Review: Sean Kellyon Vigdis Hjorth

Smile, Mingle, Inherit

I read my first Vigdis Hjorth novel two Christmases ago, because Sheila Heti recommended it. Asked to nominate an underrated book, Heti told The Guardian, ‘Of the books I’ve read recently, A House in Norway by Vigdis Hjorth seems to be seriously underrated — in English, at least. Unfortunately, I liked it so much that I didn’t share it with anyone else. I wanted to feel like it was mine. It’s about an artist’s attempt to make her art serve as politics, and her failure. It’s also about a woman alone. I love anything — books, movies, stories — about a woman alone.’

That is a good description. I forgot it, and consistently failed over the next year to persuade any of my friends to read the book. Banality defeated me. It’s about a Norwegian tapestry artist named Alma, I said. It’s about her relationship to her tenant, who is Polish, I said. Over the course of about five years the artist makes several works, and thinks hard about their political content, while her relationship with her tenant grows fraught. My friends smiled, tapped the name into their phones, and never brought it up again.

I have read only two books by Hjorth. Only two, so far, have been published in English, and unlike Lydia Davis I have not yet taught myself Norwegian. I can therefore vouch for only a fraction of the twenty or thirty books Hjorth has written. Within that tiny sample a surprising number of motifs recur: locked safes, missing documents, footprints in snow, the concealments offered by darkness, vexed inheritance. And so I could, now trying to sell my friends on Hjorth’s more recent book, Will and Testament, have listed these, except that it might have given my friends the mistaken impression she was a Nordic hybrid of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. This might have worked, but would also have misled them, because these elements are needles in a haystack. Tiny hints at mystery are swamped by the tedium of daily existence: accountants, contracts, local councils, rent.

Looking back, I might have said, knowing that my friends love to talk about money: A House in Norway is the most compelling account I have read of the petty, dictatorial role played by money in our lives. Or I might have said, knowing that my friends love to muse on the political zeitgeist: it is a book about the thousand daily hypocrisies we perpetuate, our acquiescence to the moral inadequacies of the world, our cowardly persistence in saying things that are untrue for the sake of social peace. Once, in fact, I did say this, but it made no difference, in fact it might have made things worse, and the book went unread by my friends.

Those themes sound topical, although, of course, cravenness is hardly new. In particular, for me, they brought to mind Thomas Bernhard, though this may have been because Hjorth’s prose, with its circlings and repetitions, had already put Bernhard in my mind. Sometimes these repetitions are used to mock others and their preening ways: ‘Because the rape of a child is extremely serious, such allegations are treated with the utmost seriousness, she wrote in a hectoring tone as if to point out to me how serious my allegations were — just in case it hadn’t crossed my mind. She used serious and seriousness in the same sentence, she took it so seriously, with the utmost seriousness.’ (Hjorth’s jokes are rare, and usually about this brutal.) Sometimes they are done to mock the protagonist. Sometimes they indicate a panicked mind, or a traumatised one. Hjorth has said that in Will and Testament she wanted to reproduce the voice of someone who ‘has an important story that nobody wants to listen to’, and that she used what she learned working as a teacher with people who lacked documentation, like a mother whose three children were taken from her. ‘The mother had only one sentence when I met her: “They took them — they came on Friday — they took the children, they took the children.” One sentence again and again, it just keeps going around.’

So I could have said to my friends ‘she reminds me of Bernhard’, but I didn’t, because this would have been self-defeating. If you are in the mood for Bernhard, or, rather, are the type of person who has the thought ‘I am in the mood for Bernhard’, then it is likely only Bernhard will do. That is because Bernhard’s world is his own, his vast exaggerations only pointers to aspects of our own. But Hjorth’s world is obviously ours: she has mined Bernhard for his realism, taking his exaggerations and reverse-exaggerating them, cutting them down to actual size and splicing them into tracts of quotidian detail, squeezed between those accountants, contracts, councils, rents.

