A conversation with Vigdis Hjorth and Nicole Krauss
Nicole Krauss: I had the pleasure of reading this novel, out of the blue as it were, without any introduction, or any context, which is perhaps the luckiest way to read any kind of literature, and I was absolutely moved and fascinated by it. And then I travelled to Sweden, and I had the chance to talk to many Swedish journalists about the content or the atmosphere into which this novel was published, which before I knew nothing about, and some of the responses to it. And this brought up a lot of questions about the role of literature now and our expectations of it. There’s quite a brilliant notion in this novel, very simple in some ways, but extremely powerful, which is that this is a story about inheritance. On the surface you have this event, the inheritance of these two houses, but really it's the question of who inherits the right to the family narrative. Both of these notions of inheritance, material and immaterial, are happening in parallel and in conversation with each other. I wonder if we could first talk somewhat generally, about what rights or freedoms we claim for ourselves when we decide to call something fiction or a novel.
Vigdis Hjorth: I insist that this is a novel. You can never tell the whole story of somebody's life in 400 pages, but I think that you can really do anything now and call it a novel. I totally agree with Karl Ove Knausgård and his work. He says, “I'm telling the truth.” And everybody knows that it's his truth, not the truth about other people. And he's allowed to do that. And even six books are not enough for that. This meeting here today could be hundreds novels. So the people who say that in this book I’m writing about my own family simply don't know the process of writing fiction. When you write one sentence, you already start to make a structure, a world.
NK: While reading it, and again not knowing anything about the story, I felt that there is a sense in which it has a sort of foothold in reality that not all novels do. It’s something you can sense as a reader, for instance in some of the circular ways in which you as the author went around the information. So you would go and return again, and go and return again, and this mirrors the way that we receive and experience reality in life. We rarely witness something happen once in an organized and linear fashion. We go and revisit the experience and it reverberates. And that circular passing of information and experience and emotion that happens in the book, it felt to me that you managed to mirror or capture something very much like life, the rawness and the emotion of it as well. Often in fiction we seize freedoms for ourselves, which I think you do here as well, but we seize these freedoms to create, but here you manage also to create a sense of claustrophobia, of being inside this family, where there is no way for Bergljot to get out.
VH: There is a passage where I talk about Bergljot becoming a soldier. And I don't want people or family members to be soldiers and fighters, but Bergljot has been knocking on the family's door for so long, hoping to be let in. It is similar to Strindberg’s A Dream Play. There is a character who goes through the play four times. He’s very much in love with Victoria, in the theater. And the first time he comes with flowers, asking for her. And again and again, and he gets older every time. And the last time he comes the flowers are dead, and he's very old. And Bergljot is doing something similar, and yet her family never wants to open up for her. And so she goes through this cycle of hope and disappointment, hope and disappointment.
NK: Let’s get back to this question of fiction, or autofiction, and truth. We seem to be living in a moment in which we’ve all come to agree that the self is a narrative. It's a relatively common place though now that the self is just a story that we each construct, which in a sense means that there is no accurate account of reality. Nobody's one account is any more accurate than another person's. And I wonder if you could say something about how you manage the problem of accuracy in the novel, because there is a sense in this story that there is a truth, and I think we would all agree that there's also a truth in the realities in which we all live, despite the fact that we are all always constructing narratives.
VH: Things do happen, and people do things to each other. And if that's denied, as it is in a way in the story, then the victim, Bergljot in this case, becomes very alone with her story. And maybe then she starts to doubt her own story. So while we all have our own narrative that we are constructing through which we tell ourselves who we are, we always do that in connection with other people. Other people are a part of our stories about ourselves. But the main issue in this novel is the miscommunication between the family members, and that Bergljot and her brother Bård don’t agree with the official family story. And I think a lot of families have a kind of official story, and if you don’t agree with this often very pretty story, you will get very lonely and desperate.
NK: The narrative of a child begins with the one that the parent tells. They tell the story to the child before the child ever gets a chance at it. And then at certain point, usually in adolescence, the child wrestles authorship of the narrative, and there's a scuffle that takes place. And then things move smoothly on, at least if we are talking about situations outside of the realm of trauma. The child says, “This is who I am,” and the parent no longer has a right over that. Problems appear when there's an issue of trauma and when part of healing is the recognition of that trauma. And so here you have a child who tries to take authorship of the family story, and is herself a writer, but she's blocked at every corner from doing that because nobody wants to recognize her version. So this sense of desperation grows, because in order for her situation to be resolved she needs to be seen. That story needs to be heard, and she cannot get this audience anywhere.
VH: And when she isn’t believed by her parents and her two younger sisters, then she must leave the family. That's the only way she can survive, and keep herself together.
