After Knausgaard’s My Struggle series of books, Norwegian readers thought we were used to the dramatic repercussions brought on by the thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Then, in 2016, Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth’s detonated like a bomb. Critics claimed to find many similarities between real people and the characters portrayed in the novel, too many for there to be a coincidence. It was clear: Vigdis Hjorth was writing about her own life and her own family. This led to much debate and even sparked a new genre – the ‘revenge-novel’ – when Hjorth’s sister wrote a novel of her own about what it was like to be made into a character in her sister’s book.
Will and Testament, undoubtedly Hjorth’s best novel to date, is narrated by Bergljot, a middle-aged woman who has severed all ties with her family. When her father dies unexpectedly and it becomes clear that only her sisters Astrid and Åsa are set to inherit their parents’ summer houses in eastern Norway, the ensuing conflict comes to represent a far bigger and more serious dispute. Decades previously, Bergljot accused her father of sexually assaulting her as a child, and the family, with the exception of her brother Bård, refuses to accept this.
Feverish yet measured, the book seems determined to explore every facet of the narrator’s extreme personal conflict, and the result is striking. Again and again Bergljot tries to distance herself from her ‘well-meaning’ sisters and infantilised mother, who demand to see her but refuses to acknowledge her pain. The fact that her version of events is neglected by her family is as painful to Bergljot as the actual abuse. 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 emphasises 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 repetitive phrases, like thoughts flickering through a troubled mind, are the book’s greatest strengths, as it allows us to follow Bergljot through her many confrontations with her family, her vulnerability and her subsequent need for understanding and reconciliation.
This ambivalence is brilliantly highlighted through the physical formatting of the book: scenes of family conflict are broken up by pages containing just one paragraph, sometimes just a single sentence. These may sometimes take the form of snippets of philosophy or history, and complement the overarching dispute, showing how the repercussions of family conflict are oddly similar to those of great wars. Bergljot at one point 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 Norwegian title Arv & Miljø roughly translates into ‘nature and nurture’, and this overarching theme of how pain is passed on through generations 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 – the translation is just as rich, intense and thought-provoking as the original.
Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth is translated by Charlotte Barslund and published by Verso, 336 pages.