As it turns out, such details can be far more interesting than locked safes.

A final option, then. I might have said, knowing that my friends love literary trends, that Hjorth is a writer of autofiction. The English-language publisher of Will and Testament, Verso, has been happy enough to claim the label, tweeting the words of a reviewer who associated the book with autofictional works by Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard. My friends love scandals too — who doesn’t? — and there has been scandal of the autofictional variety: Hjorth’s sister wrote a novel in response, her mother sued a theatre that staged a play based on Hjorth’s book.

Will and Testament is built around a family dispute over the inheritance of two holiday cabins. In other words, the basic plot is just as superficially dull as that of A House in Norway. But beneath that dispute lies the fact that when she was a young girl, Bergljot, the narrator, was sexually abused by her father. Bergljot’s memory of the abuse was repressed. After it returned, decades later, she cut contact with her parents. All of this occurs before the book begins. The dispute over her father’s will — he dies in the earliest pages of the book — becomes the staging ground for a larger confrontation with the remaining members of her family over their determination to ignore, or blithely sidestep, Bergljot’s account of her father’s crime.

Some elements of the plot apparently resemble elements of Hjorth’s life. The family controversy has gone some way towards confirming this. Would I have been correct, then, in pitching the novel to my friends as autofiction? The definition of the genre was never very clear, not even at the start. With time, it has become intensely unclear, especially because it can feel, these days, as though every new book is in imminent danger of being stuck with the label because of the newfound ease with which we can trace the similarities between a novelist’s life and their work. Once upon a time you had to wait for a biography. Now, you wait for a publisher’s PR division — or jump online, briefly sleuth, and tweet away.  

There have been, in recent years, many attempts to explain when a novel makes the definitional leap from ‘fiction’ to ‘autofiction’. It has turned out to be a difficult task. Writers of autofiction write about their lives, but then so do many authors who escape the label. Some use their actual name in their fiction, some use the first person, some use fragments, some write in a naïve style; and others don’t. The discussions quickly become circular, often seeming less like efforts to distinguish works from each other and more like attempts to explain why novelists we (or a publishing house) have already decided belong together actually do belong together. Once the label has been introduced, discussion can proceed from there, treading and retreading similar ground: what is real, what is false, what’s the difference?

In the spirit of that circularity, once I had the label ‘autofiction’ in my mind, I began to spot connections between authors of autofiction. After Bergljot’s brother voices unhappiness with the terms of his father’s will, Bergljot imagines her family gathering

to continue the myth of Bård as a troublemaker and Bård’s wife as a warmonger, she had been allocated the role of the woman who had seduced Bård away from his family. I knew exactly how it would play out; once I had contributed to it myself, I had been so completely enmeshed in the family’s version of its own story. It wasn’t until I became estranged myself, until I had distanced myself, that I started to look at things differently, but still slowly, taking baby steps, such is the power parental stories have over a child’s concept of reality that it’s almost impossible to free yourself.

At the end of this passage, Bergljot interrogates her own conclusion, but to build on her point rather than to wind it back: ‘And had I managed to free myself? Or was I still stuck, and had the name of the villain merely changed?’

This reference to the interchangeability of aspects of a story reminded me of something Rachel Cusk, often described as a writer of autofiction, had said about her Outline trilogy, constructed from monologues related by people her narrator encounters:

What I’m trying to show in each [monologue] is the thing that I think is much more than speech itself, the thing that I think is given by nature, that is a component of existence, and that everyone has an entitlement to, and an ownership of, is form, a sense of literary form. Or artistic form. And I’m not interested in where that becomes lying, or exaggeration, or for all of these questions to be red herrings. And I don’t care whether someone changes the details a bit because it makes a better story. I mean, a child coming home from nursery at age three and the mother or father says, ‘How was your day?’ Two instances of that and the child learns that, if they say this, everyone will laugh, and, if they say that, people will look really worried.

