Ellinor, the protagonist of the Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth’s novel Long Live the Post Horn!, is a thirty-five-year-old former journalist working as a publicist in Oslo for a three-person agency founded by her mentor, Dag, who has just committed suicide. Ellinor is depressed herself, but her depression, abetted by the short, dark days of an impending Norwegian winter, has condemned her to lethargy rather than despair. We enter her stream of first-person narration in the listless days following Dag’s death as she does her sluggish best to feign an interest in Stein, the boyfriend she sees on and off; in her mother and sister and what she calls their “tiny lives”; and in the projects her firm has been hired to tout: a building magazine called Byggbo, an American organic restaurant chain called the Real Thing, and the campaign her dead mentor has bequeathed, by virtue of drowning himself, to Ellinor and her colleague Rolf—a quixotic effort to stop the Norwegian Labor Party from approving a European Union directive about the postal service.
Depression leaves Ellinor prey to doubt, and doubt makes her fuss about minutiae; when we first meet her, she is more fuss than actual personality. We drag with her through her weary days, wondering about the point of her numbed existence or of telling her story with such intimate precision. When Ellinor looks out over Oslo Fjord, as Edvard Munch had done just before the experience that resulted in The Scream (“I stood there trembling with anxiety,” he would recall, “and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature”), she feels a similar desperation, but her scream is too exhausted to manifest as anything more than a shudder: “It wasn’t nature screaming, nature was cool and numb, remote and inaccessible, it was me screaming a non-scream.”
And then, with gathering impetus, her tone shifts. It begins as an almost imperceptible change of register, a glimmer of light as tenuous as the first signs of spring (for Hjorth roots Ellinor, and her readers, in a real Oslo as it passes through the change of seasons). By a gentle alchemy, blocking the EU’s Third Postal Services Directive transmutes from an assignment to a vibrant passion. Passion for that cause, in all its particulars, in turn frees Ellinor’s other enthusiasms—and her personality—from depression’s grip. Long Live the Post Horn! is an ordinary person’s epic tale of how it feels to emerge from the thralldom of apathy: how one feeble movement unleashes the torrential energy of life renewed. The suppressed scream of Ellinor’s melancholy becomes a cry of full-throated, outward-directed encouragement. “Long live the post horn!” is her personal toast to the universe.
Hjorth, born in 1959, is a versatile and prolific writer well known in her own country. Long Live the Post Horn! (2012) is the third of her books (among more than thirty) to be expertly translated into idiomatic British English by Charlotte Barslund, who perfectly captures Hjorth’s shifting subtleties of tone, an essential aspect of novels that have been crafted with the same painstaking care as an embroidery. And as with embroidery, every thread of Ellinor’s tale loops its patterned way through the fabric of the story before its loose end is neatly, unobtrusively tucked away. A House in Norway (2014; English translation 2017), the first of Hjorth’s novels to appear in English, virtually begs for the analogy between writing and handicraft, focusing on a contemporary tapestry maker named Alma, a successful middle-aged artist who regards herself as a creative soul and a good Scandinavian progressive—until she rents an apartment on her property to a Polish immigrant couple and discovers the limits to her fellow feeling. Like much of Hjorth’s work, A House in Norway drew from her own experience, as she admitted in a 2019 interview:
I have written a book…, A House in Norway, because I had a tenant, a mother with a child. It’s not reality, but it’s a kind of treatment on the relationship between tenant and landlord. Because I was very curious, especially of my own reactions, the feeling of “this is mine.” I look upon myself as a politically correct, generous human being, and I was not! But I try to move my characters into insight.1
Alma’s Polish tenant certainly gains insight into the landlady who finally evicts her in a fit of temper (exacerbated, to bitter comic effect, by the revulsion Alma feels for anyone who would walk around the house in a wool undershirt with her hair in curlers). The text message she sends to Alma after the incident is as lethal as a stiletto: “In the newspaper, it says you are a cultural person. I have a different opinion.”
