OSLO — One year after the publication of her novel “Will and Testament
The email informed her that her younger sister, Helga Hjorth, was publishing a novel of her own. The sister’s book focused on a woman whose life was upended by the release of a dishonest sibling’s autobiographical novel, and seemed to be an answer to “Will and Testament.”
“The older sister in that novel is an awful human being, very cruel, narcissistic, alcoholic, psychopathic,” Vigdis Hjorth, 60, said in a recent interview. “And, you know, as bad as she was, I thought, ‘This is good for me.’”
The Hjorths’ dueling novels are one of the stranger turns in a controversy about a genre of writing called “virkelighetslitteratur,” or “reality fiction,” that has been roiling the Norwegian literature world recently. Some have accused high-profile Norwegian fiction writers, including Hjorth and the country’s most famous writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, of violating the privacy of others by publishing intimate details under the guise of fiction. Others have pushed back against what they see as a hysterical overreaction to a longstanding literary practice.
That debate is likely to reach a bigger audience this week when Norway is the guest nation at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest publishing event which begins in Germany on Wednesday. Each year, the guest nation’s publishing industry and literary culture are the subject of a series of talks, debates and events, which focus the attention of the fair’s visitors. Hjorth’s “Will and Testament” which has recently been released in English and was longlisted for the National Book Award this year, looks set to be the talk of the fair — and “reality fiction” with it.
That term gained widespread use after the 2009 publication of the first book in Knausgaard’s hugely successful “My Struggle” series, in which the author depicted events from his own life using real names, often in excruciating detail. The first book sold over 500,000 copies in the country — the equivalent to one book for every 10 Norwegians.
Some critics in Norway argued that Knausgaard overstepped the bounds of decency by writing so forthrightly about real people’s private problems, including the mental illness of his wife at the time, Linda Boström Knausgaard. In an interview, Geir Gulliksen, a Norwegian writer and the editor of the “My Struggle” novels, said that everyone depicted in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books were sent advance manuscripts and given the choice of including their real names.
In 2010, another of Knausgaard’s ex-wives, Tonje Aursland, who was married to the writer for nine years from 1995, recorded a radio documentary in which she described the negative effects that being portrayed in the novels had on her life. Boström Knausgaard, who divorced Knausgaard in 2016, recently published a novel inspired by her real experiences in psychiatric treatment.
Similar debates have followed the publication of other recent novels. Gulliksen was himself at the center of a media frenzy in 2016 after the release of “The Story of a Marriage,” his sexually charged novel about a couple’s disintegrating relationship. His ex-wife, a psychologist named Marianne Bang Hansen, lamented in an essay for the newspaper Aftenposten that her “love life, adultery, divorce, things which most of us want to keep private, have in my case been published,” she wrote. “There are no ethics to protect my privacy.”
But Gulliksen insists that the book is fictional. “Everything I’ve written has topics and scenes that I’ve experienced,” he said, “but it changes a lot when I write it.” He said the experience of having strangers on Norwegian radio and television discussing his novel’s similarities to his former marriage was an absurd and embarrassing experience akin to an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Ane Farsethaas, a culture editor at the weekly Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet, said in an interview that one reason the debate about “reality fiction” had grown so heated was the country’s small population. “In the rest of the world, you don’t care,” she said, “because the readers don’t know these people.” In Norway, she said, everyone is separated by just a few degrees.
Preben Jordal, a freelance book critic who writes for Aftenposten among others, said by phone that another explanation was the fact that “in Norway, we expect people to be nice. So it comes as a shock when a good writer is not nice to their grandfather or grandmother.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — the debate, Vigdis Hjorth’s “Will and Testament” has gone on to become a best seller in the country and has won several literary prizes. The book is written from the perspective of Bergljot, a 50-something Oslo magazine editor who cuts off contact with her parents and sisters after they react defensively to her claims of childhood sexual assault. When a dispute emerges about the inheritance of a family-owned cabin, Bergljot is drawn to revisit the allegations.
Hjorth said the book was partly meant to portray the tensions that result when different family members do not “agree about the kind of family they have grown up in.” Like Bergljot, Hjorth has had almost no contact with most of her family in years. Some of the correspondence between family members in the novel was taken from real exchanges with her brother.
According to Hjorth, her family members also reached out to her publisher via a lawyer in advance of the book’s publication, asking to meet with the editor and review the manuscript. “I have written close to some experiences, but I would never have written about them if I didn’t believe other people had the same kinds of questions or experiences,” she said.
“It’s a novel about sexual abuse, but it’s also a novel about not being heard, not being listened to,” she said. She explained that she wanted to express what it felt like to be ignored in a family. Speaking from the perspective of Bergljot, and perhaps also her own, she banged on the table and yelled: “Now I am talking. Are you listening to me?”