Then I noticed something Ben Lerner had said. In Lerner’s latest novel, The Topeka School, the narrator describes a ritual of his childhood, in which he would deliberately misquote a poem, ‘The Purple Cow’, that his mother was reciting. Lerner has described this as ‘the central loving scene in the book, because it’s about intergenerational transmission — like I’m passing this thing on — and then the ritual of misquotation is this way of creating a new tradition that’s about the malleability of what’s inherited from the past.’

Lerner’s perspective is not identical to that of Hjorth, whose perspective is not identical to that of Cusk, but the topic is the same: the way we experience the world through forms, or templates, handed down to us by those who precede us. Nor is this just about language, or stories. Sheila Heti’s most recent work, Motherhood, examines the ways that a very tangible social, economic and cultural form is passed on. In the final book of Cusk’s trilogy we read this: ‘It was human nature, his mother said, for people to wish cruelty on one another simply because they had been shown cruelty themselves: the repetition of behavioural forms was the curious panacea with which most people sought to relieve the suffering caused by precisely those same forms.’ In the course of Will and Testament it becomes clear that Bergljot’s father suffered sexual abuse as a child. He has passed that experience, or its form, on to her.

A template allows you to see certain things. Other aspects of the world it blots out. All these autofictional works diverge from each other. And yet it seems to me a particular template, a certain form we have imposed on the world, keeps popping up. One of Bergljot’s friends visits Tel Aviv and is unsettled by the proximity of refugees. And yet ‘he had felt safe and at home in Tel Aviv with its fashionable shopping areas and luxury restaurants and a broad seaside promenade where attractive young people in Western clothing drank coffee or beer’. He warns against being blinded by ‘our well-ordered, well-regulated society.’ Hjorth herself, asked why the local discussion of her books had been so personal, pointed to the role of wealth as a factor. Because ‘most people in Norway are so well off that they don’t bother about politics… We don’t talk about conflicts, structures, capitalism.’

Of course, Norway is not the only wealthy, well-regulated society in the world — or, at least, much of the audience for the contemporary literary novel lives in the wealthy and well-regulated parts of their already fairly wealthy countries. Lerner, who is American, last year noted ‘how much our economic system tends toward sameness’, and said that in his fiction he wanted to explore ‘how your sense of self and scale might dissolve in that landscape of interchangeability’. Cusk, who was born in Canada and lives in England, has asserted that character does not exist anymore, that it has been lost through the ‘homogeneity afoot that I think everyone would accept in terms of our environment and how we live and how we communicate’. And Karl Ove Knausgaard, another Norwegian, has spoken of feeling that in recent times ‘the self’ is somehow ‘disappearing’.

Perhaps all of this means these authors belong together. Or perhaps the method that might lead to that conclusion is rather circular. But then I’m not actually very interested in the question of who is really writing autofiction. What I find more interesting is that a group of authors who seem intent on questioning the continuing existence of the self, the way it might be dissolving in an era dominated by a sharp convergence of available forms, is so often described with a term that points away from that convergence, away from the systems that might be causing it, and back towards the self. In these two novels, Hjorth goes some way towards explaining why that might be the case. 

I am not convinced A House in Norway is a good title — I am always forgetting it. But Will and Testament is a brilliant title. It conjures the legal document at the centre of the novel, as well as determination, determinism, documentation and witnessing. It is not a literal translation of the book’s Norwegian title, Arv og miljø, which can, apparently, be phrased as Heritage and Environment, or perhaps Inheritance and Environment.

At times, the world Hjorth depicts becomes strange. At one point in Will and Testament every object seems to have become white; at another, darkness seems to cover the earth. These sections are brief and slip without difficulty into Hjorth’s clear flow of prose. In most ways Hjorth is a traditional realist: her characters hang up coats, make thermoses of tea. But her narrator is telling a story, and Hjorth wants us to know it, and to know that her narrator knows it. Bergljot ends one section like this: ‘So there we were together, at the Grand.’ The phrasing pops up again when Bergljot spots her name in something someone else has written, like an email. She will tell us ‘there I was again’, or ‘there was my name again’. Now it is her siblings who are telling stories, and Bergljot who has become a character. This is subtly done. The book is filled with more overt self-questionings. Bergljot presents us with facts and theories, only to undercut them with new facts and theories. Then she does it again. She accepted a car from her father ‘because I did need a car’. Immediately she corrects herself: ‘Or I wanted to believe that it was because I needed a car’.