Unlike her compatriot Karl Ove Knausgård, whose six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle uses the real names of the real people in his life, Hjorth invents new names for the characters she moves “into insight” and insists that they are fictitious. Despite these claims, the family drama at the center of her novel Will and Testament (2016; English translation 2019), a woman’s exclusion from an inheritance because of her claims that her father abused her, infuriated Hjorth’s real-life family, driving her younger sister Helga to write a counter-novel, Free Will (recently self-published in English translation), while her mother, Inger, threatened to sue the Bergen theater that staged an adaptation of the book (in which the mother’s name is Inga).
Compared with these evidently fraught situations, the Third Postal Directive may look like unpromising material on which to hang a story, but that, as we discover along with Ellinor and Rolf, is a superficial reading of the signs of the times. The suicidal Dag had left behind a few notes about the directive on a USB stick before drowning himself off Calais:
Decisions that will have a huge impact on people’s lives won’t be made democratically because they are taken in rooms with an absence of critical thinking. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO DEAL WITH WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING.
But when Rolf and Ellinor meet thirteen members of Postkom, the postal workers’ union, for a “media training course” designed to address the problem of opposing the postal directive, they begin with a hollow, superficial performance:
Thirteen people were waiting for us in the big meeting room. They were leaning forwards as if something was at stake, as if we could help. The head of Postkom introduced us briefly, then we were on our own….
[Rolf’s] face was red with fake passion and he loathed himself, a bootleg product. I found a painkiller in my bag but didn’t have any water and couldn’t leave, because I had to look at Rolf with fake interest.
The European Union’s Third Postal Services Directive of 2008 opened the delivery of letters weighing less than fifty grams (the equivalent of US first-class mail) to competitive bidding, rather than entrusting the task automatically to its members’ state-run postal services. An EU directive, according to Article 288 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, is a legal act that “shall be binding, as to the result to be achieved, upon each Member State to which it is addressed, but shall leave to the national authorities the choice of form and methods.” In other words, each member state must find its own way to enact a European directive into law, but it must be enacted in order for the member state to remain in the EU.
By the winter of 2010–2011, the laborious process of converting the Third Postal Directive into a national statute had come before the Storting, the Norwegian parliament. Although it is not a full member of the EU, Norway was among the founding members of the European Free Trade Association in 1960 and has participated fully in both the European Economic Area and the Schengen Area since their inceptions. Never once had the nation failed to implement an EU directive, and the leaders of the ruling Labor Party, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, were both strong advocates of European unity who supported the directive as a matter of good citizenship. Norway, in fact, had been more faithful in its implementation of EU directives than many member states.
But the Third Postal Directive bumped up against local reality in several respects. The Norwegian postal service, Posten Norge, was established in 1647 as a private company under the protection of King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway. It has been operated by the state since 1719, bringing mail to the sparse, scattered population of a country that, as a friend once described it, is “so far north that it’s had to turn south again.” For centuries, then, this distinctively rugged terrain of fjords and islands had been served six days a week, in spite of it all, by the largest agency of the Norwegian government. Predictably, the powerful postal workers’ union opposed the directive from the outset; it was easy enough to foresee that opening a venerable state monopoly to private bidders would result in reduced service, dwindling jobs, and docked pensions, all in the name of lowered operating costs.
No less importantly, however, many Norwegians in 2010 regarded the Third Postal Directive as a blow to their national identity. Rolf learns that lesson from Asfrid, a postal worker from northerly Kirkenes, above the Arctic Circle on the Russian border, where Norway really has begun to turn south again:
“I’m a proud member of a long line of postmen and women who carry their postbags through the harsh landscape of northeastern Norway, who battle through storms on the tundra during the dark winters. My father was a postman and his father was a postman, my grandfather met wolves on his route and my father faced robbers on his route, but did they ever get his postbag? What do you think?”…
“Four, five, two, ten or three, directives, directors whatever, I don’t care what you call them, why can’t things just stay the way they are when the way they are works. Eh?”
Rolf asks Asfrid what she thinks will happen if the directive is passed. The answer comes out in a breathless rush:
“Do you want my honest opinion?”…
“The Russians will pour over the border illegally and do the job for a week or two for crap wages and no letters will be delivered because they don’t know the language and can’t read Norwegian and there’ll be chaos and people will stop trusting the Post Office and stop sending important and heavy things through the post, and that’ll be the end of the Post Office.”
