[Verso; 2024]

Tr. from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Vigdis Hjorth is an artist of the desperate and the broken. Spanning nearly forty years of publication, her novels have come to be associated with “scars,” “wounds,” “psychological warfare.” Hjorth’s three previous works in English have all been released through Verso, and all translated by Charlotte Barslund. Is Mother Dead (2023) presents a woman dangerously obsessed with her mother; Long Live the Post Horn! (2020) follows an alienated public relations specialist, haunted by the suicide of her colleague, who finds herself reinvigorated by her work resisting the privatization of the postal service; 2019’s Will and Testament, perhaps the novel best known to Hjorth’s English readers, recounts, through the kind of slippery autofiction made famous by fellow Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, the story of a woman who accuses her father of having sexually abused her as a child. In a 2019 New Yorker profile of the author, Lauren Collins writes that Hjorth “forces us to regard bleeding souls.

If Only, Hjorth’s latest release in English, certainly doesn’t shy away from blood and agony. The back cover copy locates the novel somewhere between Anna Karenina and Annie Ernaux’s A Simple Passion. Like those novels, If Only narrates a doomed, adulterous affair between a man and a woman, accompanying its female protagonist—a writer named Ida—as she surrenders herself to a seemingly bottomless pit of abjection in the name of love. She drinks more, becomes paranoid and remote, and is hit and degraded by her lover. Ida’s life seems to run the same track as the tragic Madame Karenina’s—she even passes her final scene in a railway hall. But where Anna throws herself under the wheels of a train, seeing death as the only way out of her fatal attachment, Ida arrives at the station in search of peace, and the reclamation of her life. In doing so, she exemplifies an often overlooked element of Hjorth’s bibliography: the agency of her protagonists, the autonomy she grants them to seize better lives for themselves. After wrenching herself free from her disastrous coupling, Ida sits at a table, alone, to write the narrative of her life.

At the beginning of the novel’s linear plot, which is punctuated by flash forwards, reflections, and messages between the narrator and her older and younger selves, Ida is a thirty-year-old radio play writer, married with two children. She meets a professor named Arnold at a theatre seminar and they begin a relationship. Ida provides a self-conscious summary of their early days, as if it were the synopsis of one of her radio dramas:

They spent a night together and wrote to each other for a couple of months, then met again in early June where they spent a night and an afternoon together. They still write, but more rarely now, it is the summer holidays and besides, it has become too serious, potentially uncontrollable, but they can’t help themselves. They meet a few times that autumn, but it only becomes more dangerous, more difficult, they have to end it, they end it and don’t see each other until May, at her insistence, the following year. By then she is divorced and living on her own.

Although evoking a period of extreme emotion, Ida’s words here are perfunctory and removed. She covers entire seasons in only a few words; she represses her ardor into the vague euphemism of an “it.” The contours of the affair she’s recalling hew to the structure of many stories of its type—the lovers’ chance meeting at a transitional place, away from their homes and their families, the fixation on the possibility of meeting again, and the gradual destruction of their former lives. Distilled to its basest details, the romance sounds banal. But this, both Hjorth and her invention imply, is the nature of disastrous love. For its participants, the feeling is so intense that it seems to make the world over. For those on the outside, it’s boring gossip told one too many times, as Ida learns when she attempts to stay close to Arnold, in his absence, by bringing his name up in conversation with everyone she meets. Finally, even her psychoanalyst “doesn’t like her talking” about the man who has overwritten her entire existence. “It bores him, her trivial love affair which she refuses to give up on,” Ida realizes. “Three times a week for two and a half years, and she continues to insist that she loves Arnold Bush. Somewhat reconciled to her new narrative about herself and still infatuated, she ends the sessions.”

Even in her single-minded devotion, Ida seems to sense that this chapter of her life is but one in a larger, unfolding tale. “She writes a play,” Hjorth informs us, “Old Ophelia, about a woman driven mad by love. But she makes sure it has a happy ending. That she survives him.” This is before Arnold leaves his wife for Ida, before they begin the decade-long bender of sex and abuse that ends with her alone in the railway station. But even at the beginning, in the nascent glow of new love, Ida recognizes another way forward for her character, for herself. Old Ophelia refuses the easy course of tragedy. Yet another account of a woman lost to a man who isn’t worth it? It simply doesn’t make for interesting art.

Hjorth parodies this literary thanatotic in a later episode of Ida and Arnold’s relationship, when they decide to write a play together. A product of the total symbiosis between the two, their collaboration recounts the story of a hapless classics professor whose own life resembles a Greek tragedy, and whose many misadventures conclude in his imprisonment. The reviews of this nihilistic satire are crushingly negative, driving Ida and Arnold deeper into each other’s arms: “The two of them against the world, that is how it is going to be from now on.” Disapproval, Hjorth intimates, is exactly the right critical reaction to such depressing fare. But this episode only reinforces the link between the couple’s love and the kind of story that necessarily ends in calamity—the kind of story that Ida herself resisted by writing, for her Ophelia, a survival.

Toward the end of their romance, the thrill officially disappears. The couple have isolated their children, their friends. Arnold begins to cheat on Ida as a means of punishment and control. He also begins to physically assault her. In this bleak period, he compares Ida to Tove Ditlevsen: “The Danish author Tove Ditlevsen and Victor Andreasen, the editor-in-chief of Ekstra Bladet, stayed together their whole lives, almost, no matter what one did to the other. Because they loved each other. ‘We love each other, Ida!’” Arnold insists. Hearing this, Ida recalls that Tove Ditlevsen eventually killed herself. “Tove Ditlevsen,” she seethes silently, “planned to write a book about her life with Victor Andreasen, whom she referred to as a highly intelligent psychopath, did you know that, the title of which would be The Woman Who Put Up With Everything.” Ida does, in fact, see herself in this great Danish writer, and she doesn’t want to share her fate. “It would take a novel to explain to him what it was like for her,” she thinks, “a completely different story to the one he would have written.”

When Ida sits down at the train hall to write this story, her different story, it is not the first time we see her here. This is also the moment of the novel’s opening, and thus the fulfillment of a frame structure that lends the book a kind of metatextual optimism. “The curtain rises and here I am! In a café at a railway station,” announces Ida on the novel’s first page. “I write in my diary, I raise my glass. Secret signals to the girl I was twenty years ago. I lean back and tentatively smile, I act as if she were watching me.” The theatrical metaphor is one from Ida’s dramaturgical work, and it demonstrates her awareness of herself as both a narrator determining the story’s action and a character moved by it. If Only is the story of a destructive and all-consuming passion, one that sucks its narrator into the black hole of an emotional death drive. But it’s also the story of a woman who, even in her most lovelorn and desperate moments, turns to writing and literature. The reflexivity between her life and her art, between her self of the instant and her self of the future, or the past, destabilizes the presentness of her violent relationship. She envisions a version of herself that no longer has to suffer. By the end of If Only, Hjorth reworks that old aphorism: unhappy stories are all alike. It’s the ones that eke out a kind of happiness that set themselves apart. Hjorth emerges once again, in this novel, as not only a chronicler of the bruised and bloody, but their champion, an author who grants her characters the power to author their own stories themselves.

Griffin Reed is a writer originally from St. Louis and currently living in Chicago. She’s the Managing Editor of Boulevard

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