These are, by now, entry-level expectations of the narrator of the contemporary novel, which has integrated the hard-won innovations of earlier confessional literature. They are put to particular use here. Bergljot’s account is an accusation, but Hjorth sees that it also resembles a confession, and that this mixture is a useful way of presenting an account of sexual abuse, not because there is any sin to confess, but because the victim might feel there is. Bergljot is filled with shame, and worries she is simply indulging her pain. In an examination of confessional literature, J.M. Coetzee long ago concluded that for Dostoyevsky, when it came to secular confession, ‘the self cannot tell the truth of itself to itself and come to rest without the possibility of self-deception’. Bergljot seems, by the end of Will and Testament, to have landed in a similar place: ‘it wasn’t isolated incidents and a finished story, but a ceaseless exploration, a necessary excavation full of dead ends and distressing flashbacks’. That is also a fair description of the novel.

More important still is Hjorth’s insistence that confession is a two-way street. If the narrator is permitted to doubt herself in certain ways, what about those who hear her story? Are they too allowed to doubt, and how far? Bergljot’s sister, Astrid — the most important listener in the book — tells Bergljot that she understands she is in pain; she has listened to her account, and given it a great deal of consideration. But she has not, finally, she says, found herself able to take sides in the matter, because, she says, there is no proof.

What she says about proof is true, and this is often where literature leaves things: who is telling the truth, we can’t know, what fruitful ambiguity! Hjorth, on the other hand, says to us: a listener can excavate endlessly, but should they? In the case of stories about certain types of events, like the sexual abuse of children, there may be a limit. Astrid ‘didn’t seem to understand or be willing to accept that there were conflicts which couldn’t be resolved in the way she would like them to be, that there are situations which can’t be balanced out, talked over and round, where you have to pick a side.’ The #metoo movement also comes to mind. The proof might not be there, but at some point, in some circumstances, the question must be answered anyway: do you believe this account?

There is a broader point. In the final volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard — or the narrator who bears his name — writes about the outraged reaction of his uncle to the first volume in the series. In a recent examination of those works, Fredric Jameson suggests the uncle’s reaction (the fact of it, not its tone) is, in a sense, a companion to ours. Knausgaard, he writes, has created ‘a new kind of interpersonal relationship’ in which ‘the author is aware of our presence in his mind and of our inevitable judgment on him, just as the reader is aware at every moment that he is expecting our judgment’.

Unlike Knausgaard, Hjorth published her book as a single volume, which therefore can’t include reactions to it, and anyway, the works are very different. Still, I had the sense that Hjorth, too, in Will and Testament, was anticipating the reaction of her readers.

At one point, Bergljot’s father’s will is read to the family. Then Bergljot reads a statement, explaining she was sexually abused. Several times, her mother and her sisters interrupt. When she finishes they walk out, furious, leaving her with her brother and the accountant whose job it is to execute the will.

We sat in silence for a while, then the accountant said that this had been a surprise, that this had been unexpected.

If you hadn’t been here, Bård said, Bergljot would never have been allowed to finish.

Hjorth has done with us what Bergljot did with the accountant: made us her witnesses. Our presence — our attention — has allowed her to finish her story. And now that we have heard it, what will we do? Will we fail to honour the story we have been told, as Astrid failed?

To answer this question, we have to understand how Astrid failed. She did not ignore her sister, nor did she ignore her pain. In other words, there are cases in which acknowledgment of a self that is suffering is necessary — but also completely inadequate. In which being present at the telling of a story is not just insufficient, but can operate as an alibi. In which it is possible to pay attention to the existence of a self while ignoring what the self is actually saying.