NK: So the breaking point begins around a disagreement with the parents’ will. The parents announce that they're going to split their wealth, but they're going to give the two cabins to the two younger girls. And so in that moment, Bergljot’s older brother Bård calls her and involves her in his issue with this plan. And there are so many interesting things about that. One is that an alliance develops between them in this outcast position. And the alliance seems to rest on the fact that he wants those cabins, and so he is now in the camp of being left out just as she has been left out. But what might be different is that he has this very material desire for these cabins, whereas Bergljot’s issue is not material. As a reader I felt that there are moments when she seemed so happy to have someone at last on her side. But at the same time, he seemed not entirely trustworthy, in the sense that he wasn't actually in it for the right reasons. Why return to her at this moment, after all this time to say, “Oh, yes, you were right.” Now let's actually listen to what you have to say. I wonder if you felt that ambivalence toward him as well.
VH: 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. Bergljot never confronts her brother or her sisters with this, only her mother and father. The mother and father control the story. They tell their version of the story to the siblings. I think it's very important to understand this situation concretely. You have a grown up daughter saying to her mother and father that her father abused her when she was a child. And her father denies it, saying there is no way he could do such a thing. What is important is how tempting it is for everybody to believe the father. If you choose to believe the father, and there's no evidence, then everything can keep on as before. Mother can stay married to father, they can celebrate Christmas and birthdays, and everything stays normal. To believe Bergljot would change everything. A giant black hole would open. That’s why it is so seldom that the child is believed. So she has this confrontation with her parents, and they get to a breaking point. But the mother can’t bear what it would be like to believe her. And the brother has heard this story and closed his eyes. He’s not very fond of his parents or his family. So his solution is to draw back, to rarely see them, and he never calls Bergljot to ask her about it. And the two sisters, also, because it's so shameful, so unpleasant, they refuse the story.
NK: The crime or the trauma in this case is quite terrible. And you never really touch it very directly. I respect what you're saying that it is not the subject of this book. You make that clear, in a sense, because you don't really go there. It's insinuated. But the point just made is very significant, this idea that the cost of allowing a break in the narrative that lets truth in is often so high that we cannot allow for it. It’s significant even when we're not talking about traumas as large as this. This inability to tolerate truth happens all the time in relationships and families. And this seems to be because as human beings we cling to coherence, we need a coherent story, perhaps much more than we need an accurate sense of reality. This can be seen in the case of the younger sisters. They came later, and so they knew a different father than Bård and Bergljot knew. Their sense of him and their story of him is so critical. It's so critical to keep that intact, because to allow this trauma into it would be such a violent break. Because we're hearing the story from Bergljot’s perspective, there’s something profoundly infuriating and claustrophobic that creeps in for th reader. And it's terrifying to see them closing that door over and over to any admittance of her truth. We often think of writing as supposedly cathartic, but I didn't have the sense that there was any catharsis in writing this.
VH: If you have a story that nobody wants to listen to, a very shameful story that is so unpleasant to tell that you get sick if you try, or you feel you will faint. That is what we have here. But at some point Bergljot decides to just scream it. Even though she is not telling the details of what happened for accuracy’s sake, because it's not necessary. But if you’ve never had your voice heard, and you can suddenly scream your truth, the question for me as a writer was what does your voice sound like in that situation? I had to find that voice, the voice that says, “No, I’m not going to stop, and you’re going to listen to me!” When they still close the door on her, her feeling is that, “I don’t care about that bloody door. I’m going to scream this truth anyway.” And so there is a real anger in it, but also a sense of relief. And I had to find that language for the story.
NK: You spoke a little bit about what happened with Knausgård when his books were published. And for you, when you first published this book, there was such an uproar about this notion of “reality literature,” and there was so much fury about people feeling misrepresented who didn’t mean to wander into the novel. Norway has now had two scandals of that sort that have caused enormous public attention. It's very hard for me to imagine that happening in America, and I tried to think about why. When you have a country that is a somewhat small community, where to some degree or another everyone knows someone who knows someone who's affected, there's more shame, or there's a larger sense of public humiliation in being implicated. Whereas in America, auto fiction is just as common here. But I can't think of a single scandal like that, certainly not one that went so far as a sibling feeling that they had to write their own novel in order to answer the original novel, which is what happened with you. It becomes Kafkaesque. We're talking about truth by being found by writing novels. But we've all actually agreed that novels are supposed to give us the right to invent and give us certain liberties. But those liberties are denied somehow and spoken about in the form of another novel. So what does it feel like to be a writer coming out of that society? What are the difficulties? And do you think it is unique to Norway?
