Bestselling authors Karl Ove Knausgaard and Vigdis Hjorth have had family members reply to their autobiographical books with their own. But where does it end?
If the rise of autofiction over the past five years has led English readers to wonder whether their understanding of the novel is outdated, Norwegian readers, who are far more familiar with the blend of fiction and memoir, have been dealing with the birth of a spin-off genre: the revenge novel.
In 2016, Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth published her novel Arv og Miljø, which appeared in English this year as Will and Testament, translated by Charlotte Barslund. The story of Bergljot, who has severed all ties with her family because they refuse to believe that her father sexually abused her as a child, was hailed by critics and readers alike and read as pure fiction – until the Norwegian daily Aftenposten revealed that extracts from private family documents had been transplanted verbatim into the novel. Was Hjorth, who has written autobiographically in the past, indirectly accusing her own father?
Hjorth has never said Will and Testament is autobiographical, insisting the novel is as much about being silenced as it is about incest. But the revelation sparked widespread discussion around the ethics of writing about recognisable people, which peaked in 2017 when Hjorth’s sister Helga published a novel of her own. Titled Fri vilje (Free Will), it follows a woman named Nina who is shocked when she is made into a character in her sister Vera’s novel about family conflict and incest.
It is not the first time that a work of autofiction has received a reply in book form. In 2018, when French author Édouard Louis published Qui a tué mon père (Who Killed My Father), he named several members of the French political elite who, he claimed, had indirectly caused his father’s death by dismantling social services. Politician Martin Hirsch, one of those accused, then published a novel titled How I Killed His Father.
Norway’s biggest contemporary literary export, Karl Ove Knausgaard, similarly came under intense scrutiny when he used real names throughout the six candid volumes of his memoir-novel hybrid My Struggle. His first ex-wife, Tonje Aursland, produced a radio documentary titled Tonje’s Version, which detailed her experience of involuntarily becoming a character.
Knausgaard followed My Struggle with the Seasonal Quartet, published in Norway between 2015 and 2016. Last month his second wife, Linda Boström Knausgaard, herself a successful writer, published Oktoberbarn (October Children) in Sweden, her take on events depicted in Knausgaard’s Spring and Summer. However, October Children does not negate her ex-husband’s book – rather, their writing now appears to be in dialogue. Karl Ove writes in Summer that the couple agreed to separate; in Oktoberbarn, Linda claims that it was his decision. Her first openly autobiographical book therefore becomes an act of self-examination powerful enough to match if not surpass those of her ex-husband’s.
Dedicated to the Hjorth sisters’ parents, Helga Hjorth’s Free Will was written expressly to discredit her sister’s work. “The only way to regain balance would be for you to express yourself through a work of literature as well, to write a novel,” Nina tells herself in the book, hoping to invalidate Vera’s version and defend her parents’ honour. But in her eagerness to negate her sister’s book, Helga Hjorth forces an autobiographical reading of Will and Testament that Vigdis says she never intended.
Ironically, Free Will could be seen to confirm the descriptions in Will and Testament of a family almost manic in their determination to discredit their accuser. When the latter book was adapted into a successful play at the National Stage in Bergen last year, Vigdis’s mother sued the theatre. The theatre’s response could sum up this whole debate: “The autobiographical interpretation is just that – an interpretation.”
This article was first published in The Guardian