This is what Bergljot’s family has done to her. (And perhaps what Bergljot’s imagined audience has the power to do to her: Lauren Collins at the New Yorker has argued that by sharing emails and texts, ‘Bergljot is doing the same thing we’re doing when we send a friend a screenshot: trying to break open a drama by drawing a new person into it’.) It is also what public reception has, to a large extent, done to Hjorth. What has Hjorth, the novelist, been telling us? What is it she has asked us to witness? A story of sexual abuse, of a family torn apart? Well, no — that is the story that Bergljot tells. But Hjorth is not Bergljot, and has said that if an author calls a story a novel, as she has, then it should be treated as such. In December, Hjorth told fellow novelist Nicole Krauss: ‘I think it’s important to understand that there has been a sexual abuse here. The father has been abusing Bergljot. But this is not the subject of the novel. The novel is about not being heard, and not being listened to.’

(After writing this essay, I read Toril Moi’s essay on ‘the existential turn’ in literature. She makes a similar point, in a different context, about the journalists who chose to fact-check Will and Testament. Moi’s argument about the ‘modernist-formalist’ ethos in criticism offers another, complementary way to understand the political blindspot in criticism I point to later.)

Of course, an author is not the only authority on what her novel is about. But some authors, writing on some topics, are less likely to be given a fair hearing on the matter. Hjorth has said her work is political, and she has described Will and Testament, in an interview with Theodora Danek, as her ‘most political’ book, dealing with the ways that people refuse knowledge of what they have inflicted on others.

Both books make this point. Both connect it to money and its movement through the world. Bergljot’s two sisters hear the allegation that their father abused her, and choose to smile, mingle, inherit. In A House in Norway, Alma comprehends the difficulties faced by her tenant, then forgets them so she can continue charging rent. We get this stinging miniature of late-capitalist isolation: ‘She didn’t want to have anything to do with her tenants, she didn’t want to see them; she just wanted the money going into her bank account every month and then to forget that they were there.’ If you think that’s brutal, try this: Alma ‘knew and wanted to do the right thing, and was prepared to do it as long as it didn’t inconvenience her too much’.

That sentence is the most damning prosecution I have heard of the political behaviour of most people I know, including myself. These books are political, and not just at a personal level. Hjorth draws analogies between the refusal to acknowledge the trauma of sexual abuse and larger disputes: Israel and Palestine, wars in the Balkans. In A House in Norway, Alma reads a book that discusses different definitions of violence: the obviously criminal type and that ‘based on the consequences of our behaviour, e.g. how our trade policy decisions affect living conditions in Ethiopia.’

So it should be surprising that ‘when talking about this new book, Norwegian reviewers and the reading public only care about the personal story’. That is Hjorth speaking to Danek in 2017. Late last year, Danek observed that the book had also been ‘discussed almost exclusively in terms of its potential autobiographical elements… in recent English reviews’.

Of course, this won’t surprise most female novelists, and certainly any whose work has been described as autofiction. The writer Olivia Laing, whose own recent novel Crudo was often described that way, praised I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, who is sometimes seen as one of the pioneers of autofiction. While reading, Laing said, you get caught up in the personal. ‘Then, suddenly, she’s talking about torture in Guatemala, or she’s talking about Hannah Wilke, or she’s talking about all kinds of very complicated ideas about feminism, artistry, selfhood. Also, political situations in other countries, which I don’t think I’ve ever read about in a review. But yet it’s a really key part of it.’ That sentence, without many changes, could be applied to Hjorth’s work today.