As A House in Norway demonstrates with devastating precision, immigration has forced Norwegians to reckon with the limitations of their otherwise strikingly egalitarian society. (In what other country can a normal passerby on a walk through the park peek through a kitchen window of the royal palace and see the kingly cornflakes?) Alma feels that her Polish tenant’s name, Slawomira—Mira for short—is too complicated to learn and in her own mind simply calls her “the Pole.” Ellinor inevitably notices the Roma families that have been funneled up from Romania in recent years to beg for their living on the streets of Oslo, separated by coloring, clothing, and stark poverty from everyone around them, though they are full-fledged citizens of the European Union, failed by policy in virtually every member state.
As a well-brought-up Oslo urbanite, Ellinor notes instinctively that stocky Asfrid, the postwoman from Kirkenes, sits indecorously with her legs apart, just as Alma in A House in Norway is pushed past the limits of her social-democratic patience by the sight of Slawomira the Pole in her curlers and singlet (that offensive sleeveless wool undershirt): “And she was wearing a singlet, of course she was, in the middle of winter. That’s enough, Alma shouted, this time you’ve gone too far, she yelled, you bloody well move out now!” (In a live reading sponsored by her Norwegian publisher, Norvik Press, Hjorth lingers with unbridled outrage on the word “singlet,” much to the amusement of her audience.)2 Norway may be a nearly classless society, but there are still differences in accent, in manners, in income, in openness to change, in responsiveness to other people and other ways of thinking, in political conviction.
The contrast between simplicity and sophistication becomes a recurrent theme in Long Live the Post Horn!—Dag, after all, drowns off Calais rather than in the Oslo Fjord, and when Ellinor’s sister breaks out the Christmas goodies, they include
Parma ham from Parma, Roquefort cheese from Roquefort, a loaf of bread, which was not only real and organic but made from spelt flour locally grown in Lommedalen, you couldn’t get any closer to Stone Age bread than that.
In this constant measuring of one person against another, the mail service emerges as one of the most powerful bonds connecting Norwegian to Norwegian, no matter how harshly changing times, changing politics, and changing technology conspire to divide them from one another.
On one side of the novel’s fault line, which Ellinor increasingly makes her own, stand the elegant diplomats at the head of the Labor Party, Stoltenberg and Støre, who flicker through the book like emissaries from Mount Olympus. On the other side stands Rudolf Karena Hansen, a postman from the county of Finnmark, also beyond the Arctic Circle, who picks up the cause of opposition to the postal directive from Asfrid of Kirkenes in the media training session and turns to the subject of dead letters:
“But what if,” Rudolf Karena Hansen said in a more solemn tone of voice, “dead letters could be turned into living ones?”
It was the young man wearing the T-shirt with the Post Office logo who was asking. Several people picked up their coats and bags and moved closer to the platform. Rolf looked pleadingly at me, but to no avail. Who needed to hear how to make something dead come alive more than I did?
The long story that Rudolf Karena Hansen proceeds to tell, a tale within a tale, drives Rolf frantic and helps Ellinor, who has just described herself as “a letter with an incomplete address, a letter with no contents,” to find her bearings at last, not just as a sentient human being but as the kind of person Hjorth set out in the 2019 interview as her own ideal:
Søren Kierkegaard…says that to be a human being is a gift and a task—in Norwegian there’s a similar word for both, oppgave. You should be with all your responsibilities, all your feelings; you’re a human being on earth—what an opportunity!… Just by living you can make things move.
Rudolf Karena Hansen, with his three-part name, provides an evident foil in Ellinor’s new world of activism to Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, whose role as the novel’s villain plays cleverly against the real man’s earnestly unvillainous character. A serious, distinguished diplomat, Støre was Norway’s most popular politician at the time of the controversy over the Third Postal Directive and now heads the Labor Party, still the largest political party in Norway. The eloquent mail carrier who also carries the day is a classic Norwegian figure, the man of the people (this is Ibsen’s country, after all) who brings dead letters to life by the simple expedient of talking to everyone on his route and spending his evenings carefully studying envelopes with illegible handwriting and imperfect addresses in hopes that he can finally speed them on their way.
