Tuesday 28 January 2020

Will and Testament

In 2016, when it was published in Norway, Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Will and Testament, became a best-seller. Last year it came out in English, translated by Charlotte Barsland. 

The story’s protagonist is Bergljot. Other characters include her elder brother, Bård, and her two younger sisters Astrid and Åsa, along with their mother and father. At the beginning of the novel, Astrid phones Bergljot, to say that their mother is in hospital, but is “all right.” She had taken an overdose, not for the first time. Astrid goes on to say that Bård had discovered that their father had transferred ownership of the family’s two seaside cabins to the two younger sisters, so there’s a “row” (the fifth word in this novel). In his will the father had specified that, at his death, instead of a cabin, Bård and Bergljot would each get a financial equivalent—a compensation, except that it isn’t.

Bergljot is a theatre critic and magazine editor, who is also working on a thesis on modern German drama. Twenty-three years earlier she’d abandoned her family of origin, and had as little to do with them as possible; all except Astrid, with whom she has been in touch during the six months that precede the events with which the novel starts. Bergljot married a “nice, decent man,” with whom she had three children. 

This is a novel of inwardness, told by the first-person narrator, Bergljot. In its thoughts and language, this novel is as good as anything since Virginia Woolf, but in addition—and this makes it special—the inwardness is connected and interconnected with Bergljot’s relationships: what a person can talk about and what a person can not. And to whom, and when. Vigdis Hjorth invites us readers into Bergljot’s mind. We take on her concerns and mentally engage with members of her family of origin, with her children, with her lovers, with her friend Klara. 

At the centre is a family secret. Among the siblings, Bård is on Bergljot’s side. He, too, has abandoned the family some twenty years previously. 

So what is the secret? If you don’t like spoilers, you had better not read on; you could just read the book. (Some people are perfectly happy with spoilers; see OnFiction 3 April 2017, because they can help us to decide whether to read or watch, and if we do so, we can perhaps engage in the story more deeply.) 

So here’s the spoiler, the secret. Bergljot comes out with it. This happens two thirds of the way through the novel (p. 184). Bergljot, her siblings, and their mother, meet with an accountant, to discuss the business interests and the will of the father, who had died three weeks before this meeting. Bergljot has written out, very carefully, what she wants to say at the meeting, on two pieces of paper. She starts to read. 

Astrid knows what’s coming. “Now is not the time or the place,” she says (p. 187). But Bergljot continues.
I’ve been scared of Dad my whole life, I continued, I didn’t realize how much until 17 December last year when he died. I experienced a physical sense of relief. When I was between five and seven years old and repeatedly sexually assaulted by Dad, he told me that if I ever told anyone then he would go to prison or Mum would die.
You’re lying, Mum shouted.
I didn’t say anything, I said, I repressed it. I was silent but my life became increasingly self-destructive and chaotic as everything that I had repressed began to surface. I realised that I needed help and I got it, after several tests I eventually qualified for free psychoanalysis … I told Mum what had happened, she refused to believe me. As did my sisters … (p. 188).

In these days of the #MeToo movement, recognition of this issue has increased. But rather than a focus, which has now become common in news-stories, on who remembered what, along with accusations, excuses, and denials, this novel invites us to consider what kinds of implications might occur for a woman who has been abused as a child, for her relationships with her parents, her siblings, her friends, her lovers, her children. Vigdis Hjorth visits all these issues, enabling us to think about ramifications, and interconnections. 

The centrepiece of this novel is that it’s when she is an adult that Bergljot comes to remember that her father had sex with her when she was five or six years old. But this novel is not really about the plot. Instead it’s about the inner dynamics of Bergljot’s mind, about how events and relationships affect and permeate her inner thoughts and emotions. Vigdis Hjorth is brilliant at letting us see how things go in the opposite direction as well: how Bergljot’s inner thoughts and emotions, affect her relationships—with everyone. 

Bergljot feels that her life has been undermined. Her mother denies everything, and responds to Bergljot with hostility. Two other people believe her: Bergljot’s brother Bård, and her friend Klara. Her youngest sister, Åsa doesn’t believe her. Her closest sister, Astrid, the novel’s second main character, is a human rights lawyer. She doesn’t know whether to believe Bergljot and Bård, or their mother, father, and younger sister. She tries her very, very best to consider everyone, in the most utterly fair-minded, totally irritating, way. 

And the reader? As we go along, we take in Bergljot’s thoughts, receive her phone calls and text messages, enter the circumstances depicted, and make them our own. They take on the kind of urgency that is important when we read a novel. We think about them, reflect upon them …

Vigdis Hjorth, Will and Testament (2019) translated by Charlotte Barslund. London: Verso.
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