I Love Dick was first published over twenty years ago. Its subject matter is, in part, obsession. This is true, too, of several works by the French writer Annie Ernaux, often claimed as another early proponent of autofiction. In other works by Ernaux the form itself is obsessive, an exhaustive exploration of a single subject. This can also be said of Sheila Heti’s work: as Alexandra Schwartz has observed of Motherhood, her ‘narrator’ might more accurately be called the ‘interrogator’. This obsessiveness makes sense, given that lack of plot is one factor often used to tag a novel as autofiction. If you remove plot, some anchoring device is needed. That leaves style and theme. A certain obsessiveness becomes necessary to hold things together; stripped of the disguising presence of plot, the obsession becomes obvious.

Laing argues that Kraus managed to ‘smuggle’ her political points into her work alongside her narrative about obsession. But by the 2010s, the intrusion of politics into our lives and minds — via Trump, Twitter, and (often valuable) self-censorship — had become constant, overt, unavoidable. The politics and the obsessiveness that once existed in parallel have merged. You might have expected this to make the politics harder to ignore.

There is an obsessive feel to Hjorth’s work, too, in the repetition of both verbal and mental tics. In Will and Testament, people are always saying things they don’t think they should, for the sake of convenience, or manners, or unwillingness to cause a stir, or because they have got into the habit. Bergljot notes these hypocrisies, then almost immediately commits the sin herself.

There are similar juxtapositions in A House in Norway. The artist, Alma, is infuriated by her boyfriend’s insistence on how things between lovers ‘should be’, so much so that she begins to weave a tapestry critiquing the idea. Within pages, she thinks, about her tenant, ‘This isn’t how relationships between people should be’, and has a similar thought about her daughter. These are not evolutions or devolutions, but opposite positions, between which Hjorth’s protagonists flap back and forth constantly, sometimes with awareness, sometimes without. These frequent reversals should probably feel clumsy, and to the extent that I can explain the fact they don’t, I think it lies in the obviousness itself. The trick is its own disguise, as when someone lies to your face and you believe them, because it is inconceivable they would lie to your face. And there is another reason, which is that it feels true. This is how we think, and also how we act.

At one point while I was rereading, the obvious backflips, combined with bald political statements, made me wonder whether, to borrow Michael Hofmann’s phrase, the novels were ‘too available’. I don’t think so: there is a lot to these books, much of it quietly achieved, not all of it political. But on the subject of the political elements alone, it should be acknowledged that Hjorth’s work — like the reception of much autofiction — disputes the very possibility that an argument might be ‘too available’. Make something as available as you like, her books tell us, if someone’s comfort lies in ignoring it, then they will do exactly that.

Annie Ernaux rejected the ‘autofiction’ label because she wanted to make clear that her work was non-fiction. Other female authors have rejected it because they want it made clear their work is fiction. But really these are defences against the same problem. Critics have long been resourceful in finding ways to diminish women’s work. Misclassifying a work in either direction is a way of not listening to what an artist has chosen to say, and the terms on which they have chosen to say it. This is probably the moment to note that the political implications of autofiction are not ignored absolutely, at all times, and that this is patterned in predictable ways: of the authors discussed here, the one whose work is most often seen in terms of its attention to systemic politics is Ben Lerner.

Pointing out the minimising work done by the interaction of gendered expectations and ‘autofiction’ is not original, not remotely. Siri Hustvedt, Katie Roiphe, Rebecca Van Laer, Theodora Danek, several of the novelists mentioned above, and many others have made the point. I am repeating it; it is a point worth repeating, and repeating. A similar point might be made about other identities. In the preface to her novel Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy writes that by calling her previous novel a ‘memoir’, critics were ‘defining me by my experience: raped Indian woman, beaten-up wife’. When she is asked to speak, she says, she is always reduced to her subject position. The public reception of work by recent queer writers of ‘autofiction’, like Edouard Louis — a writer deeply committed to questioning the structures of capitalism — demands its own examination, especially given the queer heritage of the genre.

Danek has described the personalised discussion of Will and Testament as ‘ironic, and perhaps typical of the level of debate in literary circles’. This point about literary circles is important. Thomas Meaney has suggested that recent decades of literary criticism were marked by a turn towards the moral and aesthetic and away from the political. This is probably true, but I suspect we are dealing with something even more ingrained than that, that one of the templates that has blinded us for some time is the idea that truly great art is less likely to be political.