Ellinor, who began the media training course with the sense that “we were faking it, just like Labour’s top brass,” is moved by the sincerity of the postal workers to throw herself with headlong enthusiasm into their effort to force Labor to reckon not only with the postal directive but also with the party’s own roots, not amid the upper echelons of Norwegian society but among labor unions and the common people. In the midst of her awakening from depression’s sleeping sickness, she sends a postcard to herself and a letter to the long-suffering Stein, in which she finally gives voice to another long-silent part of her psyche, revived by the sheer physical pleasure of paper, stamps, and envelopes, the loving rituals of snail mail.
It is perhaps in this sense of finding a voice within a dense tissue of interwoven voices, past and present, that we can understand the book’s epigraph, from Kierkegaard’s Repetition: A Venture in Experimental Psychology:
Long live the post horn!3 It’s my instrument for many reasons, principally because you can never be sure to coax the same tone from it twice; a post horn is capable of producing an infinite number of possibilities, and he who puts his lips to it and invests his wisdom in it will never be guilty of repetition, and he who, instead of answering his friend, hands him a post horn for his amusement, says nothing yet explains everything. Praised be the post horn! It’s my symbol. Just as the ascetics of old placed a skull on their desks for contemplation, so will the post horn on my desk always remind me of the meaning of life.
A crowned post horn was still the symbol of the Norwegian postal service until a rebranding in 2008, embossed on the sides of mail trucks and the fronts of mailboxes; the Norwegian post horn stamp, first issued in 1871 and still official in 2021 (though now making way for digital stamps), is the world’s longest uninterrupted stamp series.
At the Norwegian Labor Party’s general meeting in April 2011, delegates rejected adhering to the European Union’s Third Postal Services Directive, despite the contrary urgings of their party leaders. Without Labor’s support, the directive had no chance of passing the scrutiny of the Storting, which duly voted it down. On May 23, 2011, Foreign Minister Støre presented the Norwegian veto to Brussels with characteristic correctness. His hearers recognized the irony of his situation in presenting an action to which he had been personally opposed, but there was no avoiding the Storting’s firm insistence (nor his own sense of duty to his office). His statement proclaimed just saying no as the nation’s inalienable right:
The possibility of entering a reservation is an integral part of the EEA [European Economic Area] Agreement. It is a necessary mechanism for those cases where there are important strategic interests that warrant its use.
The EU’s first response was simply a demand for further discussions. Observers in Britain, weighing the possibilities of making their own exit from the EU, eyed Norway’s refusal with particular care, waiting to see what sanctions Brussels might impose to bring its recalcitrant nonmember into line.
Exactly two months later, at the height of Oslo’s heady summer, a right-wing fanatic, Anders Breivik, opened fire at random in the central city, killing eight people before taking a ferry to the lake island of Utøya, twenty-five miles northwest of the capital, where the annual meeting of the Labor Party’s youth movement at its traditional summer campsite had attracted former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and other Labor luminaries. Breivik’s original hope had been to capture and kill Brundtland and to assassinate Støre, her protégé, but instead he gunned down sixty-nine people, mostly teenagers, before he was finally taken into custody.
This was the somber background against which Vigdis Hjorth wrote Long Live the Post Horn!, her paean to the life of oppgave, which was published in the fall of 2012. In Norway’s next general elections, in 2013, Labor lost to a conservative coalition. The following year, Prime Minister Erna Stollberg’s conservative government enacted the Third Postal Services Directive as law, with predictable results. By the end of 2022, there will be only six post offices remaining in all of Norway.
Hannah Williams, “More Norwegian Family Scandals—A Conversation with Vigdis Hjorth,” Los Angeles Review of Books, November 21, 2019. ↩
A post horn, a circular valveless horn with a trumpet-shaped bell, a cylindrical bore, and a cup-shaped mouthpiece, used to be a standard piece of equipment for mail carriers. ↩