections complement and add nuance to the overarching dispute, showing how the repercussions of family conflict are oddly similar to those of great wars.
At one point, Bergljot quotes the Norwegian philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen’s argument that ‘the problem with truth commissions and reconciliation processes’ is that ‘they usually demand just as much from the victims as from the aggressors.’ The question of the ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor’ of Hjorth’ novel became even more pointed when, a year after the publication of Will and Testament, Vigdis Hjorth’s sister Helga Hjorth published a ‘novel’ of her own, Fri Vilje (Free Will), which detailed her experience of being made into a fictional character in her sister’s book. A new genre was born: hevnromanen – the revenge-novel.
There are of course other examples of recent literary ‘responses’ to books: After the French literary superstar Édouard Louis published his novel Who Killed My Father in 2018, in which he named several members of the French political elite who Louis claimed had indirectly caused his father’s death through the dismantling of social services, the politician Martin Hirsch, one of the public figures Louis accused of ‘murder’, soon published a novel of his own, entitled Comment j’ai tué son père (How I Killed His Father). Another example is the Swedish writer Linda Boström Knausgård and her latest novel Oktoberbarn (October children), which has been interpreted as a retelling of the suicide attempt detailed by her ex-husband Karl Ove Knausgård in his novel Spring.
However, Helga Hjorth’s novel sets itself apart in that it seeks to negate rather than retell and challenge her sister’s novel, and this is where Helga, a lawyer by profession, ends up shooting herself in the foot. Her simplifications add weight to her sister’s ‘version’ of events; where Vigdis’s novel is nuanced in its portrayal of Bergliot’s parents and siblings, their insecurities and possible motivations, Helga’s version is one-dimensional in its glorification of her father and the demonization of her older sister. In many ways, the publication of Free Will confirmed Vigdis Hjorth’s portrayal of ‘her’ family as a group of people obsessed with silencing Bergljot’s version. Earlier this year, when Will and Testament was put on as a play in Bergen, Vigdis Hjorth’s mother sued the theatre.
The Norwegian title Arv & Miljø roughly translates into ‘nature and nurture’, and this overarching theme of how pain is passed on through generations (exemplified in how Bergljot’s grown children finds it increasingly difficult to go and visit their aunts and grandmother) is somewhat lost with the English title. However, Charlotte Barslund, who has previously translated Hjorth’s novel A Norwegian House for Norvik Press, has done a brilliant job of this book, which is just as rich, intense and thought-provoking as the original.
This review was first published at Bookstoker.com