Of course, as Hjorth’s work makes clear, that habit of thought is just a small instance of a far broader social habit. The question is how concretely we ever want to confront our own lives. And the answer is: not very.

Or think about it this way: if some of the most talented writers of their generation were to propose through their work that the economic systems that dominate our lives, and in which most of us are implicated, are smothering our selves, diversity, and sense of justice — that we should probably take a much closer look at our whole way of living — wouldn’t you expect this political strain to attract quite a lot of attention, perhaps even for the authors to be described as a political movement of sorts? Well, no, the opposite, in fact. It would be terribly inconvenient. We would find a way to talk about their work in other terms, perhaps give it a name that allowed us to focus our attention elsewhere. Especially if many of those writers were women. And this, of course, is exactly what we’ve done.

It may be true that listening, in certain situations, under certain conditions, makes action morally necessary. But that is never a problem, really, because we are endlessly ingenious at finding ways not to listen to what we are being told. Here, enjoy these incredibly personal accounts of incredibly personal events.

One final example. Not that long ago, a series of novels came out that offered a sustained critique of the operation of capitalism through the later decades of the twentieth century. The books contained sentences like this: ‘And yet I knew a lot about capital, exploitation, class struggle, the inevitability of the proletarian revolution.’ The books were not ignored. In fact, to take just one indication, there are sixty articles on the New Yorker website that refer to Elena Ferrante, author of the Neapolitan Novels — and not one, so far as I can tell from the magazine’s search function, contains the word ‘capitalism’. Meanwhile, Ferrante is widely described as a writer of autofiction, even though her name is a pseudonym, her actual identity is not certain, and the best guess so far at who she might be suggests that her biography bears little resemblance to that of the narrator of her books.

Early in A House in Norway, we are told that Alma ‘would like to make something which was noticed, which opened people’s eyes to something they hadn’t seen before, so they would understand something they hadn’t previously understood.’ Soon after, we get this masterful paragraph, which raises that hope and then quietly, sadly, funnily casts it down:

Although she always dreaded people’s gut reaction when first encountering her tapestries, it was the only response that mattered. In her younger days she would occasionally dress up as a random visitor, go to exhibitions where her works were displayed and stand so that she could see how people’s faces changed as their eyes landed on one of her pictures. It was worst if a spectator’s face didn’t change. Best if something that looked like anguish flashed across it, if the spectator then took a few steps forwards and then a few steps back, tilted their head first to one side, then the other. It rarely happened, in fact it never had. It was wishful thinking on her part.

With Will and Testament, Hjorth succeeded in the first of her aims. But as soon as her story was ‘noticed’, it was turned into another story. Now, instead of a story of a woman who had not been heard, with its many political resonances, we were being given — again — a story about people we were told were models for characters in a piece of autofiction, warring with each other about what was real and what was not.

A similar difficulty is faced by any novelist wanting to raise political questions. A political point can be forcefully made through a personal story; but once a personal story is introduced, we are free to ignore the broadly political in favour of the specifically individual. It might, for a moment, have seemed that the authors of autofiction had sidestepped this trap, by avoiding using plot in the traditional manner. But, really, they never had a chance: we simply introduced the plot of their own lives into the discussion, and turned our attention to that.   

At one point in Will and Testament, Bergljot recounts a story her friend has told her. Walking home, she spotted a man in a canal, drowning. She threw herself down, grabbed his coat, and managed to keep him above the surface. She ‘cried out for help and people gathered around her, but they merely looked on as if it were a film’. Later, Bergljot, visiting a church, realises a candle flame is flickering: ‘Every time I exhaled, it would flicker simply because I breathed, because I was alive, I existed, I set things in motion, it was a great responsibility, to breathe, to live, too big for me.’ There is no way to avoid involvement, something those people who watched as a man almost drowned should have understood: they were involved too.