PEN Atlas Q&A: Vigdis Hjorth

Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth talks to PEN Atlas about her efforts to combine the personal with the political in her work.

Interview by Theodora Danek


 

Vigdis Hjorth is a prolific, prize-winning Norwegian writer. A House in Norway (Norvik Press 2017, translated by Charlotte Barslund), which won a PEN Translates award, is the first of her novels to be translated into English. A political fiction as well as a take on the Künstlerroman, it tells the story of Alma, a textile artist with strong left-wing ideals, who rents out an apartment in her house to a Polish family. Over the course of the novel, Alma’s ideas about herself and others are challenged by the realities of cohabiting with someone she only ever refers to as ‘the Pole’.

When I met Vigdis, she had a coffee cup in one hand, and a copy of Wittgenstein in the other. This provided the starting point for our conversation about the political in fiction.

Your novel A House in Norway does two things: it is abstract because it is clearly very concerned with ideas, but you’ve also said that it’s very concrete, that it’s about something that you experienced yourself.

When I embark on a new novel I take my starting point from something that bothers me or something that burns me. If I thought that the question, the problem, the dilemma only concerned me, then I wouldn’t write about it. But if it burns in me I guess it burns in a lot of others as well. I can write concrete stories but the questions I ask apply to many people.

The protagonist Alma in A House in Norway could be a symbol for many of us: so content with her ideals that she thinks having ideals is enough. Alma doesn’t even see that there’s a contradiction between the tapestry she’s making, depicting her socialist ideals, and the fact that she has no compassion for and no interest in her neighbours.

This is very interesting to me because there are some who would defend Alma. They’d say, We can’t help everybody and we cannot help those who can’t help themselves. Some may say that we cannot help everybody, and I agree with that. But we must try! I always think of this poem by Bertold Brecht:

A Bed for the Night

I hear that in New York
At the corner of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by.

It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.

Don’t put down the book on reading this, man.

A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

He says in a simple manner – which is Brecht’s way – that we have to work on two fronts. We have to do something about the structures, and we also have to help the individual. It’s a fantastic poem that shows us how we can make it work.

Would you say that your work is political?

Yes I would. My last novel, Arv og miljø is the most political, and has caused a big debate in Norway. In it, I tried to mirror one of Marina Abramovic’s first performances. Abramovic is supposed to stand still for six hours. On the table in front of her are a lot of things: a rose, a feather a gun. The public can do whatever they want with those objects. In the beginning the public is very discreet. Then they take the feather. But suddenly one breaks the intimacy border and touches her. They get caught up and rile each other up. They take her clothes off. In the end it develops in a very bad way. One takes the gun, takes it to her head. They are so provoked by the fact that she doesn’t move. Then, when after six hours she does move, they retreat.

When talking about this performance, Abramovic said, ‘They couldn’t stand me because of what they had done to me.’ That’s also why the family can’t stand the main character in Arv og miljø.

So people don’t want to see the suffering they’ve caused?

Yes, and also because to see the suffering would remind them of their own humiliating history. But for some reason, when talking about this new book, Norwegian reviewers and the reading public only care about the personal story.

Do you think there’s something peculiarly Norwegian about this focus on the personal? After Knausgård, is everyone just interested in the personal story?

Yes I think so. It is very Norwegian. Also, I think that most people in Norway are so well off that they don’t bother about politics. The political questions in Norway are about minor things. We don’t talk about foreign politics at all. We only talk about community-level issues. We don’t talk about conflicts, structures, capitalism. We do of course have critical voices. But they are not concerned with literature. The literary field is aesthetical and personal.

FacebookTwitterPinterestLinkedInShare

About the Author

Vigdis Hjorth is a Norwegian novelist whose novels have  been awarded numerous prizes. Her latest novel,  Arv og miljø, a searing account of sexual abuse, has led to heated debate about the relationship between fiction and reality, and was nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize.

Additional Information

A House in Norway  (translated by Charlotte Barslund) is out now with Norvik Press.

Vigdis recited Brecht’s poem in a Norwegian translation. The English translation is by  George Rapp.

FacebookTwitterPinterestLinkedInShare

Comments

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *