:: Article

The Real Thing

By Denise Rose Hansen.

Vigdis Hjorth, Long Live the Post Horn!, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Verso, 2020)

Vigdis Hjorth’s gripping novel of mundanity, despair, and bullshit jobs

The Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth made herself known to the English-speaking world with Will and Testament, her novel about a very real family dispute following the death of a father and the unjust distribution of two island summer houses among four combative siblings. By the sound of it, Long Live the Post Horn! traces a far less rousing inheritance. When a coworker goes missing, the thirty-five-year-old PR consultant Ellinor falls heir to the task of campaigning against a new EU postal directive threatening the livelihood of Norwegian postal workers.

Even in the face of the histrionic Royal Mail suspension of deliveries to Europe over Christmas, or Donald Trump’s claims about postal ballots leading to voting fraud in the U.S. election, a novel dedicated to the question of whether competition should be permitted for letters weighing less than 50 grams hardly seems evocative. And yet, Hjorth’s novel is a jolting tour de force impossible to put down, gleaming with philosophical insight and tenderness in the most unexpected places. And as with Will and Testament, Charlotte Barslund’s translation is as precise as it is seamless.

Verging on a mental breakdown, Ellinor is caught in the stifling machinery of everyday life in hibernal Oslo where appearances are everything: ‘Our briefcases looked as if they contained something important, as if we were going somewhere important’. Recalling the late David Graeber’s account of bullshit jobs, Ellinor agonises herself, ‘Why exactly are you here? What’s your role in society, what’s your contribution?’

Graeber’s category of ‘goons’ comprises the likes of lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers and public relations specialists. He detects ‘profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?’ When Ellinor’s lover Stein is promoted, she reluctantly asks if he is happy about his new role at the bank: ‘He didn’t reply “yes” as I had expected, and even as I asked him the question I knew it was a stupid thing to ask’. Still, she presses on: ‘I asked if it was his dream job. But it couldn’t possibly be, so I added: What would be your ideal job, what do you dream about?’ Dishearteningly, in a blue mood which envelopes most of the novel, Stein replies that he doesn’t dream about anything.

As in Will and Testament, much of Ellinor’s torment seems directed at, and in part, derived from, her closest family. Around her mother and sister, she is on tenterhooks and grows exceedingly dispassionate: ‘Margrete called to ask what I wanted for Christmas, I wanted nothing but for my revulsion to diminish, I had pain where others had wishes and so I didn’t answer’. Margrete concerns herself with birthdays and getting pregnant and preparing family dinners that are ‘entirely authentic and had a small carbon footprint as well’, a claim to genuineness that irks Ellinor. She could tell her sister that she’s doing PR for The Real Thing, an American chain of restaurants ‘based exclusively on the real and authentic’ and share in on expected middle-class values, but then again, she isn’t really doing the job: staring at the empty screen in her swanky office, no words will come.

Searching for something to call real must happen elsewhere. When her coworker Dag is found dead in France, she and her business partner Rolf are asked to fly to Paris and identity the body. Here she is consumed by the view from her hotel room, the realness of the scene playing out in the street:

My room was on the third floor, from the window I could see Notre-Dame and the Seine. When I looked across the street, I saw homeless people settle down for the night on a stretch of the pavement partly covered by an awning. They lined up close to one another on cardboard or newspapers, their possessions near their heads, in plastic bags, suitcases and trolleys. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They didn’t talk to one another, but then again, perhaps I was too far away to hear, maybe they whispered. I wouldn’t have dared. I would have been shy. They have no choice, I thought. They could have lain down further apart from one another, but the number of places protected from the elements was limited.

While the classist top-down view might read slightly mockingly, Ellinor nevertheless locates a speck of the realness she’s lost, and an eye-opening base materialism, in the streets of Paris. She spends another sleepless night there, then flies back to Oslo only to take another flight back to Paris. She nears in on piss in phone booths, beds made from cardboard and newspapers, and philosophises about human closeness. Paired with the EU postal directive seizing hold of her working life, spurring an unfamiliar sense of urgency and significance, she experiences something of an existential, political, and even writerly awakening. Through the postal workers she meets and the compelling stories they tell of life ‘on the ground’, she comes to feel that ‘every day every one of us must choose whether to build civilisation or the opposite, let the world fall apart’. And then suddenly, it’s spring.

An extract from Long Live the Post Horn! appeared in 3:AM. You can read it here.

Denise Rose Hansen is a writer living in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 24th, 2021.