Workdays in fiction aren’t like real workdays at all. Office novels will never adequately capture the deadening experience of exchanging your time for money, of watching your hours, like elastic bands, stretch out to the snapping point. They tend to lack the minute experiences that lend offices their particular flavor: hundreds of closed-lip smiles, hundreds of emails, hundreds of bland yogurts eaten at bland desks. Yet the workdays in Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Long Live the Post Horn!, ring false for another reason altogether: They feel unrealistic because her protagonist actually enjoys her job.
Ellinor, Hjorth’s narrator, is a publicist tasked with handling the Norwegian postal union’s fight against the Third Postal Services Directive in 2011. Proposed by the European Union, the directive sought to introduce more private-sector competition to the mailing business, specifically for letters weighing less than 50 grams. The proposal, its opponents argued, would make mailing more costly and pose threats to the salaries and pensions of postal workers.
Describing herself as “a letter with no contents,” Ellinor is a woman “unsuited to being the protagonist.” This detachment isn’t an affect or a self-protective pose. After her colleague quits unexpectedly—leaving behind his workload and a note in which he calls Ellinor a “spineless bitch”—she feels that she ought to despair, to weep. She ought to be angry. But she can’t muster the feeling. “I couldn’t even react the way I was supposed to,” she thinks: “with emotion.” A little later in the novel, watching her boyfriend pocket a mysterious envelope, she experiences curiosity. “So I’m capable of feeling something,” she muses.
Ellinor’s despondency swiftly lifts, however, when she takes over her departed colleague’s campaign against the postal directive. At one point, Ellinor becomes so moved by a postal worker’s story that she has to support herself on the wall behind her. Her involvement with the postal directive begins to wield an extreme influence over her life. She realizes that she’s “lacking a cause,” that she wants “to sit in a room with people who feared what [she] feared.” She asks her reflection, on two separate occasions, what her “purpose” is.
Ellinor throws herself ardently into the campaign on behalf of the public servant who delivers “love letters, birthday cards, postcards,” and “perhaps a bill, but we don’t count them.” She anxiously attends the Labour Party Conference, where the directive is rejected, in a victory for the postal union. “One small step for Labour’s grassroots,” Ellinor thinks, “but a life-changing one for me.” Throwing off her earlier numbness, Ellinor has crafted her own directive: to live “in good spirits.”
It would be temptingly easy to conclude that, through collective action, Ellinor has found a public-spirited purpose in life. But what could be a story about awakening class solidarity in the face of the private sector’s encroachments turns, in Hjorth’s darkly comic rendering, into something more personal and cutting. Ellinor finds that her purpose isn’t to work for the social good but to cultivate her own happiness. Reflecting on the campaign’s victory, Ellinor thinks: “It hadn’t been given the attention it deserved at the time, but it was good to know that so many people were on my, or rather, our side.” This small misstep neatly captures her inability to see beyond the desire to involve herself in “issues,” independent of what those issues actually are.
Ellinor wants to feel like she’s part of something bigger than herself, but in this acidic portrait, Hjorth suggests that there’s an element of self-interest in even the most civic-minded endeavors. Ellinor describes her journey of self-discovery as a “small, one-woman revolution.” In her mouth, even the language of social movements has been repurposed to serve the individual.
Ellinor’s portrait is typical of Hjorth, who is very good at parceling out her characters’ faults and mining them for hypocrisy. In the three books that have been translated into English, her protagonists—financially stable, seemingly straight white women over the age of 30—believe that they’re politically correct liberals, and would be surprised if you were to tell them otherwise. Their prejudices, which they rarely register, are folded into the texture of their ordinary observations. Walking through the center of Oslo, Ellinor catalogs what she’s wearing and then seamlessly remarks that there’s “a junkie” on every block.
Hjorth’s A House in Norway is particularly interested in the biases of comfortable white women. The book revolves around the relationship between a landlord, Alma, and her Polish tenant, Slawomira. Alma thinks of herself as an ally to those who lack her advantages, a self-perception that unravels over the course of the novel. “She favored all laws which defended the weak,” Hjorth writes, “while she reluctantly conceded that tenants’ relatively recent legal rights made it difficult for her to evict the Pole, should she ever want to.”
Alma resents Slawomira for receiving help from the council, for using too much electricity, for not responding to her messages in a timely manner. One morning, Alma stands by as a plumber digs up her paraffin tank. In passing them, Slawomira shepherds her daughter toward their car “without greeting Alma with anything more than a quick glance.” Incensed, Alma imagines shouting after Slawomira that she’s spending a significant sum of money so that her child won’t be poisoned, “because that was a typically Norwegian value, just so you know it, to act responsibly and be environmentally aware.” Presumably, Slawomira would see removing the tank as Alma’s legal duty, rather than a gesture of goodwill, but what does she know? Slawomira has “no idea about the kind of worries a house owner struggles with.”
In 2013, a new coalition government was voted into power in Norway. The year after its election, it successfully implemented the third postal directive that left-wing activists had fought against. The final outcome of the postal directive debate—which came to pass after the publication of Long Live the Post Horn!—feels like the kind of tragicomic twist Hjorth would include in one of her novels. Reality has a way of intruding on revolutions, one-woman or otherwise.