VH: I don't think so. I think it's very unique for my family, perhaps. You end up offending people who don't like this reality literature. But it just shows that they don’t know the history of literature. As I mentioned before, everybody knows that Strindberg’s Married is about Siri von Essen. I also heard a story about Alice Munro, that when she went back to the small town where she was born she had to have a bodyguard because people had recognized themselves in her novels in. Obviously, when you do as Knausgård has done, and you use the names of six existing people, it's so easy for people to Google them, or they can meet them. They can go to the town where he was born. They can go and say hello to his teacher who he mentions by name. You can say, “Oh, hello. I read about you, and you’re not nice.” It’s easier to hide away in the United States. But my family had mixed feelings, they feel that I have accused my father of a crime. That's how they read the novel. And then they want to say, “No, he was not like that.” But that’s not the novel. And, that’s not fiction. But I don’t think it just has to do with Norway as a society. It is possible in the United States.
NK: I had an interesting conversation with a Swedish radio journalist, and she said that at a certain point, your sister sent her book to her and started to write to her, and asked her, “Why aren't you having me on the show when Vigdis was on the show?” And the journalist just had to explain that it’s literature, and literature doesn't work that way. And I think it points to something very interesting about the moment we're living in right now. There is a sense that everyone has a right to be a writer. We're living in a time in which autofiction, the narrative of the self is happening with everyone all around us, not least of all with images on platforms like Instagram. Anyone who has a phone can have the right to broadcast their version of selfhood and story. This puts literature and the novel into a position of crisis, because the question becomes, what then is the special role of the writer if everyone can write? What special skill do we have as writers? What is that thing, that magic that happens that makes something literature? I think it's obvious to some of us, but less obvious to others.
VH: I agree with that. For most readers, we know when we read a good book because we are touched by it. A novel’s truth value lies in the effect it has on the reader. Everybody can, of course, write a book about their life, they can make it up, make it a very nice story. But whether others can read it, and relate to it, and grow with it. That is another question.
NK: I think it has to do with that magic and that gift which makes literature what it is. It requires an ability to take a story that is unique, which is what everyone has, but to do something with it so that it becomes universal, so that when readers read it, it speaks to them very personally. And it isn't enough to have a story or trauma or a narrative that needs to be told in the most personal, accurate way.
VH: It has to do with form, with language, with the ability to make some emotion in the beat, and those kinds of things. And it's very difficult to describe what that is, but we know it when we encounter it. In Norway we say that power is like the elephant. It is difficult to describe, but you know it when you meet it. It's the same with a book. It's very difficult to describe the quality of a book, or to point it out. But you know it when you read it.
NK: There's a moment in the book when Bergljot describes how she remembers what happened to her as a child, because in fact she's lived as an adult in a state of suppression for a very long time. It happens when her father is helping her renovate a bathroom, and she begins to worry about whether or not he has the key to the house. Suddenly she's overcome with physical pain and out of nowhere she remembers a text that she's written. She goes back to the text and finds a sentence she’s written unconsciously which, in a sense, opens the door to her past. The truth is lying in plain sight. It struck me as something that happens, perhaps not so dramatically, all the time. It happens to us as writers. Often when we are just going about the business of writing we don't realize what we've written, but when we come back to it we understand the drama of what's been exposed there. And I wonder if you could say something about that moment as a writer, if not only in the context of this book, but other books, because you've written more than thirty.
VH: Let me give you an example. When I was studying philosophy at university, I was very shy. I was only eighteen. This was in the seventies, and all the girls I was studying with were very free, very radical. They were writing in the newspapers, but I couldn’t do that. I was too shy. And so sometimes, at a party or something, these young, free girls would suddenly say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to take our clothes off?” Perhaps it was very warm, or they wanted to go take a swim in the sea, or whatever. They were all young, with young bodies, so this is not an unnatural desire. But I remember that I had this sudden revulsion, this sudden sense of no. I would never take my clothes off at a party, but I didn't dare say anything. So on the walk home, I would think about it. Did I really feel so much uglier than these girls? Or less free? And then, you know, as I always did, I would start to write. At eighteen I was starting to write. And I would just write, “Naked women at the party. How can you be a naked woman at a party?” It's not that I couldn’t take my clothes off. It was more that I don't want to take on the role of being one of these naked women at a party. I would think to myself, how can you do that and discuss politics? So for me, if you’re a naked women at a party you are not free, you suddenly become unfree. And so I would write a sentence like this, and I would discover that the original revulsion to the idea of being naked was actually about not wanting to take on this very unfree role. I’ve always been like. I understand myself, my reactions, and the world while I'm writing.